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Plat du Jour

Plat du Jour

Living in the heartland of French gastronomy can be an exceptionally rewarding business. No more so than on a cold winter’s day when you blow into a warm, bustling café a few minutes before twelve-thirty, chilly, hungry and teased by the tantalising aromas wafting from the kitchens. It’s one of the great pleasures of life in France.
Ah Madame, vous allez bien?’ The proprietor greeted me, as I hauled myself up the marble staircase in one of my favourite eateries. He didn’t wait for a reply, but bestowed two quick kisses and a hearty buffet on the shoulder, then whisked me down the crowded room to a cosy table in the corner – narrowly avoiding collision with two speeding waiters, loaded to the elbows. I sank into the chair with a thankful sigh, shook out my napkin and prepared to enjoy myself.
Bread and water arrived along with the menu and a mini-board outlining the plats du jour. The menu in this popular Cahors restaurant is extensive, but at lunchtime it’s always worth plumping for one of the dishes of the day. Most places will give you a choice of two and sometimes more, usually at incredibly low prices. In frozen January it’s likely to be hot and filling; succulent paupiettes de veau and hearty navarin d’agneau from the high causses, a golden, crusty cassoulet or a steaming pile of mouclade to be consumed with masses of bread to mop up the delicious sauce. In this restaurant one also gets a choice of vegetables. I dithered enjoyably for a few minutes, until my designated waiter hurried back for my order. You don’t hang about at lunchtime. These people are rushed off their feet catering to those who have a scant two hours for their lunch break. Watching them weave in and out of the packed tables and dipping round one another at a fast trot – always laden – is an entertainment in itself. I decided on the paupiettes and a heap of the chef’s exceptional haricot verts – tossed in garlic and butter – with a guilty helping of creamy, delicious pommes dauphinoise and a glass of rich, local wine to go with it. My waiter skated back five minutes later with a heaped plate that looked and smelled utterly divine.
Voila Madame, bon appetit.’ He muttered mechanically, and shimmied on to deliver two vast faux filets to a pair of young businessmen with striped shirts, prominent mobiles and slick hair. I also noticed that they had exercised more restraint than I in the matter of vegetables. One had a vast pile of the irresistible haricot verts, the other a chicory gratin. Neither had potato in any form. Probably their main meal I consoled myself, feeling even guiltier, I’d have a salad that evening.
The paupiettes were exquisite. Thin slices of beaten veal, rolled around a steaming savoury stuffing and served with a glistening mushroom sauce, the haricots verts I knew from long experience were the best in town, and as for the naughty pommes dauphinoise, it’s my absolute weakness. I was cautious with the bread – always wise in a good restaurant – and noticed with slight satisfaction that my businessmen emptied their basket and mopped up the Roquefort sauce on their empty plates with Gallic thoroughness. I could hardly blame them and it made me feel a mite better about my own over-indulgence. My waiter was back for my empty plate. ‘Dessert? Café?

Café

Café

I ordered coffee, whilst my businessmen plumped for a slice of the chocolate and walnut tart that was one of the desserts of the day. I felt much more virtuous and decided that maybe salad wasn’t quite the thing for a winter evening after all!
It was one-thirty and the big room was beginning to empty, the waiters had slowed to walking pace and many diners had slipped out for a quick Gauloise – smoking was banned in restaurants from 2nd January. I lingered over my coffee, enjoying the unique atmosphere of a busy French restaurant, enjoying too the little square of dark chocolate that comes automatically with coffee.
I left a ten-euro note tucked under the water glass. More than enough to pay for my delicious meal, with tip included. The businessmen were hurrying into their dark overcoats. I swathed my scarf more tightly round my throat, and we stepped out into the cold. I hardly felt it, I was glowing warm.
As I reached the car – parked beside the market place – the stall holders were packing the last of their gear away, sipping red wine to keep out the cold and toasting a good morning’s trade. I decided that supporting local restaurants is a necessary part of life – I really should do this more often!

© Amanda Lawrence 2008

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Lunch in Cahors from French Vie

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