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Five Small-Town French Cafés

Frédéric Lagrange

Photo: Frédéric Lagrange

The village bistro that may or may not also function as a café, grocery store, and bread drop-off is one of rural France’s coziest, most sustaining traditions. Since it is often the only spot to congregate and buy a newspaper in a village, as well as the place’s only business, the bistro acts as switchboard, nerve center, and lifeline. But when it goes the village goes too: the French countryside is crowded with the tombstones of isolated communities whose populaces have bolted to the cities, looking for life. Yet save the bistro and you give villagers a reason to stay. You save the village.

Travelers who hate being led by the nose are crazy about these institutions. Even if they can’t understand the gossip they overhear or the mutterings of the town drunk, they love the atmosphere of a social hub where non-villagers are received alongside the widowed pensioner nursing a pastis and the nonagenarian in carpet slippers shopping for a baguette. Rotary Clubs favor these places for their annual dinners, just as new parents book them for christenings. In the corner, often, is a bunch of guys behind a wall of smoke, playing cards and arguing about de Gaulle. On the other hand, it’s not as if everyone is born 20 feet from the front door. A couple of months ago, I ran into the director Adrian Lyne at Café de la Lavande, in Haute-Provence, dining on a magnificently fatty sauté of veal with salsify.

Is there anyone who doesn’t like to eat well and for not a lot of money?Who doesn’t want to help mend the holes in the economic fabric of a Provençal backwater?For some scholarly French pulse-taking I used to go to the basement level of the Paris department store BHV, the farmers’ market in Velleron in the Vaucluse, a certain droguerie in Roanne. These bistros are better.

They and their host villages are a threatened species. But maybe not for long. Bistrot de Pays, a grassroots initiative, creates new multiservice bistros and supports existing ones, grouping them into regional networks. Choose a network and the work of planning an itinerary for a great back-roads trip is done for you. Most of the association’s 210 members are in the south, in the Midi-Pyrénées and Provence, but circuits are planned for the entire country.

To qualify, the locality must have a population of less than 2,000 (“off the map,” it obviously can’t have a tourist office), and the bistro must be the village’s sole business, or at least just one of a few (the others can be butcher’s shops or boulangeries but not bistros). Owners sign an annually renewable contract, agreeing to attend training classes and regular meetings at which experts deliver talks on olive oil, say, or how to cook wild field greens. According to the Bistrot de Pays charter, they also pledge to play ambassador by furnishing guides and brochures and being knowledgeable enough about points of interest in their area to answer tourists’ questions.

Members are asked to sell postcards, newspapers, and regional food products; hold periodic events like concerts and boules tournaments to bring villagers together; and use ingredients and serve dishes identified with the locale. If at lunch you eat a goat cheese made nearby and want to visit the producer, your waiter should know if this is possible and, if it is, how to arrange it. In the absence of a full or set menu at specific hours, a casse-croûte, or snack, of local foodstuffs like charcuterie is available throughout the day.

Ideally, the bistro should be open year-round and operate as a place where fresh bread is dropped off daily and sold. Beyond bringing the community a notch closer to self-sufficiency, the symbolism is powerful: a village that can offer its people bread controls its destiny. If the bistro has no grocery component, the deal is that residents can buy or borrow staples like flour and butter from the kitchen. This feature is particularly geared to elderly inhabitants who may be village-bound or have no way of getting to a supermarket.

For their dedication to the cause and an annual fee of $150, Bistrot de Pays owners are consigned a rack for printed materials and a sign with the association’s logo, a rural landscape customized for each region: a perched village for the Drôme, a castle for the Ariège, a musketeer for the Gers. Early members still use the glass-fronted cabinets they were given to present items for sale. While the charter is not always as rigorously enforced as it might be, bistros have been stripped of their cabinets and kicked out for noncompliance. Missing from the charter but a not-unknown feature of the genre is a sometimes charming, always authentic cruddiness. The French seediness enshrined in La Mini Auberge, also in Haute-Provence, is as holy as any Romanesque church in the neighborhood and as such not to be missed.

Across the Durance River, the mayor of St.-Jurs believed so strongly in a bistro/café/grocery/bread drop-off that he built one, Les Deux Nines, with municipal funds. Before construction began on the village’s lone business, he knew that Eloïse Donnini, one of 150 residents, would run it. The grocery is adorable, a playtime vision of an épicerie. It stocks Orangina, boar pâté, lemons, chestnut purée, eggs, jars of pieds et paquets (lamb’s feet–and-tripe bundles), rice, and horse-milk soap. The dining room is filled with bouquets of dried phlomis, collections of antique soup tureens and battered straw hats, and tables laid with faded checked cloths and mismatched vintage plates. A cabinet displays the range of Henri Bardoui Provençal aperitifs and digestifs, honey, honey cookies, and honey-and–pine-sap boiled candies. Views are of the Valensole Plateau, the world’s largest living carpet of lavender. Thousands of acres of the plant bump right up against the horizon.

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