Lost and Liberated in the Dordogne

“I’m lost. I’m late. I’m sorry,” I blurted into the phone, in French.

Silence.

“So, Monsieur Manouvrier, if it’s OK I would still like to meet you today.”

“You are an hour late. Do you think I have nothing better to do? You Americans think you are so important?” he bellowed, barely breathing between salvos. “Do you think we are so honored to speak to an American that we will stop everything else in our lives?”

I wanted to shout, “You know nothing about me!” But since it was my last day in the Dordogne, and since I wanted to meet this man before I left, I pleaded, “Please, may I still come?”

“Fine,” he replied. The slam of the receiver reverberated in my ear before I could ask him for more directions.

As an American who had spent many years traveling in France, I sometimes felt like the honorary town piñata, enduring swing upon jab about my accent, my nationality, and the political leanings of our President who, I had constantly to remind people, was not a personal friend of mine. But despite the occasional bashing, I had also become a defender of the French, charmed by the generosity of those who had welcomed me, a stranger, into their homes, and seduced by their pervasive and earnest joie de vivre.

So, alone in a three-chimney village somewhere in southwestern France, at a crossroads, literally and figuratively, I had two choices: I could abandon this meeting altogether or I could exemplify American perseverance. Though the first thought soothed me for a solid five minutes, I folded up my map and set out, knowing that the long road ahead was more than just the one I was lost on.

***

In France, as in many parts of the world, the best information arrives by word of mouth, or de bouche à l’oreille as they say, from mouth to ear. This is how I had learned of Roland Manouvrier, an artisanal ice cream maker — and the source of my navigational woes.

I had been in the Dordogne for nearly a month researching a culinary travel book. Having amassed a stockpile of classic recipes from local chefs and home cooks, I was in search of something, and someone, a little different. One of these people was Chef Nicolas DeVisch, who had taken over his parents’ restaurant in the medieval village of Issigeac, and whose menu did not include a single serving of duck or foie gras—two mainstays of the regional cuisine. Nicolas had invited me to dinner and after several courses of his non-conventional cooking, had plunked a tub of ice cream down on the table, handed me an espresso spoon, and invited me to dig into the white creamy contents. Preparing my taste buds for vanilla or coconut, or some other sweet savor, I closed my lips around the mouthful. The cold burned my tongue then melted down the back of my throat. Nicolas’s eyebrows arched in question.

“Goat cheese?” I guessed.

“Yes, from the village of Racamadour,” he confirmed. “And you should really meet this guy before you go.”

***

After crisscrossing the Dordogne countryside for nearly two hours, I had pulled off the road to make that call to Roland. The prowess of the GPS had been no match for rural French addresses that delight in omitting street names and numbers, replacing them with titles like The Sheep Barn and The Old Mill. Finally, thanks to a helpful barista, I zeroed in on Roland’s address, given simply as The Industrial Zone in the village of Saint-Geniès.

When I arrived 20 minutes later, Roland met me at his office door wearing a white lab coat, a plastic hair net set askew atop his wavy brown hair, and a scowl. The archetypal mad scientist, I thought. For a second the story of Hansel and Gretel popped into my head. I wondered if anyone would hear me scream as Roland shoved me into a cauldron over a hot fire. Would I be his next flavor—Glace à l’Américaine?

“How much time do you need?” he barked, bursting my reverie.

“As much as you’ll give me,” I answered. Roland corrected my French.

“Because you’re late, I’m late, and I must make deliveries.”

“How about I help you? We can talk on the road,” I offered.

“Pppffff…” Roland produced the classic French noise made by blowing air through one’s relaxed lips, often done to dismiss something just said.

I followed him through his stainless steel kitchen and helped him load frozen cases of ice cream into his delivery van. As I moved them into place, I noticed the flavors penned in black ink on the lid of each container: Tomato-Basil; Szechwan; Rose; Violet; Calvados. I asked Roland if I could include one of his unusual recipes in my book.

