The invitation to lunch was first issued in September of last year. It was intended as a thank you for the firewood we’d given our friends, Dominique and Monique. Jack, my husband, tried his best to put it off, emphasising that such repayment was entirely unnecessary, but they were having none of it. They energetically pooh-poohed his loud protestations, innocently believing they stemmed from his generosity, rather than his aversion to social excursions.
For various mundane reasons, we were unable to make the first, or indeed the next three, dates offered. And it was at this point that Jack began to see a speck of light at the end of his anti-social tunnel. Surely the whole idea would fizzle out to nothing, he’d exclaimed. He should have known better. Once an offer of hospitality has been made by our French pals it is never rescinded.
Dominique and Monique were like a pair of terriers, darting around the calendar until a suitable alternative date was set in January. It was confirmed, re-confirmed and followed up by several text messages to make sure that we were all on the same page. In fairness to them these final acts of extreme communication were probably a sensible precaution because, as we are Anglaises, and therefore permanently challenged linguistically, there was always that lurking risk of a misunderstanding.
Already jaded by what he termed an unreasonably high number of social festivities over the Christmas period, Jack was close to a mental decline as our lunch date loomed. I tried to jolly him along by reminding him how kind the offer was, which he acknowledged with a grunt and further moans about there being no need at all.
The next challenge was locating our host’s home. Dominique and Monique allegedly live somewhere outside a tiny village called La Chatel. That was a start. However, the precise location was something of a brain-teaser. It shouldn’t have been that difficult, after all there are only around 250 souls who live in the entire commune (parish). Quite obviously the thing to do was to seek advice from the owners. Easier said than done.
Dominique speaks at Mach five and there are only so many times one can ask for the instructions to be repeated. Sadly, Monique is even worse and starts each sentence with an ‘oopahhh’, which can easily throw one off track. Shameful though it may be, we eventually gave up, pretended we understood, and resorted to asking people who had already visited.
Nathan said it was a farm behind La Chatel and we couldn’t miss it. Brilliant! Just about everything behind La Chatel is a farm. Jean-Pierre had only been once and said we should approach it from the direction of Lozarte. Jean-Luc disagreed and said the only way to reach it was by taking the third road out of La Chatel. This was somewhat disconcerting since we thought there were only two. Finally, Anton came to our aid. Anton is one of those people who is always right. With great precision and much arm waving he issued instructions, insisting that we needed to turn right off the main road, then right and right again. Voila!
Jack questioned him animatedly, looked a trifle confused and ended up glazing over altogether. When I later asked why he was being so picky he explained that if we had followed Anton’s imaginative directions we would have ended up on junction 17 of the autoroute. Either something had got horribly lost in translation, or Anton was having a spot of bother with his rights and lefts. The latter theory was neatly confirmed when we consulted Google Earth, which showed that by taking several lefts we’d get there in no time at all.
The great day finally arrived and we departed early, just in case, but found the place very easily. At dead-on 12.30pm we drew up in front of a magnificent old farmhouse. Set in glorious countryside, it was surrounded by meadows, sheltered at the rear by cow sheds, and had a natural windbreak of graceful trees that lined the garden.
Dominique was already outside waiting to welcome us and, by his side, stood a tattered old mutt with only three legs. After the customary wet-cheeked welcome from our host, I immediately asked what had happened to his dog. Dominique explained that the poor lad had wandered off one day and been run over by a truck. His leg was too badly injured to be saved so it had to be amputated. Desperately sad though this was, it was clear from looking at this proud animal that his disability wasn’t holding him back from executing his duties as home guardian. Axel viewed us with disdain, growled lustily and hopped away to a suitable position from which to observe our every move.
During the short story about his dog it became abundantly clear that Dominique was suffering from a dreadful cold. If there’s something Jack really hates, it’s coming into contact with anyone who is off-colour. In fact it tops his list of clear and present dangers involved in social intermingling. The whole thing is made much worse in France because of the kissing business that occurs with most greetings, which fortunately didn’t apply for him here. As we were ushered into the house I ignored Jack’s hisses about contagious diseases, and focused on what lay before us.
I’m not sure what wowed me most: the enormous fireplace filled with cheery flames darting around pine-scented logs, the alluring cooking aromas that instantly assailed my taste buds, or the radiant smile from our hostess. Monique gave us both a hug, several kisses and welcomed us into her wonderful home.
