The moon over my bed

Having decided late in the afternoon that dinner was out of the question, that I needed to purge my body of its salt-infused diet, that it would be good for me to take a break from all things liquid related, including wine, I find myself inexplicably hungry at 7. So I compromise with myself by riding my bike to Ars near sunset and ordering a snack at Bistrot de Bernard—a dozen oysters, a risotto of langostinos, and a half bottle of wine.

Well, what did you expect? There are no villages on Île de Ré named St.-David, in my honor, nor will there be after my visit.

Ars is quieter than St.-Martin. In the cafes and bistros, voices are as subdued as the rust-colored light at dusk.

photo by David Lansing

photo by David Lansing

 

The oysters are marvelous but I’m not happy with the wine, some cloying rose from Aix-en-Provence. I am forced to order another demi-bottle of the island rose, chiding myself for not knowing better.

Local food, local wine.

To keep the wine company, I order an assorted plate of cheese. Suddenly it’s dark out. My bike ride home is, shall we say, interesting (can you get arrested in France for being intoxicated on a bike?). But the bike path glows from the reflection of a full moon guiding me like a lighthouse beacon to safe harbor.

Eventually I find my way home and lie in bed, iPod stuck in my ears, listening to Joni Mitchell’s “Paprika Plains” (I’m floating into dreams/I’m floating off/I’m floating into my dreams). Over my bed is a moonroof that automatically opens to the night sky and right in the middle of it sits a dazzling full moon, like a luminescent pearl.

I’m floating off/I’m floating into my dreams.

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The market in Ars

Yesterday was the opening day of hunting season. All morning long the fields and woods around St. Clément echoed with the boom of shotguns blasting away at small birds. At breakfast, I asked Natacha what kind of birds the hunters were killing.

 “Pigeons,” she said, pronouncing it pee-JHANS.

After breakfast I went to the salt museum, the Ecomusée du marais salant, in Loix. In order to avoid the hunters, I rode my bike through the Lizay forest, a protected bird sanctuary. It was cool and silent here, the pine trees muffling the faraway boom of birds being blasted out of the sky.

Once out of the forest, the paved trail took me past white stone houses with red tile roofs tucked behind waist-high walls of limestone. Every garden seemed to have fig trees, all busting with rich black fruit, and pear trees laden with fall-colored orbs.

I rode past fields of wild fennel, the licorice smell mingling with the brine from the ocean, and brambles of blackberries and currants, also wild. There were even wild grape vines climbing willy-nilly up the trunks of the forest pines, spilling thick clumps of bright green fruit across the branches.

Then down through Ars where schools of cyclists darted left and right, ringing their bicycle bells as they hurried towards the morning market where they wove through shoppers nibbling on samples of Emmental, saucisson alla fleur de sel, and brined olives. Atop mounds of ice were just-caught sardines, lobsters, sole, and, of course, oysters. Bushels and bushels of oysters, the delicate ones labeled fin and the fat, juicy fin de claires.

photo by David Lansing

photo by David Lansing

At least a dozen vendors were selling the island’s famed salt. It is either gray (called gros, from the clay of the salt pond) or pure white (fleur de sel) and comes in plastic bags mixed with herbs—basil, parsley, fennel, thyme—or in little crock pots with wooden spoons attached.

People on the island have been farming the salt since the Middle Ages. And then, about 20 years ago, the industry died out. The salt farmers couldn’t compete with the commercial producers. But in order to process salt on a large scale, chemicals are needed to make the salt edible. And the salt ends up bland or with an unnatural taste. So 10 or 15 years ago, people on the island started working the salt ponds again. They found that there were people who would buy their salt because it was naturally produced, without chemicals, and they liked its taste. Now there are almost 100 salt workers on the island, most of them young people.

I’m wondering if Natacha has any friends who work in the salt ponds.

There is a corpulent man at the Bistro Marin in St. Martin, his arms folded across his thick chest, sleeping with his nose almost in his beer. Along the sea wall, couples walk slowly, aimlessly. They sit on green benches looking at the ocean, arms wrapped around each other, not talking. Reluctantly they stand up, return the way they came, always looking out to sea.

photo by David Lansing

photo by David Lansing

 

Everyone here looks longingly out to sea.

Here is the thing: I have fallen in to doing nothing on Île de Ré.

