European Times Rural France: The village that lives for lunch

Click to follow
The Independent Online
YOU CAN tell this is an authentic rural because it has white plastic tables outside and plastic flowers inside.

A more self-consciously authentic (ie phoney) country restaurant would insist on having a name. This restaurant has none. It simply has a sign which reads "Bar".

There is no menu. If you arrive for lunch (evening meals by prior arrangement only) you eat what Madame is making that day; and you eat, and you eat, and you eat...

In this part of Normandy, in the hills behind Caen, there are few villages that have any kind of surviving business at all. The large village to the south of our house used to have a restaurant, a bar, a shop, a small creamery and a carpenter. In the past 15 years, all have disappeared, save the carpenter.

In the beautifully kept village to the north there used to be two bars, a shop and a post office. None survives. Each has gone the way of the 50,000 rural businesses that have closed in France in the past ten years, victims of malls, hypermarkets and rural depopulation. The scruffier village down the hill to the east - the principal village of the commune - is luckier. There is a restaurant, a bar, an open-air saw-works, a firewood supplier, a small transport business and a riding school. All survive, even thrive. All, except the riding school, belong to one family.

The patriarch of this business empire, Paul, is a tiny, cross-eyed, hunched man in his 70s, who mainly acts as forester and manager of the saw-works.

Wood is always a hazardous occupation but it is more than usually hazardous in these parts. The hills south of Caen saw some of the worst fighting of the Battle of Normandy in June to August 1944. Half a century later, the older trees - those of loggable age - are still peppered with fragments of shrapnel from shells and bombs. Tree-felling, even logging, must be performed with a metal detector first and a chain-saw second.

The grandson, Philippe, a sweet man in his 30s with an Elvis haircut and a shy smile, is intermittently in charge of the firewood and transport business (a fleet of two white vans). He is subject to lengthy, unaccountable absences, which leave his aged pepe (grandad) to deliver the wood.

The daughter/mother, Paul-ette, a broad, 50-something woman in glasses and a lurid, floral dress is the manager and chef of the restaurant with no name. Accredited local people eat in the kitchen at a long table covered with a plastic tartan cloth. If you are a tourist or a stranger, even if you think that you are local because you own a weekend home, you are ushered into the best room. There is no appeal against this judgement.

Inside the best room are the plastic flowers, one of the finest collections outside state ownership. In the company of the flowers, you are in for a treat, and a culinary obstacle course. There are no orders taken, except for drinks. Food arrives and arrives and continues to arrive until you ask for mercy.

This arrangement - table d'hote in French or pot luck in English - used to be common in rural France. It is less common now. By my observation, four or five local people, farmers and labourers, plus Philippe and the grandad and a number of cousins, eat their lunch in madame's restaurant each weekday. There never seems to be any shortage of food for the chance passer-by.

Typically, Madame might serve you a starter of cold ham wrapped around mixed vegetables; followed by another starter, a green salad or a tabouleh (couscous salad), followed by a huge tureen of white fish, cooked with eggs, milk and vegetables. The unwise might assume that was the main course and take second helpings. It is followed by an equally large tureen containing, possibly, a lamb stew, with vegetables on the side.

The first time we ate here we did not make it beyond tasting the fish course (to madame's intense disapproval). The second time I did reach the stew but my stomach refused at the next fence (a selection of Norman cheeses). Two frail, old ladies at the next table gobbled all that was set before them. It turned out that there was also a rich and sticky dessert.

For all this food, Madame charges Fr50 (a little over pounds 5) a head (wine not included) on weekdays, and Fr70 on Saturdays and Sundays. She is unlikely ever to be in the Michelin Guide but her food is always tasty in a robust kind of way.

The economics of the enterprise are impossible to fathom. Maybe the wood props up the restaurant. But this is not self-evident. Paul and Philippe seem to spend most of their time sitting in Paulette's kitchen. Eating.