As you know, getting the wifi code when you check into your hotel is one of, if not the most important aspects of a French cycling trip. Especially if you’re the founding cyclist of the Biking France blog … and also need to do a WhatsApp chat with your wife back home. But not in that order Susan, I swear!
And so, on my 2019 trip to the Dordogne, Lot and Cele Rivers … I checked into the Brit Hotel Vallee du Lot in Fumel. And immediately asked the guy at the desk for the wifi – of wee-fee as they pronounce it in France – code.
He spelled it out slowly: “Cee … elle… eye … em … eighty.”
I punched it in: c-l-i-m-80. Nothing. It refused me … in French. He said it again, I punched in c-l-i-m-80 again, it refused me again, this time with a bit of a holier-than-thou attitude.
“Here, I write it down for you,” the guy said. And he did, as you can see…
“Voila!” I said after I successfully connected to the wifi, never one to pass up a chance to say voila when appropriate. It’s fun.
“I thought you said 80 like the number, but you were saying the letters “aaa-tee. That’s pretty funny,” I told the guy.
I’m not sure if he understood my misunderstanding, but we both laughed. What the heck, it was funny.
This isn’t the first time my misunderstanding of French created a laugh … at my expense. This long-ago misunderstanding was a culinary misadventure that was, well, quite disgusting. Even though the dish I mistakenly ordered is considered a classic and dates back to 1649 and has a royal connection, as in: a head on a platter. A fact I didn’t know at the time.
I’m an adventurous eater and will order and eat just about any part of any animal. What the hell, it’s all meat. Toss it in some garlic, olive and butter and … no problem. Except liver. I hate liver.
I was in a restaurant in Azay-le-Rideau, and quite hungry after a long, lovely day of riding past castles, through apple orchards and fields of sunflowers. You know: The Loire.
Like most restaurants, this one had a fixed-price menu that included an appetizer, main course and dessert for a set and very-reasonable price. Fixed-price menus are standard throughout France and a great deal, as the cost is significantly less than ordering an appetizer, main course and dessert off the menu, or, ala carte, as they say over here. I have no memory of my appetizer or dessert, but will never, ever forget the main course I ordered: tete de veau.
I thought it was some sort of veal dish, as veau is veal. In my defense: Back then, I didn’t know about the cruelty involved in the making of veal. I don’t eat veal anymore. Susan won’t allow it. Plus, the server gave me a big smile when I ordered the tete de veau, and gave me a look that seemed to say: “You are a handsome and sophisticated man, especially for an American, and have made the perfect choice. If only I wasn’t married to the insanely jealous chef, the one with all the knives, back in the kitchen. C’est la vie.”
My server arrived with a heaping bowl filled with a huge pile of several pieces of things I didn’t recognize. This was not veal. At least not any kind of veal I’d ever eaten, although my prior veal-eating experience was limited to veal parmesan with a tie of spaghetti. So, I’m not exactly an expert on what’s underneath the red sauce and bread-crumb coating of veal parmesan.
I examined my tete de veau, timidly moving stuff around in the bowl with my fork. Some of the pieces were big and lumpy, others were gelatinous and wiggly, a couple were thin and sort of crispy.
Is this a freakin’ tongue? I think it’s a tongue?
All these diverse and mysterious pieces were swimming in a white sauce. I was a bit intimidated but figured: This is France, and the French are famous for their cuisine. I’ve had many tasty meals the past few years, including some unusual dishes, so this just has to be good. Maybe it will be great, a meal I’ll think back fondly upon for many, many years.
I took a small, tentative bite of one of the big, lumpy pieces … and … terrible. And kind of disgusting. Refusing to give up after only one bite, I took an even smaller bite of one of the gelatinous pieces, and it was even more horrible. I swirled a piece of bread in the white sauce. It was fine. I tried a bite of one of the thin, crispy bits and … nope, not even close. I tried to wash the taste out of my mouth with more bread, the boiled potatoes that came with this disgusting veal dish, and a big gulp of wine from my demi carafe of rouge. And looked around in envy at people eating delicious-looking steak, chicken and duck.
Why didn’t I order the poulet? You can never go wrong with chicken. But no, I had to be all gastronomically adventurous and get the tete de veau. The server came over to check on me, and she seemed disappointed I didn’t seem to like my tete de veau. She started talking to me in French.
Me: “Parlez-vous Anglais?”
Server: “Yes, a little. You do not like the tete de veau?”
Me: “What is it?”
Server: “It is the brains of a, how do you say, a young, baby cow. A calf?”
Server: “It is a special dish, a delicacy.”
Me: “If you say so.”
Server: “I will bring you more bread.”
I could tell from her look that she now thought of me as a typical, unsophisticated and mediocre-looking American.
The server did her best, but finally, she was unable to contain herself and began laughing. as she walked back into the kitchen. About 30 seconds later, the chef popped his out of the door. He looked over toward me, began laughing and quickly retreated back into the kitchen. I’ll bet they told that stories for weeks. Perhaps it was even in the newspaper the net day.
FYI: According to tasteatlas.com, the famed French writer Gustave Flaubert said the origins of tete de veau dates back to the British and their celebration of the decapitation of King Charles I in 1649. And then, after the French Revolution, and the beheading of several members of the royal family, the French began making tete de veau. None of this fascinating bit of decapitation history makes this celebration dish any more appetizing.
You have been warned. Order the poulet. Or steak. It’s the same word in both languages.
Here’s the link to my Biking France books (Provence, Bordeaux, Normandy, the Loire and the Dordogne). I recently took all five off Amazon, iBooks and all the other eBook platforms because they took about 60 percent of the revenue. Now, thanks to even more tech advances, I can make them available as PDFs.