This was definitely a first for us. An experience that, understandably, would not be favoured by some, but one that fully immersed us in a traditional French annual celebration.
For some reason which escapes me, we were invited to the local fire brigade’s annual pig roast.
The event was to be held in the grounds of our local village, a gorgeous, typically French setting. Ancient, wood-shuttered, stone homes line streets backing onto miles of orchards and meadows – it’s simply gorgeous.
I ignored Jack, my husband’s, hermitic moans about being socialised to death, telling him he should be very grateful to have been asked. I didn’t concede that he had a point, it’s true we’ve been to numerous ‘dos’ recently. That’s simply a feature of living in a place with hot summers, and many outdoor gatherings.
Our community primarily comprises farming folk, who tend to shut up shop in the winter once the crops and main beast jobs have been dealt with. They’ll hunker down, stick to basic maintenance work only, and keep a low profile during the cold, wet months. Conversely, the arrival of spring stimulates a flurry of activity.
Shutters are thrown open to bring in fresh air and early warmth. The land is worked and animals prepared then, from May onwards, most every week there is a fête somewhere in the area. I absolutely love these outings and drag Jack out to as many as possible. A man who generally prefers his own company, this year he has been unusually amenable – but it seemed it was becoming rather a strain for the poor dear.
On the appointed day we duly turned up at 12.30pm, accompanied by my sister and nephew, to find the place already alive with fire fighters and their partners. Introductions had to wait in favour of our first priority, to admire the pig. As it turned out this wasn’t any ordinary pig. Typical of our hunting-mad part of rural France, the usual domestic pig had been rejected and replaced by a recently culled wild boar. And why not?
We went to congratulate the chef, a man we knew from his day job. Monsieur Genna is usually the oil and gas delivery man, and also works part time as a fireman. Now, bearing in mind we were in the middle of a heat wave, it can’t have been an easy job for him that day. It was already around 37 degrees Celsius (98 degrees Farenheit), and there he was, fully clad in his fireman’s overalls and an incongruous hunter’s camouflage hat. The poor chap looked about as broiled as the beast.
Monsieur momentarily abandoned his basting to say hello. Fortunately, I managed to avoid the full-on cheek-to-cheeker kisses in favour of the forearm proffering. This is a courteous form of welcome, used when the person involved is grubby, sweaty or in some way unsavoury. In his case, monsieur was sweating profusely, nevertheless looking extremely proud of his creation.
We ignored the searing heat and cooed at the rather gruesome sight. The great creature was slowly rotating on a spit above a bed of fiery, red-hot embers. It could easily have been a medieval setting.
We left monsieur to his boar and joined the rest of the party, enjoying an aperitif in the shade of a grand old oak tree. Here we were met by the station commander, who made the introductions. This can take a while in France and I’m still foxed by the social etiquette as each occasion requires a slightly different mode of greeting. When faced with a complete (clean) stranger, my sister has decided the best way forward is to take assertive action and thrust out a hand. This is an excellent idea, but one that has its drawbacks when the recipient is moving in for a cheek-kiss. On more than one occasion I have witnessed a slight winding as her spade-like hand has caught the person squarely in the guts. It’s a tricky one.
We finally completed our formal ‘hellos’, aside from one old gentleman. It appeared he was a gate crasher since nobody seemed to know who he was, but it didn’t matter, supplies were plentiful so we just gave him a cheery wave.
Our small talk about the heatwave was interrupted by a loud cheer. I turned to follow the gaze of my nephew, whose eyes were the size of saucers. He was staring at a massive wall of fire.
We were looking at a skinny metal table heaped with straw, and the whole thing had just been set alight.
“Bloody hell, it’s a towering inferno. I wonder if they’re going to perform a practice drill?” murmured Jack, as we watched a group battle with the boisterous flames.
“Bravo”, yelled one of the diners, “c’est les moules!”
Monsieur Genna was once again in the thick of the catering, but now it was all to do with mussels. My poor nephew. Typical of many teenagers, his tastebuds are still at the cheeseburger stage, and have not yet become attuned to the delights of charred pieces of meat, let alone molluscs on fire. A youngster with apparently hollow legs, he looked on forlornly as the realisation dawned on him that this was lunch.
Diners gathered round to watch the spectacle, chattering happily as more straw was piled on and flames engulfed the table – this was flambé big-style.
Finally, we could see enough to spot an amorphous heap covered in wet newspapers. It was spitting and hissing in the heat. Wafts of garlicky fumes mixed with smoke drifted our way; the conflicting aromas were deliciously tantalising.
The toot of a fireman’s whistle announced our first course was ready. We were good to go.
Soggy layers of Le Figaro newspaper were peeled back to reveal piles of juicy mussels, their shells newly opened by the steam. Plastic plates were thrust into our hands and ladles full of crustacea shovelled on our plates. This created an immediate overload causing a few skimmers to whiz off the edges, but luckily most survived.
As this was going on, Jack completely confused our nephew with a typically sardonic explanation about how the soggy newspapers cradling the steaming mussels were especially selected to comply with France’s rigorous interpretation of Brussels’ health and safety rules. I sighed as I listened to these sage pronouncements. The poor lad, I thought, eventually he’d cotton on to his uncle’s special form of humour.
The next arrival cheered my nephew up considerably. As we sat down to enjoy our starter, crates of beer were produced and bottles thumped on the trestle tables. These were accompanied by loaves of French bread, seemingly one each. It’s evidently hungry work being a fireman.
