Saturday 6 June 2015

The Apéritif

Some time ago we were invited to have drinks at a local farmer’s house. As with most initiatives in our corner of France, the invitation had taken time to mature. It started with a tiny hint about getting together - nothing more serious than that. But then some weeks went by, which gave my irascible husband, Jack, a chink of hope that an evening of small-talk might have been forgotten. But he was thwarted once again.

Right out of the blue, an actual date and time was offered, some three months after the original idea had been mooted. Strangely though, it came via a third party - one of their sons. He explained that our hosts were concerned we wouldn’t understand their strong regional accents, and since we had only met them once before, they wanted to make things easy for us. Jack couldn’t resist commenting on this, remarking that it might make the evening mercifully short if we were going to end up sitting around a table staring at each other, speechless. (I’m afraid my husband has always had a bad attitude when it comes to socialising.) The son had also been charged with finding out what we liked to drink and eat, which was an extremely thoughtful consideration. Unlike Jack, I was very much looking forward to it.

Monsieur Calchan is a prominent land owner in the area. He farms over 300 hectares (740 acres) of fruit trees, and started working on the land when he was 14 years old. He is locally revered for his reputation as being the fount of all knowledge where it comes to troublesome apples, which is probably not overly surprising since he looks about 80. I was very keen to chat with him and his wife, and learn more about his life’s work.

By the time our date finally arrived, we had been cross-examined several times about our culinary and beverage passions. This had caused Jack to become decidedly frustrated.

“Look, I’m getting bored now. We drink beer. We drink all colours of wine, and I like gin. Shall I write it down in French for them?”

“No. Stop being mean darling; I think it’s lovely of them. They’re just behaving as excellent hosts and wanting to get things absolutely right. Try and be grateful.”

“Humph! I suppose so.”

In view of the obvious importance of the occasion I took care over our choice of clothes. I ended up with a tidy beige linen trouser suit and the obligatory floaty scarf, bottomed-off with my favourite dress shoes. Jack looked handsomely European in his chino trousers, loafers and check shirt. Disappointingly though, he steadfastly refused to complete the French look by wearing his sweater over his shoulders. We drove the three kilometres to the home of our hosts which I was intrigued to see.

Monsieur and Madame Calchan were outside ready to greet us. Both born and brought up in the village, their statures are typical of the area – short and sturdily built. Monsieur’s face was partially concealed by the brim of his rather large fruit-grower’s hat, but it was still possible to see his broad grin and one or two remaining teeth. He was neatly dressed in an ancient looking denim-blue shirt, and trousers that displayed the tell-tale signs of a career where kneeling was a primary requirement. Madame was hatless, and despite having extraordinarily jet-black hair, was probably a similar age to her husband. She was wearing a very pretty floral frock, which was sensibly protected by a housecoat. As we walked towards them I was enchanted by her cherubic features, and the warmest of smiles.

We shook hands and were about to enter when Monsieur stopped, stared at me, and said (in French),

“You must come around the back and look at my kumquats!”

Jack gave him a decidedly old fashioned look. Then turning to me he murmured,

“His what?”

“Kumquats darling. They’re a citrus oblongy pulpy fruit, and they’re…”

“Yes, I know what kumquats are, but I’ve never known them to be a tourist attraction. Well, we can’t leave Madame Calchan by herself so I’ll stay here and have a chat with her while you go and coo at an orange.”

Although this sounded extraordinarily unlike Jack, I decided it was preferable to having him hissing in my ear whilst I tried to appreciate what I was being shown. Nodding enthusiastically at our host, I left Jack with madame, and walked to what I presumed would be the patio. How wrong I was.

The house backed directly onto a lush meadow, at the bottom end of which I could just make out some yellow dots. Monsieur pointed at these with a gnarled paw,

“Kumquats!” He cried.

“Oh excellent!” I replied, unsure as to what I was supposed to do next. Monsieur eyed my nice, neat, high-heeled shoes, and asked if I was alright to walk over the grass to take a closer look. Not wishing to be a party-pooper I cried, “Oui monsieur. Pas de problème – allez!

