Biographies & Memoirs

Chapter Twenty

It was Clément’s fourth birthday but not, as one might have expected, an occasion for jelly and sausage rolls. With his napkin tied round his neck he tucked into a lunch of foie gras followed by asparagus, roast veal, cepes, and pommes frites, all of it especially appreciated by the adults. We drank a 1983 Chateau Neuf du Pape with the veal, and champagne with the cake. He did, however, have candles. He also had a new pair of trainers which lit up at the back when he stamped hard. We left him bouncing round the courtyard followed by an already walking Océane, and went back up to the house for a short siesta before getting on with the garden.

We had been late arriving this spring as I had been involved in a new musical for the Covent Garden Festival. We had come by rail, eager to try out Eurostar to Paris, which was better than we had imagined. With not so much as a glimpse of the channel, it was almost impossible to believe that the Gare du Nord was not somewhere at the far end of the Northern Line. The TGV from Paris to Agen was less of a pleasure as, without warning, SNCF had booked us into something called the kiosk. We had what must have been the worst seats in the train, facing sideways, with no view. We took refuge in the buffet car for most of the journey, made a note never to repeat the experience and complained bitterly on returning to London.

It was the last week of May. In the already strong early morning sunlight, we picked wild strawberries for breakfast just outside our own porch. The boule de neige was past its best but I had never known the garden so fragrant. The syringa, the roses and the honeysuckle in full flower, provided instant aromatherapy each time I rounded the corner. There were fourteen of Anaïs’s lilies just about to burst into bloom and the last irises were unfolding. Claudette came up the next morning with a basket of eggs and half a dozen of her large sweet onions. There was the drone of distant tractors as those who had cut their hay were busy turning it. Raymond was undecided and phoned the meteorological service at Agen daily. The promised shower for the following night did not materialise.

‘I need a shower now, before I cut it,’ grumbled Raymond. ‘Not afterwards.’

The next day there was a fine misty rain and Claudette and I went to market. It really was le temps des cerises. The stalls were heaped with fat, dark, shining cherries – les Bigarreaux – the flesh so taut that the staining juice spurted out at the first bite. Claudette bought six chicks at 3F each. The young man put them into a shoebox and punched a couple of holes through which they cheeped incessantly all the way home. She intended to smuggle them under a hen who was already sitting.

‘Will it work?’ I asked.

‘It usually does,’ she said. ‘But – if she doesn’t accept them…’ she shrugged, ‘she’ll kill them.’ Nature red in beak and claw!

When we got home Grandpa was cutting asparagus. With a special tool, rather like a long handled shoehorn, he walked along the rows looking for those shoots which were just showing their tips.

C’est presque finit l’asperge,’ he said, straightening up, hand in the small of his back. ‘Premier Avril, jusqu à mi-juin.

This is obviously one of the jobs he still lays his claim to, although it entails a great deal of bending and stretching, and a bucket full of asparagus is no light weight. Grandma was still sitting in the courtyard busily cutting up lengths of blue plastic netting. ‘C’est pour l’arrosage,’ she said when I enquired.

Jean-Michel was to set up a watering system between the plum trees. The netting, Grandma told me, was to protect the sections of the hose which lie flat on the ground from being eaten by rabbits. Having only ever seen one rabbit in all my time at Bel-Air, apart from the corpse brought in by the wild cat, I was surprised.

She smiled. ‘Ah…qu’est-ce que vous voulez? If that’s what they want, I can do it. I’ve worked all my life. I can’t just sit here now with my hands folded in my lap.’

The hay was cut and all the next evening Raymond worked, turning the swathes in the fading sunlight. The smell was wonderful, the sky a water colourist’s dream. Later we went down to the farm and sat outside in the still air. Claudette was trying to put Océane to bed. Her parents were off to visit friends and had left her with her Grandma. Raymond and Grandpa were arguing about the right time to sulphate the vines.

‘If you don’t do it soon,’ roared Grandpa, ‘the flowers will open. The pulverisor will scatter the pollen and – je vous le dis – they won’t fertilise!’

Mais,’ said Raymond, ‘They don’t flower au même moment – le Merlot et le Cabernet – que c’est difficile!

