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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.

On 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.

The 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.

The 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.

My 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 France.

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 anyway.

* 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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