“Every year there is a food fair in Dijon, each time with a different theme.” Marlene tells me.
“How ‘Fascinating’.” I reply. “I have managed to sustain myself for more than three score years w
“Every year there is a food fair in Dijon, each time with a different theme.” Marlene tells me.
“How ‘Fascinating’.” I reply. “I have managed to sustain myself for more than three score years with food, so why would a food fair be of any interest to me?”
Oh yes, I know… it is France… and food is important.
Marlene, my long suffering wife, insists, “It will be good for you.”
I give in.
And so off we go.
We find a place to park and then we have to stand in the inevitable queue.
We edge forward to the kiosk with Marlene in deep conversation with our neighbours.
She always does this… chats to people in queues.
At the supermarket she is well known for it, and in fact has several old men who seem to almost wait in anticipation for her visits. Some of them treat their daily excursion to the ‘shops’ as their meaning for life.
For some of them it is their only social interaction.
It is a time for them to be with people, even if for only a few fleeting minutes in a queue. She remembers them all. Not only that, she recognises who is related to whom.
“Haven’t you got a son who used to help at the Resto du Coeur?” she asks one Granddad.
“Ah yes, that will be Pierre, he is often there.”
Later, I say to Marlene, “How did you work that out?”
“Oh,” she says, “it’s easy. It is the way he stands with his thumbs hooked into his belt. His son does the same thing while he rocks backwards and forwards like a Jew at the Wailing Wall.”
I, by contrast, seem to have about twenty people in my life that I will recognise in a crowd. My children sometimes come into this category, but I have been known to walk past one son at a railway station without recognising him in a group of youths.
I think he was relieved, because at that age he would have been embarrassed by having an “English speaking Dad” greeting him, when he was trying to pass himself off as being “French”, with his school friends.
This means that I must have walked past many people whom I should have recognised and so I must have committed many social gaffes.
Marlene makes up for it, thank goodness.
So here we are in a queue, slowly advancing outside the Halle Des Expositions in Dijon.
As we ‘mark-time’ Marlene finds out from her ‘new’ friends that if we present our British Passports at the kiosk, we will get a discount. This is an enormous revelation. To give discounts to ‘foreigners’ seems to be against all the norms that I have encountered in my travels.
Perhaps it is to encourage visitors to attend.
I feel a bit embarrassed, because we are living here now, and it seems that this discount is supposed to apply visitors and not to us. However, urged on by our new ‘friends’, we take advantage of the discount.
It is remarkable that the French encourage us to do this, as I am sure that the reciprocal situation in another country would not have had the same outcome and would have probably caused resentment.
The inside of the hall is vast.
There are countless stalls laid out in formal blocks with the “streets” and “avenues” filled with people walking and sampling the wares on sale.
The air is pungent with the competing aromas of cheeses, hams and sausage.
Strategically placed mini restaurants offer all sorts of dishes including those from the main theme of the exposition, which this year is ‘Thailand’. In one corner of the main hall is an area given over entirely to visitors from Thailand who are presenting everything from food to special offer vacations to Bangkok.
I am bemused, once again, at the enthusiasm with which the French pursue their love of nourishment. People have suggested that it is because of the way they are brought up, the way that they are fed with three course meals at school, they way that they like to “eat out” or perhaps the way that they occupy themselves during that enforced two hour stoppage for lunch.
But it is more than that.
It is a deep and abiding love for life that encompasses a necessary bodily function, which is eating, which they have elevated to the status of a religion.
As a Rhodesian I am satisfied with a thick T-bone steak cooked on a BBQ accompanied with beer for casual occasions and wine for formal occasions. I am obviously a Philistine in this august company.
Marlene is in deep conversation with a sausage maker from the Alsace who is expounding the merits of his range of dried sausages, filled with nuts and spices.
I wander along in the middle of the “street”, not getting too close to any of the stalls, hoping to thus evade having to sample some form of paté made from frogs’ livers, or some weird tart made from quince and apple marinated in extract of juniper berry.
Not quite, but you know what I mean.
However, a cheese-stall man lassoes me.
“Monsieur!” he declares, with his palms and arms open, presenting his display of cheeses laid out carefully on the table before him.
“Very beautiful.” I declare, trying to look as though I have an urgent appointment elsewhere.
Already he has a piece of cheese skewered with a toothpick. He offers it to me. It looks like a harder cheese than the normal French cheese and seems to be rather like a pale cheddar.
I take the sample and sniff it.