The fireplace, with a mantelpiece too high for me to reach, was easily big enough for two or three people to sit in. It belted out heat, warming a large dining area on one side, the kitchen on the other and an open-plan lounge. The ambience was perfect for a chilly January day. Monique, sensing my interest, or possibly because she was sick of me cooing with delight, shyly asked if I would like to see the rest of the house. I jumped at the chance. We left the men rootling around for drinks and headed off towards the kitchen and those heavenly smells.
She explained that the farmhouse was extremely old and originally humans had shared living space with their beasts. Various renovations resulted in partitioning the animals off into the barns we saw when we arrived. I asked how long they had lived in the house.
“Oopahhh, not long, around 26 years I think,” she ruminated. “We started renovating recently and I made most of the changes with Dominique. Come and look.”
I was just processing the concept of 26 years being ‘not long’ as we walked into the kitchen.
“These used to be cattle stalls, we put in a wall but kept the original fixtures,” Monique said, gesturing towards the back of the room.
I peered at the back wall but couldn’t readily see anything cowish until she pointed out the blindingly obvious. The first stall housed an intimate breakfast table and behind it was a wall length ex-manger. Animal fodder had been replaced by several pot plants and a television poked up cheekily in the middle. It was an ingenious idea. The second stall was the food preparation area. The manger here contained a sink and work space and the far wall housed a massive hob – the source of those amazing whiffs. My taste buds were on fire as I viewed the perfectly French Le Creuset frying pan filled with large lumps of sizzling meat. At that moment I couldn’t quite work out what is was, but I felt sure it would be substantial enough to cheer up Jack.
As we wandered from room to room Monique chatted about her family, always a confusing subject. She had me foxed in moments. One of the features of living in our part of France is that many men share a first name with the prefix Jean. So we have lots of Jean-Lucs, many Jean-François, oodles of Jean-Claudes and endless Jean-Pierre’s. Quite what happened when Dominique was born is a mystery. Anyway, between the two families, there are a large number of Jean-Pierre’s so I quickly became lost in the morass of relations. We were upstairs by this time and it was decidedly nippy; I was just about to enquire whether we were discussing an uncle or nephew when we arrived at a wall of polythene. This was odd.
By way of explanation, Monique swept aside the opaque plastic curtain to reveal an open space with breeze blocks on three sides and nothing on the fourth.
“This will be our gym,” she beamed. “We will install windows in the summer.”
Thinking that this probably couldn’t come soon enough, I quashed an involuntary shiver and replied, “Gosh, what a lovely large space. When did you start the renovations?”
“Oopahhh, about ten years ago. They won’t take too much longer I don’t think.”
We left that stinger hanging in the frigid air and took another route back through the labyrinthine upstairs corridors, arriving at a room which took my breath away. It was a vast pigeonnier supported by an amazing number of beams that reached an apex way, way above our heads.
As I stared in wonder at this fantastic feat of architecture Monique explained that it was indeed originally used to house pigeons. During the renovations they had plastered the lower walls and she had sanded and re-varnished every beam – which was a bit of a job, she added. I stared up at the spider’s web of criss-crossing beams, then at my petite friend, and wondered how on earth she’d managed to do that all by herself. With the obvious absence of scaffolding I could only imagine that she was a skilled abseiler – it must have taken weeks. She, on the other hand was more concerned about a problem that presented itself at floorboard level.
Monique gestured to more sheets of polythene, this time covering twin beds, liberally coated in unusual smelling matter.
“It’s the bats you see,” she pouted, “they make a terrible mess in here.”
I might not be bat-phobic, but I do prefer to admire them on the outside of a house rather than in it. The very thought of them whizzing around the snoozy heads of a couple of house guests made me shudder. I made sympathetic noises, took one last wistful look at this structural triumph and followed Monique back down to the warm heart of the home.
The men were sitting in the lounge adjacent to the massive fireplace. Dominique was now looking very pale and sounded a tiny bit snivelly while Jack was nursing a large whisky, which I’m surprised he wasn’t gargling (a favourite anti-cold precaution of his). He was sitting jammed up against a settee cushion as far away from Dominque as possible. I sat down to join them for a drink and Monique went off to check her sizzling meat and returned with tasty fois gras and boar pâté canapés, both favourites in this part of France.
We were soon chatting about last year’s harvest problems when the front door swung open. In poured Jean-Pierre, their son, and his two young children, Jean-Pierre and Emilie – who was rather a screamer. I’m afraid this instantly presented Jack with another one of his pet ‘could do withouts’. Don’t get me wrong, he’s almost fine with children but, if they have to be seen, he prefers them not to be heard or, at least, at less than 100 decibels. Sadly it wasn’t to be. Emilie, aged around five years old, was extremely exuberant and wanted to play.
