Story of a wonderful meal among neighbours, in France
Perry and I were invited to the kind of French meal you see in films. A couple from a neighbouring village asked us and some other friends to come to lunch. We had experienced marathon French meals at village functions, but never privately at someone’s house. It was rather more refined than a village meal, but no smaller. Our hosts were so generous to us! Here’s what happened…
Working up an appetite
We walked along the track, through the woods, through the scent of barley fields baking in the sun, and down to the next village. The sky was deep blue, the trees were vivid green, the track was bleached sandstone and the crickets were ringing all around us.
We arrived just after midday, to find a beautifully laid table under the shade of a couple of acacia trees. The patterned tablecloth was brightly-coloured, in yellow, red and orange. Nibbles had been displayed in the middle, and each place was set with a wine glass and three pretty, mis-matched china plates, one on top of the other.
We had been invited for the meal a few days earlier, during drinks at Anna and Steve’s – Phillipe had mentioned something about a rare fish and Dani spoke of wood pigeon. Later, Anna and Steve were speculating over which of these dishes we would actually be eating, but I had a sneaking suspicion that, knowing French hospitality, we would be eating not only both dishes, but more besides. The three-plate stacks confirmed my hopes, and the care that had been taken over the table indicated that we were in for an excellent meal.
Although Phillipe said that he did have whisky, he also banned us from drinking any; we would be eating and drinking South-West France-style today. So, for aperitifs we were offered a choice of home-made pineau, made from grape juice and eau de vie (a powerful spirit made from grape skins), or home-made walnut wine, which is a concoction of wine, eau de vie, sugar, walnuts and inherited knowledge. I chose the walnut wine, which was quite sweet, dense, and had the subtle but unmistakable mustiness of walnuts. I drank a couple of glasses with the tasty nibbles (Black olives, those ‘pizza’ crisps that are made to look like a miniature pizza, and ritz-type small biscuits from a packet, which were topped with garlic and cream cheese blobs, and were very nice).
Following our leisurely ‘apero‘, light, crusty French bread was brought out, to accompany slices of dried sausage. Then home-made pheasant pâté was added to the table, as well as a large bowl of couscous, which, we were told, was the only concession to non-South-Western French food. The couscous was packed with flavour; lemon juice, onion, mint and tomatoes, although it was a shame that the sprig of fresh basil was only meant as a garnish.
Dani’s absolutely superb pâté was made from completely wild pheasants, which Phillipe had hunted and shot the previous autumn. Having been baked in the flip-top jar in which it was served, and surrounded by its own light fat and melting jelly, it was deliciously savoury. Nobody could resist helping themselves to large portions of the entrées, but it is worth remembering at this point that nibbles, pâté, sausage, bread and couscous would normally be a filling lunch on its own. We would have to start pacing ourselves.
The starter was accompanied by a dry Bergerac wine, which looked oddly like a dessert wine, with its amber hue, but was crisp and clean and slightly acidic. At first I did not taste it as carefully as I would normally do because I was too busy savouring the pâté, but then I began to fully appreciate its refreshing qualities, as we sat chatting for a while, whilst the vine-clipping barbecue was lit and allowed to burn down.
Our next course was lalauze, a rare local fish. It is a large, white-fleshed migratory fish which swims up the nearby rivers to spawn, and, when cooked, is delicate in flavour with a texture similar to mackerel, without the oilyness. Palates were cleansed as we awaited the massive fish, with the smell of it barbecuing wafting over us; an evocative scent which always makes me think of hot holidays by warm seas.
After being cooked directly on the embers of vine clippings, the lalauze arrived at the table, its belly stuffed with delicate leafy herbs, and its charred skin garnished with slices of lemon, which had been cooked on the beast. Phillipe dissected and served it out, and we helped ourselves to the pale green sauce, which was a cold mixture of garlic, shallots, herbs, olive oil and something tangy. The flavour was intense and addictive, and made an fantastic contrast to the fish. I had a second helping, of this course, but knew that I had to refuse the offer of thirds if I was to survive the rest of the meal.
Pigeon, wine & cheese
During the next interval, we started on a bottle of Haute Médoc Bordeaux from 1996, and I can truly say that it was my best wine experience ever. I like the way that everyone gets a different experience from a particular wine, but Anna seemed to get similar joys as me from this one, as we were both overwhelmed by the incredibly long time that all the flavours from each tiny sip stayed all over the inside of our mouths. We realised how accustomed we had become to cheap table wine, which we drink in gulps to get any winey satisfaction. In this case, the glass was filled with the dark scent of the wine, and as the wine circled, thick ‘legs’ of glucose and glycerine slowly slipped back down the glass. I tasted plums, juicy blackberries, black cherries and dark chocolate. Inspite of the heavy qualities, I also thoroughly enjoyed the mouth-watering, fruity refreshment I got from sips of this wine, alternated with mouthfuls of the next main course…
Each of us was given a slice of pungent garlic toast, which we were instructed to place on our plate, under our whole pigeon (again, shot by Phillipe), and douse the slow-cooked birds in the wine gravy they had baked in. The gamey meat slid off the carcass, and the delectable giblets had been left inside the birds, providing nuggets of alternative texture and flavour. As seems to be the norm in this area of France,, the casseroled meat was dry, but this only served to do justice to the gravy, the soggy garlic toast and those ethereal sips of Haute Médoc.
By the time we came to the end of the pigeon course, we were feeling extremely full. But Phillipe was instructing us not to drink any water, because he was opening a bottle of Margaux 1989, which was to be drunk with the cheese course. Remember that this was an exceptionally hot day.
We all tasted and discussed the Margaux, which I really enjoyed, but which I felt lacked some of the punch and was not as well-rounded as the Haute Médoc. The Margaux was certainly the most serious of the two, and it went beautifully with the slivers of roquefort and goat’s cheese which I managed to force down.
Now, finally, came dessert (I’m feeling full just remembering this stage of the culinary marathon). After another short break in the meal, Dani went to get the wonderful walnut tart that she had made. The really fantastic crumbly short pastry was filled with a finely minced-up mixture of walnuts, cream, sugar and eggs.
I felt I had to intervene, as huge slices started being handed round. My stomach was leaving me no choice but to ask for half a slice, which is not only extremely out of character, but also considered quite rude in France. I should really have taken the whole slice graciously and left half of it, but I have a mental disorder which stops me from being able to leave anything on my plate, and I was genuinely worried that I was on the verge of exploding. However, after enjoying my portion of tart and resting for a few minutes while everyone talked, I actually started eyeing up the leftover slices! That dessert must have been very good!
Thankfully, no more was eaten that lunchtime, but, after coffee, we were all in need of a digestif. A bottle of armagnac was produced, and everyone was poured a generous measure. It was immediately clear from the amazing aroma that this was a very special drink. Phillipe enjoyed telling us about how he acquired it from a friend whose father had died, leaving several barrels of booze in his barn. They knew that the barrels contained armagnac but had no knowledge of where or when it was distilled. The father died in 1980, so Phillipe had simply labelled the bottle, ‘Armagnac, before 1980’. You hear stories about people discovering dusty, ancient barrels and bottles of liquid, which turn out to be valuable collector’s wines or spirits, but we were actually drinking one of these stories, and it really was magical stuff!
After thanking Dani and Phillipe, and saying good-byes to everyone, the amble home was a bit of a challenge, due to the unaccustomed weight of our bodies and the hot sun beating on our alcohol-hazed heads. After a few hundred metres the woodland provided some shade, but by the time we reached home – at 5pm – a nap was necessary in order to gently recover from the days exertions.
© Gemma Driver 2004