The French are famous for languid, luxurious meals that begin with drinks around 1 p.m., and finish as the sun fades away in the early evening. Lunch in the country epitomizes the French joie de vivre and the capacity to forget, for a long, delicious moment, that anything could possibly be wrong with the world.
I’m still basking in the glow of a lunch in the country this weekend. The occasion was a 90th birthday, the guest of honor the patriarch of a small, closely knit family. Prepared by his three children and five grandchildren, it was a symphony in elegance to the beat of a very well-timed drum. What looked simple, easy, and casual had been planned for weeks, perhaps months.
When I arrived, a long table was set with crystal and fine porcelain under an arbor of shimmering kiwi vines, stretching from the front door of the 17th century manor house to the wrought iron entrance. I’d expected a frantic atmosphere but what I found was calm; small groups of people talking, children running around in the huge garden, a knot of young men smoking and laughing, the daughters and son of the family cheerfully putting the final touches on the table.
The cork on a Jeraboam of Ruinart was popped, we toasted, and one of guests broke into song – accompanied by a pianist – that had been written by the guest of honor. His daughter followed with another, and soon everyone was clapping and tapping their feet. And then we sat down to lunch.
Prepared by the son, it was an aromatic festival of flavors from the Maghreb – caramelized tomatoes, plump and rose-water scented raisins, fluffy couscous, lamb braised with saffron, chicken colored with turmeric. There were roasted eggplant, strips of red pepper marinated with garlic and oil, Swiss chard stewed with sesame seeds. The birthday cake was layers of chocolate mousse and hazelnut cake, topped by a crisp, dark chocolate layer. It came to the table accompanied by a jazzy version of “Appy Biersday to yoo” accompanied by a professional saxophone player. Nine huge candles, each signifying a decade, were summarily blown out and dessert was served.
Time stopped as we whiled away the waning hours of daylight. The atmosphere -filled with love and laughter, honor and fidelity, delicious flavors and abundance – was completely “depaysant,” otherworldly. Just the way a special lunch in the country should be.