I love this window in St. Pierre's church in Montfort-l'Amaury. The Hebrews are collecting manna as it falls from heaven. Speaking of food, I have yet to mention the food shopping on our trip. As you know, I hate shopping in general. Clothes: hate. Shoes: hate. Furniture, equipment, accessories, etc.: hate.
Even with both books and yarn, two of my most favorite things, I'd rather just know exactly what I want and run in and get it fast; I get overwhelmed otherwise.
Food shopping in the States is fine--not my favorite way to spend time, but it must be done--but I'd rather just have all the ingredients I need magically appear in my cupboards and fridge.
Food shopping in France is another story. So many new things to discover and try! The regular markets and supermarkets are great all by themselves, but the neighbors told us about a market that is my new Mecca: La Marnière in the town of Maurepas, just ten minutes from Neauphle.
We went there for the first time while Carmen was with us. I walked in and whispered to Patrick and Carmen, "It's like food porn." Symmetrical arrays of the most exquisite, gem-like produce greeted my eyes. Cheerful and knowledgeable grocers kept watch over their flocks of broccoli and leeks, ready to engage in lengthy and earnest conversations about methods of preparation. "He's flirting with you," P muttered as I discussed butter lettuce with a kindly fellow.
"Yes," I answered under my breath as we walked away, "But he gave me an amazing price." The grocers have the power to write a little note to be placed inside the bag of whatever vegetable you've just taken away from your discourse. This note discounts the regular price by quite a bit. Such a delight.
Ohh, the fish and meat; ahh, the cheese and dairy. We ate simply, but we ate so very well. Nothing was wasted, no one overate. Perfection.
Then there was Picard. It's a chain of boutiques. That sell frozen food. It sounds neither glamorous nor appealing. And yet.
As we left the palace of Fontainebleau on our second Saturday (details will come later), we realized we had a bit of a problem. By the time we got home, the markets would be closed, and we still needed to shop both for dinner and for Sunday's meals. We decided to look for something on our way out of Fontainebleau. P saw the Picard sign and pulled over. "Try here," he said, "Though I'm not familiar with this store." I went in while everyone else waited in the car.
Picard was utterly empty and looked like an operating theater, with pristine white floors and walls. Rows of frozen food cases awaited exploration. I took a cart and opened the first case in the first aisle. My heart started racing. Artichoke hearts! Sausages stuffed with herbs, parmesan and pine nuts! Court bouillon!
Vivid photos and prose described the contents of each beguiling box; I quickly planned two dinners and a lunch and filled the cart. Last to go in was an insulated bag ("Mon Sac Picard") with which to carry my treasures home. Picard did not disappoint; the food was as good as the containers had promised. Why do we Americans settle for less than mediocre, when utter deliciousness is possible? It is a puzzlement.
But back to our chronology:
The day after our post-Normandy R&R day in Montfort (see the photos at the top of this posts) was Patrick's birthday. It was also the day we planned to start the use of our Paris Museum Pass. The Museum Pass is a 2-, 4-, or 6-day card that a) saves you money (about half of what you'd pay for admission); and b) LETS YOU JUMP THE QUEUE at almost every place on their 60-venue list. All the big places--except the Eiffel Tower--are on it: the Louvre, the Orsay, the towers of Notre Dame, the Arch of Triumph, etc. We had loved our Museum Passes on our trip 16 years ago and were thrilled that they still existed. Patrick and I bought this new set back on our first day in Paris, but they are not activated until you date and sign them.
We'd bought 4-day passes and then went through the list very carefully so that we could plan our four days and use our passes to the utmost advantage. We started with Versailles, which seemed a fitting way to celebrate Patrick's birthday.
What a DELIGHT it is to walk past the kilometre-long lines and straight into the ticket-holders' entrance. Why everyone doesn't buy a Paris Museum Pass is completely beyond me, but whatever.
The palace itself was quite crowded, and some of the wonder of the Hall of Mirrors and the Royal Apartments was lost on the kids because they were distracted by the hordes. Once we got out to the grounds, however, all was right. We sat in the shade near one of the glorious fountains and ate our lunch.
Then we strolled down the canals and eventually made our way to the Trianons and Marie Antoinette's farm.
Poor, deluded Marie, playing shepherdess at her little Disneyland of a compound while rebellion fomented. But what a delightful place it is: the gardens still grow, the animals still roam their pens, the little faux-Norman cottages are still thatched to perfection.
The hands-down favorite thing for the kids about Versailles were the carp in the farm's pond. Sixteen years ago, when P and I went there, I took an old baguette with which to feed the ducks. Imagine my alarm when, as I cast my bread upon the waters, the surface immediately boiled with what looked like TRILLIONS of LARGE, seething fish, all competing madly for the crumbs. The ducks never had a chance.
I had told the kids this story in dramatic detail and hoped the fish would still be there and live up to the expectations I had raised. Christian, our young angler, even mentioned them as we walked toward Marie's hamlet. "Those fish had better not disappoint," he said.
Oh, they did not; they exceeded even the wildest imaginings of my children. They squealed and chortled at the bizarre spectacle. We were well prepared with crumbs and crusts, but you could stand there all day and the fish would never stop begging for more. Once the food was gone, the fish stayed there raising their open mouths out of the water for several minutes. It was highly entertaining. The kids even fed the fish a few dandelion heads, but I made them stop picking flowers pretty quickly.
After a many hours of walking and admiring, we bought some excellent sorbet on the palace grounds. Tess's boule of sorbet fell out of its cone and onto the ground with almost her first lick. Christian immediately handed her his cone and took her empty one. He's a prince of a boy, I tell you. Patrick persuaded him to trade with him, so Christian did get some of the mouthwatering sorbet, but I was a little emotional over the unselfishness of my sweet kid.
We took the kids home, fixed them hot dogs (or, actually, saucisses de Strasbourg, which are far more delicious), and left for our mindblowing dinner at l'Abbaye des Vaulx de Cernay.
The place was gorgeous. The service was unbelievable, once again reminding me of the difference between waitstaff that has gone to college in their field and waitstaff that are actually unemployed actors. (P asked at dinner, "So, what do unemployed actors in France do, if the waitstaff is all professional?" We laughed, but the question went unanswered.)
The food was lovely: not the best we've ever had, but more than adequate. The cheeses and desserts in particular were quite delicious. We lingered for hours in that beautiful room; I can't imagine a better way to spend a birthday.
Speaking of Patrick's birthday in France, 16 years ago, we celebrated him at a terrific Parisian restaurant called La Fontaine de Mars. Guess who recently copied us on their much publicized Date Night?
Coming tomorrow: the fifth and final installment of The Great French Saga!