Synopses & Reviews
Chapter One One Morning in August
By eight o'clock on a late summer day what passes for the morning bustle in Les Arques is well under way. Elise Sé gol, the widow who owns the little house across the street from the restaurant, has thrown open her windows and doors for the fresh air. Wearing a voluminous flowered apron over her dress, she leans on her broom, chatting with Max, the gruff village gardener and jack-of-all-trades, who is watering the flower beds around the statue of the Virgin and the war memorial that mark the entrance to the village.
The door of the restaurant opens, and Nougat, Jacques and Noë lle Ratier's rather dim yellow Lab, bounds out and through the gate for his morning rounds. A moment later, an upstairs window opens and Noë lle drapes a quilt over the sill for airing. Inside, the espresso machine whirs and wheezes, and Jacques appears in the doorway, still clad in a tattered blue bathrobe and with plaid slippers on his feet. He has a cup of espresso in one hand, and the first cigarette of the day in the other. He strolls out into the walled courtyard and looks at the clear blue sky, at the white plastic tables on the gravel, then into the restaurant kitchen through the tall windows. His face is contemplative, as if he's measuring the contents of the restaurant's walk-in refrigerator against the hungry crowds who will soon descend for lunch and again at dinner in such lovely weather.
Next door, Bernard Bousquet and his wife, Jeannine, have been up for hours. Their day started at six, when they went down to the farmstead, La Brugue, to feed and water the ducks and pigs and their daughter's horses. The ducks are not a hobby: there are athousand of them, delivered young to his farm three times a year for fattening before they go to a gaveur for force-feeding on their way to becoming foie gras. An hour later, he was home again, out in the back garden. As he does every morning from June through October, he was cutting the brilliant orange squash blossoms that appear, stuffed with scallop or chanterelle mousse and then steamed, as a side dish accompanying every main course at Jacques' restaurant.
Bernard and his wife are sitting around the kitchen table, having a casse-croû te, a crust of bread and cheese and dry sausage washed down with a glass of red wine out of a barrel in his cellar. Soon he'll be off on his tractor, back to the fields. At this time of year he has a fortnight's lull; the hay he cut and rolled in July, and the barley and wheat ripen in September. Today he's off to cut the cordwood, mostly scrub oak and second-growth chestnut, which he sells to his neighbors, many of whose houses are still heated by stoves or fireplaces.
Climbing the main street toward the church there are a few signs of life, a cat sunning itself on a balcony, the smell of someone's lunchtime soup simmering on the back of the stove, curtains fluttering at an open window. Many of these houses are unoccupied, or occupied only sporadically by renters or grown sons and daughters spread far and wide who return to the homestead for a few weeks in the summer. Monsieur Mesmains, a railroad worker who retired to Les Arques a few years ago, is hard at work doing up yet another corner of his yard for a flower bed. He has taken to creating elaborate floral displays, like the huge overturned kettle in one corner (probably once the bottomhalf of an alembic still used to brew plum eau-de-vie) from whose mouth spills out a wave of bright impatiens across the green of the lawn.
A hundred yards farther along, the narrow main street opens up into a square, the town hall on the left, the twelfth-century É glise St. Laurent on the far side, and the Zadkine Museum on the right. The town hall, a modest, one-story, rectangular stone building, is closed, its shutters pulled tight, the single bit of color a white sign transected by the bold splashes of red and blue of the French national flag. "Honor to our elected officials!" it reads in bold black type, listing underneath the names of the mayor and his ten municipal councilors.
As if mocking the presence of the state, the church rises spectacularly across the square, its belltower soaring above the roofs of the town and its thick walls of dressed stone dwarfing in their massive solidity the more modest houses around it. Its form is unusually coarse even for a Romanesque church (it was begun at the end of the eleventh century), roughly square with twenty-foot-tall carved wooden doors giving on to the nave at one end and the three semicircular protuberances of the chevet at the other.
In four hours, Madame Jeannine Pierasco will take a five-minute break from her job as a docent at the museum, cross the gravel court to slip inside the church, and prepare to take up her ancestral duty. Like her father and mother before her, she is the unofficial bellringer, using every pound of her frame, hauling down on the rope and then releasing it, to set the bell to rocking and, finally, to ringing out the noon hour. It is a comforting, if somewhat forlorn reminder of a time just ageneration or two ago, when village churches like this one had an important place in the daily lives of the inhabitants, when the bells rang out morning, noon, and night to send the men off into the fields, signal their supper, and then ring them home at the end of the day. One perhaps apocryphal bit of folklore has it that villages close to one another would stagger their ringing so as not to confuse the schedules of the locals.
From Here,You Can't See Paris
is a sweet, leisurely exploration of the life of Les Arques (population 159), a hilltop village in a remote corner of France untouched by the modern era. It is a story of a dying village's struggle to survive, of a dead artist whose legacy began its rebirth, and of chef Jacques Ratier and his wife, Noëlle, whose bustling restaurant -- the village's sole business -- has helped ensure Les Arques's future.
Sanders set out to explore the inner workings of a French restaurant kitchen but ended up stumbling into a much richer world. Through the eyes of the Sanders family, one discovers the vibrant traditions of food, cooking, and rural living, and comes to know the village's history. Whether uncovering the darker secrets of making foie gras, hearing a chef confess his doubts about the Michelin star system, or absorbing the lore of the land around a farmhouse kitchen table after a boar hunt, life in Les Arques turns out to be anything but sleepy.
About the Author
Michael S. Sanders, a former book editor and author of The Yard, lives in midcoast Maine with his wife and daughter.