A Restaurant in Tournus
Thursday 20 December 2018 18:04
This restaurant is tiny and you could easily walk straight by without even noticing it. Which would be a huge shame because not only is the food pretty tasty but it also has a story to tell; a story that is refreshingly heartening. The clue is in the name - délices D’Alep’ - named for the city from which the present owners fled with their children.
It’s hard to imagine that people like ‘us’ could ever be displaced from our homes, our jobs; our normal daily lives destroyed; forced to leave all behind and travel halfway across the world to find some place where our children will be safe and we can live an ordinary life once more. And we don’t really trust people who have had to do just that, do we? Carelessly dismissed as ‘refugees’, ‘migrants’, ‘whatever’, we characterise them as poor and uneducated masses, looking for charity, wanting hand-outs, needing to be cared for, a drain on resources, dangerous too, and definitely not the same as ‘us’.
But they are.
And where do they come from - these people? War torn countries - maybe, we admit reluctantly - but really just seeking to escape from harsh, ugly, poverty stricken places in inhospitable regions - uncivilised locations - nowhere ‘we’ would ever live. When they do impinge upon our daily round it’s as likely to be in the form of a collecting box shoved under our noses into which we shove a few coins. There. Duty done.
We don’t know their stories nor do we really want to.
So it is salutary to read the account of one such family and to discover at first hand what sort of people they really are and where they have come from. César Asfar and his wife Rima once lived in the city of Aleppo in Syria. When they finally decided they must leave their destroyed country at the end of 2014, César had been a commercial director of a Japanese printer company for some years and Rima an art teacher. Good jobs, good income and a nice home too - yet when they left they had nothing but what they stood up in. They flew, with their two young children, to Paris, entering the country on a simple tourist visa.
Aleppo. Where’s that? Never heard of it. An unknown city to be dismissed out of hand - just another one of ‘those places’.
But it isn’t.
Aleppo was in at the very birth of civilisation. It is located in that part of the world known as the ‘fertile crescent’ - where prehistoric hunter-gatherers settled to become the very first farmers on earth. It straddles that most ancient of trade routes - the Silk Road and was already inhabited some 4000 years before the birth of Christ. Until recently it was a thriving, modern city full of busy people.
When César and Rima came to France they were desperate. Months followed when they found it impossible to find jobs, César needed to learn to speak French. They had two small children to care for, nowhere to live. It was six months before they gained status as refugees. Then by chance, when they had finally found somewhere to live in Toul, in Lorraine, though still without jobs, they saw something amazing on the internet: someone wanted to give away a restaurant!
Étapes Gourmandes, a restaurant in the Saône-et-Loire town of Tournus, was owned by Nahiza and Robert Kunz. When they decided to retire from the business they agreed that rather than sell they wanted to pass it on to someone in need. So they told the local paper, and from there the story spread to the World Wide Web. The Kunz were inundated by dozens of worthy applicants and though Rima and César knew nothing of how to run a restaurant and their cooking skills were not great, nevertheless they applied, and in the end, they were the Kunz’s choice.
The Délices D’Alep opened for business on Tuesday 28th of December 2016. Other than its new name little else was changed; as yet there was no money for improvements. A few pictures of their home town adorned the walls but that was about it. The menu was short, simple and offered dishes that were typically Middle Eastern. César told me he was able to keep in contact with his mother, still living in Syria. She taught him to cook over the phone! And what a good student he turned out to be. On the menu was falafel, hummus, baba ganoush, mechoui lamb, tabbouleh and more - all cooked by César in the tiny kitchen behind the bar. Rima, who already spoke excellent French, quickly established herself as a friendly, efficient, front-of-house.
It is nearly two years to the day from when they first opened for business. The menu has expanded, the food though simple is beautifully cooked and generously served. They stock the delicious wines of Château Kefraya, the grapes grown in the biblical land of Canaan, now Lebanon, and they have a dessert to die for - knafeh au fromage.
The place is still a little shabby except for one splendid addition. Fixed high on the wall facing in to the restaurant for all to see there is now a wooden sign, and upon it written in words of gold it says:
“From one of the most ancient continuously inhabited places on earth, we give you the scent of the Orient and cast the spell of our thousands of years of history.
We have come from a city with one of the largest and oldest fortresses in the world (some 3000 years old); the longest covered market (12 kilometres); not to mention its ancient and unique olive soap, known to all four corners of the land; and the school of music whose exalted reputation is undisputed throughout the Arab world.
And today ....
We are here to help you discover the taste of its famous cuisine whose renown goes hand in hand with its ancient history.
Aleppo - where the past began.”
These are proud people who lived in one of the oldest cities in the world. They want us to know who they are. They don’t ask or expect it but we should treat them as honoured guests, welcomed if they decide to stay, though happy for them if ever the time should come when they are able, if they so choose, to return to their homeland.
BARGES & BREAD
Pub. Prospect Books, Aug. 2017
ISBN -13 978-1-909248-51-9
240pp, paperback with flaps
Size: 216 x 138mm
Price: £12.50 Black & white
Where to find some of my writings:
Petits Propos Culinaire (PPC) is a journal of food studies and food history published by Prospect Books three times a year since 1980. Now edited by Tom Jaine it is a mix of academic study, food history written with a light touch, and slightly quirky essays written by people like me. Amongst its contributors over the years are some of the best food and cookery writers of our time. Such a special publication continues to deserve our support.
PPC 96 August 2012:
Food on the Move
PPC 99 November 2013:
Hospital Food - à la française
PPC 101 October 2014:
The Limejuice Run
PPC 104 December 2015:
PPC 110 February 2018:
Une Mauvaise Herbe; Purslane