Back before le Petit was born, my husband and I would travel France as often as we could, and frequently escape on weekends to any corner of the countryside within driving distance of Paris. We explored Burgundy, the Loire Valley, Normandy (until our car was visited on a trip to Mont Saint Michel), and the lesser-known haunts of Champagne and Picardy. A typical program would involve one night in a bed and breakfast and a dinner for two at whichever local restaurant in our price range was deemed most worthy by the Pudlo or the Gault Millau.
Am I a bit nostalgic? Anyway.
We spent one long weekend in November visiting l'Aisne and northern Champagne, and on our last night we ate dinner at the highest-rated restaurant in Epernay. It was a traditional place in a traditional provincial town; the decor was tasteful but a decade behind the times, and the cuisine deliciously well-executed but conservative. Nothing about the place was edgy or nouvelle cuisine but everything was impeccable, and we shared the dining room with a cast of local functionaries in their Sunday best.
Our waiter fell all over himself with a formal script of veuillez madame and je vous en prie, but minus the jacket and tie he looked as if he'd be just as at home serving us drinks at the bar of the local PMU pub. Meanwhile, for him a young American woman accompanied by a laid-back Toulousan was clearly a break from the aging local bourgeoisie. By the time we got to the cheese course we'd managed to chip away at his professional facade, and he chatted with us easily while refilling our wine glasses. He asked me where I was from, and nodded appreciatively when I mentioned the ever-exotic "See-ah-tul."
"I love French cheeses," I told him after timidly choosing several for him to portion out and serve on my plate. "I think, in fact, that French cheeses are why I moved to France."
He looked at me for a second before replying, genuinely shocked but extraordinarily polite, "If you will permit me, madame... I think the real reason you moved to France is for monsieur."
My husband laughed and I blushed a red to match the glass of pinot noir in front of me.
I'm not sure what the Gault Millau would think of such indiscretion, but I remember it more fondly than anything we were served from the menu that night.