I’ve been reading a book called “The Swerve,” about the miraculous survival of a manuscript of “On the Nature of Things” by Lucretius, which carried forward the philosophy of Epicurus. I had read a translation of that Lucretius about a decade ago, and found myself enthralled with the true nature of Epicurean thought, which is not hedonism but, rather, a way of being in the world. The other day at the Atlanta Botanical Garden I saw the “Epi-graph” in the photo below:
Then last week, as I was about to board an overseas flight, I saw another epigraph: “Let each man pass his days in that endeavor wherein his gift is greatest.” It’s a quote from another Latin poet, the elegist Sextus Propertius, and it’s found in a collage made from approximately 10,800 business cards by artist John Salvest, exhibited near Gates E1-E4 at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.
The quote struck home. Less than 24 hours earlier, in the midst of our heat wave, one of my tennis teammates and neighbors, Phung Nguyen, 37 years old and one of the fittest people I know, had been found unresponsive and was later pronounced dead of a heart attack. A special agent for the Dept. of Defense, Inspector General’s office, he had served as a U.S. Navy Reservist, and had deployed to Afghanistan not long ago. He left behind his wife and four young children.
Thus it was with a heavy heart that I left North America for a week in Liège, a university city of half a million people in the French-speaking state of Wallonia, Belgium. I was going there to discover the business climate. But along the way I also rediscovered the indelible threads connecting the good life with the lives of those around us.
One of the people I interviewed in Liège (the word means “cork”) was Jean Galler, founder of Galler chocolates, who led us through a tasting of his products while explaining the history and purpose of his company, which seeks no less than to “bring about pleasure through a creative and quality chocolate experience.”
Galler, who studied cuisine in Basel and in Paris (with famed pastry chef Gaston Lenôtre), wants his customers to have an “organoleptic” experience. If that term sounds vaguely sensuous, that’s because it is. When I asked what it meant, I was told it’s when an experience involves the engagement of all five senses. M. Galler’s chocolates certainly do that, and Americans will soon have the opportunity to procure the experience at new shops arriving on U.S. shores.
We discussed cocoa content, and Galler observed that once the content got above 80 percent or so, the bitterness became too great for true enjoyment and just turned into “a joke.” The best bars we sampled, such as the pistachio bar, had a mix of salty and sweet, a blend I’ve grown to love ever since my wife introduced me to chocolate-covered pretzels.
Later that evening I had the pleasure of the company of M. Galler and others as we dined at Le Selys, the restaurant at Liège’s only five-star hotel, the Crowne Plaza. As we sat on the terrace with an aperitif and appetizers, we were visited by Robert Lesenne, the recently signed-on chef at Le Selys who is known far and wide for having opened three different restaurants that earned a star from Michelin. He and Galler were old friends … the jokes and wisecracks said as much. When I asked whether M. Lesenne had passed along his knowledge, Galler told me he was known for taking students under his wing. The meal was, of course, as delightful as the chef.
Thirty-six hours later, we learned that M. Lesenne, 72, had suffered a heart attack during the night and passed away. We had been among the final grateful recipients of his 40 years of well crafted cuisine. And he had passed the preponderance of his days in the endeavor wherein his gift was greatest.
“J’adore ma region,” said Bernard Meurens two days later. The sales manager of La Siroperie Meurens in the country village of Aubel delivered this spontaneous statement from atop a hill overlooking the rolling countryside. The smell of cow dung filled the air, as the cows themselves lounged on the hillside between outcrops of old fruit trees. “I’m already in paradise,” said Meurens with a beaming smile. “I don’t have to die.”
It was Meurens’ great-grandfather who founded the siroperie, maker of a pear and apple fruit spread (along with other key ingredients) that can be found in most Belgian pantries, and which pairs nicely with bread, meats and the aromatic fromage de Herve, another specialty of the region.
Aubel, located near the German border, is a veritable model of local agro-food economic development. Next door to the Meurens plant, established in 1902, sits a maker of apple cider, and ham and beef processors are just up the hill.
Turning 180 degrees from the bucolic hilltop, we walked across the road to the Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery and Memorial, where 7,992 U.S. military graves fill 57 acres of beautifully maintained grounds. Most of them died during the Ardennes offensive that took place from Sept. 1944 through March 1945 at the end of World War II. The site is one of 24 cemeteries under the auspices of the American Battle Monuments Commission. Of the 124,905 interred at those cemeteries, 93,234 are from World War II.
