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The Digestive Cycle

Chapter 7 of Daniel Behrman's The Man Who Loved Bicycles

I have gone out with a farmer and a friend in the countryside east of Paris. That is good cycling country; the hills, valleys, and woods of Brie produce landscapes as great as its cheese. There are long steady climbs, then drops of a mile or two when the wind whips by your ears and you hang on to the handlebars for dear life and limb, scarcely daring to twist a wrist to glance at the second hand of your watch to catch the time when you flash by a kilometer post---100 seconds, 90 seconds, 40 kilometers an hour, about 25 m.p.h.---that's flying for old men. I can keep up with them on these outings until the next-to-the-last village on the run, where we stop for a drink, and apéritif. Good sturdy Frenchmen that they are, they can down a Pernod without a problem, I sip only a glass of ladylike port wine, yet my legs turn to butter and my ankles to rubber while they leave me far behind.

On shorter runs without competition, I have less trouble. Every so often when I ride down to Poilane's on Rue du Cherche-Midi in Paris to buy a loaf of country bread, I come out of the bakery to find my bicycle gone. The first time this happened, it was a heart-stopping experience, but it was just Pierre Poilane's idea of a joke. He bakes the best country bread in France in a wood-first oven in a Renaissance cellar in the middle of Paris. He ships it by air to New York, he mails it to customers on vacation, he has ten little trucks delivering it all around Paris and the adjoining suburbs. But only on Rue du Cherche-Midi do you stand a chance of running into Poilane himself and getting an invitation to a drink over on Carrefour de la Croix-Rouge at Au Vieux Saumur. The ritual is always the same, never a word is exchanged; as soon as Poilane makes his entrance, the owner puts a bottle of Sancerre on the table before him. Then friends sit down and the bottle goes round. I have gone through the same ceremony with Poilane at his country place about a dozen miles away in the Chevreuse Valley, where he has an acre of jungle, a shack that should have fallen down twenty years ago, and a cellar that would put a Rockefeller to envy. Whether from Au Vieux Saumur or the Chevreuse Valley, I always get home somehow. The bike knows the way, I just follow the handlebars.

Whether or not cycling goes with drinking is debatable. Food is another matter, here is the happiest of relationships. I eat to ride, I ride to eat. At the best of moments, I can achieve a perfect balance, consuming just the right amount of calories as I fill up at bakeries, restaurants, or ice-cream parlors. On the road, I can get about twelve miles to a quart of milk and a piece of baker's apple tart. Always buy it from a good baker who makes it in the oven he uses for the bread. Pastry cooks can make apple tarts, but theirs are less rustic, not as substantial. I get along well with the French bakers, I eat their apple tarts in winter and their ice cream in summer. I know the little unpretentious ice-cream growers of Paris, local ice creams that have a bouquet and a body of their own. The red-headed Breton girl laughs and reaches for her scoop when I turn up at Duplessis's near the Eiffel Tower where the vanilla and the pineapple are aerial food for elves the day they are fresh from the freezer. In winter, however, the bakers shut down their ice-cream plants in Paris. It would be a hard cruel winter if it were not for Berthillon's on Ile Saint-Louis, right where Sully bridge crosses the Seine.

I have often drifted downhill from Montparnasse to Berthillon's after a stint of work for a double sherbet cone---tangerine and grapefruit, the winter flavors. You always know the seasons at Berthillon's by the flavors, a calendar is superfluous. In winter: tangerine, grapefruit, marrons glacés; in summer, melon and fraises de bois. These are only some of the seasonal flavors at Berthillon's, there are the regulars as well. The summer flavors are around not much longer than mayflies, for Berthillon's closes in July and August. When the weather gets hot (as it does for two weeks or so), when everything slows to a crawl in Paris, when the Seine is prostrate with the heat, hardly stirring at all, lying exhausted in its bed, then the owners of Berthillon's must sit behind the closed doors of their parlor, their ice-cream parlor, eating blueberry sherbet and caramel ice cream all by themselves.

