The restaurant at the Atlante Hotel is a rather forlorn place. Or perhaps it just feels that way because of the weather: gray, flat, still. I sit at a table looking out at a lighthouse, blinking forlornly, offshore. Two old men in a dinghy slowly row ashore from a fishing boat moored off the banks. A path paved in crushed limestone parallels the shore and I can see a few couples catching the sea air before dinner. But their arms are crossed, their hands buried in their trouser pockets. They look down at their feet, bored. With each other, with the day, with their lives? Who knows.
My waiter looks like Joel Gray in “Cabaret,” right down to the mascara, and speaks better English than I do. I order a glass of the Île de Ré cognac as an aperitif. It’s served in a special inverted bell-shaped glass which sits in a cocktail glass of crushed ice—like a bowl of pale honey surrounded by thick granules of salt.
I sip the cognac, glance at the other bored or tired diners around me, all of us silently sitting here as the sun sets. Terroir is an interesting word. It generally means that something—oysters, wine, cheese—derives its special character partially as a result of the land, the nutrients, and the weather from which it comes. But there is a terroir to dining as well. A most excellent fish soup may taste quite ordinary in a setting that fails to inspire. Conversely, some pretty simple fare has tasted extraordinary to me because of the glow of a candle, the scent of seaweed in the air, the clarion of a flock of seagulls.
But tonight the dinner is as dull as the weather. I skip the cheese plate, pay my bill, and walk back to my room, passing a solitary windmill, silhouetted against the sky, in a field of yellow flowers. It looks like rain is approaching. Summer is over. It is time to leave the island.