France, Easter 2008
France was empty. An over-priced currency. Inflation. Recession. A low pressure weather system drifting across from the Atlantic. Tourists absent. Saturday afternoon, petering out of a cold and wet Vacances de Pâques, giving no urgency to the light local traffic scattering along the vague peripheries of each small town and village through which we darted. Slipping past thousands of sleepy natives barely noticed, as if a pair of inconsequential swifts returning to England from their annual migration. The happy-warm South and its dusty Mediterranean air behind us.
A fast true road, occasionally lined with Napoleonic regiments of plane trees, but generally more wide open. Imperial Roman straight-line determination overlaying a sensuous rolling Gallic landscape and conquering a hundred miles in a flash: this road, through the Indre Department and up to the Loire, has a dreamlike character. The sensation was the same the first time that the old airhead and I traversed it, riding south to Barcelona in 2001: across the desertified Loire at chateau-grand Samur, launching on to the widely furrowed land. And each time since, its somniferous character has been amplified with a creeping sense of déjà vu. A sense illuminated by the unusual array of brightly painted water towers that dot and dash the landscape signalling to each other across an expanse of farm land, each one firing off a distinct point in my memory, and collectively building up to the tipping point of realisation: a familiar route revisited.
The means by which we select our roads is the same as that used to navigate the unfamiliar dishes listed upon the menus of the relais at which we would periodically stop. Random. Martin’s so-called ‘GPS’ being an in-joke: a tiny plastic clipboard bolted to the handlebar brace of his 1994 BMW R1100GS overlander, carrying small sheets of note-scrawled paper. Martin, professionally, is a microscopist. Miniaturised instructions, his notes work as a minimal roadbook. Complimenting his notes, I carry each relevant page of a dismembered road atlas, folded into the plastic window of a bag strapped across the long-range tank of my rusty trusty old R100GS Paris-Dakar – being an amateur geographer, I have the bigger picture in mind. There is madness in this method, or at least enough eccentricity to keep things interesting. With no particular agreement at any time, either the map or the road book takes the lead. At too in-frequent intervals the pair are brought together on some precarious edge of the road meeting place, and there they form the basic articles for debate and eventual agreement.
Contrary to popular misapprehension, the motorcycle is as much a machine for stopping and comprehending as it is for accelerating and escaping. Even the relatively wide GS, with its sideways protruding flat-twin cylinders may always find some small strip of tarmac, gravel or even dirt on which to perch for a contemplative pause. When confronted by two fat GS’s sat alongside each other, the friendly and tolerant drivers of rural France always give us room. Similarly, when confronted by two motorcyclists (one fat, one thin) sat opposite each other at a restaurant table, the reputedly intolerant waiters of rural France are pleasingly patient. Slow bikes, slow food.
Salade aux noix, andouillette grillée, fromage de chévre bleu s’il vous plaît.
I communicated through imprecisely accented French. The waiter-chef responded with acutely accented eyebrows. There being only two options on the menu, it was either an adventure in offal or cote de porc predictability. Martin chose the latter. Irresistibly, I went for the wildcard. Through the following five minute interlude and the fresh salad starter, occasional glances were exchanged. The waiter-chef would flit between a small kitchen for the preparation of accompaniments and a vast open fireplace upon which the meat slowly cooked. I could read his thoughts: “does the Englishman realise what he is about to eat?”. But could he read mine in return? – “does the Frenchman realise that I really do understand the extraordinarily pungent source of andouillette?”. Starters completed, and the smell of pork began to fill the banquet-sized hall in which we sat. One could easily imagine a small army of musketeers stopping by for a long lunch, perhaps interrupted by a duel, if not a rafter-swinging sword fight defending the honour of France. Serving wenches would not have been out of place, but in this age, they are sadly absent.
When it arrived, it was indeed deliciously medieval.
The waiter-chef lowered the large plate down swiftly, and swept away with efficiency. Striding off into the kitchen, he paused to attend to misaligned cutlery on one of the many un-occupied tables – merely perhaps to enable a check upon my reaction.
I think very highly of the late Capetonian comic actor Sid James. It was undoubtedly a Sid James moment.
I sliced with painful precision through the outer skin, revealing a mess of squiggly chopped-up pig internals and externals.
Andouillette smells and tastes exactly as it appears.
Martin, clearly, was disgusted.
The waiter-chef was perhaps a little bit impressed.
And my verdict?
Not necessarily suited to everyday luncheon. But still, very good.
Can I convince you to try this magnificent cut? Perhaps for environmental reasons (eat offal, save the planet)?
Go on, you will not be disappointed.