(Co-authored by Ellen S. Russell, artist and foodie, and her husband.)
Celine and Pascal are our new young friends in France, made so by their incredible hospitality to us last summer. They live in a charming little town southwest of Paris, in the Loire Valley, where there’s the most fabulous bakery (boulangerie) perhaps in all of France.
We did a home exchange with their next-door neighbors for three weeks, and Celine and Pascal were there for two of the three weeks before leaving for their annual vacation to the south of France. During those two weeks, which included three weekends, they had us over for dinner three times!
The couple who exchanged homes with us, also new young friends in France, arranged for Celine and Pascal to host us for dinner on our first night on this trip to France. What a memorable night that was! It was a night of almost immediate bonding, fantastic gourmet foods, fine wines, engaging conversation in which we were often grabbing a dictionary to find the right word, and more laughter than we could have imagined.
This young couple—by that I mean in their late 30s to early 40s—are officers in one of France’s military branches. Their work often requires them to take the train to Paris or head to other parts of the country on short notice. They lead busy, engaging, interesting lives.
Dinner Number 1
We arrived at the appointed time at their door. They greeted us in clear English as we greeted them in French, Ellen skillfully and I not so skillfully. An instant spark of some kind led into the formation of friendships that are genuine and we believe lasting.
First, we gathered in their living room for champagne for our aperitif with pate and marinated olives. When we went to the table, which was beautifully set, we had a first course of tomato and goat cheese timbale with a lovely wine from the south of France. After enjoying this gourmet starter, we engaged in conversation and laughter in preparation for the main course of sliced cross-sections of duck breast with sautéed potatoes and beans, and more wine of course. Delicious! Then more conversation about French food and places we should visit while in France.
The next course consisted of a green salad and three types of local cheese served with chunks of baguette. We were beginning to get full, but we could not pass up a taste of the three cheeses, the bread from what would become our favorite boulangerie in the entire world, and a green salad with homemade vinaigrette. We concluded this course, now understanding the meaning of “gastronomique.” A meal of this type is consumed over a long period of time, and every course is savored. This was a real treat, especially since Celine and Pascal had shopped for special ingredients and she had prepared everything herself. We were in the home of a true chef! The final course was dessert. It was a custard with fresh berries and cream—the perfect finish to a perfect meal.
After more conversation and conviviality, we walked next-door to our new home for the next three weeks. We slept like babies, after being pampered by Celine and Pascal, and enjoying a meal for which the French are world-renowned.
Dinner Number 2
Then came the mid-week invitation to a second dinner the following weekend at Celine and Pascal’s home. They invited us for a barbecue of boudin, which is blood sausage that is a typical dish in the Catalan region of southwest France near the border with Spain. We were a bit apprehensive about tasting boudin, but found it delicious and now wish we could find it in Austin. After our aperitif and snacks, we had boudin and a green salad. Dessert was one of Pascal’s favorite pastries from our boulangerie. This was a much simpler meal than our gastronomique meal of the first night, but was enjoyed just as much outdoors on the patio. After dinner, Celine gave us a tour of the chalet (shed) that she and her dad built in their back yard. It was a perfect little structure that could provide shelter for a person or two, but instead housed garden equipment, tools and other necessities for outdoor living.
Dinner Number 3
Then the third and final dinner with them the night before they left for the south of France. We didn’t intend to have Celine and Pascal treat us a third time, but we were having computer problems so we asked Pascal to come over and help us. We offered him a glass of wine when he finished the work, and he suggested we come over to their patio for an aperitif and snacks. This time we brought bottles of wine and some appetizers we had purchased earlier in the day. As we talked and laughed over language lessons and pronunciation, Celine suggested we help them finish some leftovers since they were leaving on their vacation the next day. We were happy to say yes, and enjoyed a wonderful salad with croutons and local goat cheese on top.
Time to Say Goodbye
Celine and Pascal were the most hospitable and generous people we had ever met on our travels. By the end of this final meal with them, we felt we had known them all our lives, and we were very sad to tell them goodbye.
That last night Pascal was going over our map of France for a trip we were planning later that week to Normandy and Brittany. He suggested we go through Le Mans, the home of the world-famous auto race. As Celine stood nearby, she heard me say “Le Mans” a few times. She called me into the kitchen, opened their refrigerator door, grabbed a beautiful, large lemon, thrust it out toward me in her hand, and said emphatically, “This is a lemon!” That might have been our best laugh of the whole trip.
We had a sweet and sad parting with Celine and Pascal that last night. They said when they make their first trip to the United States they will visit us. Now, these months later, we recently learned they are expecting their first child, a boy, while they are preparing for new military assignments abroad. Their US travel plans will be delayed.
We felt supremely happy for them, almost as if they were our own children, but a bit disappointed that we won’t get to see them sooner than later. When we do get to see them again, we hope in the not-too-distant future, we will pick up our conversation where we left off last summer as we reconnect with our young friends, and meet their young son for the first time.
Whenever that day comes, it will be a happy day.