Hospitality in France
Last week I spent some time in a very small house, in a very small village in the Montagne Noire, Southern France.
We are talking proper rural life – this area is the home of Cassoulet (a slow cooked bean, pork and duck stew), Confit de Canard (duck preserved in fat) and the delicious wines of the Minervois, Corbiere and Cabardes. In this village we have no bus, no shop or restaurant. All those things are a 20 minute drive away. What we do have is an uninterrupted view of the snow topped Pyrenees, beautiful countryside and best of all a very strong sense of community. We are the only English people in the village and I am sure our attempts at the French language are the cause of many jokes. However,we are always given a welcome when we arrive ! All too often a basket arrives from Madame Gasc and Madame Inard containing eggs, tomatoes, home made jam, green beans, bread and a bunch of flowers from their garden. So kind.
Only yesterday I had a very humbling experience and one that will stay with me for some time to come. We have a next door neighbour – John Paul who is probably late 50s – he lived with his brother until his death last year. He now lives alone. I have often wondered how John Paul scrapes a living. He restores antiques and then tries to sell them at weekend flea markets In Montpelier, Toulouse and Bezier. He piles his stuff into a clapped out van with the door hanging off and leaves home at around 4am and returns very late.
His house is a sight to behold – for example his mantelpiece yesterday housed a broken toby jug, 2 wall lights (in bits), a broken clock, 2 chinese jugs and a mirror. Every available space is filled with old bric a brac and what you or I would describe as junk.
I kid you not – his kitchen at the back of the house is below ground level and sits on bare earth in which there is an old microwave, a tiny oven and a sink. To the side of the kitchen is an open fire with dead ashes from a previous time.
John Paul yesterday asked me to join him for a meal. I had told him about my Bake Off experience and he wanted to celebrate. (He hasn’t got a television or a computer by the way).
I am absolutely ashamed to say I didn’t fancy it.
I agreed to Saturday evening at 7pm. I walked from our front gate to John Paul’s – knocked at his door and worried when he didn’t answer that I had misunderstood John Paul’s very broad accent and had got the wrong night ! Eventually he answered the door and welcomed us into his living room.
He switched on the light and a chandelier with 3 bulbs and a broken arm sprung into action then John Paul pulled up a couple of chairs and set about laying the table.
What happened next had me speechless :-
John Paul disappeared into his kitchen and reappeared with clean glasses and a decanter of red wine. He poured and we settled down in our places. John Paul then presented our first course which was a home made seafood galette and tossed green salad – absolutely delicious made from salted dried cod, mussels and prawns all encased in a crispy puff pastry – no soggy bottom. His main was guinea fowl cooked with bacon, cabbage and potatoes. This was presented in a huge casserole, placed in the centre of the table with fresh bread – amazing !
Cheese followed, more wine then coffee in the most beautiful little white coffee cups I have ever seen.
If this is what is described as French peasant food then in my opinion they eat like kings.
I doubt anyone in the UK has a kitchen sitting on bare earth. We are obsessed with our trendy self cleaning ovens, water filters, dish washers, washing machines, wide screen TVs, Iphones and internet. We have our fancy cars and hair appointments and need for new clothes.
A meal with John Paul and his enthusiasm for sourcing local produce certainly gave me a kick up the pants and made me realise I had actually really enjoyed myself.
I had made judgements using my standards whereas what is important is the generosity of someone to take the time to cook and then share with others.
Thanks John Paul ! – your house, meal and conversation had charm x
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