Océane also was being difficile. Defeated, Claudette brought her out in her pyjamas. She gave us all a beaming smile and sat happily gnawing on a piece of confit de canard – preserved duck – a novel teething aid!

By the end of a fortnight, our garden was beginning to look as though someone cared for it. I had planted cosmos and vervain and the mallows were all coming into magnificent flower. I sat by the pool on our last evening. The blue sky, rosy toward the west, was streaked with strips of grey edged with silver. The newest shoots on the pine trees stretched up into space, the few cones silhouetted against the sky. Apart from the occasional car passing on the road far below, the only moving object in view was a neighbour’s water cannon. It spurted in distant silent rhythm until, its ever widening arc reaching its limit, it turned the other way.

At the beginning of July, my second grandson, little baby no-name, was born and, before we left for France, was finally called Elliot James. The weather was perfect when we arrived, with cloudless skies and a light breeze. A monster liquorice reel on a scarlet-wheeled trolley was winding in slowly through the tall maize towards the house and the sound of drenching cooled the air, for Raymond too now had a water cannon. A great swathe had been cut through the rows of maize but it was explained that that would be more than made up for by the increased yield.

Later that evening we had almost finished unpacking when there was the continuous urgent sound of a hooter and an advancing tractor. We hurried out but found Raymond laughing as he thumped the tractor and the noise stopped.

‘Don’t worry,’ he called ‘mon klaxon s’est mis en marche. It just started by itself, I don’t know why. It gave me a fright too.’ He sat on the porch to wait for the water cannon to finish winding itself in and reach the top of the row, and fell asleep.

I stood directly behind the machine, the only spot which remains dry, and watched the great lance of water. The jet is interrupted by a metal bracket, which lifts intermittently, forcing some of the water to spray out on the maize close by. I was pleased to see that part of my garden was also benefiting. The next day Mike enjoyed himself driving the tractor, pulling a new trailer like a double length open-topped metal coffin, another of Jean-Michel’s devices. It carried the heavy pipes from one field to another to connect from the various hydrants which brought the water from the Lot.

My greengage tree was loaded with fruit. I picked and ate some every time I passed. Claudette’s tree at the far end of the orchard appeared to be bare. When I commiserated she laughed. Apparently it had been so heavily laden that a few days before our arrival they had paid a neighbour’s children to pick them and take them to the commercial, wholesale market. There were 300 kilos. ‘We got 4F a kilo’, said Claudette. ‘But,’ she shrugged and smiled, ‘if we’d waited a week we would have got 5F.’

There was wildlife everywhere. Raymond caught a fouine, a stone martin, in the trap he puts down for les ragondins, the coypus, who are on the increase in our area, doing much damage to both crops and the banks of ponds. I saw a large ragondin with its thick, sleek, rump lolloping along our track. The traps they use do not wound the animal. They are long, open-ended cages with a floor in the centre which pivots, causing both end doors to fall shut. In the house there was a preying mantis on the draining board and a tree frog sitting behind the kitchen scales but the worst problem that spring was mice in the cupboard.

We had unwisely left a few nuts in what I had imagined to be a stout plastic box. They had chewed a hole through a corner of the floor of Anaïs’s ancient cupboard and had rampaged over everything. The cupboard emptied, scrubbed and repaired and all the contents washed, we did not want a repeat performance. Where had they come in? One intrepid visitor gave us the clue and we removed the heavy fireback to find a positive mouse’s highway winding up to a hole in the wall, wide and deep enough for a regiment. It took a great many stones to fill it and we hoped that they would find the cement more of a problem than plastic and wood.

I spent a day sitting with Grandma shelling les cocos for bottling. These are especially delicious white beans, rounder and fatter than normal haricots. You cannot buy them commercially preserved because they tend to disintegrate. If the pods are beginning to dry it is a simple chore, otherwise it becomes tedious. But they are superb cooked in a rich tomato sauce with garlic and basil. We always take some back to London. Grandma was pleased to have another task. Her eyesight is no longer good enough to read very much, or to knit. She finds it very hard to adjust to increasing incapacity and is always worried that she is not pulling her weight with the innumerable tasks on the farm.

The weather grew even hotter. We spent a great deal of time in the pool and wondered how we had ever managed without one, and Raymond was thankful that this was the year he had managed to buy his water cannon. There were so many around spraying water in every direction that I began to think that the river Lot must eventually dry up. However, when we next crossed it at Villeneuve for the Saturday market, it looked as deep and dark as always.

