(Written 25 May 2008)
One last breakfast at the bakery across the street before we packed up the car and set off for Nancy via the scenic, or at least historical, route. David was interested in the St. Mihiel salient, a spot where the German lines bulged far into the allied lines and artillery fire from which was a major factor limiting the supply of Verdun to that one road from Bar-le-Duc. The French tried several times to push it back, but without success, and only when they were joined by about three times as many Americans (from the 1st infantry division, the "Big Red One") was the salient rolled up, in a brutal three-day battle in September of 1918. So we started off initially for the town of St. Mihiel by the Michelin-recommended scenic route. We by-passed the French national military cemetery marked on the map but came across a sign pointing (along our route) to an American WWI cemetery that was nowhere mentioned by Michelin. We followed the signs, resolving to detour from our route to visit it if the routes diverged, but then our route made a couple of turns, in the complete absence of signs to the American cemetery, so we just hoped it would turn out to be in or near St. Mihiel. But at the next rotary we missed our turn and had to go around the circle a second time, and there it was, a sign to the American cemetery, one turn to the left of ours, where we would never have seen it without going around the circle twice. We started laying out our mental ball of string, so as to be able to return to our original route and set off on the side-trip. We located the cemetery (ca. 5000 graves, a propos of the St. Mihiel salient) near Thiaucourt-Regniéville), and as are all such sites we've seen, it was gorgeous and impeccably maintained. While we were there, one other couple showed up, walked around a little, and left again, but otherwise, we were alone with the grounds crew (perhaps 10 guys) who were industriously polishing the bronze chapel doors, scrubbing the white marble crosses, pressure-washing the walks, trimming the flawless lawn, and grooming the shrubs. A truck was delivering half a dozen bouquets of fresh flowers, all different, to individual graves, and just in front of each cross or star of David, a small American and a small French flag had been stuck into the ground, exactly vertically. We assume that the flowers and flags were a propos of Memorial Day, which is coming up this week, but the cleaning, trimming, and grooming must take place every morning, because we've never seen an American military cemetery with so much as a bird dropping on the sidewalk or a fallen leaf on the grass.
In all such cemeteries, the grave markers are pure white marble, in perfectly aligned rows, and although the architecture, layout, and sculpture are all different, they always include a memorial chapel and a huge engraved battlefield map and diagram. At this one, the tiny chapel was ornamented by this beautiful mosaic angel. The huge bronze doors must have weighed tons, but they swung smoothly and silently; the doorknobs were in the shape of soldiers' heads. The battlefield map and diagram were also beautiful, made of inlaid marble of many colors.
(Written 26 May 2008)
At the gate on our way out, we ran into the superintendant (an American, as all of them are, decked out in his leathers and about to go somewhere on his motorcycle). He greeted us warmly, told us more about the battle and the cemetery—it is considered the cradle of the American airforce, because the battle was the first to involve pilots in the American military (as opposed to the slightly earlier Lafayette Escuadrille, who were Americans in French uniform, before the U.S. entered the war)—and assured us that the chapel and battlefield map were the most beautiful in the American cemetery system (I can believe it). He also pointed out to us the location of the American memorial monument to the battle, located about 7 km south, on the "Butte de Montsec."
Back on the road. we stopped for lunch in St. Mihiel, where the only two real "restaurants" were closed, one permanently and one in preparation for being open on Sunday, its usual closing day, for Mother's Day (which, in France this year, is on 25 May). So we went to l'Escale Gourmande, one of the half-dozen pizza-and-kabob places on the main street. They seated us in a cheerful but windowless back room at a table "with a view of the sea," i.e., right next to the large aquarium containing several plants, many tiny snails, and one large black-and-white angelfish, who watched with great interest while we ate our salads. I had a "chicken house" salad (greens, chicken gizzards, chicken livers, foie gras, tomatoes, onions, and croutons (and striped toast made in the panini grill). David had a salad with lardons, potatoes, croutons, and a fried egg. For dessert, I bought a package of little mirabelle prunes at the tourism office up the street.
The tourism office gave us a brochure with a map to various places in the neighborhood where authentic trenches had been preserved (mainly the German ones, which were in place for a long time and had been lined with cement) or reconstructed (the French ones, which were shored only with wood and had mostly caved in since). We didn't have time for the whole circuit, but David chose one site he wanted "to glance over" and another ("bois brulée") that he wanted to visit thoroughly. The routes marked on the map turned out to be logging roads but reasonably passable. We took the paved highway to the shortest approach to the first site, then set off down the logging road, where we found the promised parking lot and the mouth of the 20-minute walking trail. After our quick look, we continued along the logging road, but where the diagram showed that we should branch off on a side road to bois brulée, the side road was blocked by a gate. We continued to where the side road rejoined the main one, and that end wasn't blocked, so we set off along it, but it was pretty badly overgrown. We persevered, driving through fender-high weeds along the edge where an agricultural field met the woods, but where it was supposed to turn back into the woods, it clearly was no longer passable. So much for bois brulée. David executed a neat three-point turn in the junction between two fields, managing not to run down either any wheat or any rye, and drove us back to the first site, where we walked the short version of the trail. Here, David peers into the entrance (now blocked by iron bars) of an underground concrete shelter in one of the German trenches, where soldiers could take a break from being under fire.
