Recently, memories of France often appear unbidden, at unpredictable moments. They arrive as palpable, vibrant images, frozen in place, just an instant. Their startling vividness often triggers thoughts about the time and space around them.
In France it is easy to find fresh, local, delicious, inexpensive food. Traveling by bike, it is easy to eat huge quantities of that food: the calories disappear in mile after mile of riding through an ancient history, a culture profoundly embedded in a specific place. The food varies somewhat from valley to valley, varies more from region to region. The cheese differs, made by different farms, the fruit ripens earlier, or later. The ham is a bit more moist, or a bit more savory. No wonder so many of my memories involve lunches.
I never preplan the day’s lunch, but let the demands of the ride determine it. Often, lunchtime finds me at a bistro or cafe, sitting outside, watching the world around me. If the day is chilly, damp, or my ride particularly long, sometimes I enjoy a traditional, large, French lunch. There have been stews, omelettes, soups, many composed salads, occasionally a small steak. Often, especially when my loaded bike is nearby, someone will strike up a conversation. Bikes are like that, something like the way small dogs on laps, or leashes, trigger conversations.
Frequently though, I buy the elements of lunch at a market in a town I’m passing through, or in village shops. Savory pastries, yogurt, hams, always cheese, fruit, vegetables, always bread. Sometimes I eat on a bench or table in town, sometimes on the side of a road, or a riverbank. I believe I remember the location of every lunch I’ve eaten over the course of five bike tours, and will never forget the abundant cherries, ripe apricots, little goat cheeses. Lunches are part of the adventure, and benefit from minimal planning and maximium flexibility. I carry with me a sharp knife, dishtowel, tiny cutting board, salt and pepper.
This lunch, the memory that sparked this story, was eaten when spread out on a public table, located at the bend of a small road, in a small park in Ferrières, at the base of a big climb. The base of a serious climb. A climb made famous by the Tour de France. A climb that I believed would be qualitatively harder than any I had previously attempted. My lunch was simple: some excellent, dried ham, and cheese. A good, chewy, local baguette. Chocolate. Fruit, that day peaches from France and bananas from elsewhere. I remember specifically that day’s dry ham, which was completely different from the strong, tough, almost unchewable country version I had the day before. The village park provided a fountain of eau potable, or drinking water. Cold and fresh. The memory of that lunch brought back with it the rest of my day.
Across the tiny road from my lunch table, the hillside rose steeply behind the church. It was the side of the valley, not the route up to the pass, and it was very steep. Just below me, a field, not too large, where three people were threshing the grain. I didn’t know what the grain was. The sun felt good on my face, the stop felt good on my legs. It was comfortably warm. Lunch was delicious and I took my time with it.
That day I was riding from Bielle to St. Savin, enroute, solo, from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. Earlier in the day I had changed my day’s ride, something I do from time to time when traveling by bicycle. I had been in the Pyrenees for nearly a week, making a meandering tour out of it, investigating tiny little roads, towns, museums, historical sites. On that trip, in 2011, I was not confident of my climbing skills, though I had just two days before successfully, and very happily, climbed the west side of Col de Marie Blanc. That climb, like the climb to come after lunch, was made famous by the Tour de France. Reaching the top of the pass, or col, was an absolutely great feeling, a rush of achievement and satisfaction. Knowing that the west approach, the one I climbed, is considered the easier ascent didn’t diminish my sense of accomplishment. At 62, I was no spring chicken, my bike was loaded with two panniers and a hefty handlebar bag. Everything I needed for a 3-week solo tour I carried with me.