Men in France

In the forested hills and planted valleys of the Dordogne, men have strong, suntanned forearms and weathered, unshaven faces. They get up early, work before breakfast, drink wine at lunch, and eat a light supper of soup de lègumes and cantal cheese.

For a week Mr. Henry has been dawdling in southwestern France eating a diet that would frighten Old King Cole.

Foie gras has become a feature at every meal including this morning’s breakfast that included a peach and foie gras tart.

Last night My Phuong picked a basket of blackberries along the fence, reduced them in pear syrup, and strained them for an amazing coulis that she dripped over lightly floured slices of foie gras quickly sautéed in butter.

Ten thousand years ago, just before the last Ice Age ended and patterns of life here changed for good, men in the Dordogne hunted reindeer, chiefly, as well as small deer and massive long-horned aurochs (wild cattle), bison, giant red deer, the untamable Prwezalski’s horse, ibex, wild asses, wild donkeys, woolly rhinoceros and woolly mammoth. They lived in terror of the great European cave bear, extinct cousin of the Alaskan brown bear, of the mountain lion and the saber-toothed cat. Carrying flint-tipped spears, the tall, strong, fur-clad Cro-Magnon tracked herds across a treeless tundra. To prevent scurvy, they ate the liver and heart raw.

Mitochondrial DNA testing suggests that modern peoples of the Dordogne are genetically very similar to peoples who flourished here in the Mesolithic Era. These homo sapiens lived alongside the Neanderthal for more than 12,000 years until finally, unable to resist competition from their more aggressive rival species (us), the gentle, artistic Neanderthal disappeared about 29,000 years ago.

Pears, apples, peaches, apricots, prunes – everything here grows to a splendid ripeness. Tomatoes hang heavy on the vine advertising their tart attractions in vulgar shades of red. Vines bearing little blue grapes cover the landscape for miles in every direction. Mr. Henry’s cabinet is stocked with straight-sided bottles of Bordeaux, startlingly inexpensive and delicious.

On vacation in France the principal rôle for a man is to drive the car, a stick shift, naturellement. Roads aren’t as bad as they once were, although British tourists seem to take their half out of the middle. Shopkeepers can be dour, but sellers with stalls in country markets are a delight ­– quick-witted and fun.

The weather is changeable. Days are hot, nights refreshingly cool. Mr. Henry understands why the artists of Lascaux constructed museums deep inside climate controlled caves. In the course of an afternoon humidity rises and falls. Squalls with fierce winds come barreling off the Atlantic up gentle, vine-covered slopes to surprise us at poolside. Such a bother! We repair to the house for a game of cards.

One Response to “Men in France”

  1. Klee August 30, 2010 at 1:02 pm #

    Love your vacation epistles. Keep them coming!