Repast recaptured

Feasting in a temple of traditional gastronomy in rural France.


David Downie
September 8, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

"It's incredible: The menu is the same!" exclaimed my wife. "It's exactly the same as it was the first time we were here, the second time, the third time ..."

She was right: The renowned chef's specialties hadn't changed an iota in the 12 years since we had first eaten at this, our cult retro restaurant. My mouth watered at the thought of chicken liver terrine with foie gras, pike dumplings, pan-fried frog's legs, veal sweetbreads in a creamy sauce Grand-Mhre Ducloux ...

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"Only one thing has changed," I remarked, taking a sharp breath. "The prices."

Each delicacy now required the sacrifice of many hundreds of French francs. I estimated the upcoming damage to be on the order of $200. The classic, the unchanging, the steadfastly rich dishes at this archetype of French country establishments, a veritable temple of gastronomy, had substantially outstripped inflation.

Some critics might even claim that the prices were inflated to start with, way back in 1947.
The same chef-owner, Jean Ducloux, has been cooking the same food here since then. Actually, most of Ducloux's dishes are much older than that -- from the 19th century or maybe even the Roman Empire.

Ducloux's place is called Greuze, in reference to the French genre and portrait painter Jean-Baptiste Greuze (1725-1805). It is located in Tournus (pronounced "tour-new"), where Greuze was born.

Tournus is a time tunnel of a town on the banks of the Satne River in southern Burgundy. The nearest big city is Lyon, about an hour south. Paris is a million miles to the north, in another universe altogether.

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Tournus and Greuze go hand in glove. Everything about them is slow, generous and wonderfully old-fashioned.

On our latest visit we arrived early for lunch and killed time by strolling around this small but ancient town, founded, apparently, by Celtic tribesmen several millennia before the Romans showed up.

Pot-bellied boule players tossed their balls under the shade trees lining the Satne, a torpid river that slogs its way south through Burgundy vineyards and Charolais cattle pastures to Lyon, where it joins the fast-flowing Rhtne.

When they weren't nodding off along the embankments, Tournus' intrepid fishermen were wetting lines and leisurely pulling big, bottom-feeding fish out of the river.

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Closer to the restaurant, trucks lumbered around the edge of town on the Route Nationale highway. All the trucks seemed to be hauling cases of wine to Paris and Lyon, or loads of milk-white Charolais beef cattle to market. The big, slow, docile beasts stared at us and mooed.

Tournus is mostly medieval. One of its churches -- squat Saint Valerian -- was built between 1008 and 1028. It was de-consecrated some time ago and has been transformed into a fancy antique shop we dared not enter for fear of incurring instant bankruptcy.

Not far from Saint Valerian, a bulging Renaissance building with mullioned windows bore a faded, 19th century advertising slogan that read: "It's the root, and not merely the branches of the sickness, that Soeur Borel tea attacks."

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The Greuze Museum, dedicated to the faltering memory of this great native son, has been closed for about 15 years, we learned. In all our many visits to this town we have never been able to see it, though this time when we inquired we were assured that it was scheduled to reopen soon, in a new location. Soon ...

"Some things take a long time to get done in Tournus," admitted the friendly woman at the local tourism office. In her voice I could detect the Satne River lazing by.

There wasn't a great deal to see by way of monuments in town -- other than the 1,000-year-old fortress abbey of Saint Philibert, which makes Saint Valerian seem positively postmodern and would in itself be worthy of a detour to Tournus. This magnificent Romanesque pile, one of the great abbey churches in France, is built of herringbone brick and banded stone, its narthex held aloft by massive brick columns. Its towers are visible from miles around.

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We took a turn through Saint Philibert and confirmed our recollections: It's the kind of sanctuary likely to withstand the next Deluge or two. And we were happy not to have the one-franc coin required to switch on the lights in the crypt -- alone, we drank in the moody half-light.

The back wall of Greuze, the restaurant, abuts Tournus' ancient Gallo-Roman citadel, which rings Saint Philibert's abbey. The restaurant's main dining room is actually built against the old city walls, and there's a smaller dining room inside one of the 1,700-year-old towers.

The setting struck me as important, because it reinforced the timeless quality of the Greuze experience. And that's what we had come back for. We wanted the total time-tunnel effect.

