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Worth the Wait

Chiner (shee-nay): To hunt or look for antiques.

Je chine
Tu chines
Il / Elle chine
Nous chinons
Vous chinez
Ils / Elles chinent

One of my favorite pastimes while traveling anywhere but especially in France is to go antiquing, or chiner. When I see signs that say "Antiquités" (high end antiques), "Brocante" (second-hand goods), "Dépôt vente" (consignment shop) or "Marché aux puces" (flea market), I know that a marvelous find is in the offing.

In Le Paradou in southern France a couple of years ago, I pulled the car over to stop at a weekend roadside brocante. One vendor had several antique textiles for sale including three linen kitchen towels from the 40's or 50's. They were hand-hemmed and had never been used. I knew immediately that they would be ideal for drying wine and Champagne glasses. I was right. Chez moi (at my house), the towels feel wonderful in my hands and don't leave a speck of lint. What a find!

Alpilles with vineyard.Last October, I was again in southern France driving through the Alpilles mountains, one of my favorite places on the planet, when I came upon a dépôt vente in the middle of the countryside. It had only been open a few months and was full of treasures. Armoires, china, silver, paintings, linens, curiosities, and more filled the warehouse-type building. An antique panetière (a decorative bread cabinet that hangs on the wall) from Provence had just been sold for a song.

As I wandered through the shop, I happened upon a lovely impressionist-type painting of the Alpilles by a local artist which I bought on the spot for 45 euros. I then had to figure out how to get it home but I knew it belonged on my living room wall.

Upon leaving the depot vente, I caught sight of a wooden mortar and pestle that had come from a local Provençal kitchen. The quintessential symbol of southern French cuisine, the ensemble smelled faintly of garlic and olive oil. I picked it up-was it heavy! And I thought: No room in the suitcase for such a hefty item. Je me demandais aussi (I also wondered) if I would want to break in a new mortar and pestle myself-there were some lovely olive wood ones in nearby St. Rémy-or if I would want one that had already been seasoned (i.e. used). I left without buying the mortier et pilon but fortunately I picked up une carte de visite (a business card) with the shop's name and phone number on it. For by the time I arrived back in the U.S., I realized belatedly that the authentic mortar and pestle was a fantastic discovery I should have bought sur-le-champ (right away).

The next week, I called the shop to find out whether the mortar and pestle were still there. As I had a friend who would be in the region dans 15 jours (in a couple of weeks), I asked if they would hold the items for me. Of course was the reply. It turned out that my friend did not make it to the consignment shop, so I called again to say that I would be in Paris in December and would try to pick it up then. Again, no problem, said the shop owner.

Long story short, I did not make it to the Alpilles in December, nor in January on another short trip to France. When I walked back into the shop in February, the American part of me expected the mortar and pestle to have been sold long ago. However, the French in me harbored a faint hope that somehow the mortar and pestle would be there with my name on it.

Sure enough, the owner remembered my request and went to fetch the mortier et pilon out of a dusty armoire. The wooden bowl and pestle had been waiting for me in France for four months, pas de problème. I was surprised and yet not surprised. I realized that rather than focusing on making a fast buck, the shop owner honored the client-seller relationship despite the slow pace. I was thrilled-with both my antiquing find and the people interactions that accompanied it. Now I just have to make a lovely aioli, Provençal garlic mayonnaise, to baptize this lovely culinary treasure and kick off its next phase of life in my kitchen.

September 24, 2008

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