“What do you think? I have a formula like at McDonalds? I don’t write my recipes down. They are not exact, and depend on many influences.”

“Pppfff…” he added.

We coursed the serpentine Dordogne roads, past fields of sunbathing flowers and over oak-encrusted hills, delivering the frozen parcels every 15-20 minutes. Each time Roland got back in the car, he shelled me with questions. Do you like Andy Warhol? Have you ever been to New York? Have you ever seen a real cowboy? How about a real Indian? What is the point of baseball? Each time I answered, he corrected my French, which became irksome.

I finally took a sarcastic swing back at him. “If you prefer, we could speak in English. Would that be easier for you?”

“Why would I speak in English? I am in France and French is my language!” he yelled.

My face flushed and jaw tightened. Short-fused from the incessant corrections and aching from the smile I had been faking for the last hour, I was ready to abandon this day and this ill-mannered ice cream man. I blew up.

“It’s people like YOU who give the French a bad reputation in my country. And in case YOU haven’t noticed, I am in YOUR country speaking YOUR language because YOU can’t speak mine.”

I braced myself for retaliation. Roland stared straight ahead, his hands clenching the steering wheel. After a tense ten-second interlude, he asked me about the reputation the French have in America. I told him that, though generalizing, we found them rude, arrogant, and hateful toward Americans. Roland’s belly-bouncing chuckle filled the air, but he said nothing more, not even to correct me.

We crossed a bridge and puttered down the main two-lane street of Saint-Léon-sur-Vézère, our final stop for the day. The sun was low in the summer sky and cast an ochre glow on the stone buildings. Garlands of yellow and orange paper flowers strung between the steeply pitched rooftops swayed overhead, remnants of a recent festival. We parked and found a table in the sun at the town’s only café. Roland ordered me to wait while he delivered ice cream to his brother down the street. I watched him shake hands and kiss-kiss the cheeks of a few people along the way before disappearing into a doorway. When I saw him again, he was back on the street, handing out ice cream cones from the back of his van to lucky passersby. He waved me over.

I asked him if he lived in Saint-Leon-sur-Vézère.

“No. This is where I was born,” he said.

Roland pulled out another familiar white container and scooped the bright orange ice cream into two cones and handed me one. The mandarin orange flavor couldn’t have tasted better if I had plucked it from a tree.

We drifted through the cobblestone streets of the riverside village and as I lapped up the frozen treat, Roland unlatched his memories. He pointed out the window he’d broken while trying to master a yo-yo; the home of a girl he once had a crush on; the church where he got married. We stopped in front of the brown wooden door of a village house and Roland told me the lady who had once lived there had found a rusted American G.I. helmet in her garden.

“She gave the helmet to my father and we kept it displayed on top of an armoire in our house for many years,” Roland said.

“Why? What interest did your father have in it?” I asked.

“We didn’t know anything about the soldier. Did he come from Oklahoma? Wyoming? Did he have a family?” Roland said. Then he raised his finger in the air. “The only thing we knew for certain was that this anonymous American came here to liberate France. For that we are grateful.”

Tears pricked my eyes, in part because of the unexpected provenance of this story, and in part because of the image it conjured up inside my head: a black and white photo of my 19-year-old grandfather in his G.I. helmet.

We sat wordless atop a low rock wall for several minutes, feet dangling over the Vézère River.

“Thank you for sharing that story,” I eventually said.

“Thank you for coming today,” Roland replied, in English.

A handwritten recipe for his Tomato-Basil sorbet showed up in my mailbox a month later.

