DONALD MOFFAT, a veteran of both wars, fell in love with France when he was driving for the American Field Service in 1916. For a time between the tears he and his wife and their daughters resided in Senlis, Paris, and Pontic, an experience he has written of with charm and gaiety in his book The Mott Family in France. Last year they went bach again — the first time they bad seen Paris since the Liberation — and the reunion marked the beginning of a new series of papers for the Atlantic, of which this is the third.
by DONALD MOFFAT
THE Kanes drove south towards Biarritz through the flat sandy wastes of the Landes; the little Peugeot hummed sturdily along the straight road; the scent of the pine forests on either side drowned the exhaust odor of the flabby French gasoline on which, surprisingly, the Peugeot seemed to thrive; and the Kanes sat in torpid, contented silence.
Kane said: “Do you realize this will be the first time we’ve ever actually stayed with French people? I’m scared.”
“You’re always scared of anything new,” Mrs. Kane tranquilly replied. “Don’t be such a baby.”
“Yes, but you’re good with people. You’ve got that what-do-you-ca11-it.”
“But I like people.”
“You like men.” He grinned at her.
“Hah!” It was a delicate snort, but a snort for all that.
Nevertheless, and in spite of his faint, prophetic uneasiness, Kane was looking forward eagerly to the coming adventure. Robert Peyssac was a cook. Kane had first met him in 1916, when Robert had joined his American Field Service section near Verdun to gladden the hearts of the young ambulance drivers with his miracles of sound and simple cookery. After the war, Kane had helped him unscramble the red tape which barred his way into the United States, where in subsequent years Robert and his wife, a cook of almost equal distinction, had made their fortune, working apart in various illustrious households. In 1938 they had returned to their native land to spend the evening of their lives in retirement, after the French fashion. From their savings they had built a little villa near Biarritz, and sent the Kanes photographic proof that it was tout aὰ fait moderne, même américaine. In the Villa Le Retour they had enjoyed a year’s tranquillity, while Robert started his garden, before the Germans arrived in 1940. Now, said Robert, in one of his thoughtful letters, the Occupation was only a half-remembered nightmare, and he and his wife rejoiced at the prospect of receiving the Kanes at last. The chambre d’ amis would be awaiting them, and all the Peyssacs had was theirs. (“Chambre d’amis! What a nice name for guest room!” Mrs. Kane said on reading the letter.)
Delayed by repairs to the Peugeot’s câble flexible du comptoir kilométrique (which Kane finally identified as the correct name for the speedometer cable, after describing it to the garagiste as la machine qui fait marcher le speedomètre), they didn’t reach Villa Le Retour till midafternoon, after telephoning for directions. Robert met them at the gate, beaming a welcome, to direct the car into the garage under the house; and Madame, an apron over her cotton dress, greeted them at the front door, leaving no doubt in the Kanes’ minds of the warmth of their reception. She was an Alsatian, aged like her husband seventy-two, tall, brown, a little wrinkled, speaking slow, deep French with a marked accent, and full of a charming dignity as she showed them into the chambre d’amis — a small sunny room with a double bed and an immaculate bath adjoining. She introduced them to two other elderly members of the family, Doggie, a white terrier, and Sammie, a large black cat. They received the Kanes politely.
The one-story green and white stucco villa, embowered in trees and semitropical shrubs, stood among a row of neighbors between the local golf course and the banks of a broad estuary, not far from the sea, with a view of the white town and fishing port — a charming spot, and a delicious little house, moderne certainly, but américaine in arrangement of rooms possibly not, thought Kane, as their host showed them round. There were three bedrooms, two vaterres, one bath, a small sittingdining room overlooking the garden, Robert’s office, and the kitchen — all interconnected according to the mysterious plan which has governed French architecture since the days of Versailles or earlier. The kitchen contained, besides the coal range, an electric stove and a gleaming frigidaire.
Robert looked older, grayer, of course; Kane had expected it. His mustache, once brown and bushy, had been clipped short in the American fashion. But the wise eyes and humorous mouth were as young as ever, and beneath the gravity of advancing years Kane recognized the same integrity and intelligence which had made Robert what lie was — one of the great chefs of France.
