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Les Caves de Marson by Matt Spence

One of the best and most memorable meals that I have had the great pleasure to experience was greedily gobbled over an ordinary wooden table covered with a simple red and white cloth.

Eating well is not an activity confined to the finest of restaurants. In fact, I have found that gleaming silver, fresh cut flowers in crystal vases, starched white napkins, and tuxedoed waiters are sometimes not enough to hide a meal which is altogether forgettable except for the bill. One of the best and most memorable meals that I have had the great pleasure to experience was greedily gobbled over an ordinary wooden table covered with a simple red and white cloth.

The experience began with a jolting taxi ride along the country roads surrounding the medieval town of Saumur. I was with a woman whom I had not been dating long, We were still in the exciting period when we were trying to figure out who each other was. As we dashed down roads and swerved around blind corners, I was a bit concerned because the restaurant we were hurtling towards served a particular type of food that I wasn't sure she would enjoy. One of the aspects of her personality that I had become aware of was that she was a picky eater.

Loire Valley, Chateau de Saumur. Photos courtesy of Pedro Szekely, licensed under Creative Commons 2.0.

The restaurant wasn't obvious to tourists. It lay several kilometers outside of the town limits and down a narrow gravel road almost obscured by a heavy canopy of thick trees. I had been there once before with some friends—a group of semi–inebriated French twenty–somethings who thought nothing of having a few drinks before zooming off into the night in search of supper. Perhaps it was the speed at which my friends drove to the restaurant, or maybe it was my suspicion that we might not actually make it to this place in one piece that made my first visit seem much quicker in my mind. Whatever the reason, the ride to the restaurant with my date seemed to take almost an hour. I was beginning to suspect that the cab driver was taking us on a tour of the countryside when the aging Renault suddenly lurched and scrambled up the road to Les Caves de Marson.

The exterior of the restaurant in Marson, France. Photo courtesy of Les Caves de Marson.

As we opened a heavy wooden door, we were greeted by a swell of noise and warmth. Scents of wood smoke and baking bread hung high along the ceiling. The cave went straight back into the cliff like a tunnel with only one opening. Long tables ran along its length and the people at these sat on low benches rather than chairs. Bunches of candles flickered in shallow recesses in the rock walls and bathed the long room in a cheery yellow light which seemed as old as the cave. Most remarkable was the open wood burning oven which had been bored into the side of the cave near the entrance. Its opening was about a yard wide, and a broad shelf, also carved from the stone, was a few inches beneath Tending the oven was a solid-looking woman with gray hair. Her apron was covered with flour dust as were her hands and arms. She caught me staring and smiled warmly.

The restaurant is carved from a limestone cliff with a wood-burning oven near the entrance. Photos courtesy of Les Caves de Marson.

As we were seated, we exchanged a few words with our waitress-- yes, we were students; yes, we were from America; no, I don't speak French very well but you are nice to say so. We were surprised by a good sized pitcher of red wine that was deposited on the table. I was about to stammer in uneven French that we hadn’t ordered any wine, but the ghost who had left the pitcher on the table had disappeared. I looked at my date and raised my eyebrows. I grinned and lifted the pitcher, trying to quell the tightwad inside of me which was trying to imagine how much this was going to cost. The wine was a light ruby color and flecks of gold from the candle light sparkled deep within it. I took a quick whiff as I took a sip and thought of raspberries. It was slightly cool, and the tannins were strong enough to preserve the flavor after a swallow, but were not the type that makes one pucker and squint. It was a wine that was meant to be drunk with food--not to be celebrated on its own.

I cannot honestly say that I remember what we talked about. What is clear in my mind,however, is that I knew that this moment was very important and could well affect the rest of my life. The resulting anxiety caused me to lose all control of thought and language–I was mentally wincing after every bumbled phrase and asinine statement.

We began the sort of conversation that I suppose is expected of two people newly met and attracted to one another. We were both students at a regional university in the city of Angers. She was a French major from North Carolina and spoke the language far better than I, although I had no problem making a fool of myself in the attempt at it. I cannot honestly say that I remember what we talked about. What is clear in my mind,however, is that I knew that this moment was very important and could well affect the rest of my life. The resulting anxiety caused me to lose all control of thought and language--I was mentally wincing after every bumbled phrase and asinine statement. I was reaching for the wine bottle in a sort of veiled panic when the waitress arrived.

She set a small platter on the table with a bright smile and hurried away. I wasn't aware that we had ordered, but we soon realized that the menu consisted of a single meal. The house had one specialty, and that was what everyone ate. I found this a pleasant surprise because I am always the one who takes too long to decide on what to order, usually to the great irritation of my companions and the hassled waiter.

On the platter lay two rectangular pieces of flat pastry topped with browned onions and mushrooms. They gave off a rich, pungent aroma. They were warm, slightly salty, but the minced onions brought in a light sweetness. As we bit into them, the dough crackled at the edges.