Doting grandfather though he is, the children’s boisterous behaviour immediately had a marked effect on Dominique, who was becoming more fragile by the moment. He retreated to his bar, produced drinks for the newcomers and a colourless liquid for himself that looked worryingly like eau de vie. This is a liquid incendiary device, distilled at home by many of our friends and is particularly favoured here. I have had the misfortune to taste it on a couple of occasions and, on each, have come away with an oesophagus on fire, wannabe ulcers forming on my tongue and earache. I hate the stuff. That said, he presumably felt it was just the remedy for his cold.
When the French dine on a Sunday it is generally a relaxed affair where meals often take the form of a degustation. We were prepared for this but by 1.45pm I was beginning to wonder when we would eat. There was certainly no let-up in the kitchen. The meat was still audibly sizzling and Monique was popping to and fro, presumably to give it the odd test-poke. But there was absolutely no sign of any movement towards the dining table. Conversely, Emilie was becoming bouncier by the minute, causing both Dominique and Jack to wince. Happily help was at hand.
Loud barks from the three-legged mutt augured the arrival of more visitors. The front door swung open again and in came Dominique and Monique’s nephew, Jean-Luc, and his girlfriend, Chloé. They’re a lovely couple whom we know well. Dominique, now the colour of a freshly-laundered handkerchief, refreshed all drinks and we settled down to nibble on a new heap of fois gras.
I appraised the assembled company. We were up to nine potential diners now, quite a departure from the cosy foursome I’d assumed we’d be. Then I looked at the big dining table – it could easily seat more. It was now past 2.15pm and I began to wonder how many more guests were due. If they arrived at the same rate as the others, lunch would turn into supper. I decided to pace myself just in case. As if to confirm my thoughts Monique called Jean-Pierre (junior) and Emilie to the table to eat. But only them. Somewhat confused I looked over to Jack, who had taken on a whisky-fuelled rosy hue. Jean-Pierre was showing him an article from his latest farming magazine, which happily was still legible in spite of the blob of pâté that had fallen off Emilie’s breadstick.
Meals for youngsters tend to be a speedy affair and this was no exception. Food was bolted down at breakneck speed with minimal fuss and a great deal of noise. Much to the men’s poorly disguised chagrin, they were back with us in no time at all, except this time with a tennis racket, which they brandished at their grandfather. I’m not sure whether Dominique thought he was required to play a quick set before eating, but the sight of this games weapon brought on a paroxysm of sneezes and sent him back to his bar in search of further elixirs.
I could tell by the slight twitch in his left eye that Jack was taking a relatively dim view of the young person’s exuberance, nevertheless he was coping admirably well with being sat on. It then suddenly occurred to me that we might actually have got the whole invitation completely wrong. Perhaps we’d been invited for drinks and viewing of grandchildren eating only. No problem, I decided, that was perfectly fine. After all, we had by now consumed a brick of fois gras and half a boar and wouldn’t need to eat for days.
Moments later, Monique, clearly in charge of human resources, surprised us by lining the children up to be kissed. She then bustled them together with Jean-Luc, Chloé and the tennis racket out of the door. She beamed an ‘Oopahhh’ at us and announced that our lunch was ready. Feeling thoroughly confused about the social arrangements we trailed off behind her towards the dining table.
Five of us sat down at the magnificent old oak table in front of the roaring fire. It was past 3pm by now and I don’t mind admitting that I was ready for a speed-nap. The combination of our lengthy canapé session, the scents of pinewood, and constant serenading by sounds of ever-sizzling meat was having a soporific effect. But our friends had other ideas.
Consummate host that he is, Dominique, sniffing like an old bloodhound, staggered off to a different room muttering something about wine for the meal. Judging by the extremely audible nose-blows, he can’t have gone far and eventually reappeared with several bottles. Meanwhile, Monique, who had also disappeared, brought in an enormous round platter laden with a crusty tart which was almost black on top.
Dominique served drinks and slumped into a chair opposite me. We chatted lightly for quite a while, tart un-touched, until it occurred to me what was required. I’d completely forgotten that in our rural part of France it is customary for guests to take first dibs of the culinary offering. I made a preliminary move towards the serving cutlery, which was greeted by a look of immense relief from Monique. We each took a piece and the meal commenced.
