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Op-Ed

Kitchen table in Brittany

December 28, 2022

The daily rhythm of life for a French family in Brittany is played out in the kitchen, at the table.

Bill Girdner

By Bill Girdner

Editor of Courthouse News Service.

The kitchen remains the center of the French household. Near Rennes in Britanny, it held a round table, four comfortable wood chairs, was well lit and had a big window looking out onto a frozen front yard. The rhythm of the day revolved around that table.

In the morning, the family I was visiting would come downstairs into the kitchen. All those I visited in Europe had big coffee machines that grind and whir and eventually emit simple, aromatic, satisfying coffee, and that was true here in the small town of Thorigné-Fouillard.

With that we ate toasted bread with local butter and, if you wanted, jam. The bread too remains at the center of French life, the pain du jour, the daily bread. Without which life would be missing something essential for the family and for the French.

There were three bakeries within walking distance of the house. The French immediately distinguish between “une boulangerie originale,” where the bread is made, and a store that sells bread made somewhere else. All three were "originale."

When I went into the boulangeries, I usually asked if I could take pictures of the bread racks. For a couple reasons. In the pursuit by Courthouse News of fresh news — fresh the day it's made, stale the next — we often illustrate our coverage of those legal battles with a photo of scrumptious fresh baguettes.

And I remembered my French mother’s shock when she came to Pasadena to live and found that the only bread available in the little, local store was pre-sliced Wonder Bread, in a white, plastic bag with small red, blue and yellow circles of color. Bread that lasted in its unchanging chemical state for a week.

I also took photos of the signs outside tobacco stores that listed “presse” as one of the daily necessities they supplied along with smokes and lottery tickets.

After the light breakfast of bread and coffee or tea, there was time for an errand or two, and then we would gather back at the kitchen table for lunch. Sometimes a soup, sometimes ham and cheese, on Sunday a roasted chicken, but almost always with a green salad and local cheeses and bread to finish up. For drink, we would have a glass of local hard cider.

In the afternoon, we would undertake an expedition. On one of those afternoons, we traveled southeast out of Rennes, down the N24, alongside icy fields and through white fog, in temperatures that ranged between 0 and 3 degrees Celsius. We were headed towards the Menhirs of Monteneuf.

The great stones were raised in the neolithic period and, without writing to accompany the prodigious effort of raising them, they are little understood. But I have always shared a bit of the animistic belief in the power of old stones and great trees. And I press my hand against a couple to see if I can feel the fervent belief of something that caused the giant stones to be erected. But all that I can see is an indistinct swirl of mist and time.

The Menhirs of Monteneuf. (Bill Girdner/Courthouse News)

Back we drive in the family’s Peugeot along Route Nationale 24 to Thorigné-Fouillard. Once arrived, the ritual of the evening meal begins. Each night, the mother, Françoise, has something in mind and has already done the shopping. With her daughter, who is a teacher in a nearby elementary school, and often helped by her husband Jean-Luc, they prepare a meal.

Before dinner, we gather in the living room, on couches around the fireplace and coffee table for an aperitif, which was usually a dry white wine. Some little appetizer is brought out, often hot from the oven, accompanied by conversation. Then Françoise will say the meal is ready and we move into the kitchen and take our regular seats at the round table for a main course, salad, with fresh bread, red wine, followed by a choice of local cheeses.

While I was there, the daughter had contracted Covid from her students and refused to share meals with us for fear of passing the disease. But she would wait for our dinner in the kitchen to be finished. She did not want to eat at the coffee table in the living room. She wanted to have her meal at the kitchen table as she always did.

Afterwards, we would every night repair back to the living room, drink some tea or coffee, and watch a French television show, about a region of France or, for example, a show on the fact that D’Artagnan was a historical figure that two authors had romanticized before Alexandre Dumas wrote "The Three Musketeers."

Then, one by one, we would retire to read and sleep. Thus revolved the day in Brittany, around the kitchen table. 

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