Though, Gérald and I, as empty nesters, will dine tête a tête this Sunday, our hearts are filled with memories of holidays past when our children were younger and we were surrounded by family. As with every celebration in France, Easter begins and ends à table.
Normandy is appreciated the most at mealtime when land and sea are perfectly marinated. Mamie cooks the traditional Easter favorite, leg of lamb. At the head of the table, Papie carves the tender meat fresh from a newborn romping on the rolling green hillside only days before. But back up, each course is an event worth savoring.
First a toast of champagne and a light amuse bouche aperitif. Next act is naturally an egg based, a soufflé as light as cotton candy, followed by a platter of seafood: shrimp, crab legs, clams, oysters, bullot, something for everyone’s palate.
The main lamb course is always served with flageolet, a mini lima bean, that reminds me of the word flatulence and of course, bean jokes inevitably enter the conversation, sending the children into gales of laughter. Mamie always has a special dish for every family member, so a garden of vegetables -beans, broccoli, potatoes, spinach, tomatoes – also grows out of the linen tablecloth.
The children eat with the adults where they risk being reprimanded to sit up straight. However, I never notice table manners; my fork and knife are usually in the wrong hands. Softhearted Mamie excuses the grandkids early and they scamper upstairs to read Lucky Luke or Astérix comic books until called for dessert.
Each course is accompanied by wine, a light white Burgundy for the seafood starters and then a heavier Bordeaux for the meat and cheese. Every big meal is followed by a green salad and cheese platter with triangles of creamy local cheeses like Camembert and Pont L’Evêque.
Dessert always includes seasonal fruits, which in the spring means luscious strawberries. Like little elves, the children reappear to gobble up berries dipped in fresh cream. The kids magically disappear again when they smell the coffee brewing. Papie ceremoniously opens the antique Normand hutch and pulls out his bottle of Calvados offering, “a little taste.” True Normands swear that the fiery apple brandy aids the digestion. During weddings and christenings, the “trou Normand,” a shot served on sorbet in the middle of the feast, is customary.
Throughout each course a lively repartee of sarcasm, word play and arguments ensue that to a soft-spoken Norwegian American sounds like verbal abuse, but is only part of the French art de vivre and their love of language and debate.
Just when you think your belly will burst, Mamie rings a bell and the children race downstairs, for in France, bells, not bunnies, deliver eggs. As a token of mourning for crucified Christ, church bells remain silent from Good Friday until Easter Sunday. On Easter, when the chimes ring again, children rush outside to see the bells fly home to Rome, after dropping chocolate Easter eggs from the sky.
The children crowd onto the wrought iron balcony to find eggs tucked behind the potted geraniums and tulips. While they devour the chocolate figurines, the adults, too, savor a delicacy from the local chocolatier. Everyone moans of stomachaches and swears they will never eat again, but a few hours later after a stroll by the sea, we are à table again discussing the favorite French topic, food.