It had rained during the previous night, but fortunately the day had been dry. This was likely to have made some positive difference to the ground conditions, but it was subtle. I tottered across the field after monsieur who was chatting away merrily to himself, scarifying the turf with my pointed heels, and getting soggier with every pace.

We eventually reached a cemented area which was crammed with pots of assorted shapes and sizes. Some housed kumquat shrubs, others lemons and there were even a few grapefruits which, by the way, are called pamplemousse in French – a lovely word! Their glossy leaves shone in the evening sun, fairly radiating health and vigour. Imbued with glorious citrusy scents, I focused hard on monsieur’s difficult-to-understand accent, as he lovingly described each shrub. He was fascinating to listen to, and seemed to have a great depth of knowledge. As if proof of this were demanded, every now and again he would tweak a branch and present me with a fresh fruit, with the promise that it would have the best flavour I had ever tasted. I later learnt that he was right.

Time was obviously of no consequence to monsieur, who seemed to have forgotten that he was hosting apéritifs. About 15 minutes had passed when I did think we ought to get back to the others, fearing that by now Jack’s nerves might be in social tatters. I managed to mention this as monsieur was drawing breath after a particularly long (and useful) lecture on lemon varieties. Luckily he took the hint, nodded vigorously and set off back to the house. I trudged after him, now heavily laden with fruit.

As we reached the house I realised that we were not the only ones to have been invited. Our Brazilian friends Silvio and Ana had joined madame and Jack, and were chatting away animatedly. Well this was nice. Understandably I was pretty hot after our citrus expedition so as we commenced the traditional French multi-kiss welcome process, I’m afraid that my recipients were left looking a little moist. On reflection I think air-kisses might be have been advisable, but it was too late now. Jack stared me.

“What on earth have you been doing? You’re caked in mud!”

I looked down and sure enough the bottom half of my beige trousers were now a dingy brown, and had several stems of grass stuck to them. My ex-lovely shoes were even worse. They were liberally spattered in mud. Horrified, I quickly plucked a tissue out of my handbag and began removing clods of earth from the heels. As I was doing so Jack continued,

“And why have you taken so long? We’re absolutely dying of thirst here, particularly Silvio who hasn’t had a drink since he left his house five minutes ago.”

This was a reference to the fact that, in our part of France, the partaking of the first sip at a social gathering is a very important moment, and can only be executed when the full company is assembled. One raises one’s glass to chink the glass of the person closest while staring fixedly at them and saying ‘à votre santé(to your health), or à votre’ if you’re feeling tired, or even just ‘santé’. The process is then repeated until the last chinkee has been chinked. Then the business of enjoying one’s beverage can begin. The chinking can take a while though.

“Well I’m sorry to interfere with your social timetable darling, but it was very absorbing. Monsieur certainly knows his onions when it comes to kumquats!”  

Jack merely scowled at my attempted pun, so I handed him the fruit instead, adding,

“I know, it wasn’t my best joke. Anyway pop this lot in the car please, so we can go in.”

Once done, we were led to the house. Somewhat strangely, rather than entering via the front door as one might expect, we were taken through a set of French windows that were adjacent to it. We trooped into a long, narrow room that was as cold as a mausoleum, and extremely dark. Fortunately the white paint on the walls went some way to help visibility, as did the curious arrangement of fairy lights that decorated a dried flower arrangement in one corner. The glow also reflected off the tinsel that was strapped to four more arrangements. However, unless the wall lights were switched on, I feared that we might be in for trouble later on. The room was economically furnished with a rectangular dining table, twelve chairs, and a tall skinny wall cabinet.

Monsieur promptly disappeared through a door in the corner, leaving Madame to bustle around with the seating arrangements. Conversing with Silvio and Ana is always fun. This is because their native language is Portuguese, ours is English and the common language used here is French. None of us are entirely fluent French speakers, so a great deal of arm waving and raising of voices are employed to aid comprehension. Unfortunately, in this case, it wasn’t at all helpful to shout because there was a discernible echo in the room which made our voices sound like a muffled roar. Madame, obviously familiar with the acoustics, balanced things nicely by whispering. This had a dramatic effect on the rest of us. Everyone stopped in their tracks, and looked at her. Audience now attentive, she had the floor. We collectively craned our necks, ostrich-like and peered at her, intent on understanding what she had to say. She began to tell us about the history of her home and the generations of her husband’s family who had lived there. It was absorbing stuff. She was halfway through the story when the door was flung open and in came monsieur pushing an ancient trolley buckling under the weight of bottles, cans and the biggest plastic tub of peanuts I have ever seen.

