Felletin carnavalWhen Andrea and I saw a poster publicising a meeting about organising events and fêtes in Felletin we decided to attend, as anything that attracts visitors is good for 3 Place des Arbres, our chambre d’hotes located in the heart of the town.

At the meeting, it was hard to follow the conversation (even though Andrea speaks good French and I understand a reasonable amount) as many people spoke at once. However, there was one word that stood out for both of us. Loud and clear: cotisations.

Anyone who lives, or has lived, in France will know this word – intimately. If cotisations was a person you would know them so well you would probably be related to them. Uncle Cotisations would not be one of your favourite relatives, you understand; you wouldn’t even invite him round for tea. Good heavens, no. As soon as you popped to the kitchen to put the kettle on, he would have your handbag off the mantelpiece, his grubby mitts rummaging around for your purse, hoping to liberate the spare change.

There was a debate about how much the cotisations should be. Some said it should be 5 euros, other people argued for the cost to be double that, and they won. This seemed very alien to us – very un-British. Giving up your spare time and then paying for the privilege doesn’t seem right – unless the money goes toward tea and biscuits, that would be ok. After all in Britain it would be unthinkable for people to go to a meeting and not be rewarded with a nice cup of tea. Although as each meeting started at 8.30pm and often finished around 11pm, perhaps a nice cup of cocoa may have been more appropriate.

We shrugged and paid our 10 Euros each.

The first major event to be planned would be a carnival at the end of February and this was to be followed by the Fete de Felletin in June.

There was talk of needing what sounded like “Chats” or “Chars”, something beginning with “Cha”, anyway. Neither of us had heard of this. Whatever they were, apparently they were big and they were expensive. They couldn’t be talking about cats, surely. They are neither big, nor expensive, apart from lions or tigers of course.

Later, we looked up Char in the dictionary:

Char (Noun) 1. Military Tank; char leger/moyen/lourd light/medium/heavy tank; char d’assault ou de combat tank; fait comme un char built like a tank

Military Tanks? As in gigantic war machines with large caterpillar tracks, and turrets, and huge guns? What kind of festival was this? Had we joined a far-left group by mistake? Perhaps this was the paramilitary wing of the comité des fêtes. We appeared to be helping plan a communist-style military parade. Perhaps our cotisations weren’t going towards tea and biscuits, after all, but instead would fund a cache of arms, an attempt to overthrow the government and create a new Republic.

We checked the dictionary. There was another definition. With bated breath, we read on:

Char 2. (de carnaval) float.

So our cotisations weren’t to fund a revolution, Sarkosy could sleep soundly until the next election. Nor (as we found out at later meetings) were they to be used to supply tea, coffee, biscuits, or cocoa. They were required to pay for publicity (where do you think those annoying windscreen fliers that get stuck in your wiper-blades come from?), and to help purchase things needed to organise the first event, which in turn would help fund future events.

Carnival planning continued: the evening meal would be paella.

“Will you be eating with us?” the president of the committee asked Andrea, as everyone else was loudly chattering amongst themselves.

“No, I’m vegetarian,” she replied, “I can’t eat that: I don’t eat meat or fish.”

“I don’t suppose you could eat it if we just took the meat and fish out.”

“Sorry, no,” a hesitation, and then; “I could make my own – a vegetarian paella.”

The president looked confused. “What do you put in vegetarian paella?”

There was a sudden lull in the conversation around the room: everyone appeared to be wondering what the strange vegetarian lady would say next. It was as if a deathly silence had descended on the room, smothering all the talk with a blanket of shush. Even if you weren’t paying attention, you could hear the dressmaker, in the next village, swear under her breath over the clatter of a dropped pin.

“So, what do you put in a vegetarian paella?”

As the question hung in the air, like the scent of overripe cheese sweating in a dirty sock, Andrea could feel every eye in the room burning into her. She realised had their undivided attention. She was aware she had a unique opportunity to share and enlighten the group on the joys of vegetarian cooking.

She nervously cleared hear throat and, into the sound vacuum of the room a single word wriggled its way, reluctantly, out of her mouth.

“Vegetables,” she squeaked.

Despite this monumental recipe revelation, it was at this point that people lost interest and went back to talking at each other.

The carnival day arrived and everything went smoothly. We were amazed at the level of organisation how hard everyone worked. People had been decorating the room the night before, had worked from early in the morning and were still clearing tables and sweeping up at 4am. All this for no reward, other than hosting an event the whole community can enjoy.

The paella was indeed a meat and fish fest, with not a vegetable in sight, not even a solitary pea. As the last few dishes were being served we heated up the pan of vegetable paella, Andrea had lovingly prepared earlier. People looked at it with interest. Or amusement – it was hard to tell.

Bruce Arbuckle & paellaIt was delicious, and as usual Andrea had made much too much for the two of us, so she loaded up another dish and went round to the members of the committee.

“Would you like to try this vegetarian paella?” She said, serving spoon in her hand.

“I can’t eat that,” more than one person replied, with a smile. “I’m not a vegetarian.”

Of course they did try it, and one or two even suggested that we might make the meal vegetarian, next year. They were joking, of course. But you never know – come next time and perhaps we will be able to offer you a meat-free alternative.

Vegetarian Paella

Serves 4.

3 medium onions, finely chopped
2 medium carrots, diced
150g sweetcorn
150g peas
200g green beans (cut into 2cm pieces)
400g easy-cook or brown long grain rice (100g per person)
A good pinch of saffron (crushed in a pestle and mortar) or half a teaspoon of powder
2 tbs sunflower oil
6 plump cloves of garlic (sliced)
1 litre vegetable stock
100ml dry white wine
1 tsp mixed herbs
1 tsp sweet paprika
½ tsp hot paprika
2 tsp fresh or dried parsley
1 tsp brown sugar
1 pepper, sliced
½ tsp sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper

Heat oil on a medium heat in a good sized solid pan. Fry onions gently until they start to soften. Add carrots and garlic, fry for 2 mins. Add vegetable stock, wine, salt, black pepper, rice, herbs, sugar and paprika. Bring to the boil. Simmer until carrots and rice are just cooked, about 15-20 mins, stirring regularly to avoid the rice sticking (if using brown rice this will take longer, about 25-30 mins). Add all other ingredients and cook on a low heat for a further 5 mins. Check seasoning and adjust to taste. Most of the water should have been absorbed, but the paella should not be too dry and should be a golden yellow colour. Add a little more water if necessary.

Serve with large, fresh, organic lemon wedges, sprinkled with a few Spanish black olives and a jug of cold sangria.

Hint Any fresh, seasonal veg can be added. Asparagus is particularly good, cut into 2cm bits. Broccoli or courgette are also good. They will require cooking, so add about 10 minutes into the cooking time of the rice and carrots.

Bruce Arbuckle

3 Place des Arbres
a vegetarian B&B, La Creuse, Limousin

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