Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Brittany – Quimper and Family Reunions – Part One

We left for Brittany by train on Tuesday morning (November 2).   It was about 4 hours from Paris to Quimper, where would be staying until Saturday.   Again, we were grateful for the opportunity to enjoy  scenic countryside by train.  We were met at the Quimper station by Rene Bourhis.  A warm  and endearing man, Rene and his lovely wife Jacqueline were incredibly gracious to us during our time in Brittany.  Rene and Jacqueline are Nicholas’s parents (and also the parents of Julian and Sebastien, Nicholas’s brothers, who we would see later in the week).   Rene is Susan’s mother’s cousin and we had spent time with  he and Jacqueline during our previous visit to Brittany when Susan’s mother was still alive.  I should also note that Nicholas and Julian had stayed with Susan’s mother in Jupiter and we had spent time with them when they visited the United States. 
Dinner with Jacqueline and Rene

We rented a car at the train station. Rene went into the rental agency with me to help just in case language became a problem (he speaks some English and between his English and my French, we communicated quite well).   After that, he had me follow his car to the Best Western in downtown Quimper where we were staying.  He left us there and told us he would be back to get us in an hour to take us to his home for dinner.  So we said goodbye and checked into the hotel. 

Susan was a little disappointed to discover that there were no English language stations on the television in the hotel and she asked about this at the front desk.  The young manager told her he thought they had CNN (they didn’t) but said if not, perhaps she might learn French.  He said it gently and was not being rude.  I was kind of glad they didn’t have an English-language station; it pushed me further to listen “in French.”

Rene was out front at 6:30 PM to pick us up.  He knew we wanted to purchase some crepes to take home, so we stopped at a nearby E. L’eclerc which is France’s largest grocer and retail chain, somewhat similar to Walmart.   We were on a mission to pick up fresh packages of crepes to bring home for our children (and for us!).  Brittany is especially known for its crepes and gallettes which are another form of crepe-type pancakes, as well as for Gateau Breton, which Susan’s mother used to make for every holiday meal.   After she died, Erin took up this mantle and now makes Gateau Breton for our family gatherings. 

We found our way to the crepe section of the E. L’eclerc.   There we found a woman who had been making and packaging crepes all day.  She was also offering samples (a la Costco or Publix).  We each took one.  The crepes were fresh and warm.  Susan and Diane took a dozen packages so that we could distribute them to our children when we got home; having, of course, some for home too, of course! We made the crepe maker’s evening!  She laughed out loud when she saw us pick up all those packages.

How to make the perfect steak!!
After E. L’eclerc, it was a ten  minute drive to Rene and Jacqueline’s very attractive home in the suburb of Quimper.  It didn’t take long for us to be engaged in laughter and conversation and also some tears as we all told stories about Susan’s mother who we all missed.  Dinner was wonderful.  Rene, had constructed a huge brick oven/grill in his backyard and prepared a beautiful, thick T-bone steak.   Jacqueline served us prosciutto and melon to start.  All in all, it was a full 5 course meal with salad and cheese at the end, followed by desert (whenever Susan’s mother prepared dinner for us, we always had salad and cheese followed by desert at the end, rather than the beginning, of the meal.  It’s the French way!).  

Our bowls at home - My given name "William" is in the French form.
On Wednesday morning we were up and out fairly early.   Diane and Susan both wanted to go to the Henriot Ceramic Factory in Quimper.   Henriot is world-renown for their ceramics (See  Their hand-painted products are very distinctive and very much with Brittany, and especially their “lug bowls.”  In Susan’s family, it is a custom for each family member to have a lug bowl from Brittany with the person’s name imprinted on it.  Susan wanted to pick up a bowl for Riley and Emily.  Each of us and all of our children, already have bowls.  Susan and I also have a small collection of other Henriot items which are beautiful reminders of Susan and our children’s Breton heritage. We had great fun walking through the Henriot Factory store and looking at their exquisite items, and also buying some!  We also crossed the street to the Bisquiterie de Quimper where we picked up a few additional items including some wonderful freshly baked butter cookies.    

The River Odet runs through Quimper

All of this was followed by a stroll around the downtown square of Quimper, a medieval city with beautiful and historic Gothic Cathedral, St. Corentin’s, which was built between the 13th  and 15th centuries standing in the center of it all. 
St. Corentin Cathedral
It was a cool and rainy day, but we enjoyed walking around for awhile and then retreated into a local restaurant for lunch which included local mussels in a delicious cream sauce.

 After lunch, we had to hurry back to the hotel where Rene and Jacqueline were meeting us so that we could follow them to Roudouallec, the small town about 45 minutes from Quimper, where Susan’s mother had been born 88 years before.   In Roudouallec we reunited with family members, several of whom we knew well, as they had lived and worked in New York for many years, before retiring and returning to Brittany.  Among them were Lillian and Jean LeCras.

Lillian and Jean Lecras

Lillian was Susan’s mother’s cousin.  Her husband Jean had been a first class chef in New York.  In fact, I worked with Jean for a brief time at Restaurant Rafael in New York City.  Mimi Sheraton of the New York Times had given Restaurant Rafael three stars when she reviewed it and in her article labeled it a “Tiffany Jewel of a Restaurant!” and it was.  Jean was one of the early practitioners of French Nouvelle Cuisine in New York.  He was an artist and his food was both beautiful and delicious.      

In Roudouallec, we discovered that the house in which Susan’s mother had been born was for sale. We gave some passing, though not particularly practical, thought to buying it. Susan's mother was 3 years old when she emigrated to the United States with her mother and father.  They came through Ellis Island and are a part of the great American story of immigrants coming to the United States and realizing the American Dream.  We also visited the small community center in the middle of town.   The population of Roudouallec is some where just above 700 people.   

The house in which Susan's mother was born

 The community center was displaying a carefully prepared exhibit that told the story of the town and its people during the period of World War I.  There were photographs and lists of names of those who had served.  There were displays of uniforms and ballistics.  Rene’s brother Christian, who lives in Roudouallec, showed me a copy of his grandfather’s death certificate.  He had been killed in action during the war.

Death certificate of Jean Louis Bourhis, a family member, who was killed in World War I in October of 1918 just before the Armistice!

Statue of St. Anne and the Virgin Mary in the Church of Notre Dame de Lorrette
We also visited the beautiful Gothic Church, Notre Dame de Lorette, where Susan’s mother had been baptized.  In this church, which dates to the 18th century, but which sits on a site that has been a church since the 13th century, there are gorgeous wood and polychrome carvings of Mary and St. Anne as well as other sacred figures.  The statue of St. Anne holds particular meaning for us. Anne was Jesus’ grandmother and is the patron saint of Brittany.  Susan’s mother had been named for her. I referred to this statue when I preached at Susan’s mother’s funeral at St. Paul’s.  

Wednesday night, we had dinner at the LeCras home.  Not nouvelle cuisine at all, Jean had spent the better part of the afternoon making very traditional and delicious Beef Bourguignon.  About a dozen of us were at the table and, once again, the evening was filled with delicious food, wine, laughter and lots of story-telling.   

Dinner at Chez LeCras!

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