Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - August 19, 2016

Pizza and pétanque

We weren't surprised on our first visit to Metz, France to see many German-sounding names, as the border with Germany is only 30 miles to the east. But why did there seem to be a pizza place on every corner and Italian restaurants everywhere?

Our friend Francis explained that years ago when Lorraine's iron industry was going strong, there was a shortage of manpower and men from Italy were encouraged to fill that need. But many of those who answered the call brought their families or started their own and never returned to their homeland. Today, these folks are as French as any French citizen, but with an Italian twist. Family names and a love for the food brought to the area by their ancestors lives on. And just as Americans without a drop of Italian blood embrace pizza and spaghetti and lasagna, the wholly native French have done the same.

So on our trip in July to Metz, we eagerly accepted an invitation to a pizza party at our friends' home in nearby Fèves because these folks do know how to eat and drink!

Alex and Rosette have a new home in the village. And just as many Americans have an outdoor grill for barbecuing, they have a homemade brick pizza oven in the back yard. It was the center of attention the day husband Art, daughters Mariya and Katie, Mariya's girlfriend Miriam and I visited. We had just picked Mariya and Miriam up from the Luxembourg airport after their brief trip to London to attend the new "Harry Potter" play. They were tired, having arisen early to reach the airport in time for their morning flight, but they were ready to party with the rest of us.

About a dozen others had gathered by the time we arrived. Wine, laughter and conversation were already flowing freely.

Together, we know only a few words of French, but Katie and I had been studying French each night on "Duolingo," a smart-phone application. After my most recent test, it said I had achieved a four percent fluency in the language. When I told our friends that, they laughed and said my fluency would get even better with more wine!

I noticed that I did start picking up more words and phrases as the day went on. And I had discovered the night before that along with Alex's Italian background, he speaks some Spanish, the one foreign language I know well. Francis speaks English as does his great nephew Paul and great niece Emma, who were visiting from South Carolina. So it was fun to keep switching between three different languages.

It was also fascinating to watch Alex, Rosette and their friend Michel prepare pizza after pizza and it was obvious they were old hands at it. Rosette brought from their home cookie sheet after cookie sheet, each laden with nine mounds of dough. Alex flattened the dough into 10- to 12-inch circles, sometimes using his hands or a rolling pin and sometimes playfully throwing them into the air to impress us with his skills. Next, he spread a layer of cream cheese on each piece of flattened dough. Then, he added some combination of onions, bacon, potatoes, artichokes, olives, ham, mushrooms, cilantro, tomato sauce or other toppings that Rosette had brought from the kitchen.

Alex and Michel took turns with the paddle, putting one pizza into the oven at a time. Within minutes, they brought the thin-crusted beauty out of the oven and cut it into six pieces. It took all of about one minute for each pizza to be devoured. All in all, our hosts served nearly 30 pizzas for lunch.

While they were something like the thin-crusted pizzas we get at a U.S. pizzeria, these also reminded me of the tarte flambées Katie and I had eaten at restaurants in France's Alsace region. Tarte flambée translates as "pie baked in the flames." It is called Flammkuchen or "flame cake" in German.

Since we would be leaving in a few days and the girls still wanted to shop in nearby Metz, Art and I dropped them off downtown about mid-afternoon and then headed back, wondering how many would still be at Alex and Rosette's place.

They were all there, but the effects of the wine and the hot sun were evident. Paul told us that while we were gone, the group had attempted to put up an umbrella for shade, but it - and they - had fallen over in the process.

Alex, Rosette and Michel were still at the oven making more pizzas - this time, dessert pizzas with toppings such as rhubarb - which Art really liked - and chocolate.

Someone suggested it was time for a game of pétanque - a specialty of the area. It is something similar to our horseshoes. The goal is to toss or roll hollow steel balls as close as possible to a small wooden ball called a cochonnet. The guys convinced Art to join them. He did pretty well, considering that he'd never played before.

"That wasn't too hard since my competitors were pretty bombed," he said.

I ate more pizza that day than what I normally would in three or four visits to a pizzeria. But I didn't feel overly full - just extremely content - although the wine probably contributed to that feeling.

When we finally made it back to our place in Metz, we agreed it had been a wonderful day - a day filled with friendly banter, great wine, pizza and pétanque.

Top-left: friends and neighbors await Chef Alex's pizza; top-right: Art, Alex, Paul and Michel waiting their turn while Alex's neighbor exercises his pétanque skill; lower-left: Alex tossing a pizza; lower-left-center: Alex creates another pizza as Michel holds a firing paddle; lower-right-center: Rosette watches as hubby Alex creates another culinary delight; lower-right: nine balls of dough awaiting the chef's magic touch..

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