The hands and serving trays disappeared, and we were left to discover.

Only a moment after finishing these, the second course was plunked down on the table: earthenware crock rimmed with white, smooth fat; a bowl of green lettuces; a plate with small rounds of cheese; a bowl of pale, melting butter; a basket holding something wrapped in a linen cloth. Our glasses are-topped off for us--ruby and glistening. The waitress gave a confident, "Bon appetit", as if there really was no other possibility. The hands and serving trays disappeared, and we were left to discover.

The white fat in the crock did not grab us immediately, the greens looked like salad, and the cheese was warning our noses that it was to be taken seriously--we both reached for the basket.

The cloth was warm and, as it was pulled back, a cloud of steam rose. The wonderful, heady scent of fresh bread clouded the air around us. In the basket were several, hand-sized, oblong puffed rolls which were too hot to hold--fresh from the oven near the entrance. We peeked at the neighboring tables for clues as to how to start, and understood that the rolls, or fouees, were hollow and were to be stuffed with the other ingredients on the table. I looked suspiciously at the bowl of fat.

Fouees just emerging from the oven. Photo courtesy of Les Caves de Marson.

With a gesture of fake bravado, I plunged my knife into the crock. I skimmed the white, greasy layer from the top, looked at it, and after a wave of revulsion, scraped it off on the edge of my plate. There was no way in hell that I was going to shove that in my mouth. Beneath the fat–which a Frenchman would have eaten with Gallic gusto--was a mixture of pink minced meat called rillette. Okay, I reasoned, I could handle meat. I scooped some up and put into the hot lump of warm bread and, after spying on an adjacent table, followed it with a dollop of butter, which melted instantly.

The mixture of fresh bread, spiced meat, and warm salted butter was delicious. Its taste was earthy, and wholesome, and mouth-filling. Michelle and I shot a look at each other and we knew that the gloves were off–we ate with abandon.

Not a knife-and-fork but rather napkin-in-the-shirt collar establishment, I followed custom and took an enormous bite. The mixture of fresh bread, spiced meat, and warm salted butter was delicious. Its taste was earthy, and wholesome, and mouth-filling. Michelle and I shot a look at each other and we knew that the gloves were off--we ate with abandon. There was no more worrying about impressing each other.

We stuffed ourselves on the minced meat and butter, gulped glasses of wine, and engaged in a brief dispute over the last of the rillette. When it was gone, we loaded the fouees with rich, sour goat cheese. The last of the wine chased this down, and we leaned back in our chairs and beamed at each other.

But the French don't really understand being stuffed. Perhaps they do in the chic restaurants of Paris where the cost of a light dinner is only slightly less than an economy-sized car, but not out here in the country where a good dinner can take hours. Out here, on the outskirts of Saumur, in the middle of wine country, to leave the table with out dessert would be considered a crime. So we were not surprised when the dishes from the main course were cleared with a clatter and a selection of small tarts were placed before us

The tarts were small, round, and dense. Made with a thin pastry shell and a layer of rich yellow custard, they were topped with glazed fruit: peaches, pears, strawberries, and raspberries. I had just lifted one to my mouth when I felt a slight prickle in my thigh. I looked down into a pair of golden eyes.

I looked down into a pair of golden eyes.

A large, charcoal gray cat stared up into my face, its front feet planted firmly on my leg. I recovered from my initial shock, and tried to move my leg out from underneath its feet. The cat, however, was intent on seeing how my dinner was being enjoyed and flexed its claws slightly. I am not a person who hates cats, in fact, I usually like them, but I am badly allergic to them and react poorly when one accidentally scratches me. I reached down and gave it a small pat and tried to unhook its claws from my pant leg. It apparently took this as an invitation and tried to settle itself into my lap--this was a problem. Just the sight of its long, luxurious hair had already begun to make the corners of my eyes itch. Before I could begin to fret in earnest, however, the waitress again materialized and shooed it away. She gave a brief apology and another flashing smile before fading back towards the front of the cave.

A strong cup of coffee later, the waitress gave us the bill. The total was 160 francs, or about forty dollars, which included everything, even the tip. A cab was summoned for us, and we were helped into our coats. As we stood in the entrance to wait for the taxi, we held hands and smiled at one another as we talked and reflected on the meal. Both of us were relaxed and happy. The butterflies which had plagued all night me had subsided, and a sense warm contentment had replaced them. The meal had done more than feed us; it had given both of us a memory and a starting place. As we stepped out into the cold October night, the locals began to sing.

Photo by Matt Spence

Postscript: that night, we noticed the Orion constellation above us, and it has become a reminder to my wife and me of the semester we spent in Angers, which is where we met in 1989.

Created By
Matt Spence
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