None of this can be seen from the street. When the owners of Berthillon's close for their well-deserved two months' vacation, they shutter the place up. In the doorway, they hang the wooden plaques bearing the names of their flavors throughout the year. It is a ladder that climbs right up the glass door. Each flavor is a medal, an extra palm on the family's Croix de Guerre. The name-plates of the flavors in the doorway remind me of the bars that soldiers used to add to their badges for shooting---marksman, sharpshooter, expert rifleman. I remember the names only from hearsay, I couldn't hit the wall across the room with a MIRV. During target practice in the Army, my neighbor to the right, my neighbor to the left, my neighbors on the firing line always received a few extra shots on their scoresheets.

When I come down to Berthillon's for a double sherbet in winter, I buy the cone inside. In summer, you must wait outside on line; on a cold winter evening there is no one in the shop except the old lady who looks like everyone's grandmother---or the way everyone would like his grandmother to look; her daughter who is the business soul of the place; and Fernand, the waiter, whom I first knew when he was feverishly pumping beer at an Alsatian bistro a black away on Rue Saint-Louis-en-l'Ile. He stopped pumping beer just about the time I stopped drinking it, and we both met again at Berthillon's. He doesn't know my name, he calls me "Chicago" to remind me of my American origins. One sees the ice-cream maker but seldom, he is a dark stocky man and I think he must go to bed early because he gets up every morning to go to the markets and buy fresh fruit for his flavors. When I come around in the evening, he probably is taking his nap. Or else the family does not let him be seen in public for fear that he will be kidnapped and held on some remote island, not Ile Saint-Louis, until his gives up his secrets.

"Okay, now we know you make the poire so that it tastes more like fresh pears than fresh pears. But how do you get the little pieces of banana scattered so evenly in the banane? Come on, sing!" (Like Fernand's, their idea of America and American slang is somewhat dated.)
"Nevair!!!"
And one of the thugs pries his mouth open while the other stuffs in a scoop of Wall's Ice Cream flown over especially from England for this purpose.

On a cold winter night, I say hello to the family with a particularly kind word for the lady who looks like everyone's grandmother. I want to stay on good terms with her because she also runs a hotel on the same premises. My dream, nay, my wildest flight of gastronomic fancy is to take a room there American plan, coming downstairs only for sherbets.

Between-meal snacks are not enough to stoke the cyclist. Between snacks he must watch what he eats, he must make sure that he eats enough so that he will not fall famished somewhere around 110th Street or Garches, his tank empty of calories. I am a fortunate cyclist, my trainer is a lady who used to work for the Michelin family. The first day that Madame Lea Chagot arrived in the house, she saw a Michelin Guide lying on the table and exclaimed, "Oh, that's Monsieur André's book!" She put me in my place that day and I have stayed there ever since, waiting at the table for the wonders that come out of the kitchen.

When we have guests, Madame Lea and I discuss the menu several days in advance. Another dream of mine is to invent the most important guest of all so that she will surpass the unsurpassable; then I will turn up alone and eat it all myself. I would not dare to do this to her, she takes her work as seriously as I take mine. Just as and author likes to be published, she prefers to perform for an audience. I realize this, yet it is with great reluctance that I share her with others for, as one guest observed, her cooking just for me is like having the New York Philharmonic for a hall of one.

And so she has devised the biking man's diet, guaranteed to keep anyone in trim. No weighing of portions, no pangs of starvation, no secret yearnings, no need to lock the icebox. It varies infinitely, this diet. I once had a guest stay at the place for five weeks and, as a matter of pride, Madame Lea never repeated herself. There is such a wide range of possibilities, it is so pleasant to talk about them, the words alone bring savor to the tongue. Instead of putting gas into a car, this is what I put into myself. Quiche lorraine or fresh shrimp for a start? Shoulder of mutton or trout meunière for and entrée? Bavaroise au chocolat et à la crème vanille or tarte Tatin aux pommes for dessert? I must train to appreciate Madame Lea's art. Between the last clack of my typewriter in the morning and the first course of lunch, I must do my fifteen or twenty miles, spending my strength on the slopes of the Meudon woods or on the banks of the Marne against an east wind, returning sweated, exhausted, wind-torn, ready for resuscitation before a salade niçoise, rabbit à la moutarde, a light dish of fruit to keep me in shape to go another round of eggs mimosa, veal marengo, and that greatest dessert of all, the one that Madame Lea reserves for our most honored guests, mouse au chocolat covered with a winter overcoat of whipped cream, the dessert known to French cooks as a nègre en chemise.

