Enough of the food; for me it’s the chat, the gossip. Oh, what gossip
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.”
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PICTURE: JAMIE SIMPSON