"Winter is hard," chided Noel Gilet, sitting before the fire in his farmhouse in France's Burgundy region. He was not referring to the weather -- he was complaining that his wife, Marie-France, does her best cooking in the summer.
Despite it being midwinter, Mme. Gilet had just served an extraordinary meal. It started with sauteed foie gras with chicory and went on to sliced duck breast in cream and shallots with sauteed potatoes and endive braised in red wine. After the main course, there was cheese toast spread with a mixture of goat cheese, butter, grated gruyere and cider, then broiled. Finally, a huge, paper-thin apple tart.
Marie-France Gilet had prepared this elaborate meal because, although it was December, she had some American guests. Usually guests come only in the summer, and then they come at the rate of up to a hundred a day.
The Gilets' farm, in the village of Champignelles about two hours southeast of Paris, is part of a growing group of fermes auberges scattered throughout the French countryside -- working farms that open their dining rooms to paying guests. Between May 15 and Nov. 11, the Gilets' farm, Les Perriaux, serves meals to the public. And Noel Gilet eats well.
Just about everything a ferme auberge serves is grown on the farm. Mme. Gilet force-feeds ducks -- with her own farm's corn -- to fatten their livers for the foie gras. She serves the duck meat fresh as well as preserved in a confit. She makes her own terrines and rillettes. She raises her own chickens, and the farm produces almost all the vegetables and fruits that appear on the table. Even the cider is homemade, although the goat cheese comes from the nearest neighbor's farm. The bread is bought from a local bakery; nevertheless, it is beautiful bread.
Nobody seems to know precisely how many fermes auberges there are in France, but according to estimates, there may be as many as 500. Each has its own specialties. Some serve beef, others lamb, pork, rabbit, pigeons, pheasant or trout. Some make their own cheeses. One ferme auberge near the Gilets' takes visitors on hunts and serves wild boar. What most of them have in common is being very hard to find. Farms are by their nature isolated, after all.
Les Perriaux stands alone in its flat countryside. Its low-slung farmhouse and barn exude cheeriness after a journey along roads too tiny to seem promising.
Meals are available by reservation only, with weekdays in summertime devoted to large groups and weekends to individuals. In good weather, when the terrace can be used, Les Perriaux can seat 100 guests at a time.
When guests call for reservations they discuss the menu with Mme. Gilet, deciding whether it will be five courses at about $13 per person or the menu gourmand at about $24. The five-course menu includes hors d'oeuvres of cold salad or hot salad with chicken livers; an entree of charcuterie, terrine or rillettes; a main dish of roast chicken, chicken with cream, chicken with cider, roast duck or braised duck; cheese; and a choice of desserts. The more elaborate dishes on the menu gourmand include foie gras; a hot entree such as leek tart, onion tart or chicken liver pa~te'; a main dish of duck confit or magret (breast); fresh and dry cheeses; and a dessert platter.
For children 10 and under, a menu of four courses, with ham as the main dish, costs about $7. And a very simple lunch of entree, omelet, fresh cheese and dessert is available for about $8.50. Beverages are extra, from coffee at about $1 to a list of alcoholic beverages that includes local wines, the farm's own cider, aperitifs and digestifs. An ultra-Burgundian dinner could start with a kir a` l'aligote -- the local white wine with a splash of cassis -- and end with a marc de bourgogne, the clear firewater distilled from the lees of Burgundy's grapes.
These are bountiful meals. With the main dishes come potatoes -- "If they're not having potatoes, the French don't think they're eating," says Mme. Gilet -- and another vegetable such as carrot puree, sauteed cabbage, ratatouille or tomato provencal. Dessert might be a seasonal fruit tart, floating island, chocolate fondant, tarte tatin (apple upside-down tart) or prune tart.
Most groups order the regular menu, while individuals overwhelmingly prefer to order the menu gourmand. Then they buy what they tasted -- pa~te's, rillettes, foie gras, fresh or smoked magret, confit -- to take home with them.
Even in winter, much of the farm's activity is concerned with the summer's dinner guests. Over the large brick fireplace in the dining room hang magrets de canard -- the breasts of fattened ducks -- slowly smoking and drying over a period of five days. Thus preserved, they will be later sliced thin for cold plates or slivered to flavor salads.
