Foodie French with a touch of Vincent

Foodie French with a touch of Vincent

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Editor Paul Morris is kidnapped by friendly French publishers, meets a Belgian with a dream, and is forced to enjoy very local fine wine: all that in Auvers-Sur-Oise.

The mysterious email message said "be at up at Café l”Empereur (l’Arc de Triomphe) at 1pm sharp". I braved the downpour and waited in a window seat. A gaggle of English speakers had taken over a couple of tables and I wondered if they had also agreed to the mysterious proposition or perhaps they were just passing a Paris Sunday in a café. The rain became a deluge and they began to talk about the "right footwear for Auvers-Sur-Oise". I looked at my runners and imagined myself slipping and sliding in the mud and embarrassing myself even more than usual.

"Surely they aren’t taking us into a muddy field for a book launch? Was this a trip to the real countryside? I am allergic to the real countryside!". I screamed within.

Soon umbrella-brandishing folk turned up and led us all to waiting coaches. And we were whisked off, kidnapped in friendly fashion by publishers Les Editions Diateino. All of Paris fled past as we took to the motorway and headed north west. I had lived for years in Lille but had never heard of Auvers-Sur-Oise (the signposts began to appear) partly because I always headed straight for Paris and from there southwards to the Cote D’Azur.

As the coach slowed in the centre of the village, it was immediately clear that this is no ordinary place. The tiny mairie has a board in front of it, and on it a copy of a painting of the selfsame mairie.  All was to be revealed as we were ushered into the Auberge Ravoux, the café where Vincent van Gogh and his artist chums used to knock back the absinthe.

Dominique Janssens, founder and curator of the Maison van Gogh, explained how the town had become a haven for artists and each of them had left a mark on the place but none was more indelible than van Gogh's. He lived above the café, and it was here that he shot himself and died from his wounds.

Dominique explained that after his death he had been laid out - in state - with the coffin settled across the café tables (he was not allowed a church funeral since he committed suicide). The body was surrounded by his paintings. Those faithful friends were asked to "help themselves" to what are now priceless works of art. As Robert Palmer once so wisely put it: "Some guys have all the luck" .

And then we climbed the tight stairwell to the tiny attic room where Vincent passed his final days. There is barely enough room to swing an adult cat, what light there is filters in through a small window and on one wall is a frame waiting for a picture. Dominique dreams one day of putting a van Gogh original in that frame. Vincent confided to his brother Theo that he dreamed of exhibiting in a café and surely this would be a perfect fulfilment of that dream. 

I asked him what brought him here from his native Belgium. "My car broke down outside the café and I decided the fates were making a point and wanted me to stay here."

Filled by Dominique’s passion for this place, we descended to the back room where Diateino was launching ‘A Short Guide to Foodie French with a Taste of Salt’ by authors Francoise Blanchard and Jeremy Leven. Leven explained how they had difficulty deciding which expressions would make it into the book as there are clearly enough for another ten books.

The book delves into delicious phrases from the culinary world, explaining everything from paté to the charming pet-de-nonne (literally "nun‘s fart"). The book is illustrated with delicate cartoons by Pouch.

The highlight of the day was without doubt the wine-tasting. The stuff is produced by a local society, only 300 bottles worth of the stuff are available each year. Members of the society took me outside and pointed out the vineyards tucked in behind the village church or running alongside the school grounds. And then I was shown the sanctum sanctorum, an underground location where the twelve society members gather at a long table to appreciate their very own wine. And there it was, the barrel containing the new vintage, bubbling away nicely in a corner.

And so a day had passed in the company of a holy trinity - Art, Literature and Wine. I wondered, "Have I died and gone to… Auvers-Sur-Oise?"

Paul Morris / Expatica


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