He showed them the diplomas and medals which decorated the walls of the little bureau, culinary awards of his professional life; a photograph of a youthful Robert in tall while chef’s cap and veston, standing beside a pastry model of an early Fanhard; and he pointed out pictures of the Kane family sent at various Christmases as the children grew up.
The inspection over, he suggested a little drive while his wife prepared the dinner. “I, myself, as you know,” he said in his gentle voice, “am from farther north. But the Basque country is not without interest.”
He put on his tight blue beret and led them down to the cellar garage where, before starling out, he showed them further evidence of domestic modernity: a seven horsepower ootbore, or outboard motor, resting on a frame, which started at the first flick of the cord and filled the cellar with a mighty roar; an electric saw; a moto-eyclette; a neat tool-bench; and, with casual pride, an adjoining room containing shelves of preserved fruit and vegetables put up by his wife, and bins of wine made by Robert from his own grapes. And as they drove forth in his seven horsepower Peugeot-203 — ihe twin of their own — he pointed out, moored in the stream and painted green and white to match the villa, his little motorboat, in which the ootbore carried him out to the fishing grounds. Fishing was his sport, his occupation, his passion, he confessed with a smile.
IN the late afternoon sunlight. Robert drove them along the high shore road to the Spanish border at Ilendaye, showing them ihe dozens of concrete blockhouses and gun emplacements built by the Germans along the coast and blown up just before they pulled out (“It was August 21st, 1344 — oh, they left in a hurry! I Is avaient pent. Demoralises!”)-, then up among the foothills of the Pyrenees on the French side of the Bidassoa, a country of scattered farms, white or pastel-washed, with red tile roofs, heavy, rust-colored shutters, and fields fenced with stone slabs set upright — different from anything they had seen elsewhere in France, as the Basques themselves differ from the French. Later, on the vine-shaded terrace of a small country inn overlooking the Spanish frontier, with the Pyrenees jagging up to incredible heights in the background, they took a glass of wine, while Robert told of his adventures keeping body and soul alive during the Occupation. He had lost forty pounds, he said, partly from raising a pig.
“ Un cochon c’est un véritable abysse qui demande qu’ὰ manger, il n’est pas croyable le tracas qui donne une bete pareille ὰ élever.” He had not only to gather hundreds of kilos of acorns from the forest, but to devote much of his precious garden to the cultivation of pig feed — “e’était le pire du tout” — almost as heavy a burden, the Kanes gathered, as the regulations imposed by the Germans.
Back at Villa Le Retour before dinner, Madame Peyssac smilingly superintended Mrs. Kane’s bath in a steam-filled bathroom and a full tub of scalding water, and the intimacy sealed their friendship. To say that Kane had been looking forward to dinner would be an understatement. What, he wondered, licking his chops in memory of Robert’s miracles with simple Army rations in 1916, would these two distinguished artists produce with all the culinary resources of France at their disposal? Madame had prepared the dinner, true; but after their drive, Robert had excused himself for half an hour in the kitchen, and had already told the Kanes that he had been fortunate enough to find a perfect turbot at the fish market that morning.
So, at eight o’clock, they sat down in comfortable chairs at a foursquare table and were served by Margot, the young bonne ὰ tout faire who came in by the day and who, whispered Madame in the immemorial manner of housewives, was more interested in dancing and boys than in learning to cook. (“The same with us,” murmured Mrs. Kane. “Oh,” returned Madame, “the younger generation! In my day. . . .”) The gentlemen smiled in a superior manner and Robert added: “Elle n’est pas stylée, vous sarez, la petite; mais c’est une fille de bon cœur.”
First Margot brought in four cups of cold consommé de volaille, which lasted to the Kanes like the heavenly essence of a tender young chicken straight from paradise. But the Master was not wholly satisfied.
“Pour moi,” he pronounced, “un consommé doit être ab-sol-u-ment froid et ab-sol-u-ment clair.” Then he and his wife embarked upon a technical discussion, like a couple of painters arguing pigments, while the Kanes listened, fascinated, as they learned how much patience and skill are needed to achieve the simplicity of excellence.