We weren't disappointed. Chef Ducloux cultivates antediluvianism: He is probably the most archly traditional cook in the country, a sworn enemy of nouvelle cuisine, culinary fashions and itinerant superstars who spend more time on airplanes than in their kitchens.

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He also seems unconcerned about the vegetarian craze sweeping the Western world, so much so that a veggie-loving friend to whom we recommended the restaurant was bitterly disappointed.

Ducloux is almost 80 and we had expected him to be somewhat diminished since our last visit. But as we trooped in we saw that he looked exactly the same as he always had, with shockingly black hair ` la Ronald Reagan. He was even dressed in the same outfit we had always seen him wear: black clogs, dark pants and a white apron and toque. He was sporting his giant, Elton John-lookalike glasses, with thick black rims and tinted lenses. This time, though, he had a hearing aid behind one ear, the only sign of his 79 years.

Ducloux gave us the same slow yet breathless greeting we'd received each time we came. He pretended to remember us. How could he possibly recognize diners like us, I wondered, people who come only once in a long while? Thousands have patronized his restaurant over the last 52 years, from local wine makers to movie stars and politicos.

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No matter. He pretended to know who we were, shook our hands and inquired after our health and that of our children (we have none). He seemed authentically delighted to hand us over to the maitre d' and the brigade of longtime, white-suited waiters that milled around. They outnumbered the guests: It was a rainy day, midweek, and we were early.

We'd reserved not in our own names but merely as "the hikers." That was because we were in the area to indulge our favorite sport: country walks. Mostly we'd wanted to excuse ourselves in advance for showing up at a luxurious, two-star restaurant wearing muddy clothes and hiking boots.

"Don't worry" the man with the Spanish accent who answered the phone had said. "Mud doesn't matter."

He turned out to be the same friendly Spanish waiter in starched whites who had served us over the years. He sat us at the same table we'd had at least twice, near the giant fireplace. Written across the chimney piece was the legend "Vinum bonum laetificat cor hominum." Even with high-school Latin I had figured that one out: "Good wine fills man's heart with joy."

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I could see that it also filled woman's heart with joy. My wife and I sipped glasses of dry white Beaujolais -- nothing nouveau or pink about it -- and crunched on the delicious goujon cheese puffs set out to keep us occupied while we studied the menu. It was a menu we knew well.

Several tables filled up with French provincials, the men in natty suits or blue blazers, the women wearing tailleurs. A young couple hid behind a giant bouquet of flowers; by their antics we guessed they were on their honeymoon. We hid our hiking boots under the long white tablecloth and looked back on the mock-1700s dining room -- rough plaster walls, faux roof beams, flagstone floors -- built against the authentically ancient ramparts. There was the telltale bulge of the defensive tower and a hole where a cannon once sat.

Hanging on the walls were dark oil paintings, presumably in the style of Jean-Baptiste Greuze or at least intended to evoke him. The heavy, upholstered chairs had a mock-medieval look, as did the faux stained-glass windows.

Everything was the same as it had always been, an antique fantasyland. And I found that wonderfully comforting.

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In a fit of nostalgia my wife ordered the quenelle de brochet pike dumplings, on which Jean-Baptiste Greuze was probably weaned, if not Louis XV or earlier kings. I went for the chicken liver terrine with foie gras ` l'ancienne -- possibly a favorite of Saint Philibert himself, if not Augustus Cesar, who stopped by Tournus in 52 B.C. on the way to the battle of Alisia, where he defeated the Gauls.

As second courses, my wife ordered jugged hare, a medieval treat, and I opted for Charolais beef in pinot noir wine sauce. The beef was practically a modern dish; it couldn't have been around for more than a thousand years, I estimated, unless Saint Philibert's monks had also been cattle ranchers.

We spent the next two hours or so savoring the luscious, pre-modern richness of these dishes, watching the waiters perform their theatrical tricks, catching snatches of conversation from other tables about wine, cattle and real estate. Southern Burgundy is what people call la France Profonde -- deep, rural France. The region itself exists in a time warp and Greuze is the tunnel in its center.

