Arrival in the French Countryside

I left the U.S. with no plans for the month of August. I had hoped to find a rural artisan who would be willing to share their craft with me, a local goat cheese maker or beekeeper perhaps, but if that didn’t pan out, I would head back to Paris in search of the best croissant the city has to offer.

Then one morning, Susan came downstairs for breakfast and exclaimed, “I found a job for you for August!” Great! I couldn't wait to hear what wonderful opportunity she had come up with this time (I am forever indebted to this generous woman). “My friend Danie needs some help on her foie gras farm and would be happy to host you.” Her… what? Foie gras, direct translation: fat liver. My stomach made a few churns. I had already eaten Peter Rabbit, and now would have to conquer fattened goose liver.

I would arrive at Ferme Auberge Dubois in Peyrenègre (the Dordogne region) just in time to witness the foie gras harvest. Foie gras is a hotly debated topic and forbidden in California because the geese are force-fed grain to enlarge their livers. But it’s a big part of French culture. France produces almost 80% of the world’s foie gras, while the U.S. produces under 2%. Besides producing foie gras, Danie (Da-nee) and her husband Guy (Gee) also operate a bed and breakfast and sell products from their farm: jam, green beans, dried duck breast, pâté, rillettes, oils and walnuts.

Danie picks me up at the train station and whisks me back to the farm, where twenty-seven guests are in the middle of their five-course dinner. The kitchen is bustling with a soccer-team full of grand kids helping plate and serve. I notice Danie’s son Gilles packing small gold cans with wet, ground meat and big pieces of yellow fat. How French-country chic – homemade cat food! But there are no cats. It’s pâté, and it’s going to be my dinner.

We sat down to eat as the guests were finishing dessert and I couldn’t allow myself to stop and think. I grabbed a knife, slapped a piece of pâté on a hunk of bread, and … down the hatch. It tasted great. But the texture and the knowledge of the meat’s origin still trouble me. For the French, however, pâté is a luxurious, special treat, and Danie is extremely generous to share it with me. After the dish had circled the table, Danie announced that as the guest, I would get the honor of finishing the last quarter of pâté. I don’t want to appear an ungrateful houseguest during my first hour of residency, so I accept the pâté and try to swallow the gelatinous meat without chewing. I wash it down with house liquor and my taste buds are quickly restored to equilibrium.

My French is improving rapidly, especially because the Dubois family does not speak English. I was alone one night with Danie’s sister-in-law Lilette and could barely keep up with the conversation. Lilette talks so much and so fast, I don’t know whether she is talking to me or to herself. Then the dog strolls in looking for scraps of cheese rind and I am entirely lost.

As my French improves, my English deteriorates. One morning Lilette and I are setting up breakfast for the guests: coffee, tea, bread, and twelve types of confiture (gooseberry, fig, red currant, peach, rhubarb, melon, all made on the farm). We greet each guest with, “Tu as bien dormi?” “Did you sleep well?” This begins a conversation about a common French expression: “Oui, je dors comme un loup.” “I slept like a wolf.” I explain that in English, we say, “I slept like a doorknob.” About halfway through my story, I realize…doorknob? … doorknob?? Nobody says doorknob. We sleep like a rock; we’re dead as a doorknob. But it’s too difficult to find the French words to correct myself, so I finish the story, and my audience nods, thrilled they have learned a new English expression.