Monsieur had now removed his headgear and we could finally see the fullness of his face. It was nut brown save for the pale skin tramline where the brim of the hat had protected his forehead. He had brilliant sparkly brown eyes which were surrounded by wrinkles that scrunched up in a delightful knot as he beamed at us all.

“My son told me what you like to drink, and here it is with our pleasure.” He said with great pride.

The penny suddenly dropped. There had been a mix-up in translation (which I’m afraid is a regular event where we live).

“That’s impressive!” hissed Jack as monsieur began presenting us with every single choice of alcoholic beverage that had been listed during our exhaustive discussions on the subject with his son. He proudly lined up cans of beer (embarrassingly, three varieties for me), bottles of wine, a bottle of gin for Jack, and a huge bottle of whisky for Silvio. The tub of nuts were plonked in front of us and he, being the host, began to dispense each drink.  This took quite a while because there was such a choice, but he finally made it. Then, beaming from ear to ear, he began the ‘à votre santé’ routine. We all joined in and the evening got under way in earnest.

After about an hour of steady drinking we began to understand one another much more easily. And, as is often the case in a relaxed situation like this, we all quickly transformed into world experts in the fields our own pet subjects. Ana, in particular, was becoming extremely animated (as indeed Brazilians often are). This time her subject was the Rio Olympics. Last year it had been the FIFA World Cup. Jack, never missing any opportunity to offer a xenophobic slant on things, had already re-christened both events under the generic title of ‘Bribes Festas del Rio’. Poor Ana remained patriotically enthusiastic, gesturing expansively with her arms in her efforts to express herself clearly. This inevitably resulted in the delivery of an occasional glancing blow to Silvio who was sitting next to her, but fortunately he seemed to be quite used to this and didn’t bat an eyelid.

In response to Ana’s enthusiasm, I could see that Jack was building up to his alcohol-assisted lecture about countries that spend billions hosting the Olympics and such-like, yet can’t keep their population housed or healthy. This needed to be nipped in the bud. I turned to him and whispered,

“Not a good time for your ‘Hold the Olympics in the same place every four years and save the building costs’ speech darling, thank you.”

Meanwhile, madame was still whispering away happily to Silvio and monsieur. However, since monsieur was a double hearing aid user, in the melee of general chatter, he was unlikely to have heard much of what she had to say. In any event he was much more intent on being the perfect host, and the moment he spotted the third sip being imbibed by one of his guests, his little brown eyes scrunched up in delight. This was his cue to reach for the bottle lined up next to the individual concerned, and slosh another generous helping in the tumbler. In Silvio’s case, he had evidently only mentioned whisky as his favoured drink. As I looked on, try as I might, I couldn’t ignore the speed at which the level in the 1.5 litre bottle was falling. Silvio had taken on a decidedly rosy hue. To my cost I had seen this look before.

Jack and I had attended a fete last year which featured an evening dinner. Thinking that this would be a fairly tame occasion I'd agreed to be ‘designated driver’. We were dining with Silvio and Ana, and they kindly invited us to drinks at their house before walking into the village for our meal.

During dinner I had allowed myself one glass of wine, and then spent the rest of the evening humouring Jack, Silvio and Ana, who were becoming increasingly jolly and lively. Jack began telling his dreadful jokes which our friends thought were screamingly funny, and he wasn’t at all daunted when they roared with laughter in all the wrong places. I observed them with a forced smile that I dare say looked more like a grimace, and dodged the crumbs that were being fired at me like pellets by Ana who was sitting opposite. She’d recently had new crowns fitted, and unfortunately hadn’t yet harnessed the techniques required for eating with them.