Kimberley Lovato is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. Her writing has appeared in National Geographic Traveler, Afar, Delta Sky Magazine, Executive Travel Magazine and in other print and online media. Her culinary travel book, Walnut Wine & Truffle Groves, was published in 2010 and includes the recipe for Roland’s Tomato-Basil sorbet. For more information about her travels and work, visit www.kimberleylovato.com

California’s proposed shark fin ban stirs up debate over global politics of culinary delicacies

shark finAs a former longtime resident of Berkeley, California, I’m no stranger to the concept of eating-as-political-act. Well, there’s a new food ethics issue on the block, kids, and while it may smack of the current, all-too-pervasive epidemic of food elitism, it’s really more about ecology, animal welfare, and the politics of eating–especially with regard to travelers, immigrants, and adventurous eaters.

California, never a state to shy away from bold ethnic cuisine, hedonistic gustatory pursuits, or activism (especially when they’re combined) is currently debating the future of shark fin. Namely, should the sale and possession of said shark fin be banned, making the serving of shark fin soup–a dish with strong cultural relevance for the Chinese–illegal?

A recent post on Grist draws attention to this culinary quandary, which addresses the increasingly dicey future of sharks versus the growing demand and profit shark fin offers fishermen, importers/distributors, and restaurateurs. A bill has been introduced into the California legislature to ban shark fin, which would have certain impact upon the state’s various Chinatowns, most notably San Francisco’s because it’s the largest as well as a profitable tourist attraction. There’s concern that the ban might infringe upon the cultural heritage and economic livelihood of the Chinese community–an ethnic group that makes up a large portion of California’s population. Or, as one Chinatown restaurateur in San Francisco commented, “People come to America to enjoy freedom, including what is on the plate.” Well. If only it were that simple.

[Photo credit: Flickr user laurent KB]shark fin Shark fin soup holds an important place in Chinese culture. This delicacy is a sign of the host’s generosity at banquets, and is believed to have virility-enhancing and medicinal properties. It has no taste, nor much purported nutritional value; the cartilaginous fins merely add a gelatinous texture. But hey, here’s a hilarious factoid I just found on Wikipedia: eating too much shark fin can cause sterility in males, due to high mercury content.

According to Sharkwater, the site for filmmaker Rob Stewart’s award-winning documentary about shark finning and hunting, shark specialists estimate over that 100 million sharks are killed for their fins, annually. Shark finning refers to the practice of cutting the fins off of (usually) live sharks, which are then tossed overboard to die a slow death or be cannibalized by other sharks.

While shark finning is banned in North America and a number of other countries, it is unregulated and rampant throughout Asia (most notably, the Pacific and Indian Oceans, but international waters are unregulated, which leaves a large gray area for finning to occur). The key issue with shark finning, aside from cruelty and waste of life, is its impact upon the food chain. As the ocean’s greatest predators, sharks are at the top of the chain, and without them to consume the food that normally make up their diet, things get out of whack. Other species proliferate, and endanger other species, and so on, which ultimatelyshark fin wreaks havoc upon marine ecosystems.

California isn’t the first state to take on the ethics of shark finning. Oregon and Washington are considering legislation, and Hawaii’s ban takes effect on June 30th. The bigger picture, as pointed out by Grist writer Gary Alan Fine, is that this isn’t the first time food politics and culinary delicacies have caused a ruckus, and it won’t be the last. He reminds us of the Great Foie Gras Fight of 2006, when Chicago banned the sale and serving of what are essentially fatty, diseased duck and goose livers. Chicago finally overturned the ban due to monumental protests, but California has banned the production (not the sale) of foie gras starting in 2012.

Foie gras is a specialty of southwestern France, but it’s also produced domestically in several states. Foie gras is an important culinary tradition and part of French culture. The animals are fattened by force-feeding (“gavage”) several times a day. In the wild, geese do overfeed prior to migration, as a means of storing fat. The difference is that their livers double in size, rather than increase times ten.

