We live in a second floor apartment. Initially we avoided the first floor space, but that didn’t last very long. Accessible from the shared entryway at the bottom of the stairs to our apartment, it seemed to be used by our erstwhile landlord Alain as his private domain where he stored things and occasionally turned up to potter around. It’s a curious space and great for entertaining; at one time it was a storefront. Now, the front windowed curtained, it contains a large dining room table, bookshelves, a comfy couch, storage area, and access to a walled-in back yard with space for a garden.
One day shortly after we settled in, much to the amusement of other members of the family, Alain announced, “You can have the downstairs too. Do whatever you want. You need to be able to get to the back yard so you can have a barbecue. Americans need a barbecue!” And they all laughed in agreement.
The French do barbecue. But, as is the case with so many things, their idea of barbecue is a little different from Americans. Barbecue to the French means grilled meat, whether over hot coals or on a gas grill. The concept of low and slow, 14 hour show cooked brisket and sausage, Texas Hill Country barbecue is almost completely unknown. And if it is known at all it is viewed as something wildly exotic, as is anything associated with Texas where the French believe everybody rides horses, packs a six-gun, and everyone says “Howdy M’am” the way they say “Bonjour”.
Another difference is that like almost everything in France, there is a proper time for barbecuing; from the time the weather first turns warm in the spring, through late August or early September when the first nighttime chill hits the air. After that the barbecues get mothballed till Spring. No formal rules here, just cultural memory. And finally, barbecues are largely used for things like family gatherings and entertaining. They are not viewed as everyday appliances, which is where the stereotype of Americans isn’t a stereotype at all, it’s an accurate observation. We really did want a “barbecue”….a gas grill.
And I had the perfect place for it. In our back yard attached to the main building is a rustic, shed-like structure that serves as the perfect summer kitchen; a place where rain or shine, in cold or snowy weather, I can sit in a camp chair, adult beverage in hand, and tend to my grill. The first time Alain saw it, decked out with my accouterments, he burst into a grin and said something like, “Ahh, your place, eh?” It’s a man thing that knows no international boundaries.
When I told Anthony I wanted to buy a grill he threw caution to the wind and decided he, too, would get one. As soon as I got mine I dashed out for a tank of gas and made ready to cook our first meal. As soon as he got his he stowed it away in his garage to wait for the appropriate time. This is when the stereotype of Americans became a reality.
“Anthony”, I said, “you don’t get it. We really do cook on the grill all the time. It’s a major appliance in our household. Summer and winter, rain or snow, two or three times a week; fish and meat and veggies. We cook them all on it. I’m not kidding; I have frequently shoveled a path through a fresh snowfall to get to the grill.” He still seemed skeptical, until I burned through my first tank of gas before he even christened his, while waiting for an opportune time to use it.
Then one day this winter I was ruminating on pizza, as I often do, when I came across an ad for a pizza oven to be used on a gas grill, and the wheels began turning. Over the past several years before we moved in here I had been learning bread baking back in the States, had been making some stunningly good baguettes. But me making baguettes here in Luche where the best bread I’ve ever had is just a few steps away makes as much sense as selling air conditioning in Alaska. However, I had also learned to make some pretty darned good pizza dough, too.
“Hmmmm,” thought I. ”I’ll bet I can buy some really great yeast from Sylvie at the boulangerie. And with some detective work and some help from Mauricio at the Proxie I bet I can cobble together ingredients to make a pretty good replica of a by-God, East Coast, New Jersey ‘Merican pizza. Now, about that pizza oven….”
And that’s when Beloved Wife stepped in and, in a not entirely selfless act, gifted me with it; a made-in-Germany (go figure) pizza oven for my gas grill.
I’ll cut to the chase here. A couple of experimental efforts to get the hang of the thing, and my dough in that oven was indeed turning out by-God, East Coast, New Jersey ‘Merican pizza; so good that we now felt ready to finally show our French friends what they’ve been missing all along. First up: Anthony, Celine, and their son, our informal French grandson, Elliot.
To say it was a success would be an understatement. The crowning moment: Celine, who will tell you quite honestly that she doesn’t really think about food or enjoy food all that much, ate three slices (!!!) and moaned, ”Oh, the crust! The crust!” And, there being no secrets in a French village, the next time I saw Anthony’s mom, Joelle, she sidled up to me and said, “I heard you made some really great pizza”. Translation: “So, when do I get some?”
Flushed with success, I began to think about gifting some folks with really good pizza. Like, how about Manu and Magali at the butcherie with a surprise lunch? How about doing the same for Sylvie and Guillaume at the boulangerie so she can see what I’ve been up to with her yeast? And what about Mauricio at the Proxie where I’ve been buying his Italian pizza flour? And Alexandra and Christophe! Why, the possibilities are limited only by my ability to make pizza dough.
But then, I thought, how would I transport the things for delivery? Why, I NEED PIZZA BOXES! And, internet search being what it is, it took me about ten minutes to find a place where I could order unassembled pizza boxes. And, clearly suffering the effects of a lengthy Covid confinement, I placed an order. For pizza boxes. Yes, I did.
Now, pretty much whatever goes on around here eventually gets to Alexandra. And along the way the play-by-play of my making pizza dough, buying a pizza oven, turning out kick-butt pizzas and now buying pizza boxes, was going from Beloved to Alexandra, after which God only knows where that news has gone. But it’s pretty likely that some word is out there in the village.
Last week we were at Alexandra and Christophe’s place for lunch and petanque with some friends. Christophe-photographer, cinematographer, artist and prankster said to me, “So, how’s your pizza?”
I replied with my best French combination of grunt/knowing chuckle, which loosely translates to, “It’s kick-ass, dude!”
Christophe then stunned me, blew me away, when he handed me a gift of his handiwork that is just one of the neatest things I’ve ever gotten; what can only be described as a framed sign to be posted on the front door of a business. And with it, a stack of identical stickers to be placed on the…you guessed it… pizza boxes. It was signage for a pizzaria, “Chez Cheche”
I’m not often rendered speechless, but all I could do was keep saying, “This is SO COOL! I Love this!” I told Christophe there would be no take-out for him; he and Alex will have table service.
I was at the Proxie for a few things today, including Italian pizza flour. Mauricio is going on a brief vacation and the store will be closed for a few days. I made the mistake of telling him I now have a pizza oven, and will be bringing him “the gift of pizza” one day when he returns.
“Hey, datsa fantastico. The Frencha pizza isa lousy,”said Mauricio. And then the wheels started turning.“Hey, you coulda maka anda we sella dem. We coulda getta ten euro apiece!”
“No Mauricio. I ain’t selling pizzas.”
“Butta you coulda get TEN EURO each!”
“No, Mauricio! I’m not selling pizza. I’m giving one to you as a gift. UN CADEAU!”
“Wella, ok” he said, with undisguised disappointment.
I’m pretty sure I haven’t heard the last of that though, especially after he tastes it.