During the evening there was a fierce wind from the south-west which hurled over the sun umbrellas and then vanished as suddenly as it had arrived. It seemed to gather strength and returned bearing ominous clouds, this time from the south-east. We cancelled plans to eat our trout, barbecued with garlic and rosemary, by the pool and retreated to the porch. We had hardly finished when the heavens opened. It was still raining when we went to bed at 10.30 and still raining at midnight when I put out the light. And all night long the water cannon wound slowly up towards the house. It didn’t understand that it was raining. Senselessly efficient, the little spring tightened, the ratchet turned at measured speed and the lance of water got ever nearer. One might surely have imagined that this mechanical miracle might actually have been fitted with a rain measuring device. Just a simple gauge which, when it reached a reasonable number of centimetres, might have paused in its labours and, like the rest of us, thanked God for the sweetest things of all, a night of heavy rain, followed by a brilliantly sunny morning.

On Sunday we celebrated Raymond’s sixtieth birthday. Raymond, who usually adores parties, was strangely reluctant, but Claudette and his children insisted. Like most people whose work is largely dependent on their physical strength, he fears old age. He went quietly about his tasks while a hall was hired, menus were arranged and Bonne Retraite was written on the cake and on a banner to be tied across the far end of the room. Some sixty of us assembled at midday outside the Salle Municipal at Condat which has a shady garden with a stream running down to the Lot some yards away. The food was good, the service abominably slow, but the conversation animated.

As usual, it was les beaux jours d’autrefois that they talked about. As they reminisced, a nephew complained, fortunately out of earshot of Raymond, that it was les agriculteurs who had killed the countryside. ‘Plus de gibier, plus, d’oiseaux,’ he lamented – no game or birds left. Concern about wildlife? A somewhat unusual sentiment I thought until I learned that he belonged to a club des Gourmands.

Philippe’s mother-in-law remembered how she and her friends would walk to school. Her eyes shone as she told of the long climb up to the village. ‘It took us half an hour to get to the top,’ she said. ‘Then we would take off our boots and put on proper shoes. How cold they felt – but our feet were warm from walking. But it was coming home that was wonderful; the flowers that we would pick, the fruit in season, and so many fascinating creatures. It always took us over an hour, although it was downhill, because there was so much to interest us. What do the children know of the countryside now?’ she asked. The others agreed, nodding sadly.

I wondered what they would think of the lot of city children now who are driven to school and posted fearfully in through the doors; children who never have the chance to meet strangers, or to form judgements of their own. I marvel at my own childhood when I would often sit on a gate talking to strange people who came walking by from the workhouse, a mile or so down the road. Old sailors who would tell me tales and occasionally, batty old women with bundles. Sometimes they would knock on our front door for boiling water to wet the pinch of tea they had been given. Often my mother would cut them a slice of cake. We talked to them and made up our own minds and I don’t ever remember feeling threatened. It gave me a sense of confidence and when, as a child, I did meet potential trouble, a priest as it happens, I was quickly able to avoid it.

For Raymond’s special celebration, after the salad with gambas, the galantine de volaille, and, of course, a rôti de boeuf; the cake was carried in and we sang ‘Happy Birthday’ in French and then in English. Raymond made a touching speech. Clément blew out the candles which had to be re-lit and Océane put her finger in the cream icing, but everyone had a great time. I have a fond memory of Raymond and Claudette whizzing round the room to, of all things, ‘The Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B’.

Les Fostaires arrived and we took them down to Laguardia. We were too early for fiesta but had our usual whirlwind few days. Maria took us up to a mountain village to buy chorizo, the local spicy sausage. They had just been made and were hanging in bright and aromatic festoons. About twenty old ladies were crammed in the next tiny room playing cards, with yet more coming across the square, carrying chairs to join them. On the way home we came through a village where they were about to close the square for the running of the young bulls. The only problem was the one car still parked in the middle. There were constant and ever angrier injunctions from the loudspeaker but when the owner finally arrived it was immediately apparent what he had been doing in the interim. He was so drunk that finding the car was difficult enough, fitting the key in the door was impossible. A friend helped him and got in, intending to drive. The car owner would have none of it. Disgusted, the friend got out to remonstrate. That was a mistake. The owner got in, seized the wheel and the car raced around the square. It was more exciting than the eventual running of the bulls, and a great deal more dangerous.