Back on the highway, we hadn't gone two half a kilometer before we came to a newly cut logging road signposted to bois brulée! Unfortunately, we'd used up our allotted time, so we pushed on toward Montsec. We'll try again for bois brulée on our way back from Nancy to Chalons on Tuesday.
The monument at Butte de Montsec was, like all of them, magnificent. A wedding had just be performed there, and the wedding party were coming down the steps as we arrived. The floor of the circle of columns is laid out as a compass rose, with arrows pointing to points of interest and giving their distances. In the center is this bronze relief map of the region of the salient. The monument is on the highest point in the neighborhood, the isolated hill in the lower half of the photo, just to the right of center. It commands a gorgeous view of the countryside in all directions. A plaque notes that the memorial was damaged during WWII because the allies had to shell a German gun emplacement there, but it was repaired afterward.
From there, we took pretty much the shortest route to Nancy and found our hotel with only moderate difficulty, in plenty of time to walk around the neighborhood a little before washing up for dinner at Le Grenier à Sel, located in one of the oldest buildings in town (not that old by French standards; Metz was 1000 years old before Nancy was even founded).
The watchword for dinner was slow. The charitable view is that the kitchen was swamped; it was the night before mother's day, and the place was full. Whatever the reason, service was glacial. We've eaten 10 and 12 courses in the time it took us to get through four plus cheese.
Amuse-bouche: A little transparent bundle of oyster and cucumber, wrapped in a sheet of clear Asian noodle and topped with foam; a miniature ice cream cone filled with crabmeat and avocado mousse; and a "deconstructed" buttered radish (the French serve fresh radishes with butter) consisting of a little cube of pink radish jello topped by a tiny radish sprout and a pea-sided ball of butter. We took one look and rearranged the plates; I ate David's cucumber-laced noodle package, and he ate my avocado-topped cone.
First course: Foie gras with vanilla oil and spiced pears. The translucent objects are pear chips—thin slices of whole pears dipped in sugar syrup and dehydrated until as crisp as potato chips. They are sandwiched with rectangles of foie gras, each topped by a strip of spiced cooked pear. In the glass is super-smooth foie gras mousse topped with a thin layer of pear jelly. A strip of coarse rock salt on the edge of the slate slab completes the composition. All delicious.
Second course: A medallion of monkfish wrapped in bacon, a split spear of green asparagus, and a sheet of "fumet de lard" (which ought to mean bacon broth but was more like bacon fudge). It must have been frozen when placed on the plate, a thin,perfectly square sheet with a part circle cut out of one corner to accommodate the fish, but the heat of the plate warmed and softened it. The white strip across it all is a lengthwise slice of asparagus, deep fried until crisp. The fish was excellent. The fudge was puzzling.
Interlude: A small scoop of olive oil ice cream. We've had savory olive ice cream before (excellent in cold asparagus soup), but this one was sweet. Pretty good, actually.
Third course: Medallions of roast veal with fresh morels (three large ones), a single cooked Swiss chard stem, and a "stick" of green peas (a delicious, carefully seasoned purée of green peas rolled inside a crepe, which was then compressed into tube of square, rather than round, cross section and sautéed. Excellent.
Cheese: Another good selection. David chose Beaufort, a roblochon that he said was too young, and a dark-rinded local cheese similar to roblochon. I had Brillat-Savarin (a sharp, fresh, triple-cream cheese), ripened neufchatel (like the heart-shaped ghost of a camembert), and an excellent Valençay. (To see what any of these cheeses look like, just go to Google Images and search on the name; if you get just photos of, e.g., the town rather than the cheese, add the word "fromage" to the search.)
Predessert: "Deconstructed Irish coffee"— a three-layer parfait, with a smooth white cream-cheese effect on the bottom, a middle layer I would have thought was chocolate, and a whipped cream top. Very good.
Dessert: A square shortbread cookie with a hollow in the center that was filled with compote of rhubarb, topped with sliced crisp, almost raw, rhubarb slices in turned topped with strawberry sorbet that they claimed was flavored with green peppercorns, though we couldn't detect them.
All quite good, but rather marred by the long waits. I almost fell asleep a couple of times during dinner, but was revived by the walk home through a light rain.
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