Living here in Beaune, I am continually asked by people from home and elsewhere in the US if I am eating well; have I eaten any great meals; what is the best meal I have eaten since I've been here? And I always have an answer. I have had great food since I arrived. I have eaten lunches and dinners at winemakers' homes that would leave the food in a lot of restaurants cowering in shame. I have eaten in restaurants where the food, the carefully chosen wine list and the warm and precise service combine in such a way that makes obvious why dining in France is still a model for the rest of the world. I have made some pretty terrific meals myself. As my friend Beaver said to me, if you aren't eating well in Burgundy, then what is the point?
The reason for all this is not to brag. I was talking to my father a few minutes ago and he mentioned an interview he heard on Friday on the Leonard Lopate show on WNYC, with Jane & Michael Stern and the editor of Saveur Magazine, regarding the magazine's current issue, dedicated to "The 25 Greatest Meals Ever," a collection of food memories by writers the Sterns admire. I listened to the interview after getting off the phone and thought about what I would have said and something occurred to me. People are always half-heartedly cursing me under their breath for the chance to live and work here, among all the delicious things, and rightly so. But when I started coming to France, I did not eat well. The first time, I was a high school sophomore, on a trip organized through school and we were fed chicken and rice each day, and it was uniformly bad. Of course there were croissants and bread and cheese but being 15 and totally naive about the cost of those trips, I made a fuss about the food, to no avail. My second time around, I stayed with a family in the Loire Valley for a month one summer. Here, one would think, my luck would change. But alas, though my French improved, the mother's cooking remained...not good. Then there was the week I spent in Nice with two friends in spring of my freshman year at university. Though the street food I ate while wandering was at times a major step in the right direction, in the evenings we routinely ended up eating in the wretched tourist traps that crowd the old city.
So despite my affinity for culinary life here, I discovered it late.
And when I thought about great meals, the one that I kept coming back to was my first in France that truly left an impression. In February 2002, my father was rescued from New York for a week. He and my mother had separated several months before and a friend had devised a week's respite for him, disguised as work, in Geneva. This happened to coincide with my post-exam break at St. Andrews and I flew from Edinburgh to join him. We had a good time, though the afternoons in Geneva in February that I spent alone were uneventful at best (Geneva is pretty but boring). However, at our friend's suggestion, we took the train to Lyon one day to have lunch. That's how he said it too, "Go to Lyon for lunch, there is one street called Rue Merciere where you can walk in anyway and have a great meal." So we did exactly that and an hour and a half we walked into Le Bouchon Aux Vins, and all of a sudden it became clear why people talked about nothing but food when they remembered trips to France. Until that moment, I had always remembered everything but the food.
That day I started with onion soup, not with a crouton and gruyere as I'd seen working the previous summer at Pastis but more like a consomme, with tiny lardon floating in it along with the onion strands. My father had steak tartare, egg and all. Then I had rack of lamb, with gratin Dauphinois and braised leeks, with all the butter a person could want. I forget his main course, sadly, but we finished with housemade hazelnut ice cream for me and a big piece of truly reeking cheese for him. We had a half-bottle of wine. It was Duboeuf Beaujolais and I would cringe now except we enjoyed it so much. I ordered our whole meal in French. And in those last glorious pre-Euro days, lunch cost less than forty bucks.
Some friends and I went to stay in Beaujolais last weekend, and we went to Lyon for lunch, at a restaurant recommended to us by our hosts. Before we left Beaune, I had looked up Les Bouchons Aux Vins to see if it was still there, and nearly suggested we eat there. In the end, I decided against it, though maybe I'll go by myself at some point. I think I was worried it might disappoint, that I would discover it to be much less great than I remember. I prefer to preserve my memory of our oohs and aahs that afternoon, a brief moment when we forgot about cholesterol and school and trouble at home.