I have absolutely no idea what variety the tart was, other than fishy, tasty and filling. Nicely lubricated with a dry white, we polished off our slab with gusto. But there was still half a tart left and I worried about the social implications of this. Were we supposed to dive in again? A social faux pas with our generous hosts would be unforgivable. Since Monique was eyeing the leftovers somewhat wistfully, I decided to go for it. I made a second test-move towards the servers, which was obviously the right thing to do. She gleefully slid the platter towards me and I cut another slice.
Course after course appeared, often with just one foodstuff – another custom here. As my tummy started swelling under the strain I began to regret taking that second slice of fish tart, but to pass on a course at this stage would be too rude for words. Desperately hoping my skirt button was up to the job of keeping things in place, I continued to stuff food down.
Each course was darkly coloured and as difficult to distinguish as the first, and served with a splash of differently coloured wine. As before, dishes were placed in front of us with great reverence and the remaining three family members waited politely until Jack and I had the first helping. The latest of these was somewhat difficult to deal with because it was a mound of cep mushrooms – Jack hates mushrooms. Under the proud gaze of Dominique, who no doubt had picked them, I ignored Jack’s disgusted sotto voce grunt and swept a couple of prime specimens onto his plate. Surely that was the end of the savouries? Not a bit of it.
Monique sprang out of her chair and disappeared again, the sizzling in the cow stalls abruptly stopped, and moments later she made a triumphant return, bearing a salver of medallion-shaped pieces of blackish meat. As luck would have it, Jack, hadn’t noticed this detail. He was now nicely oiled by the non-stop flow of wine, and having washed down the remains of his mushrooms with yet another glass of red, had begun a riveting tale about machine parts. His expansive chat was evidently fascinating Jean-Pierre, conversely, poor Dominique was suffering. His eyes were approaching the same colour as the claret, his voice reduced to a croak.
I looked apprehensively at the meat. It ought to be borne in mind that it had been cooking for over four and a half hours, therefore it was likely to be a tad past its prime. Monique couldn’t possibly be blamed for this; the day had been a social whirlwind for her. We dutifully took our helpings and started sawing. From the corner of my eye I could see that Jack was due to say something entirely inappropriate like ‘what is it?’ so I quickly cut in by asking a nicely vague question about the name of the specific cut.
Our wonderful beef-farming hosts’ eyes lit up at our interest in this pièce de résistance of the feast. They commenced an animated discussion between themselves about how to describe the body part to their Anglais friends. Since Dominique could only whisper now, Monique won their pithy debate in double-quick time. She tried and failed several times to explain the answer to us before having an Eureka moment.
“Oopahhh, I know, I’ll get the book!”
Off she went, leaving Dominique looking wan, and cantered back with a tome on how to butcher a cow. Inspirational move! Now it seemed we had a clue as to what we were eating and since I’ve often got stuck at le boucher when trying to describe a certain cut of meat, this was going to be very helpful.
Somewhat relieved at having a moment’s reprise from chewing, she and I pored over the relevant page. Once we’d located the diagram of a cow and accompanying legend of meat cuts Monique sped off again, fired up a machine that sounded like a combustion engine, and returned with a hot photocopy of the body parts page. Monique is kindness itself. We solemnly returned to the matter of doing battle with our pieces of meat and Jack innocently asked which cut of beef it actually was. “It is duck,” was the reply.
Dessert was washed down with a river of champagne and took the form of three courses. It was clear what two of them were and the third very closely resembled our first course. I ignored Jack’s tittered mutter of ‘what goes around comes around’ and dug my spoon into the most delicious apple tart I have ever tasted in my life. Bravo, Monique!
After the cheese course, coffee and assorted bottles of liqueur including a re-appearance of the dreaded eau de vie, arrived and were served by Jean-Pierre. Dominique was incapable of uttering anything and was reduced to the occasional pathetic nod. Monique, in spite of her toiling, looked as fresh as a daisy and Jack was now on top form. He held the floor, regaling us all with his favourite stories and generally delighted the assembled company. Even Dominique began to chuckle.
Finally it was time to go. It was nearly 6pm and I was mildly surprised that the younger members of the family hadn’t reappeared after a gruelling five-setter. We executed a number of embraces and stepped out into the cold January air – ooh it was nippy. Poor Dominique looked like he ought to be hospitalised. However, despite being close to collapse, he courteously insisted on seeing us to our car while Monique gaily waved her how-to-butcher-cattle (but not ducks) at us. The three-legged mutt joined his master and growled gently, no doubt happy to have the interlopers removed from his domain.
We trundled slowly through the countryside back to our home, taking care to turn right this time, not left. With broad smiles across our faces, we agreed that it had been another truly memorable day in the company of these fantastically generous people. Just another typical day in our little corner of France.