Water? Only for Potatoes, Monsieur

There’s a sign hanging from one of the beams in the bistro Melac here in Paris that reads: l’eau est ici reserve pour faire cuire les pommes de terre! Roughly translated it means “Here, water is reserved for cooking potatoes.” Indeed, the first time I sat down to a country meal at Melac, I ordered my usual carafe of water. The waiter shook his head and said, “Sorry, no water.” Wine is a serious business here.

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According to the little history on the back of each cash receipt, Bistro Melac set up shop in 1977 in the 11tharrondissement. But the website states that Papa Melac converted a small grocery storefront in the 1930s. As with anything that deals with the rich and varied traditions of food and wine in France, one creates a convenient mythology.

I confess I was a bit intimidated the first time I walked inside a few years ago. There was live grapevine that wrapped itself outside the building. The front room of the bistro itself was small with dark wood. Aging hams hung from the wooden beams. Wine posters were glued to the ceiling. Melac himself wore this big moustache. It was so French. What was a bumbling American expat doing in a place that smacked of old school, a place where old friends met to raise a glass and talk of the news of the day?

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But I shouldn’t have worried. Nothing has changed. The vine is still there. The menu is country, mainly focused on the cuisine of the Averyon, a mountainous region in south-central France. The region boasts of classic sausages, beef, cheeses and the famous aligot, a creamy concoction of whipped potatoes and cheese. There’s a sense of comfort in starch and cream (think of our own mac ‘n’ cheese, which, really, is a French gratin of pasta with a cheese fondue). I’ve tried numerous times to master the smooth consistency and the classic “stringy” character of aligot and failed miserably each time. But I’m determined.

Desserts range from a simple cheese plate (to use up that last bit of wine in the bottle) to Mama Melac’s own rice pudding and pain perdu, literally “lost bread” — actually French toast (yes, Virginia, they do serve it here, with Crème anglaise. It’s not breakfast, it’s a work of art).

Melac himself bustles around the bistro, taking orders and bringing food but mostly chatting with everyone who comes in. He’s a tall man, dressed usually in a plaid shirt and blue jeans and sporting the famous moustache. He and the young men who serve during lunch treat everyone as old comrades and honored guests. A friendlier place would be hard to find.

It’s in mid- to late September when Bistro Melac comes into its own. One end of rue Leon Frot is barricaded and long tables and a stage are set up for a Saturday. It’s the annual vendange, or grape harvest, of Chateau Melac. Ladders are raised and grapes are picked from the vine running along the front. Neighbors bring store-bought grapes in plastic bags. All the grapes, usually red, are dumped into barrels where kids remove their shoes, socks and sometimes pants and climb inside to stomp on the grapes. A band plays on the stage while customers line up to get a small glass of wine, sausage and aligot, then sit with friends and strangers at the tables (think of the Asphalt Cowboy breakfast in Redding with wine and mashed potatoes and cheese replacing the hot cakes and coffee).

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Melac celebrates wine and country eating year round. It’s a treat for tourists and locals alike, but make sure you don’t have much planned afterwards. After a couple of glasses of wine and some of the good country fare, I’ve had to nap after a good lunch at chez Melac. I’ve become a bit of a regular there these days, offering and receiving a hardy handshake as I enter and sit at my usual spot next to the window.

And I get water with my meal now, too.

Editor’s note: this is a best-of A News Cafe column that originally ran November 15, 2010.

Doug Cushman is a former Redding artist and author who lives and works in Paris. He was born in Springfield, Ohio, and moved to Connecticut with his family at the age of 15. In high school he created comic books lampooning his teachers, selling them to his classmates for a nickel apiece. Since 1978, he has illustrated and/or written more than 100 books for children and collected a number of honors, including a Reuben Award for Book Illustration from the National Cartoonists Society, New York Times Children’s Books Best Sellers, and the New York Public Library’s Best 100 Books of 2000. He enjoys hiking, kayaking and cooking (and eating!). Learn more at his website, doug-cushman.com.

A News Cafe, founded in Shasta County by Redding, CA journalist Doni Greenberg, is the place for people craving local Northern California news, commentary, food, arts and entertainment. Views and opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of anewscafe.com.

Doug Cushman
Doug Cushman is a former Redding artist/author who now lives and works in Paris. He was born in Springfield, Ohio, and moved to Connecticut with his family at the age of 15. In high school he created comic books lampooning his teachers, selling them to his classmates for a nickel apiece. For more information about his books or to contact him, visit doug-cushman.com.
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