But the turbot passed with highest credit. “C’est un peu comme votre chicken halibut, madame,” said Robert to Mrs. Kane, “mais plus délicat. Oui, le turbot est le plus délicat des poissons.” It was served in a baking dish, ungarnished, with a sauce composed by Robert himself which, he admitted, had succeeded. “A sauce must enhance, never disguise, the natural flavor of the dish it accompanies/’ he declared seriously. “That is the secret of true French cooking, the best and simplest in the world. But I do not have to tell you this, Madame Kane.”
The little new boiled potatoes, like the tomatoesand-cucumbers vinaigrette, served with the turbot, came from the garden, of course; and the cool white wine they drank with it had been made by Robert from his own grapes. In fact the turbot and the Camembert which separated the asparagus and the fruits rafraîchis were the only items on the menu that were not home grown — not counting, either, the three other wines: a red Bordeaux with the cheese, a sweet Bordeaux with the fruit, and the Lanson champagne with the dessert and homemade lady fingers. Margot served them intelligently, washing plates and glasses in time for the next course, while Mrs. Kane reflected on the impossibility of finding at home a servant who would willingly put up with such a parade of dishes. Yes, the dinner was all the Kanes had hoped; but what impressed them most was its simplicity, the innocent pride of its presentation, without formality or ostentation — as if their kind hosts were saying, in a language they perfectly understood, “This is how we live, we know you are capable of appreciating it, and to have you share it gives us happiness.”
And so, after coffee and a thimbleful of brandy, with a little reminiscent talk of the brave old days of Verdun and the Argonne, they went to bed, feeling fine, and with Kane wondering, as usual, how he could ever have been afraid of any awkwardness in their reception.
THEY slept well. The next morning after breakfast Kane sat on the stone-paved terrace, shaded by vines, overlooking the sunny garden, his ears filled with the liquid din of songbirds, and contentment in his heart, wishing for nothing. A faint sound of kitchen clatter indicated that Madame was already thinking of déjeuner. At the foot of the garden he saw Robert at work, and presently Kane lit a cigarette and joined him, to be shown what. Robert had accomplished, despite the Germans, in twelve years.
The garden covered about 1500 square yards. Two main paths crossed at the center, forming a small space shaded by a fig tree and set with a table and chairs. The paths were roofed by trellises on which Robert’s grapevines were trained, and bordered by raspberry bushes and strawberry plants. Small fruit trees — pear, peach, apricot, cherry —were spotted in a symmetrical pattern; and vegetables — every vegetable Kane had ever heard of —grew neatly in the rich brown loam between, with the sunny perfume of flowers drenching the air. The rabbit hutch and hen run concealed a compost heap in one corner. “All you need is a salt mine and some sugar cane — perhaps you have them?” suggested Kane. Robert smiled. “It takes a lot of work, a little garden like this. But it is worth it. You agree?”
“France has nothing to fear, so long as she has Peyssacs to cultivate her gardens.”
“C’est vrai,” replied Robert simply. “We ask only to be let alone, to work in peace. But then, at intervals, come the Germans.”
“And the Russians?”
“Oh!” Robert’s shrug was a masterpiece. “Perhaps. We have many faults, we French. But at least we are realistic. We’ll never be seduced by the Russian ideal. Communism! Ah, non, Monsieur Kane. The Party is well organized in France, it is true, especially in the industrial areas, and it can still make trouble. But except for a small minority, which grows smaller every day, the French Communist is not a Communist; he is simply a man without confidence in any party.”
“‘Agin the government‚’ as we say,” remarked Kane in English.
“Exactement! ‘Agin the government/ ” Kane suspected that Robert knew more English than he willingly used. “How many millions of gardens like this are there in France? Can you imagine them being collectivized? Pensez-vous! The truth is, Monsieur Kane, that France has never wholly recovered from the Revolution of 1789; those old political wounds have never quite healed. Half of my countrymen have never fully trusted the other half; and neither trusts the politicians, who reach office as a result of compromise. During my years in America, I found little comprehension of this fact.”