It was around midnight by the time the fete dinner ended. The four of us, some tottering, set out into the chill night air, everyone filled with vim and vigour – except me. Jack was still telling awful jokes to no-one in particular, so I used this as a cue to chuckle away supportively, whilst gently steering him toward the car. I turned to bid our friends goodnight when Ana flailed her hands in the air to stop us. She’d had a seemingly brilliant idea.

“Silvio and I would like to sing a Brazilian song to you before you go.”

I was horrified at the very thought of it, but before I could say no, Jack piped up.

“Marvellous idea, oh yes please!”

Tsk, tsking my slightly whined suggestions about the lateness of the hour, they collectively ignored me, strode into the garden and sat around the picnic table. Silvio produced two bottles of red wine and a guitar, and the recital began.

Unfortunately Ana evidently favoured the Fado style of music. This is a type of popular Portuguese song, usually with a melancholy theme, and often terribly depressing to listen to.

I’m genuinely certain that she has a fine voice, on her day, but after consuming such an impressively large quantity of wine, I would have defied anyone being able to string two notes together accurately. Under normal circumstances the tuneless wailing that resulted is exactly the sort of thing that would grate horribly on Jack’s nerves, but not a bit of it. He was entranced. We collectively struggled through several songs. Collectively because Ana had to stop every now and again because she had forgotten the words. Even though he had absolutely no knowledge at all of the intended lyrics, undaunted, Jack would chip-in with useful suggestions. This would trigger a small debate after which Ana would grind into action once more.

Our cabaret was evidently thirsty work which eventually caused a merciful intermission. Empty bottles were replaced with fresh, but when offered, I refused all suggestions of giving up on my responsibility as driver for the night, and determinedly nursed my beaker of water. It was now absolutely freezing, as it would be in the middle of winter, however no-one else seemed to notice the creeping onset of frostbite other than me, so we soldiered on.  

The climax of the impromptu concert came unexpectedly. Ana was in the dying throes of a particularly discouraging song when she flung her head towards Silvio in an act of great drama. Unfortunately this caused her gorgeously long hair to flop onto Silvio’s guitar whereupon it instantly became entangled in the strings. Silvio was forced to stop mid-strum. I could see that no lasting harm had been done, so used the mishap as an opportunity to make a rapid exit. I shot up, gasping appropriately, and offered to help Ana unpick her hair. She waved me away saying that there was no need because Silvio would know what to do. This had obviously happened many times before. As they sat there removing each strand of hair, one at a time, I grabbed Jack. He was still gazing into the middle distance, glass in hand, and seemed not to have noticed that the music had stopped. We made our goodbyes, which presented some proximity issues in Ana’s case because she was still cemented to the guitar. So instead of launching into the kissing cheeks business, we patted her fondly on her available arm, and left.

We finally arrived home at around 3.30am. I was frozen to the core, but Jack looked perfectly cosy, still humming tunelessly with a beatific expression on his face. It was at that moment I resolved to be less eager about offering to be the designated driver in future.

Madame Calchan jolted me back to reality by getting up and whispering “viande”. This caught us all a little off balance. It’s true that the peanuts had taken a bit of a hammering by now, so perhaps she was going to produce a plate of meat. After all the French in our area are famously generous with their offerings of wonderful platefuls of food, so it did make sense. As she went out monsieur resumed his job as sommelier, and took up the time by replenishing any glasses that looked as though they had dropped below the three-sip level.

Madame returned quickly with a mountain of meat which she reverently placed in front of us. It was quite dark in the room now so identification was difficult. As we all dutifully peered at it with great interest I suddenly realised what we were looking at. It was a great pile of spam.

In spite of being a die-hard carnivore, if there’s a foodstuff that Jack really doesn’t care for, I’m afraid it is spam. He complains that it is full of unidentifiable substances and should have been phased out when ration books were dispensed with. Fortunately though, my husband is short in the observation skills department. I glanced nervously at him, hoping that he hadn’t realised what he was looking at, also hoping that the gin and various glasses of wines might have mellowed his attitude towards this reconstituted luncheon meat.