Nothing.

I find a bench and sit for awhile—facing the ocean—and then move on. To a café where I order a glass of the local white wine, Le Royal, and breathe in the marine air. I sit on the seawall watching the fishermen with their long poles. Or the kids diving from the old fortress wall into the ocean. Hours pass this way.

Hours.

Sometimes I have to force myself to move. Even if only to another bench, another café chair.

Soon I may not have the energy to leave Île de Ré. 

Chew your oysters

Today I ate three dozen oysters. Is that a lot? I don’t think it’s a lot. I did not eat them quickly or carelessly. I ate them thoughtfully. Thinking of Tony and the three years the oysters have been nourished by the sea in the calm days of late August and the blustery cold of January. I chewed them. Which some people can’t stand. But chewing them releases the oceanic terroir. The slippery rocks, sandy bottoms, clay minerality of their existence.

photo by David Lansing

photo by David Lansing

 

You chew, sip the local blanc de blanc, and then look out at the sea. And you understand in a way you cannot when you order a dozen oysters on the half shell as an appetizer at some chichi restaurant in New York what it is to be connected to the land and the sea. It took me coming all the way over to this little speck of an island off the French coast to learn this. But is feels like a valuable lesson. 

Alice B. Toklas at the Bô

Where should I have dinner? I ask Natacha.

“Bô.”

She says it so quickly it confuses me. “Is that a restaurant?”

She nods. “Tres chic.”

So I ride my bike to St.-Martin to eat at Bô, sitting at a long zinc table, by myself, in a garden decorated with enormous round candles, the size of pumpkins, colored orange or red or jade. I order a bottle of wine while looking over the menu, a Le Haut-Mesnil Sancerre rose that goes perfectly with the little plate of charcuterie my waitress brings out. She also brings me a basket of bread. It seems that the day of sliced baguette is over. Now you always get an assortment of bread. At Bô you get a wheat baguette with sesame seeds, a fennel galette, and focaccia with currants.

photo by David Lansing

photo by David Lansing

 

While I’m sipping my wine and looking at the menu, I notice that Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas are dining at the table next to me. Ok, not the real Gertrude and Miss B, since they’re dead, but a pretty damn close representation. Gertie is large and squat and wears a plain white shift, black pants, and a florid red scarf. Alice is mousy, dour looking, and in a shapeless housedress. She cuts Gertrude’s foie gras for her (how hard can it be?) and refills her glass of red wine at an exact if invisible mark about one-third up, just where the glass begins to narrow.

Gertrude does all the talking. And eating. Alice just watches and listens. At the feet of Gertrude is a small shaved dog, his head resting on the top of Gertrude’s sandaled feet. Alice pays no attention to the dog, even when Gertrude slips him scraps of rabbit from her plate. Obviously the dog has no use for Alice. And vice versa. 

There are only three or four occupied tables, though when I called earlier to make a reservation they told me the only time I could get in was 7:30, which is a bit early in France. I have come to the conclusion that the French do not like their restaurants full. They provide more tables than diners as a relief to the eye. Or maybe so the waiters won’t have to work too hard (they never seem to work too hard). There is never anyone busting your chops to finish your coffee and throw your AX card on the table. In France, if more than half the tables are occupied just once during the evening, the restaurant is an unqualified success. That’s all there is to it. And when you make a reservation here, it means that a specific table is actually going to be held for you so that it is ready when you arrive. When I gave my name to the hostess, she immediately took me to my large zinc table, which would have been perfect for a party of eight, while seven or eight smaller tables sat empty. Obviously, this was my table. Amazing.

So I order a dozen oysters, of course, and some small clams broiled in their shells with shallots, ham, bread crumbs, and parsley, and then a lobster rissoto with shavings of parmesan and half a spear of asparagus sticking straight up at me. A Gaulic phallic.

It starts to get dark. The pumpkin-sized candles are lit. Slowly the moon rises over the garden. Gertrude and Alice finish their meal. The dog sits in Gertrude’s lap while she sips an espresso. Alice stares at the dog as if she too wishes she could sit in Gertrude’s lap.

When I have finished the Sancerre and a dish of fresh raspberries with crème fraiche, I do not stir. Why should I? It’s a beautiful balmy night and the table is mine for the evening.

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