Autumn Vines

Autumn Vines

We were to arrive at 12.30 on a Sunday afternoon – which means at least half an hour later as naturally nobody ever arrives on time in France. We were looking forward to this encounter, but with some trepidation, as our neighbours speak absolutely no English. This is fair enough of course and on its own we would have been able to cope with it quite well, but they add to this minor hurdle by having extremely strong southwestern accents. This means that when confronted with a polite:
‘Ca va?’ They are likely to reply,
‘Tribyanga!’ or even more confusingly ‘engfohma!’ Which can complicate matters a trifle.
However, on the appointed day we spruced ourselves up a bit and after a short discussion on whether or not a dictionary would be a socially acceptable accessory – opinion was split, so we left it behind – set off, resolutely determined to prove that the English are as linguistically talented as any other nation in Europe. Hmmm.
We arrived to a great show of bonhomie, dozens of smacking kisses, a five-minute rocket-fired greeting, of which I managed to catch about one word in ten, and a rash of very dubious looking bottles. We concentrated fiercely, simultaneously translating dialect into French and French into English then smiling inanely when our mental computers refused to co-operate. Didier, our enthusiastic host, encouraged by our apparent comprehension, put a foot hard down and revved up the speed of his conversation like a turbo-charged Michael Schumacher. Huge drinks were thrust into our hands and refilled whenever we weren’t paying close attention. Salty little snacks circulated, olives, pickled chillies maison and spiced cornichons followed. It was going to be one of those days.
An hour or so later we stood, somewhat dazed, on the sun-drenched terrace with our host. He had slowed his conversation a little at this stage to allow him to cope more effectively with the vast pastis in his hand. It was obviously time to start making ‘time to go – lunch in the oven’ type noises and we were just congratulating ourselves on our successful emergence from this linguistic assault course when Francine popped her head round the long windows. Would we care to eat with them? The beloved propped himself against the stone wall for support whilst I stammered an inarticulate, wholly inaccurate and completely untruthful reply.
“C’est rien, trés simple” she assured us.
We began with two different varieties of pâté maison. There were coarse rillettes made from the local wild boar – the famed sanglier of the dense forests here – and there was a vast terrine of everyday pork pâté. These were served with the same sort of pain de campagne that we’d experienced during our unforgettable ‘orange box’ barbeque some months before. Large portions were encouraged and second helpings were obligatory. The first jug of local Cahors, made by our host’s brothers further down the valley, was finished and smoothly replaced with another. This was followed by another of the house specialities; stuffed neck of duck, roasted crisply and served with vast quantities of haricots vert and another jug of Cahors. It was delectable. I sat back to try and recoup what little strength I had left, whilst our host, having partly satisfied his nutritional requirements and virtually drowned his tonsils, was back to full speed anecdotes. Francine appeared with a tray of succulent, ripe cheeses and another basket of foot long slices of bread. Didier’s exuberant non-stop conversation was causing the onboard computer between my ears to signal overload. My stomach had given up signalling and was now quietly grumbling away to itself. The beloved however, was still manfully ploughing on. His third helping of Vigny cheese necessitated yet another jug of Cahors to which he applied himself, I thought, with admirable dedication. Our hostess slipped away to bring on the triumph of the meal, ‘Gateau Pastis Quercynoise’, another very local and very filling speciality. I wondered whether the amiable dog of the house was within my reach. The last drop of Cahors was shared out and a bottle of Champagne appeared. Glasses were replaced with more appropriately shaped flutes and the gâteau ceremoniously cut. I accepted my portion with every evidence of delight and as we toasted the New Year, I slipped it quietly into my capacious jacket pocket. Didier polished off his first slice with relish, and having cut himself another, went in search of the most dubious bottle of all. He tried to explain just how this highly acclaimed digestif was made, by brandishing the herbs in front of us. Artemisia, the name rang a bell on the edge of my sozzled consciousness. Didier poured a small quantity – which was unlike him – and I suddenly made the connection. Of course, Artemisia or wormwood, it was Absinthe! No wonder the quantities were small. At this point the grandfather clock in the corner began to make wheezing, getting-ready-to-strike sounds. We glanced up. It was six o’clock. Having thanked our hosts for a glorious ‘trés simple’ lunch, we heaved our bloated bodies out of their chairs and staggered home. The simple aperitif had turned into a five-course, five-hour marathon. The épaule d’agneau I had originally intended for our lunch stood forlornly on the kitchen worktop.
Anyone for dinner?

© Amanda Lawrence 2008

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Lunch with the Neighbours from French Vie

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