What gavage does involve is inserting a tube or pipe down the goose or duck’s throat. Research indicates the animals don’t suffer pain. That may well be true, but there are many reports of gavage gone wild, in which fowl esophagi and tongues are torn. I haven’t been to a foie gras farm, although I’ve done a lot of research on the topic, and have spoken with journalists and chefs who have visited farms and watched gavage. I’ve yet to hear of anyone witnessing visible suffering or acts of cruelty (including nailing the birds’ feet to the floor, something animal welfare activists would have us believe is standard practice). Does a lack of pain mean it’s okay to produce and eat foie gras? I don’t know; I’d be lying if I said it doesn’t bother me conceptually, but I also think it’s delicious. That’s why I want to visit a farm; so I can make an informed decision for myself.
shark fin
Foie gras aside, the humane/sustainable aspects of commercial livestock production, foraging, or fishing usually come down to the ethics of the producer, forager, or fisherman, as well as regulations and how well they’re enforced (if at all). Sometimes, as with shark finning, there is no humane aspect (although to most of the fishermen, they’re just trying to earn enough to survive).

But there are also cultural differences that dictate these issues. The Philippines has long been under fire for its mistreatment of dogs destined for the dinner table. I don’t condone animal cruelty in any form (which is why I want to see gavage), yet we must also realize that pets are not a traditional part of that culture. How are we to resolve these issues, which in their way, are similar to human rights issues such as clitoridectomy, or child brides? Is it ethical for us, as Americans/Westerners/industrialized nations to dictate cultural changes that have profound and ancient meaning to others?

But before we get our panties in a bunch about foie gras and how other countries treat their food animals, we need to change the way our industrial livestock production system works (click here for an excellent article by food journalist Michael Pollan addressing this topic in response to the Chicago foie gras ban). Am I a hypocrite for saying I’m invested in animal welfare, when I eat foie gras or the carne asada at my local taco truck? Yes, I am. But I also believe we need to pick our battles, and do our research. You can’t save the world, but you can do your best to offset negative impact whenever possible.shark fin

In my case, I won’t purchase any endangered or non-sustainably farmed seafood. But I’m not going to give up eating at my favorite ethnic dives because the meat isn’t sustainably-raised, since I get a lot of pleasure from dining at those places. I’m also a food journalist, and I believe it’s my job to eat what I’m assigned to eat, unless it is an endangered species.

In exchange, I refuse to purchase meat for home consumption or cooking classes that hasn’t been raised in an ethical manner. Am I better than you for doing this? I doubt it, but it’s something I feel very strongly about, and it’s my way of offsetting the rare occasions when I eat foie gras for work or pleasure, or for indulging in a burrito binge or other meaty ethnic feast.

Those who advocate the right to eat whatever they wish have said that the government has no place on their plates, be it for ethical, health, or environmental/ecological reasons. Yet still we rage on about the politics of importing, producing and eating things like Beluga caviar (illegal), milk-fed veal (range-fed is a humane alternative), raw milk cheese, and god knows what else in this country. And we judge and despair over the consumption of cats, dogs, sea turtle meat and eggs, horses, and other “cute” animals in other (usually desperately poor) parts of the world.

I’ve said it before: rarely is anything in life black-and-white. And so it is with food. To me, meat is meat. What matters is how that animal is raised and treated before it is dispatched, and how and who makes these types of decisions. If there is any question of pain or ecological imbalance in the equation, I wholeheartedly agree with banning it, assuming other alternatives–be they substitution, more humane harvesting or production methods, or quotas–have been explored.
shark fin
As a traveler, I’m frequently disturbed by the inhumane (to my American standards) aspects of food sourcing and preparation in other countries. Yet I still have empathy for other cultures when they’re forced to stray from their traditions, whether for tourism, ecological, or other reasons. It’s a thorny issue as to whether we should live and let live, or protect natural resources and animal welfare in countries not our own. I believe we should make the effort to be responsible travelers, whether we do so on an organized trip, or independently. If we don’t look after the planet, cultural relevance, tradition, and the pleasures of the plate aren’t going to matter, anyway.

[Photo credits: shark fin soup, Flickr user SmALl CloUd; foie gras, Flickr user claude.attard.bezzina;remaining photos, Laurel Miller]