A Sunday in the Country
For the most part, Sundays are still sacred in France though not
in the religious sense. To be sure, church bells ring and mass is
said in les églises (churches) both large and small
across the country. However, religion no longer influences French
culture as it did for centuries. Recent reports put church attendance
in France at around 5% despite the fact that approximately 80% of
French people consider themselves Catholic.
So what makes le dimanche (Sundays) special in France? In
short, the Sabbath day is a day off. Le travail dominical
(working on Sundays) remains largely taboo. Most stores are closed.
Families gather for a long, relaxed Sunday lunch often followed
by walks in the nearest city park or country lane. France is a nation
of history buffs and intellectuals so cultural institutions also
see a swell of French visitors on Sundays.
a recent dimanche in St. Rémy de Provence, I woke
up to an orchestra of church bells and a beautifully warm October
day. The sky was the usual deep blue as I left my hotel with its
view of the Alpilles mountains and set off for the Petit Luberon.
My destination was the Auberge la Fenière, a magical
place between the towns of Lourmarin and Cadenet.* A former relais
de poste (post house or coach stop) in the middle of the countryside,
la Fenière today is a charming inn with two restaurants-one
gourmet and one casual. Female chef Reine Sammut and her husband
Guy run the place, and Reine is truly a queen in the kitchen.
I managed to drive in just before 2pm and successfully convinced
the bistrot serving team to set one last table outdoors for lunch.
There have been many times where sightseeing or dawdling in France
has meant that lunch at a carefully chosen restaurant would have
to be postponed until another day. In other words, if you arrive
after 1:30pm at some restaurants or after 2pm at others, lunch service
is over. You have to hope the town has a café or brasserie
or you go hungry until dinner.
This Sunday's menu was simple: le menu du jour (the day's
special menu) written on the tableau noir (blackboard) or
le brunch du dimanche. Yes, les brunches are now très
chic in France. But since I can do brunch any time back in the
States, I went for the daily special at 35 euros. Great cooking
in France starts with what's fresh at the market or in the garden,
and the day's meal was no exception.
entrée, or starter, consisted of tastes of five different
hors d'oeuvres: fresh fèves (beans) with herbs, carrottes
(carrots) with cumin and garlic, roasted red and green peppers,
tuna in a creamy caper sauce, and champignons (mushrooms)
with coriander seeds, lemon peel and onion. A chilled, Provençal
rosé wine, a basket of freshly baked bread, and a
bottle of local olive oil were perfect accompaniments.
plat principal (main dish) was a filet of daurade
(Mediterranean sea bream) with fennel compote and saffron sauce.
An assiette de fromages (cheese plate) followed-the server
politely pointed out that one was to taste them from mildest to
strongest (or more fresh to aged) or the pungent cheeses would overpower
the delicate ones. Finally, one could choose a tarte or other
sweet ending from the table de desserts.
Sunday repas (meal) was fabulous in every way-the food, the
setting, the weather, and also the people. For I was surrounded
by tables of extended French families-parents, grandparents, children-enjoying
a leisurely Sunday without thoughts of rushing off to work or to
the shopping mall. You could see and feel the richness of relationships
that comes from gathering Sunday after Sunday to break bread and
to enjoy each other's company.
Sundays in France and Europe may soon change and follow the American
model where a Sunday is just like any other day of the week. Working
on Sundays has been hotly debated for some time, and current French
president Nicolas Sarkozy has promised to change the status quo
as part of his plan to stimulate the French economy and modernize
As a harbinger of things to come, the luxury goods purveyor Louis
Vuitton has been in and out of court over the past couple of years
demanding the right to open its Champs-Elysées branch in
Paris on Sundays. It claimed that shopping at LV was a "cultural
experience" and everyone knows that museums and cultural institutions
are open on weekends all over the country. For now, the luxury retailer
has won its case so shoppers can indulge every day of the week.
But let's hope that consumerism doesn't completely overtake France
like it has other parts of the world. There is something wonderful
about slowing down and leaving shopping and work behind-for a day
* The Auberge la Fenière has several traditional rooms in
the main house as well as a cluster of very mod rooms overlooking
a tranquil pool. There are even two authentic gypsy caravans available
for a more whimsical stay. In addition to managing her two restaurants,
Chef Reine offers cooking classes on Thursdays throughout the year.
May 28, 2008
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