Our Spanish waiter followed his boss's example and also pretended to remember us. He probably does that with everyone, we figured, but he pulled it off so skillfully that we were flattered. It was like visiting a card reader. He remembered that we came through the area regularly (we'd mentioned that on the telephone), that we loved wine (he could see that from the way we were swilling it) and that we liked to hike (our boots told all).

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"Didn't Madame order this the last time you came?" he guessed as he wheeled a silver cart over and flourished a silver platter and serving tool. "Or was it the time before that?" Indeed, it was the last time: Statistical chance had won out again.

He sliced two slabs of the chicken liver pbti I'd ordered and lifted them from a huge white serving dish. It was enough for three, but was all for me.

The pike dumplings, napped with a lobster sauce, were orange-hued grenades bursting with the flavor of fish, shellfish and cayenne pepper. One would've been enough but my wife got, and devoured, several.

Midway through our meal Ducloux had already worked the rest of the dining room and decided to join us at our table. He waved his hands like a true thespian and told us his life story (again).

He was born in Tournus in 1920, he said; his father died young, he started working when only a boy and he trained with the big names of the 1930s, who taught him the 19th century classics.

"I worked in Alexandre Dumaine's kitchen," he sang. "I worked with Fernand Point," he added, referring to two of the most celebrated French chefs of the first half of the century.

The tale continued. After setting up in Tournus in 1947, he said, he got his first Michelin star in '49 and his second in '78.

Perhaps, I reflected, it was precisely because he revered the past -- not the present and certainly not the future -- that the third star never came along? Or maybe it was because the jocular Ducloux had always been outspoken and provocative, jousting with French foodies and bucking trends?

I asked him about the big chefs, the big restaurants, the French gastronomic culture of opulence and excess that had developed over the decades.

"C'est du cinima," he snorted, sweeping his arms around. "It's all a show," is what he meant. He should know, I thought.

Ducloux pointed upstairs and sighed. He told us that he still lives directly above the restaurant, and never travels anywhere. His wife occupies one side of the building and he claims the other half. "I travel the world by talking to people like you," he added, waving his arms and pushing his thick glasses to the bridge of his nose. "Where are you from? Amsterdam? London?"

My wife shook her head and asked if he'd ever been to California. "Never been on an airplane and never will," he said. He told us how he'd once loved sea travel, and that he'd worked in Africa before the war. "The Second World War," he specified. All of a sudden he seemed tired of talking about himself. "Now let's travel to California," he quipped.

Once he'd found out as much from us as he could, he asked if we were opera singers from San Francisco and seemed disappointed to learn that we weren't. He piped a few bars from some operatic aria neither of us recognized, shook our hands and left us to enjoy our jugged hare and Charolais beef.

The hare was redolent of spices and wine; the steak was redolent of wine and spices. The first had pepper. The second had pepper, plus bone marrow and sea salt.

In French, "saucier" (sauce-maker) and "sorcier" (sorcerer) are very close word-concepts. Both of Ducloux's sauces were almost black in hue and tasted of chocolate, cinnamon and pinot noir.

Since we'd already finished our glasses of white and bottle of red, the thoughtful waiter offered us an extra ration of pinot noir, gratis, to accompany the cheese and the desserts that followed.

In between, as we came up for air, we learned about the price of local beef on the hoof (about $1 a pound); the origin of the crayfish (from Louisiana) that had taken over local waterways and the restaurant's source of rabbit (Poland, for some mysterious reason).

As we waddled out like force-fed geese, Ducloux was there, waiting for us. I asked if we could have a menu as a souvenir. It seemed like he was expecting that: He reached down, slid open a drawer and pulled one out.

While he wrote us a dedication and struggled with our names, I unfolded another menu I'd brought along with me, dated Jan. 25, 1989. They were identical.

"Clever you," he said. "Only the prices have changed."

Ducloux shook our hands and herded us to the door. "See you in another 10 years," he said. "I'll be around."

We certainly hoped so. The show must go on.

Restaurant Greuze, 1 rue Thibaudet, Tournus; tel: 03-85-51-13-52; fax: 03-85-51-75-42. A la carte prices range from about 800-1,200 FF ($1 = about 6 FF) for two, without wine. Fixed-price menus available at 275 FF and 540 FF per person.


David Downie

David Downie is Salon Travel's correspondent in Paris.

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