When I first started writing this blog, it was to process my own thinking, and that still is very much the case. I feel like my thoughts always revolve around connections and questions. Questions about a moment or motives or perspectives, or questions about the human experience, because those are the questions that create a veil over all existence.
So last night, when we went to La Roya in Saint Florent, Corsica, for our anniversary dinner, I couldn’t even begin to think about what I would blog or why or even if I should. There was no plan. I didn’t know if there would be a reason, and I wasn’t altogether confident that a reason would develop and emerge throughout the evening. My husband has some ideas about what he would like me to say since I’ve now allowed him to lurk in the shadows of this secret writing life. Yet, my message is clear: it’s my blog. You can’t tell me what to write. It has to be about something…anchored in something…that is bigger than the moment itself. “Okay.” That’s what he said.
We knew before we made our reservation at La Roya that there were à la carte options as well as two prix fix menus, and I knew before we arrived that I would choose the most expensive. It was an anniversary celebration, nine years & counting. Still, I had no idea what to expect from L’experience—the chef’s palette of dishes designed to showcase the local fare in a most sublime way—with wine chosen specifically for each course. To that moment, I had never sat for a multi-course meal with sommelier-selected pairings, and I felt insatiably curious wondering what would come first…and next…and next…and how dishes would go together.
“You should blog about this,” he said. You can’t tell me what to blog.
But it was through this conversation about how my writing develops that I focused on the idea of questions. As we received the first course, a pre-course to be exact, of melon smoothie, buttery-cream-filled pastry and gougières, and as I anticipated the next course, I began to wonder about the enormous feat undertaken by artists to build an experience where one moment creates a scaffold for the next, and like following a plotline, there is a climax and dénouement that either provides the conclusion or creates more questions and anticipation that can’t be answered.
Take great albums. Those are creations where each track is most strategically placed either first or seventh or last. In the days of LPs it was difficult to bypass the creation in its entirety because you seriously had to get out of your chair, lift the needle, find the right transition line, and place it correctly, in order to restrict your focus to one specific piece. The easiest way was to listen to the full album. But in listening to the full album, when it was done well, you exposed yourself to an emotional journey that someone else designed for you. If you take it to another level to ponder the significance of the experience—is it the artist’s intent or the viewer’s perspective that gives the work meaning—one might land on the conclusion that it is both because the design of the work in its intentionality is the catalyst for the experience regardless of the reader’s perspective. Despite the awful reputation that he developed for “Beautiful,” I feel James Blundt’s album was masterfully created. “The Beatles’ White album or anything by Blood, Sweat and Tears.” That’s what he said. Museum curators know that the layout and pace and rising action of the work is as much art as the work itself, as do gardeners and good bookstore owners and great teachers. Regardless of how you look at it, when we experience art we not only are recipients but also active participants in a journey that we did not design. These are gifts to which we give meaning because if there is no one to give meaning to art, what then is it?
All this came in to play for me last night as we were served one, then another, then another course.
I wondered when & how it would build, and what the chef had in store. The first three conventional courses were all roll-type courses, first with raw mackerel wrapped in rice and nori, then with just-so-slightly-warmed red tuna, then white, flaky dorado hugged by a phyllo-type pastry. I noticed that the sweetness and temperature increased with each dish. The rising action.
We then were served a dish of Israeli couscous prepared in a creamy risotto-style, served in a beefy, beautiful bowl. The richness needle increased on the meter. More rising.
Then wild pigeon three ways. Again, more rich than the last dish and specifically more sweet. Each preparation with a different texture on the same plate. The climax.
Next? A creamy confection not to be confused with an real piece of fruit…fruit and cream-goodness ensconced in white chocolate, artistically designed to resemble an apricot, but in one slice yields to an unexpected yellow softness with a buttery texture and pieces of the fruit in the middle. Even the stem was candy. Falling action.
And next? A strawberry and basil tartine with meringue sending me over the edge and beyond my ability to absorb. Dénoument. Time to lean back in my chair.
And so back to my question, how does one build an experience, and more specifically in this case, how does a chef build a journey that takes one from the comfortable low-country up the windy roads to the vistas of the cliffs, safely and slowly, so that each viewpoint holds the possibility of a rich panorama of scents and scenes? And then how does a great chef take us back home again, where we feel stable and solid, fulfilled and mesmerized and awed all at the same time?
I don’t know and perhaps that is the mystery. It was a mystery well presented last night, like a good Agatha Christie. It leaves one remembering and wondering and wanting more at the end. You knew what to expect, but you didn’t. You feel like you’ve been to the mountain and back, and you have.