August 11, 2012 § 1 Comment
I continue to be awed by the incredible hospitality I received in the second half of my trip in France. Sitting on the long flight to Boston, after a whirlwind of a week in Auvergne, I’m coming back to the U.S. with a renewed faith in people, people who go out of their way, above and beyond anything I would ever have dreamed of asking for, to help. It’s one thing to sit down at a table, have an espresso, and talk to a stranger about what makes the food in their region special. It’s quite another to have said stranger invite you to stay for the week, show you the ins and outs of market shopping, butchering, the regional specialties — brioches aux pralines, brioche de tome (a sweet bread, in which some of the butter is replaced with country cheese, a medieval kitchen development when butter was scarce), gooey, caramelized potatoes and cheese, with crispy edges —, and volunteer to drive you everywhere.
Let me start by saying it was exhausting. My days started with a run at 6 a.m., followed by breakfast, taken together — large bowls of black tea, recently brought back from China, leftover fruit tarts and brioches from dessert the night before, jams from the region in interesting flavors such as thyme and foin (the dried plants that well-fed cows eat during the winter), a yogurt with a swirl of honey, and fresh apricots and oranges, bought from a local farmer who still owns land in Portugal. Then the driving and interviews commenced. Market visits. Creamery visits. Trips into the volcano parks to talk cheese and cows. My stack of relevant documents grew a mile higher. I have two-hour long interview clips that will need to be transcribed, translated, cut-down. I have tired legs and a full stomach, from lunches and dinners, plates full of tomatoes, basil from the terrace garden, thinly-cut hams, crusty bread, small piles of yellow lentils and wine that seems in endless supply. Two months into my research, on my last day of interviewing, this girl who always preferred desserts above all else, finally discovered the wonders of a perfect cheese plate.
My days ended around 11 or 12 p.m. with the final class of wine and slice of tart — either apricot with sweetened ricotta or small yellow plums, cooked down until their skins are blackened. Rustic, country tarts with little flare but the bold taste of fruit bought that day at the market. I curled up in bed every night, dead to the world, wanting to stay asleep forever. But the help I received in Auvergne, arriving just when I was thinking that this week, like my time in Maroilles, would be a complete bust, was more than I ever could have imagined. And the discovery that, in the modern world where we seem to be taught to be wary and suspicious of anyone appearing overly nice or helpful, hospitality and generosity still exists is perhaps the best outcome of all my research.
And it is not only true in Auvergne. Whether it’s the old Italian woman who comes downstairs to help you turn your car around in her driveway, the Greek boys who hand you free bunches of grapes and let you taste the entire line of olives (saying all the while that California is the home of the beautiful), or the numerous people who sat down, called probably half of the contacts in their phones, so that I would never be alone, without people to interview and people to just help, it’s nice to know that there are people out there eager to take care of you when you’re feeling lost.
And there’s nothing weird about that. There’s no need to run and hide when someone offers help. Sure ill-intentioned people do exist out there, but going out on a limb and just trusting is not such a terrible thing after all. And there you go, all my research findings, all summed up in a sentence. Well maybe not all of them, but the rest you’ll get in April, when I hand this thesis in!