Judgement day approaches

For the final weigh-in around Halloween, we decided that everybody would bring their pumpkin to our house to be weighed and have an aperitif. We would then make our way to a local restaurant at the top of our road. There was a very good little restaurant about ten minutes away and it was just perfect. It wasn’t very large, but the owner said she could fit eighty people in snugly. For the prizes, we all agreed that it would be more interesting and amusing if there were lots of smaller prizes for different categories rather than just one big one for the heaviest pumpkin.

I had the idea of writing to a leading British seed manufacturer asking if they would like to sponsor the competition by providing a cup. In the letter I explained we lived in France and we were organising a pumpkin competition using their seeds. When I didn’t receive a reply from them, I sent another letter, this time adding ‘my father has always bought their seeds but he will not any more’. Not that this statement would bankrupt them, I’m sure. A few weeks later, I received a letter with the company logo at the top. The letter read, ‘thank you for writing to us, sorry for the delay in replying, your letter was passed all round the office’. ‘We would be delighted to provide a cup, please let us know what you would like engraved on it.’

The whole competition was only a bit of fun between friends which prompted us to come up with some amusing prizes. One day whilst walking in the woods my father came across a branch that looked that someone had their two fingers in the ‘V’ for victory sign. He brought it home, sanded it down and varnished it. It was awarded as the booby prize. For the person with the smallest entry, a huge pumpkin was given, which I made from paper Maché.

The finale took place on one wintry night at the beginning of November. To make the competition even more amusing, we decided to give a prize for the most decorated pumpkin under thirty kilos. Everybody was instructed to come, with their pumpkin, to our house at half past five for the weigh in. It was a damp, dismal evening, but soon everyone’s mind turned from feeling the cold to an overwhelming excitement to see if their pumpkin would stand a good chance of winning. Never before or since have we seen such a vast array of pumpkins. There was an assortment of big ones in perfect shape or irregular little ones, in every shade of yellow and orange. One family had written a record of their pumpkin, noting the key stages in its growth and had been placed next to their prize specimen. One person, whose pumpkin had died, brought along a seed with a weed.

Everyone entered into the sprit of the competition in more ways than one. Some of the decorations were really original. One had been painted all over to look like a stained glass window, another with a huge face and bright lips with a hat on top filled with flowers. Everybody made their pumpkin amusing. The most amusing was what our neighbour had done, from the beginning he was determined that he would win as he is a landscape gardener. He had scooped everything away from inside and filled it with cement! He then made it look like a hug saucepan with a black lid on top. The only problem, was when people went to lift the lid, the paint was still wet. It was also too heavy to carry.

All the large pumpkins needed at least two people to lift them onto the scales. Some were between fifty and sixty kilos. The village lent us their industrial scales, which proved to be a vital element in deciding the winning pumpkin. Apart from the second and third heaviest, we as the committee would do the judging. Prizes were awarded for the perfectly shaped, most orange, most decorated, the best grown under difficult conditions, the oldest competitor, etc. Almost everyone received a prize of some sort.

It was then time for us all to make our way to our local restaurant for a celebratory meal. We had taken over the dining room for the evening, and the owner had agreed to provide us with a five course regional meal. Ideally it would have been good to include pumpkin in every course but we decided against it as our area has so many delicious dishes to offer. However, pumpkin soup was the first course, as this was the seasonal soup, followed by local charcuterie, which included homemade pâte, home cured smoked sausages and jambon du pays, which we know hung all winter up inside the chimney to cure.

The main course was roast beef and potatoes saluted with the local mushrooms (cèpes) and garlic, followed by cheese and dessert. The wine was included in the price of the meal and it was as the French would say ‘a volonté’ – as much as we could drink. When the carafe was empty, the waitress filled it up and bought it back to the table. I had made banners with pumpkins on and placed them around the room, beside everyone’s plate there was a bookmark I had designed with the PIST logo on. On a side table the prizes lay waiting to be awarded to their victors, each decoratively wrapped in cellophane and orange ribbon, with a label and shape of a pumpkin, telling what the prize was awarded for.

As members of the committee, we had stayed back to agree on the final bit of judging, and to let everyone settle into their seats for the evening. In his attic, Bob had found some orange curtains and had insisted, with our reluctance, we wore them as cloaks to be ‘the chevaliers of the pumpkin’. Wearing these curtains which looked like cloaks as we entered the dining room, we took our seats at the top table. Everybody stood up and applauded and the feast began with cries of ‘Bon Appétit’.

In between the courses, some English and French did a turn. People sang, recited poems about their pumpkin, old songs were sung which everybody joined in, despite the language barrier. My Father raised a glass to the Queen, whilst a Frenchmen saluted the President. In all respects, it was a hugely enjoyable evening, and it was great to see everybody participating with each other to celebrate the life of the pumpkin, a vegetable that was rarely talked about.

After the desert was eaten, it was time to award the prizes. Bob read the weights of each pumpkin and the grower. We had asked the mayor to give the prizes out. By this time, everyone had drunk a lot and were in a relaxed and merry state. When the winners came up to collect their prizes, there was lots of clapping and cheering. All the prizes went down well, the winners were pleased with what they were awarded. Even the homemade ones, the big paper Maché pumpkin, which the grower of the smallest pumpkin got and the branch that Dad found and varnished which the person with the ugliest pumpkin got. Our neighbour received this and thought it was a prestigious English sign and put it pride of place on his mantelpiece, showing it to everyone who came to his house. It was only when an Englishman explained to him, that it could mean the same as a rude gesture in French, he soon whipped it away from his sideboard and we never saw it again.

For weeks after whenever we saw someone in the town, supermarket or restaurant, they came up with their praises and ‘thank you’s’ for a wonderful evening. The village historian, who writes for the local paper, wrote an article about the whole event. We all have fond memories of the competition. Everything about it, the organising, the preparation and the soirées were great fun and we made a lot of new French and English friends from it. This all happened some years ago, but even now, when we talk about it, it always brings a smile to our faces.

© Sarah Weston 2006

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