It is not remarkable, but then, perhaps, there are so many conflicting aromas coursing around in the hall that my sense of smell has become somewhat smudged.
I pop the cube into my mouth, and it disintegrates into crumbles that melt into paste.
I feel a slight tingle on the tongue with a pleasant glow that seems to rise up into my sinuses. It is not bad, but I wouldn’t go into raptures over it.
I have always been a little cautious about cheese, ever since my mother used to order a ten-pound (weight) Christmas Stilton delivered out to the tropics. She would carve bits out of it each day but even then it would last through to the early days of February. That is in the southern hemisphere summer, by which time it was impossible to be in the same room as this self-spreading live creature that lived and brooded under the hovering glass cover.
The stallholder is watching my eyes to see my reaction. I try not to give anything away.
“Very nice.” I venture.
“Now this one,” he says, “comes from a different altitude. This one comes from cows that live from 1,500 metres to 2,300 metres.”
Now I know he is talking rubbish. Who ever heard of cheeses coming from different altitudes?
It seems almost as silly as the fellow I knew in Johannesburg who used to sell “proof” Kruger Rands. Each coin contained only one ounce of gold, but he sold them for up to five times the price of a normal coin, based on a certificate that he prepared which claimed each coin’s microscopic absence of surface flaws.
This cheese is a shade darker, slightly more firm and the taste sensation perhaps slightly more acute, but almost indiscernible to my uneducated palate.
“You see,” he says, searching for any…any … ANY sign of ecstasy on my face. “And this one, this is our high altitude cheese. This one is our speciality. These cows eat only the Alpine flowers and herbs in spring.”
Again, the texture is about the same as the previous sample, but even to me there is a sensation of complex herbs that filter through the back of my throat to the roof of my mouth.
“Alors!” His moustache droops, his shoulders drop, his hands flop.
I have not shown the enthusiasm that he expected which should have come from somebody, even with an “English” palate, after sampling his cheeses.
There is a lull in the pedestrian traffic past his stall.
He turns to his wife, “Cherie, please look after things.”
To me he says, “Come.”
He grabs a plate of his sample cheeses and leads off into the labyrinth of stalls. We almost canter to the other side of the great hall. This is where the wines of Burgundy and beyond are on display.
“Philippe,” he calls to his friend, who has the powerful weathered hands of a vigneron. “I have a candidate for you.”
He turns to me, “Monsieur, this is the wine that goes with my cheese. This is the cheese,” he waves the plate, “that goes with my friend Philippe’s wine. This is a marriage made in heaven. I think that you are in need of some divine intervention. I have to go.”
He shakes my hand.
To Philippe he says, “Tell me how he gets on!”
I stand, slightly perplexed.
Philippe has poured a half glass of wine from one of his bottles. It is a tulip shaped glass specifically designed to capture and hold the delicate aromas of the Bourgogne wines, which need maturity to develop the “nose” that other southern wines get more quickly, but which lack the complexities of Burgundy.
I swill and sniff.
It is a young wine.
He has not shown me the bottle.
It is as though this is a ‘blind’ taste.
It hasn’t developed fully yet.
The temperature is right.
I take a sip and pause.
Yes the tingle on the tongue is good, the tip and the sides, but there is a lack of afterglow.
The aftertaste, which is a hallmark of Burgundy wines and which causes the ‘addiction’ that other wines will not satisfy, is not yet apparent.
“Yes,” I say in a non-committal way.
He offers me the plate of cheese.
I stab a cube and pop it into my mouth, expecting the same ‘slightly better than bland’ taste.
A sensation takes place.
No more is there a paste in my mouth.
Something has happened, and I am not sure what it is.
I can feel tendrils of taste in my nostrils that almost filter to behind my eyes.
There is silence in the hall.
The rumble of conversation has faded.
In silence, I take another sip of the wine.
This time it is completely different.
The cheese is carrying the afterglow into my brain.
I won’t say that lights flashed, because they didn’t, but I must state that I experienced a sensation that was comparable to seeing into another dimension.
In one moment, I saw what other people have been experiencing for years, for decades, for centuries.
I am now converted.
I am a believer.
But, you have to find the right combination of cheese and wine for you.
I am not going to tell you what it is.
You will have to find out for yourself.
It is like creating a personal religion.
However it is worth it.
With hundreds of cheeses and thousands of wines, the combinations are endless.
Your pilgrimage doesn’t have to start or end in Dijon, but if yours does, then try to make it in November!
That is when the faithful gather.
To sample the elixir of the Gods.
I will be there!