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  • CarolJeffers

The Gleaners

We baked bread this week. We found it satisfying like a lot of people these recent weeks. Something grounding about it, re-discovering the staff of life, and nothing better, more comforting than a slice of bread still warm from the oven spread with French butter.

Freshly-baked bread made Gene and me think of the boulangeries in France, the baguettes all lined up in the glass cases. Which made us remember the best, most satisfying baguettes we have ever tasted.

It had been a long day of driving from Paris to Normandy, Gene and I on a mission, and we missed lunch. But we had finally found Grenville, the little village in Normandy we were looking for not far from Cherbourg.

“Look, there’s a sign, la maison natale de Jean-Francois Millet, the house where Millet, the great 19th century painter was born, this way.”

“And a little bronze bust of him,” Gene remarked as we turned down the lane cutting through the fields on the edge of town.

“There’s the church,” I said, recognizing it from his paintings.

We bumped along the soft track a little further, more anxious, convinced we must be getting close.

“The well,” I shouted. “That’s in his paintings, that’s it, must be the well to the house,” I said, so excited now I was ready to jump out of the car.

Then we saw it, a stone country farmhouse white with a low slate roof. It was almost 2:30 by the time the docent got us situated with a visitors’ video and guide book that would prepare us for a tour.

We were famished, spotted some local salt-caramel candy in the gift shop, wolfed a couple of chewy pieces down and started to wander among the old rooms–wonder at the rough plaster walls, the beamed ceilings, huge stone hearth. There was a big basket of wool next to an ancient spinning wheel, a butter churn in the corner of the great room, and a huge table in the center across from the hearth.

There was a bowl of Norman apples on the table, along with a big crockery bowl. The guide book pointed out that the family of twelve children, two parents, an uncle and a grandmother sat around the table, each reaching into the common bowl for the mushy food served at mealtime. Bread, big chunks of it, was used to sop it up, clean the sides of the bowl.

It was all so interesting, trying to imagine life among Millet’s favorite subjects, the peasants working hard in the wheat fields, herding sheep in the saltmarshes of the region. Women teaching the girls to spin and knit the wool, churn the butter, look after big families. Men chopping wood, threshing grain, harvesting apples, making cider, distilling Calvados.

Millet captured it all, what it means to be poor, to be a gleaner picking up the bits of grain left after the first harvest. What it took to bake the bread that calmed the hunger.

By 3:30, Gene and I were so ravenous we had to say au revoir to the docent and find some lunch. The woman’s eyebrows shot up, then formed a frown. Her hand flew to her mouth, her face saddened.

“Je suis desole’,” she began. “I’m sorry, but the cafes are closed at this late hour.”

Gene and I looked at each other, realized we were gleaners now, picking up whatever we could find.

“Peut etre, Maybe,” she mused, “the boulangerie is still open in the village.” She gave us directions.

“Merci,” we called over our shoulders and rushed off in search of bread.

The glass case was nearly empty, and the baker’s face broke into a huge smile as we cleaned out what remained. He locked the shop behind us as Gene and I tore through the baguettes and started into the long, skinny loaf of “rustic” bread. It was solid, very brown and heavy, maybe baked with buckwheat. It was filling, it saved us. As scrumptious as it was grounding.

Bread, the staff of life.

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