Madame glowed with pride as she looked down on her pink pile. Monsieur explained that she had hunted high and low for the one dish that she’d been told was a special favourite amongst ALL English people. Here was another incredibly kind and thoughtful gesture, we simply couldn’t let her down. Madame ceremoniously passed the plate around the table and refusing to partake themselves, they both watched us, expectant. They were obviously thrilled at the thought that they had managed to source such a treat for their guests.

Jack, who was fortunately seated farthest away from our hosts, had finally realised what he was looking at. He stuffed down one slice and hissed at me.

“I hate this bloody stuff, I can’t eat any more.”

“Don’t be so ridiculous, just get on with it!”

Fortunately the roar created by Silvio and Ana’s animated discussion about the meat meant that our minor exchange had gone unheard. Evidently they couldn’t find appropriate words in French to describe their views, and had resorted to Portuguese which I’m afraid, made things even louder. Meanwhile, Jack heroically stuffed down one more slice, and then patted his stomach blaming an excessive intake of peanuts on his refusal to eat any more. Terrified of upsetting our hosts, I waded through about six more slices until I too had to stop.

Time was getting on now and monsieur announced that he had one final treat in store for us – and it was something he had made himself. This always fills me with fear because the country folk around here are extremely resourceful when it comes to making use of all available body parts. Many of which end up as wonderful recipes, but the odd one is extremely questionable. But I was on completely the wrong track. Monsieur disappeared and returned with a large bottle of colourless liquid. With a huge scrunchy grin spreading across his jovial face he said,

“Here is my very special Eau de Vie de Pomme. It is twenty years old and because this is a special occasion, I want to drink it with you.”

For anyone who has been lucky enough to avoid being acquainted with this French/European speciality, I should explain. It is basically a colourless fruit (often apple or pear, but never grape) brandy that is produced by means of fermentation and double distillation. Owing to its extremely high alcohol content, it is usually served in small quantities as a digestif after a meal. Ironically translated as ‘water of life’, I am fairly convinced that excessive consumption of it would quite easily bring most people close to death. It is however, loved and revered by many, but to me it smells like lighter fuel, and probably tastes the same. Even two sips of the stuff can cause me, for some strange reason, to develop a severe earache.

Luckily monsieur chose to exchange our tumblers with thimbles, and he served up this vital fluid with evident excitement. Usually, in situations like this where I can’t cope with the contents, Jack comes in very handy. He’ll drink anything. I’ll wait for the moment when his glass is empty, and then make a discrete swap. This time I wasn’t so lucky. Monsieur announced that because the liquor was so special we must all drink it together. We went through a team ‘à votre santé’, and I took the tiniest sip, slightly burning my lips in the process. Suddenly there was an explosion from the other side of the table. Poor Ana, had got things horribly lost in translation. Thinking that we had been served with a fruit cordial she slugged the whole lot back in one go and began to choke as the liquid took hold in her oesophagus. As tears cascaded down her cheeks in her efforts to regain control, Silvio made things considerably worse by thumping her on the back. There was now a real possibility that this would cause a reappearance of the spam, which would definitely put a kibosh on the evening.

Fortunately we managed to stop Silvio from causing bodily harm, and Ana slowly regained her equilibrium. I passed her mountains of tissues which she used to good effect to deal with her mascara which had now begun to drip off her chin. Her crowns had remained in place throughout too, which was an added bonus. Monsieur looked on with great interest clearly trying to work out whether his precious liquor had hit the desired spot. He patiently waited for Ana to stop being noisy and, raising the bottle once again said, 

“Would you like me to refill your glass?”

That was our cue to go.

We had spent a lovely evening with a couple who had lived for the last 80 or so years in the same village. They were related to most of the people in that village, and knew the land like the backs of their hands. As with all the country folk we have so far met here in our little corner of France, they were simple-minded, practical folk who live by the traditional values in life. They were extraordinarily kind and generous. And, in spite of their misguided choice of meaty delicacy, I find it incredibly humbling that they should go to such lengths to ensure that we enjoyed our evening with them. And yes, despite leaving with soggy trousers and ruined shoes, we thoroughly enjoyed it.

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