Cenac In The Snow

Cenac In The Snow

Dawn revealed a sparkling scene. The huge pines at the bottom of the valley were veiled in a delicate frost, junipers shook the icing sugar from their needle sharp leaves, oaks bowed under the weight of their snow overcoats and forest animals creeping ever closer to the warmth of human habitation. It was Christmas Eve in the Quercy.

Early that morning I visited the age-old Christmas market in Cahors, standing at the edge of the cobbled square I wondered how many Christmases have rolled by in that ancient place, how many market scenes almost identical to the one I was witnessing. Birds of every kind were laid out in thrilling abundance, delicate quail, boned and stuffed, caponed guinea fowl, half-plucked turkeys of every breed imaginable, hung head-down over the counters, wings spread to prove their breed, and of course the ubiquitous duck. But the goose has always been king here, and it is still. A fat Toulouse goose is the perfect centre piece for the Christmas table.

On the way home, winding slowly through silent pine woods, heavy with snow – eerie and fascinating – I passed a stag posing majestically at the side of the narrow road. He eyed me with distain; his beautiful liquid eyes just feet from my window, then turned and stepped quietly back into the cover of the frozen forest. He wasn’t the only animal I passed. This road is an old one that follows the natural contours of the hills, and it was their road long before it was ours. The higher I climbed, the thicker the snow, and by the time I reached the heights, it was falling fast again and I could no longer distinguish the road from the verge.

Game Pie

Game Pie

Safely back home and inside my cosy kitchen, all was merry, bright and decidedly food orientated. Cruella had held a constant 170 degrees for well over two hours – which is pretty good going for a woodburner. She’d been watched like a hawk because she had a fabulous game pie tucked away inside. Pork and veal, pheasant and juniper were the stars of the show, and the gloriously glazed concoction was almost ready. Pheasants are rare in this little corner of the world, you catch glimpses of them in the forests of course, but they are not bred for game as they were in my native Sussex, so to come across one is a bit of a treat and not to be wasted. Juniper, the natural companion to any sort of game, thrives on these wild, arid hillsides, I do battle with it in my garden all year round, but some of these wonderfully resilient shrubs must be retained, not only do they yield highly perfumed berries, bright as a blackbird’s eye, but they belong here and will grow where little else could.

A faint whiff of their aromatic presence pervaded the room as I opened the oven door. My pie was gloriously golden and ready to come out. I stood it in pride of place in the middle of the scrubbed kitchen table – where I could admire it for the rest of the day – before finally giving it the finishing touches and pouring in the aspic. The deliciously golden scent of the pie mingled enticingly with the heady perfume of Armagnac, roast walnuts and prunes in my mincemeat.
It’s the aroma of Christmas in the Quercy.

Merry Christmas and a very happy, prosperous New Year.

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Christmas In The Quercy from French Vie

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