“And what’s the answer?”
“Time, Monsieur Kane. Patience, and hard work.” Robert smiled. “As you have seen, monsieur, I enjoy my modern improvements — my electric stove, my ootbore, my frigidaire. My little American toys, I call them. But inside myself I know, as do all Frenchmen, that unless a thing is done with the two hands, it is not well done.” He held up his own hands — square, brown, sensitive, capable—looked at them in turn, then let them drop at his side. “These are my tools.” He tapped his forehead. “And this.”
Kane saw bis wife approaching with Madame Peyssac, talking busily. He joined them while Madame fed the hens with a little grain, some table leavings, and a few handfuls of herbs plucked from a patch beside the hen coop. “Elles aiment bien un peu de salade, les poules,” she remarked. They watched the tall red-combed cock shoulder away the hens to get at his breakfast. “Ah, les hommes,” said Madame, smiling gently. “Taste this strawberry, madame, warmed by the sun.”
They strolled back to the house, and Madame pointed out the two stone cisterns containing rain water from the eaves: one for washing clothes; the other, by the kitchen door, for washing vegetables.
That morning Robert drove them about again — to see the fishing port of St-Jean-de-Luz and the Basque cathedral with its ornately carved wooden galleries where the men sat during Mass, while the women congregated on the floor of the church in the traditional Basque fashion. They passed a fronton, with some town kids playing pelote, batting balls around the way American boys do on a vacant lot. They bought a few pairs of espadrilles for their children at home, and baskets of local weave — a leisurely, sunny morning. Madame Peyssac had again stayed in the house to prepare lunch, “Nothing elaborate,” she had promised, when the Kanes had confessed they’d have to be on their way early in the afternoon. “A little gnocchi, perhaps? You like gnocchi?’'
Before lunch they took an aperitif under the fig tree in the garden: Pernod, dripped through sugar into a glass of water, too sweet for Mrs. Kane’s taste; so she lit a cigarette.
“ S’il vous plaît, Madame Kane,” said Robert gently, shaking his head as at a naughty child, “ ne fumez pas arant le déjeuner. La nicotine abîme l’appétit.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry!” She quickly stubbed out her cigarette. “We have such bad habits, haven’t we?”
“No others, I am sure. Yet in your country I have seen people smoking even with the soup. J’aime bien l’Amérique, quand mîme.”
The gnocchi turned out to be an understatement. Lunch began with the same consommé, clarified, said Madame, with “un morceau de cuisse de bœuf,sans nerfs” To the Kanes, wondering at the mystic purifying virtue of a steer’s thigh, it tasted just as delicious as it had the evening before; but the Master, after sampling, nodded sober approval, and they realized they still had a thing or two to learn about the refinements of flavor. The gnocchi followed, so delicate that the Kanes, on the misunderstanding that it was to be the main course, dove in greedily. They should have known better. For then came tender broilers, with pommes fondantes and young string beans; salad with a whole foie gras; a perfect Port de Salut cheese; and (sensation!) ice cream frozen by Robert himself, with a strawberry sauce; then dessert (fresh peaches, apricots, cherries); coffee; and cognac. And nothing to drink but a 1933 Médoc, a Vouvray, and champagne. Doggie and Sammic sat up side by side to beg, and were rewarded by a morsel of foie gras; then Doggie was given a champagne cork to play with — a truly French toy, thought Mrs. Kane—while Sammie curled up on the sunny terrace and purred. Not a bad idea, Kane decided.
But they had made the foolish mistake of promising a friend on the Riviera to arrive on a certain day, only forty-eight hours off; and so, after posing on the terrace with the Peyssacs for Margot to point a camera, they tried to tell their hosts all that was in their hearts, and drove away.
“Just a little gnocchi!” murmured Kane in a golden haze of contentment, as they headed east through the pretty Basque countryside, with Spain on their right, blocked by the snow-capped Pyrenees, and all of France on their left. “What do you think they’re saying about us?”
“They liked it, too. Of course!” Mrs. Kane spoke with assurance.
She’s right —as usual, thought Kane.