As I ate the succulent starter our station commander explained how their team was structured. Most of the local firemen are volunteers, who come from several walks of life. Farmers, of course, but also shop keepers, businessmen and a doctor, all ready to down-tools at a moment’s notice when an incident occurs.
The fire station is manned by a core group of full-timers, who alert each volunteer on duty via a pager system. He demonstrated by showing me his, which indicated they had already dealt with a fire earlier that day. Their station is linked to the main depot, which has a team on permanent standby to help if additional support is required. To me, the whole system seemed simple yet efficient. In a sparsely populated area like ours, it was good to know that help was always on-hand when needed.
During our discussion we’d managed to consume a vast number of mussels. Even my nephew sampled a couple, grudgingly conceding they weren’t as bad as ‘all that’. The empty shells were expertly scooped into dustbin liners as we witnessed the arrival of the main course.
Six men lugged the boar, still on its steel spit, over to the carving table. Judging by the colourful language that emanated from them, the spar was still extremely hot. It’s amazing the number of new words one learns in situations such as this. I went over to have a look.
Monsieur Genna was in control again. He said the boar had been cooking since 6 am that morning. It was now 3 pm, which explained two things. First, the reason why the poor man was beetroot red and dripping wet – he must have been absolutely boiling in that fireman’s kit. Second, it explained why the animal was now black and crispy. As he reached for his pliers to unpick a line of wire stitches he explained what was inside.
The recipe is generations old and originated in Armenia, where Monsieur Genna’s family came from. Wild boar was cooked every weekend and was a firm favourite with the local villagers. He learned the technique from his grandparents when they came to live in France.
Whilst the cooking time was lengthy, the preparation was simple. The boar had been stuffed with three kilos (over six pounds) of tomatoes, bay leaves (one bush, would be my estimation), onions (lots) and seasoning (loads). After the initial few hours gentle roasting the heat was increased. If I understood correctly, the skin was regularly basted with water, then butter. Some of the cuts would be fried-off, others eaten from the bone. He was confident the process would work its usual magic and produce a culinary triumph. One look at the charred mass and I wasn’t so sure.
Once again piffling issues such as safety and hygiene were cast to the winds as monsieur and his sous chefs got to work. Bloodied gauntlets were donned and, with cigarettes hanging out of mouths, they unpicked the steel stitches that contained the gubbins. With an expression of sincere regret monsieur explained that, shame though it was, the stuffing couldn’t be eaten. I think we were all relieved.
With our hearts in our mouths we lined up to receive our portion of meat.
Back at the table and huge tureens of herby, sautéed potatoes were passed around together with more French sticks javelined in our direction. Beakers of rosé were poured and we took our first tentative mouthfuls of the main course.
The meat was unbelievably tender.
Appreciative murmurs rang around the tables as we feasted on our simple fare – all washed down with the locally-produced wine. I looked around at the healthy, tanned faces of our fellow diners; all fire fighters and their families enjoying a perfect day. Living here didn’t get much better than this.
Once the last scraps of our main course were cleared away it was time for pud, and it quickly became evident this was going to be another ‘no frills’ affair. Two men appeared with cardboard boxes. Questions were demanded of us. Did we prefer chocolat, vanille ou fraise? Unsure what to expect, I chose fraise, strawberry. A grunt of approval followed by a short rummage in the box and out came a cornetto ice cream, which was slid across the table. It was the perfect end to an unexpectedly lovely meal.
With the dining over and Monsieur Genna beginning to return to his normal colour, we were treated to a short post-feast ritual, in honour of the beast. This was decidedly pagan in nature, and definitely inadvisable for the faint hearted. What remained of the boar’s head was triumphantly paraded around the group. This was gamely supported by the headman’s daughter, who acted as single tooth carrier, although I must say she didn’t look entirely thrilled by the occasion. Nevertheless, it gave us all the opportunity to mark a moment’s respect for the animal, which had enabled us to have a wonderful meal. It also allowed us to congratulate Monsieur Genna on his superbly executed recipe.
This could have been the end of our day, and really should have. Sadly for some, it wasn’t. The finale of the event turned out to be a needle tournament of Pétanque – it’s hugely popular here. Also known as Boules, it is a game where a small ball, the Jack, is thrown to the far end of a gravelly ‘court’. This becomes the target. Teams of two or three then throw their metal balls at the Jack. The closest wins. The game is very simple but, as I was about to demonstrate, the execution isn’t.
Just as we were preparing to watch politely for five minutes before leaving, the station commander insisted that we have a go.
“Noooon, merci”, I gasped, having never hurled a Pétanque ball in my life.
“Mais oui, vous devez!” he replied, insisting I have a go.
My sad fate was sealed, or rather that of my unfortunate playing partner.
I, along with my sister and nephew (both of whom put up a much better show), were pressed into service. I’ll spare you the agonisingly disastrous details of how I got on. Suffice to say, a metal Pétanque ball doesn’t react in at all the same way as a tennis ball.
After several failed rounds, one lost ball (I mean, has anyone ever managed to lose a ball in this game before?) and one suspected broken toe, I bowed out gracefully. The relief on my playing partner’s face was palpable.
And finally it was time to go. Aside from my playing partner, whom I dare say was delighted to see the back of me, all the other guests were kindness itself. We were the only Brits among the group, but that didn’t seem to matter a bit. It was another example of where we’d been welcomed as active members of our tiny, pastoral community, and we’d loved every minute of it.