Enough of the food; for me it’s the chat, the gos­sip. Oh, what gos­sip

The Herald Magazine - - FIRST UP - FIDELMA COOK

PER­HAPS it wasn’t the best of starts to an af­ter­noon out in La France Pro­fonde. In­vited to lunch by Eric, my wine mer­chant and lux­ury item, in the home of his girl­friend, I was to be picked up by a man called Christophe.

(That’s right, I still have no car but it has pro­gressed at least to di­ag­nos­tiques in the Ford garage. Five weeks and count­ing.)

Know­ing my in­abil­ity to come to, shower and dress be­fore 2pm, Eric had asked if 12.30pm would be fine.

“Of course, of course,” I said as if I found it ex­tra­or­di­nary he’d have to ask. So I was im­mensely proud of my­self that at 11.45am I was still in the robe, but nails, hair and makeup were done. The Vel­cro rollers are al­ways left in un­til the last minute. Grav­ity.

When I heard the car I pre­sumed it was Robert on his way home from Car­refour and went out to send him away. A strange, bearded man – half Robert’s age – stared back at me. Christophe. Merde. It seems we were to be at Eric’s for 12.30.

Rather un­gra­ciously I told him to come in and wait, be­rat­ing him for be­ing so early. It’s just not French, I told him. Wisely he sim­ply apol­o­gised as I pulled the rollers out while we walked and talked.

Christophe, it turned out, is a prop­erty whizz. He owns two houses in the vil­lage and lives in an apart­ment, rent­ing out the rest. He also has prop­erty in An­dalu­cia where he lives in the win­ter months.

Beats talk­ing about the price of win­ter wheat. Any­way, ar­riv­ing in the heart of the town I use only for the su­per­mar­kets, we were in a war­ren of an­cient streets; large ter­raced houses open­ing di­rectly on to pave­ments. A very dif­fer­ent town to the one I thought I knew.

The house we were to lunch in is prob­a­bly one of the old­est and its cu­ri­ous din­ing room at the far end of the sit­ting room was bathed in light from a glass roof – an atrium. Look­ing up one could see the other floors of the house and it must once have been an open me­dieval court­yard.

We be­gan in the sit­ting room as Eric and his part­ner, who I’ll call M, brought out bread and a plate of cured sausages and boudin noir (black pud­ding). In­stead of aper­i­tifs we had a 1994 Chateau la Tour Car­net.

I re­mained on it for the af­ter­noon. Well, un­til the cham­pagne. The lunch it­self was a trib­ute to my favourite French king, “good King Henri IV”, raised in the south west.

Around 1600 he vowed to the Duke of Savoy: “If God keeps me in life, I will en­sure there is no labourer in my realm who doesn’t have the means to put a chicken in his pot.”

So poule au pot was born.

M had cre­ated her own elab­o­rate ver­sion, a lo­cal spe­cialty, which had been cook­ing in one way or an­other since the day be­fore.

I’ll do my best here. The chicken had first been poached to give the rich soup with ver­mi­celli for the first course but God knows what re­ally hap­pened to it after that.

It was boned, stuffed and put in pas­try we were not to eat. But the stuff­ing in­volved veal, ham, sausage and … oh, loads of other things.

Sim­ple boiled veg­eta­bles – glory be – came on a plat­ter and, of course, bread. I will never un­der­stand bread with a main course.

And there were ooz­ing rounds of goat’s cheese; a pineap­ple pud­ding with an Ar­magnac sauce … But enough of the food; for me it’s the chat, the gos­sip. Oh, what chat, pol­i­tics and po­lit­i­cal gos­sip. M as­sured me that a fa­mous fe­male politi­cian was a Mit­ter­rand love child; Christophe that an­other male politi­cian had a pen­chant for leather boys; E that … No, too scur­rilous to men­tion.

Ah, but the best, the best of all – I now have a name and phone num­ber for a sor­ciere who ac­tu­ally lives in my vil­lage. Christophe knows her and says she’s re­ally, re­ally good.

We had been talk­ing about ghosts, lo­cal his­tory, be­liefs, dif­fer­ences be­tween na­tions; how no­body un­der­stands the Brits here who don’t speak French or at­tempt to in­te­grate. A sore point for many French.

And then, as my thumb and fore­fin­ger cramped as I reached for my glass – a fre­quent oc­cur­rence; the cramp, not just reach­ing for my glass – I found a healer in our midst.

M, who’d heard my praise for the heal­ers who are wel­comed in French medicine, asked if I minded as she took my hand, aware of the pain that came with the claw grip.

Her hand hov­ered above mine, then did gen­tle stroking move­ments. Slowly the pain less­ened; the thumb straight­ened as she whis­pered the heal­ing words I’d heard from Roslyn when she’d “flung” my back pain through an open win­dow.

I have had no pain since, 36 hours later. Be­lieve what you will.

So, sit­ting here think­ing of all that hap­pened, I re­alise this is La France Pro­fonde I ac­tu­ally love.

I asked all those at the ta­ble, who’ve lived in many other places, why they’d ended up here in Tarn-et-Garonne.

Christophe spoke for them all: “It’s where our roots are. It’s an odd, out of time place, but we all come home in the end.

“There is nowhere quite like it in France.”

cook­fi­[email protected]­mail.com Twit­ter: @fi­del­ma­cook

PIC­TURE: JAMIE SIMP­SON

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