Petit déjeuner Chez Cathy was anything but petit. Cathy had laid the table in her sunny dining room with so many breakfast foods that we could not possibly taste everything, and it was hard to decide which we would have to pass up. The brioche de maison (homemade by our hostess) was not to be missed, but which of the myriad spreads to put on it? Michael and Nancy opted for the cherry preserves (also de maison), while Pat was more than satisfied with the rich, unsalted butter. Cathy’s homemade yogurt was equally rich and tasted even better when mixed with some homemade apple butter. Cathy brought us steaming mugs of creamy hot chocolate, and then a plate of freshly made crêpes. We were forced to eat several so we could try them with raspberry, strawberry, and apricot preserves.
About 10:00 a.m. we left Chez Cathy and drove back to Phillip and Patricia’s home. The girls immediately engaged Pat in another round of Memory, but after she mentioned needing something from a pharmacy, Astrid proposed that they walk into L’Houmeau Centre, where she could also pick up some fresh bread for the day. It was a fine morning, so most of us decided to walk with them. (Phil offered to stay home with Wallerand while he took a nap. Probably both of them took a nap.) The village center lies just on the other side of the town park from the residential neighborhood where Phillip and Patricia live; it boasts a pharmacy, a tabac (the kind of store New Yorkers call a bodega), a boulangerie (bakery), a very compact library, and a couple of cafés. Pat found what she needed; the little girls found some items they didn’t need but had to have, and generous Pat offered to buy each of them one little gift. Bertille chose a pair of sunglasses; Sancie a child-size nail-care kit. We then proceeded to the boulangerie, where Astrid selected a couple of baguettes and a multigrain loaf, and Michael bought a few pastries to share on the way home. Astrid suggested that we sit down at a table outside the café next to the park, L’Atelier de Pampin, and order drinks to go with the bread and pain au chocolat. Michael got an Orangina, and the rest of us tried a variety of fruit juices. Nancy loved the apricot nectar, but Sancie and Bertille thought their kiwi lemonade was a little weird.
In addition to the Memory game, Pat had also brought the girls some UNO cards. She and Nancy proceeded to teach them how to play while Patricia and Astrid prepared lunch and the men set up a table in the garden and brought out appropriate tableware and linens. Patricia is an old-school, truly French hostess who loves to cook, so every meal here is an event. The first time we came to La Rochelle for a visit, with all our kids in December 1993, Patricia served us homemade croissants—the best and freshest we’ve ever had. At that time, she still had her mother around to help in the kitchen, but the woman we all knew as “Mamina” passed away several years ago. The house in L’Houmeau had been hers, and she had shared it with Patricia, Phillip, and their three children for nearly forty years. Patricia confesses that she now takes a few culinary shortcuts: she doesn’t make her own croissants anymore, nor did she try to preserve all the cherries from the trees in the yard this year, but she still serves an elegant meal. Today’s lunch began with crevettes et tomates en brochette (shrimp and tomatoes on skewers), served with a bit of salad and slices of baguette. We could have been satisfied with that, but it was only the entrée; next came a lovely stuffed pintade (guinea fowl), roasted on a bed of savory vegetables. Finally, Patricia brought out a gooey caramel tart and a couple of containers of ice cream. After our plates had been scraped clean, the children were sent to their rooms to either nap or have “quiet time,” which is pretty much all one could do after such a lunch. Patricia and Astrid spurned our offers to help clean up, so we guests retired to lawn chairs under the cherry and walnut trees in the backyard, thinking, “This is the life!” (Ironically, the same phrase translated word-for-word into French, “C’est la vie,” has an entirely different meaning.)
Rested and refreshed, we all took a late-afternoon promenade to the beach, only a kilometre away. A few waded into the water; Nancy helped the girls pick through the smooth pebbles covering the shore to find tiny whelk shells. There is no sand on this beach—a disappointment to those who like to build castles and feel the soft surface give way under their feet, but not to Nancy, who hates getting grit between her toes. As we watched the waves roll in, Pat suggested that we save our hostesses from cooking at least one meal for all nine of us, so we walked up the shore to a waterfront bistro called Restaurant La Passerelle and reserved a large table for dinner the next evening.
Back at home, Pat, Michael, and Nancy played several rounds of UNO with the girls while Patricia and Astrid prepared supper and Phillip kept Wallerand from interfering in the others’ activities. (Fun fact: Did you know that UNO was devised in 1971 by a Cincinnati barber? It was such a hit with his family and friends that he took out an $8000 loan against his home so he could have five thousand copies printed, which he then sold from his barbershop in Reading. Soon, other local stores picked it up, and the game did so well that the barber sold the rights to a group of friends for $50,000, plus ten cents for every copy sold. Foremost among this consortium was a funeral director from Joliet, Illinois, who established a game marketing company in the back office of the funeral home. In 1992, the whole operation was bought by Mattel.)