As the commission explains, “the cemetery possesses great military historic significance as it holds fallen Americans of two major efforts, one covering the U.S. First Army’s drive in September 1944 through northern France, Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg into Germany, and the second covering the Battle of the Bulge.” When the official ceremony to begin the repatriation of the remains of 5,600 American war dead began in Oct. 1947, over 30,000 Belgians attended.
I talked to a large family from Virginia, who had been visiting in Germany and made the drive over to visit the gravesite of a great uncle. They were the first family to have had the opportunity to visit the grave since the war. (Later, upon my return stateside, I told a business associate of my visit and learned that his father, a pilot, was buried in the same cemetery. “Small world,” he wrote.)
Visiting such a place the day after Independence Day summoned feelings of immense tininess, great humility, horror at such atrocious death, disbelief at such devoted belief, and pride by association. Gratitude comes from all the visitors to the memorial, who write in all their languages such comments as “never again,” “thank you,” and “we will never forget.”
The white crosses and Stars of David form straight lines at the same time they curve, flaring gently across the green, green grass, offering a uniform sadness that only builds and builds, before pouring into the countryside and being transformed, strangely but comfortingly, into peace.
Late afternoon that same day brought us to Val-Dieu (God’s Valley), a former Cistercian monastery near Aubel that may be out of monks (since 2001) but is still long on brewing fine beer.
The abbey was constructed in 1216, counted as many as 5,000 acres on its property at the best of times, but has been limited to its present 30 acres ever since the French Revolution, when the powers that be closed all the monasteries and abolished orders. Brewing only started up again 15 years ago, resuscitating a tradition that began — so our guide told us — because the rule of St. Benedict called for strict vegetarianism, and beer, drunk from a bowl, provided necessary protein and other nutrients. The father abbot got to drink the strongest beer, now brewed and bottled as “Triple.”
The brewery is expanding, and has seen visitors to its grounds grow from 2,000 in 2006 to 20,000 last year. While our guide did not reveal any secrets, she did say regional fruits and wild fruits are among them. But the secret, the “heart of beer,” she said, was the yeast. The mother batch is conserved at the University of Leuven’s Verstrepen Lab.
It may not be Propertius, Catullus or Lucretius, but the sign in Latin in the Val Dieu tasting room is poetry to some of us. Nunc est bibendumtranslates to “Now is the time for drinking.” And, as it turns out, the phrase is indeed the title of a famous section from Roman lyric poet Horace’s Cleopatra Ode.
The gourmet cuisine, conversation, fine wine and finer company flowed again that evening, this time at Heliport, considered by many to be the finest restaurant in Liège, overlooking the gently flowing Meuse River. Chef Frédéric Salpetier creates such dishes as “Asparagus tartare / Iberico ham / quail’s egg / preserved tomato” and “Half-smoked salmon with lime and coconut / flash grilled gamba / with pimento.” Among the items we consumed were lamb with polenta and a green apple and olive sorbet. Formidable.
It occurred to me that food and drink, properly served, can be viewed with nearly sacramental reverence, perhaps unwitting but entirely natural in a region of the world so heavily influenced by Catholicism. The bread breaks, the wine pours, the elevation begins. If you’ve ever seen the glorious food movies “Babette’s Feast” or “Big Night” (the frittata scene), you know the feeling.
As some of us had dined there the night before, the head waiter said the chef would improvise a menu for our pleasure. He guided the wine choices with the attentiveness and concentration of an artist at work. And there in the heart of the “Cité Ardente,” the Passionate City, the “organoleptic” delights of Heliport transported us.
Thirty-six hours later, I had been transported back to my neighborly corner of Atlanta, and was going with my wife and daughter to our friend and teammate’s funeral. Grief overflowed. So did prayer. So did gratitude for a life well lived, affection for family and fond memories.
One of us remembered Phung having prepared a particularly special dish for a dinner club, something involving a semi-developed duck egg that the more squeamish among us chose to pass over. But he and a few other brave souls had eaten it with relish, just as he had devoured so many other experiences in his life.
Later that evening, as do people all over the world, friends and neighbors pooled our resources to provide food for the large group of extended relatives in town. It was lovingly prepared and gratefully received.
After a week that included two dozen fine wines and a long list of satisfying dishes, I sat at home with my wife and child, savoring some Two Buck Chuck and a pasta featuring tomatoes and herbs from our backyard. For dessert we sampled some of M. Galler’s chocolate bars. Some of them were sweeter than others.
We watched the birds out the window. The sun set, and peace came dropping slow on our bit of countryside. All was gratefully received.