Potatoes as earth, bacon as salt, cheese as milk; basic and warmby Wendell Steavenson / March 24, 2016 / Leave a comment
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Verdun in February. The 100-year anniversary of the pyrrhic French victory of the First World War. We stood miserable, sodden and aghast at the hill of Mort Homme where 10,000 Frenchmen fell, valiantly defending their flank. The land is still pocked with shell holes. The whole area—a long front, 25km or more of strongholds and bunkers along ridges overlooking the Meuse valley—is covered with woods that were planted after the war to preserve, commemorate and, perhaps even hide, the scars left by zigzagging trenches.
Tramping through the fluorescent moss undergrowth, the bumps and hollows of the front line and the charnel tunnels of the massive underground forts, the atmosphere of death was palpable. You could taste it in the damp air, metallic, organic, thick and rich. Our boots sucked at the clammy clay mud and our breath puffed smoke in the frosty air. We fell silent at the famous Skeleton Memorial, a death’s head soldier carrying the flag of France and the words engraved below him: “Ils n’ont pas passe” (They did not pass). I stared up at this agony and watched as the grey stone flashed luminous and white and then died back to shadow. It must have been a trick of the sun, but the sky was completely overcast.
The Germans launched a surprise attack on the French at Verdun on 21st February 1916. It has been said that General Erich von Falkenhayn wanted to draw the French into a battle of attrition, but the truth is, like so much of the First World War, no one really knows what the hell they were thinking. The French were initially driven out of their forts, but held the line and over the course of 10 months of bitter fighting pushed the Germans back again. Including the dead, wounded, missing and captured, there were one million casualties. The conditions were terrible—muddy craters deep enough to drown in, trees smashed to matchwood, limited water supply and constant artillery bombardment. Provisions were extremely difficult to get. Porters had to carry cauldrons of soup through the trenches under gunfire; often when they arrived the cauldrons were more like a colander and the soup had drained out. Over the course of the battle, villages in the area were destroyed so thoroughly and the ground seeded with so much unexploded ordnance that they have never been rebuilt. Douaumont, like nine others, is known as a “village mort pour la France.” It doesn’t exist any more. Instead, there is a crossroads, where an ossuary has been built for all the bones the ground is still giving up, a cemetery, a caretaker’s house and a large stone chalet-looking house, the l’Abri des Pélerins, the Shelter of the Pilgrims, where, mercifully, you can warm your hands by the wood-burning stove and get a cup of coffee and some lunch.
Inside there were welcoming red-and-white checked plastic tablecloths and pictures of the old pre-war Douaumont, a modest row of low peasant houses along a dirt track, hung on the walls. The proprietor, Sylvaine Vaudron, is also the Mayor of Douaumont (pop. 6) and lives in the annexe, which also houses the Town Hall.
I ordered an omelette. It is often said that a good omelette is the test of a chef but I almost never order an omelette in a restaurant. They are usually yellow and rubbery like a rolled-up yoga mat. I don’t know why, it was uncharacteristic, but I ordered the omelette paysanne with potatoes, lardons and cheese.
It was the best omelette I have ever eaten. Soft, fluffy and creamy on the inside, crusty and brown and frilled with crunchy fried egg on the outside. Potatoes as earth, bacon as salt, cheese as milk; basic and warm.
It happens sometimes like this, when a mood and an appetite and a dish come together in perfect resonant harmony. Hunger and cold are the best seasoning, unexpectedness is the most serendipitous critic. I ate it all up and I said, “compliments to the chef, may I meet him?”
It turned out that Didier Vautrin had only been working for Vaudron for five days. He was in his late fifties, an older working man, white hair, white stubble, rolled-up sleeves, strong forearms. “Oh I’ve worked everywhere, in every kind of kitchen, big brigades and small ones. I’ve done all sorts of things, Once I was a lorry driver.” He shrugged at his craft, “yes, of course I’ll show you.”
He took a medium-sized non-stick crêpe pan, “you don’t want to ever wash it with soap,” he cautioned, “or the egg sticks.” He added a lump of butter, tossed in the lardons and slices of parboiled potato. In a separate bowl he beat three eggs until they foamed and poured in a very generous gulp of cream. “Otherwise it dries out, the cream keeps the omelette moist.” He turned up the gas flame and poured the egg mixture over the potatoes and lardons. He left it there for 30 seconds, maybe longer, the egg was half an inch deep and as it cooked it gripped the hot floor of the pan with a congealed skin. Gently he swirled the gloopy edges with a spatula, not disturbing the base but keeping things moving. Then he sprinkled over the cheese—the ordinary ready-grated supermarket (trois fromages) kind—and messily folded the omelette in half. He took the pan off the heat and banged it several times against the stove to loosen the base and tipped it out on to my plate. What is the craft of perfection but rote, muscle memory and a Gallic shrug? The door banged and a lone re-enactor came in from the flurrying snow to dry his puttees and his heavy grey-blue wool trousers by the fire. He opened his kitbag and showed us all his pictures from previous gatherings. He always comes back to Verdun, he says, and to l’Abri des Pélerins, his uncle was killed nearby, at the Vaux Fort, on 27th May 1916.
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