Supper was a simpler affair than lunch, although it still involved multiple courses: melon with prosciutto and greens for the entrée, followed by a camembert baked with honey and spread on slices of a crusty baguette. Later, Phillip brought us herbal tea and chocolates while—at Sancie’s insistence—we played more UNO. About 9:30 we said good night and went back to Chez Cathy so we could get some sleep.
On Friday, Cathy’s breakfast table was even more sumptuous than it had been on Thursday, with the addition of a luscious caramel spread for the crèpes.
First on the agenda after we met Phillip at home was to drive out to the coast near Marsilly (about 15 minutes away) to buy a bucket of moules (mussels), which, along with a platter of frites, would constitute our lunch. Yves Bideau Fis, the shellfish supplier, harvests both mussels and oysters from beds located directly behind his store—you won’t find any fresher.
After lunch, we all drove into La Rochelle proper for a promenade around town. We admired the fruit sellers’ colorful displays as well as the beautiful and varied architecture of the Vieille Ville (Old Town). Some of us also took the opportunity to do some shopping. Astrid was looking for lightweight, loose-fitting clothing for the children and herself as they prepare to return to equatorial Africa for another year; Nancy hoped to find a pair of chic shoes to go with the formal gown she plans to wear to her nephew’s black-tie wedding in September. When it was time to return home, Astrid carried a few shopping bags back to the car, but Nancy returned empty-handed. She was not too disappointed, however, because she wasn’t totally sure she could get another pair of shoes into her luggage anyway.
The afternoon had been a pleasant one despite unusually high heat, especially because we stopped to get ice cream from L’Angélys on the Cours des Dames (Ladies’ Walk), La Rochelle’s waterfront esplanade. Nancy got a cup of passionfruit sorbet—her go-to flavor when it’s on the menu—but was intrigued by Astrid’s choice of rose and violet. Nancy had tried rose elsewhere and wasn’t a fan, but she really liked the sample of violet that Astrid offered. Pat asked to try the floral flavors, too, but decided that both tasted “like eating perfume.”
La Rochelle Ville
Back at home in L’Houmeau, we were glad that Patricia had “turned on the air conditioning” before we left—meaning that she had closed the shutters and drapes on the sunny side of the old stone house. Because we had planned to eat out that evening, everyone was able to enjoy a late-afternoon siesta—and a few more hands of UNO—before we walked up the shore to La Passerelle (The Footbridge), where we feasted on a variety of fresh seafood, sautéed vegetables, and chocolate mousse.
Dinner at La Passerelle
Breakfast Chez Cathy on Saturday included rice pudding. We didn’t dawdle over the meal, however, because we wanted to get to the beach by 10:30 a.m., while the tide was still high and we didn’t have to wade too far from the shore to swim. The water was cool, but pleasant, and the girls enjoyed serving “seaweed salad” to the adults while we relaxed on the warm, stony beach.
About noon, Pat and Michael returned to the B&B to shower off the saltwater (Nancy had not immersed herself and had brought clothes to change into at the house) while Patricia and Astrid finished preparing the bouillabaisse they had started earlier. The soup was served puréed, with chunks of poached fish and boiled potatoes added at the table, and there was crème brulée for dessert. (Nancy suspects that Patricia did not grow up having sweets after nearly every meal, but since she’s been married to a Harward for more than forty years, Patricia must have learned that dessert is a required food group in this family.)
We spent the early afternoon doing our laundry, hanging as much as would fit on the backyard clothesline, while also playing Le Lynx with Sancie. This is a simple game that involves locating specific items among myriad illustrated objects arranged randomly on a large, round board—kind of like “Where’s Waldo?” with, say, a toothbrush, a seashell, and a violin taking the place of Waldo. We turned the game into a language lesson by requiring players to name each object both in English and en français before we could score points. (Some items had us stumped; how do you say fire extinguisher in French?) About 4:30, we took the girls over to the B&B to swim in Cathy’s pool for a little while, then we all helped assemble pizzas and salad for dinner.
It was about 9:00 p.m. but still light when Michael, Nancy, and Pat said au revoir to our French relatives and headed back to Cathy’s place so we could repack and prepare to leave early the next morning. Our few days in L’Houmeau and La Rochelle had provided us with a much-needed opportunity to renew our relationships and strengthen our family bonds—which was pretty much the whole intent of the trip.