This week is Thanksgiving in the U.S.—a day of family and gratitude and food.
Lots and lots of food.
So let’s talk about food on the Camino—and specifically this time, how we ate in France. (Our experiences in France and Spain were distinctly different. That’s cultural, somewhat, but mostly it stemmed from how many pilgrims there were on the better-known Spanish route, compared to our smaller and more personal walk across France. I’ll come back and talk about our Spanish experiences next week.)
Between Le Puy and the French border, we walked through areas that were often remote, with small villages where the markets that were almost always fermé. We learned quickly to carry food and picnic our way through through the day. We would pause every few hours for baguettes of fresh bread, local cheese, hearty sausage, and fruit. Sometimes we carried jars of pork or duck pate (when in France…) Sometimes there were nuts.
At night, we stayed in gites, usually privately owned. There weren’t many restaurants, so the standard option was demi pension—that is, our gite hosts would not only provide our bed for the night, but also dinner and breakfast, usually served family style to a group of pilgrims.
The meal varied according to the whims and talents of our hosts, and some were less inspired than others, but I don’t think we ever had a bad dinner. Meals were almost always four courses:
- A vegetable-based soup, usually lentils, and/or salad with lots of bread
- A meat dish, often chicken, with vegetables and lots of bread
- A cheese plate, with lots of bread
Dinner almost always included unlimited bottles of local red wine.
From simple curries to elaborate casseroles made with of confit canard, the French really know how to do food. But there are a few memories that stand out.
- Aligot. Oh, aligot, which is all good French things in a dish. A magical blend of mashed potatoes, regional uncured cheese, heavy cream, and garlic. It stretched like dough and had to be cut with a fork. I have every intention of trying to make it some day.
- Chunks of wild boar in gravy, served over pasta by a boisterous, flirtatious gite owner who bragged that he shot the animal himself.
- Mediterranean couscous and chicken thighs. After a long, miserable, very wet day of slogging through mud and rain, we stumbled into Figeac and into the first gite we saw, a small two-story rowhouse owned by a young Moroccan couple. Their dinner, loaded with vegetables and spices, felt like warmth and sunshine.
- Farm food. Two days before we reached the border, when our pod of pilgrim friends was well established and feeling the weight of the impending end (only a few of us continued over the Pyrenees to Spain), we found ourselves on “The Farm,” practically a resort for pilgrims in the middle of nowhere, with comfortable rooms, plenty of hot water, and the most amazing dinner that I don’t remember. I know there was hearty soup, huge plates of meat and vegetables, cake that we smelled the family baking that afternoon, and a cheese plate with EIGHT kinds of cheese. Eight. I wanted that night to last forever.
The thing is, it wasn’t about how good the food was. We spent every day trekking up and down hills and navigating muddy paths. ANYTHING was going to taste good. But the French Camino was all about a community of people around a table. We weren’t just pointed to bunk beds and left to fend for ourselves. Our hosts often ate with us. Other pilgrims lingered over the cheese plate and shared stories, even when we didn’t share languages. (I had no idea how much we could communicate with some charades and a few elementary-level words.)
And sure, occasionally we would stay in a gite that didn’t serve food. Usually it was a facility run by the city, which had a limited staff and a vested interest in getting pilgrims into the local bars and restaurants. Eric and I took the opportunity a couple of times to indulge in pizza (not surprisingly, French pizza is really good). The municipal gites almost always had a kitchen, as well, and we could either go out or cook for ourselves. It took us a few weeks to feel brave enough to walk up to a meat counter and order chicken—not only in French, but also in grams. But eventually, I actually missed cooking enough to try. We mastered a basic meal of pasta, chicken, mushrooms, and jarred pesto. And those 2 euro bottles of wine.
But seriously. Cheese and wine every day.
Is it any wonder that we loved France?
This year, I’ll be adding a cheese plate to our Thanksgiving dinner. And perhaps an extra bottle of good French wine. It’s time to linger over the table again and tell some stories.