The Gilets' farm dates back to the 16th century, but only for the last decade has it been a ferme auberge. The change was made after a year that was too dry for farming, when the Gilets were faced with a choice: Find a new way to make money or move off the farm. It's been a big change, and adjustments continue. After the first five years, Mme. Gilet started raising and fattening ducks for foie gras -- a process that is new to this region, more traditionally centered in Alsace and Southwest France. It is a laborious process, but provides a luxurious product to draw customers.
The point of the ferme auberge program is not just to serve meals, but to show a working farm. The proprietors have formed an association that shares ideas as well as establishes mutual rules. And for farm wives such as Marie-France Gilet, belonging to an association has turned the job into a profession. She has enjoyed becoming part of the fermes-auberges "family," and shows off her farm to other members of the group.
Fermes auberges are supposed to serve only their own products, though some adhere to this less strictly than the Gilets. Unlike a restaurant, says Mme. Gilet, her ferme auberge is limited to serving only duck and chicken. But she gets plenty of mileage out of those. After the duck liver has been used for foie gras, the breast is served as smoked or fresh magret, the legs and thighs are preserved in fat as confits, and the wings and small bits become rillettes. She raises 700 ducks and 1,200 chickens a year. And while serving 8,000 customers a year is arduous, the overhead for her business is low, since the only finished products that must be purchased are wine, bread and cheese.
Mme. Gilet is a bustling, attractive woman who wears not a housedress and babushka, but a stylish long skirt and woven leather boots under her checked apron. Her kitchen, too, is a modern marvel, with stainless steel refrigerator and microwave oven. Gilet cooks for a hundred guests at a time with only the help of one young girl in the kitchen. Although in the dining room her family pitches in so that there is one server for each 10 guests, this is clearly Mme. Gilet's operation. "If I'm not here, they don't let anybody in." It might run well without her, she suggests, but she doesn't want to find out.
Most of the Gilets' guests -- about 60 percent, guesses Mme. Gilet -- are Parisians, who "love going back to old-country things like rhubarb tarts." The remaining guests come largely from nearby towns. Few Americansvisit, except for the groups brought by the nearby La Varenne cooking school in Joigny. The reservations book is generally full by Wednesday for the weekend, though sometimes last-minute reservations are possible.
The Gilets' dining room is as homey as one would expect of a farmhouse, with its rough-beamed ceiling and age-worn floor of hexagonal red tiles. It is also scrupulously clean. Marie-France Gilet has learned a lot about pleasing the public in her 10 years as an innkeeper. Above all, she has learned that "Parisians love to get back to the farm, but don't like chickens walking on the table and mud and dirt around."
And she has learned that with a ferme auberge, each season has its dreams. In winter, Noel Gilet dreams of summer's meals. In summer, Marie-France Gilet dreams of a day off. WAYS & MEANS
Meals at Les Perriaux (Route de Chatillon-Coligny, 89350 Champignelles, France) are available by reservation only, from May 15 to Nov. 11. A list of other fermes auberges in the Yonne Valley is available from the Comite Departmental du Tourisme de l'Yonne, Quai de la Republique, 89000 Auxerre, France.
For information on fermes auberges in other regions, contact the tourism office in each department, or:
Vert d'Agriculture et Tourisme, 9 Ave. Georges V, 75008 Paris.
Maison de Tourisme Vert, Federation Nationale des Gites Ruraux de France, 35 Rue Godot-de-Mauroy, 75009 Paris.
Several fermes auberges are recommended by Patricia Wells in "The Food Lover's Guide to France" (Workman, 1987), including:
Rene Laracine, 01510 Ordonnaz, Ain.
Le Poele, Fourcatier-et-Maison-Neuve, 25370 Les Hopitaux-Neufs, Doubs.
Zuem Dorfwappe, 3 rue Principale, 67340 Weiterswiller, Bas-Rhin, Alsace. INFORMATION: French Government Tourist Office, 610 Fifth Ave., New York, N.Y. 10020, 1-900-420-2003 (there is a charge of 50
a minute). -- Phyllis C. Richman