Then after the nègre en chemise or the salade d'oranges comes the best course of all. Madame Lea emerges from her kitchen and sits down for coffee, bringing her own cup, adding a stiff dash of water so that she will not toss in her bed at night while the recipes race through her head. If the guest meets with her full approval, she will offer a pousse-café, either a blueberry liqueur she brought back for me as a gift from a holiday she spent in the Jura or else a swig of the marc that the winegrowers mike in her native village of Cléry in the smiling Loire valley where I once had the privilege of harvesting grapes with her on her cousin's farm.

It was a good moment in the October sun, we were on our knees next to the heavy vines, Madame Lea on one side, I on the other, our pruning scissors snipped the grape bunches loose. We dumped them into the basket strapped to the back of the cousin's son in for the day, a day off from his city job in a bank. When the basket was full, he marched up a ladder and tipped the grapes into a cart with a big white horse in the shafts. That is how Madame Lea's cousin gets his wine. He always takes a small cask with him when he comes to Paris, he has never drunk store wine in his life.

Madame Lea grew up in Cléry, she roamed the countryside on her bicycle in the days before the First World War. The bicycle took her to school, to the woods of Sologne, to the villages on the other side of the Loire where the Beauce of the golden wheatfields and the gold-loving farmers begins. The bike took her to Amboise many miles away. If she was too tired to pedal back she could always put it aboard the little train that chuffed along the left bank of the Loire until it came to a steep hill, where the passengers had to get out and push it over the top. The bicycle opened Madame Lea's eyes and mind; that was how she first traveled until the day she took a bigger trip, the day she crossed the Loire and took a main-line train to Paris, one of those French steam trains with the locomotives that talked French, je t'amène, je t'amène, I'm taking you away, I'm taking you away.

Madame Lea still has her traveling bent. When she leaves me, I fall back on Batifol's, a small restaurant on Rue de Charenton that I found by bicycle while working my way out to the Marne valley. At Batifol's not so long ago, one could still eat like a king for eleven francs and, for thirteen francs, like an emperor, a king of kings, a playboy of the Western world. At Batifol's I need not stray from my strict cyclist's diet (had any Metrecal lately?), when Madame Lea goes back to her past in Cléry.

The couple who run the service station around the corner confide their children to Batifol. The kiddies take on mousse au chocolat while maman and papa are checking oil, while I linger over my pêche melba, just enjoying it, not wondering how the young chef ever got such a feathery quality into his whipped cream. A friend from New York once expressed such wonderment. I said the chef must have used an egg beater. My friend sneered at my jejune explanation; he knew better, such whippedness of cream could be achieved even on Rue de Charenton only with a wire whisk the way it is done at Huyler's right before the eyes of the customer who has stopped in for a little refreshment after a weight-watching dinner shorn of bread, potatoes, and dessert. So we went back to the kitchen to settle the argument. The chef rendered his judgment, revealed his secret: carbon dioxide cartridges, imported from Nutley, New Jersey.

I recalled that incident as I digested the chef's turkey and crème de marrons one Christmas Day in Paris, the sun coming in through the steamed windows, picking out the red-and-white checks of the tablecloths, the alternating gray-and-black points of the tiles. Batifol's does not cater to winter sportsmen, its regulars are around at Christmastime. They take their napkins from the numbered pigeonholes in the rack and sit down for the eleven-franc menu beneath the big ultrarealist painting on the back wall; white water in a racing brook, thick grass along the banks where goats graze, and a distant mountain smiling down. This is the lost river valley in Auvergne, where the owner will retire some day, taking his painting with him so that, at night, he can still look at the view he sees from his window by day, so that he can think up new ways to serve them, a happy active retirement in which no one will suffer boredom, least of all the trout.

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Chapter 8, The Road Leveler

 

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