Wednesday, August 20, 2008

French Hospitality (France, II)

Unlike my experience in England, my hotel experience in France was superb. This isn’t meant to be a diss on my English friends or an assertion that all French hotels are better than English; I have never stayed in an English hotel. Remember the staff at my hotel in England couldn’t even speak English (or French). I really consider it more of an Indian/Polish hotel in England instead of an English hotel. Not that I have anything against Indian/Polish hotels. The staff at my French hotel could not only speak French but spoke it slow and clear enough that I could understand almost perfectly. They also spoke some English to some degree, but I convinced them not to do so unless I absolutely could not figure out what they were trying to say.

I made my reservation via email after finding the hotel on the Internet (at the website for the Office de Tourism, so I figured it couldn’t be that bad!). They’ve been more than helpful in so many ways. As I’ve mentioned earlier, my computer’s wireless card wouldn’t read their wifi connection, so the Madame offered to let me use her personal computer at any time. Quite a difference from being told I have to pay to use the Internet for my “free” tourist information.

But the amazing thing is the price and what was included. I paid 35€ for a bedroom with shower and a perfect view of the lovely village. Included in that is a demi-pension, which means breakfast and one other meal. Breakfast is the normal French breakfast: coffee, bread, jelly, and butter. I have to admit the first day I was starving afterwards, but that was because I hadn’t had dinner the night before and didn’t order my breakfast correctly. The second morning I ordered chocolat (hot chocolate) instead of coffee and slathered my bread with the jam making sure I used it all. The chocolat came with a half-pint of steaming hot milk. Between the milk and using all the jam and butter, I was stuffed. Literally. I couldn’t think of eating another bite for several hours after eating breakfast that morning.

The best part though, is my other meal which I took at noon the first two days. The first day I was still starving from breakfast and was dissapointed at the one medium slice of pâté porc, salad, and four pieces of baguette. I hungrily devoured everything, including the bread, and began making plans to visit a restaurant after leaving. To my surprise, though I really shouldn’t have been, I was provided with another fork and steak knife when my dishes were cleared away. Soon I was brought my second course. One may remember my post on the French and their courses back on my dialogue about a Happy Meal from Brussels. I, unfortunately, had not remembered, or had at least thought it wouldn’t apply to a meal that cost only 5€ more than the room. I now looked at the beautiful array of chicken, mushrooms, au gratin potatoes, and fresh green beans that filled my plate, accompanied by another full basket of baguette, with a bit of remorse. Why had I eaten so much bread earlier? And why had I eaten every last bite? And how was I going to be able to eat all of this? Somehow I managed and, feeling a bit gorged, decided I needed to stay to digest for a moment before rushing out the door. To my amusement I was quickly brought a selection of cheeses. Of course, this being France, I had to at least taste each one and felt a tinge of remorse that I couldn’t finish two of them (the third wasn’t to my liking). But now I was beginning to get the hang of this and prepared myself for the fourth course. Sure enough some sort of delicious pear desert was placed before me when my cheeses were finally taken away. I sighed and dug in, wondering if one can literally eat enough to make one’s stomach explode. Finally I finished and placed my spoon back on the plate. I prepared myself mentally, refused the next course (coffee), and made a quick, embarrassed exit. But the lesson was learned, and I was now prepared.

Dinner my second day proved to be a much more enjoyable experience. The first course was a beautiful goat cheese and spinach tart accompanied by a fresh salad green and, of course, baguette. I ate only half a piece of bread with this course and restrained myself from finishing everything on the plate. The second course was an amazing slice of roast pork with onions, fresh carrots, and whole baby potatoes. Amazing. And I couldn’t stop myself from eating everything but the fat trimmings (which the French think are the best part, but I personally can't think of eating without feeling naseated). When asked about my cheese course I ordered fromage blanc not having a clue what it was other than, as the name suggestions, white cheese. It proved to be what looked like sour cream covered in thick cream accompanied by sugar.

My hostess had hardly left the room (fortunately all the other guests had already finished and departed the dining room as well), before I burst out laughing. I couldn’t stop thinking, “I’m eating sour cream with milk and sugar on it!” When my abs started hurting I starting thinking of my dear friend Krystalin who always had that effect on me as well. This, of course, only made me laugh harder because I was imagining her laughing at me eating sour cream with milk and sugar on it. I’m even laughing now as I’m writing this. Krystalin, if you’re reading this, first forgive me for spelling your name wrong and then tell me you would have laughed at my eating sour cream covered in milk and sugar. You’re probably laughing now anyway. But let me tell you, it's something completely different to be laughing uncontrollably in front of your computer and be laughing uncontrollably in a French dining room. I was concerned that someone would come in and think I was choking. Every time I took a bite I couldn’t help but chuckle again as I tried not to attract attention from the kitchen. That thought made me laugh even harder. Then I was concerned about really choking myself. I would probably be the only person who had ever killed himself on sour cream dowsed in milk and sugar. All I could see what Krystalin sitting across from me with her hand over her mouth and doubled up with not-so-concealed laughter. It was the funniest food I have ever eaten. I’m reminded of a corny AIO reference where someone says “food is funny” to which someone else responds “you put anything from the dairy section in front of me and I’m on the floor”. The line was supposed to be stupid, but now it actually makes a lot of sense to me.

But did I mention that it was delicious? Weird, I know, but it was. Maybe I’ll try it when I get back to the States. Maybe I’ll even invite Krystalin over for a bite. And someone will probably later discover our bodies, choked to death by sour cream with milk and sugar on it, but with big smiles and achy abs.

Dessert was next: fresh fruit. I was given a new knife and found myself in the awkward situation of trying to eat a whole pear with only a knife. In the end I simply cut it and used my hands. But not before I had enjoyed another ab-aching laugh and whispered a prayer of thanks that no one else was in the room. The meal ended with a nice demi-tasse of coffee, accompanied by another half-pint of steaming milk. I wasn’t quite sure if I was supposed to dump the coffee in the milk or try to drink enough coffee to put some milk in. But then the milk would have filled the cup at least four times by itself. In the end I drank a few sips, added some milk, drank half the cup, filled the cup with more milk, and then just left the rest of the milk.

The rest of my meals and stay in the hotel were excellent, and I would highly recommend the Hôtel de Verlay to anyone visiting Le Chambon-sur-Lignon.

Below are more pictures from around the town. I had so much fun walking around, talking to the natives (locals?), sun-bathing, and swimming at the little plage (beach).

The Boche Ball Stadium
The beach. It's actually one of the rivers that feeds the Loire and comes from the glaciers in the Alps. It was really cold. And clear, even though this picture makes it look dirty.
The railroad
The road
The town square. The fountain was quaint.

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