We visited one of the oldest bodegas – Marques de Riscal – and saw thousands of bottles covered, not only in dust and cobwebs, but mould. I saw one bottled in 1912 for the XVIII exposition du vin at Bordeaux. Surprisingly, these vintage wines are re-corked every twenty to twenty-five years, in one swift, in and out movement.

‘If they are not worth the trouble it is instantly obvious,’ said the guide, wrinkling his fine nose. We visited the thirteenth-century monastery at Najera with its five towers, a choir stall of exceptional beauty, and a Virgin in a grotto saturated with the perfume of bunches of lilies. Spain always seems so extreme and exotic.

We left next morning very early and drove back to Monflanquin where the square was full of nothing more dangerous than inches of straw and chicken feathers scattered beneath the long wooden tables for another medieval banquet that evening.

Although it said 8.30 on the ticket we were not even allowed to take our places until after 9 p.m. We then enjoyed over an hour’s entertainment in the square while, backstage, the hundred ducks set up on two long spits behind the church refused to cook. The strong wind was blowing the heat the wrong way and on the part of the chefs there was much shaking of heads and scurrying about. We, the revellers, most of whom had made some attempt at medieval costume, some quite splendid, were perfectly content. We enjoyed the usual young musicians with their authentic instruments and songs and they were followed this year by a curious, surreal cabaret.

Into the square came a girl with white face, arms and legs. Dressed in pale rags, her silver hair was oddly shaved. Behind her she pulled a delicate metal cart on which were a curved brass horn, a bunch of faded flowers and lengths of pale gauze. Although there was a taped sound-track, it did not seem incongruous, consisting as it did of irregular percussion and a keening sound which was strange enough to fit into any period. After a few moments, during which she had everyone mesmerized by her odd, slow, movements, her head tilted as though listening to some enchanted music only she could hear, another figure bounded in. It wore a grey, shaggy costume, like rag rugs, and an animal mask, and it travelled on all fours, holding in its hands short, cloth-covered, wooden stilts, like hooves. There followed a weird kind of ballet which had the crowd, including a great many previously noisy children, completely enthralled.

Eventually the ‘beast’ was tamed and unmasked to reveal a handsome young man and they hauled off their cart to great applause. They were followed by the Romanian musicians, by now familiar visitors.

All the food was prepared by a team of farmers’ wives, and was very good. We ate terrine de volaille, tarte au saumon et aux épinards, which was especially delicious, and eventually, just before midnight, the ducks, cooked at last. There was as much local wine as you could drink and great bowls of fruit salad to finish. Raymond and Claudette, happily not babysitting, enjoyed it too.

A few days later it was Claudette’s birthday. Raymond came to make sure that we would all go down after supper. He had bought her something special this year.

What was it? He would not tell us, but ‘I know what she’ll say,’ he grinned, ‘“Encore du travail!” More work!’

Eventually he could keep it a secret no longer. He was about to go with Jean-Michel to collect two peacocks. By nine thirty we had all given our presents and were waiting to cut the cake. Véronique handed her a small box which she unwrapped. It contained a tin of maize grains.

‘What is it for?’ asked Clément, echoed as always by Océane. Claudette looked perplexed. ‘Perhaps it’s to make le pop corn,’ she said.

She was genuinely astonished when, out of the darkness, came Raymond and Jean-Michel carrying a pair of handsome peacocks, their feet loosely tied with string. The birds regarded us all with an untroubled stare. ‘Oh là! Oh là là là!’ she exclaimed. She stroked them with her practised hand and talked to them in the high, singsong voice she uses to all her animals. She was clearly thrilled. At last she cut the cake, Raymond poured the wine and we all sang ‘Happy Birthday’. Clément and Océane amused themselves cleaning all the plastic chairs with two little dish cloths and a bowl of soapy water, and the peacocks gazed round at their new home.

They did indeed make her more work. For the first few weeks they lived with the rest of the birds. At night they slept high up in the chicken barn. But by day they roamed far and wide and she was always having to search for them in the evening. This year Jean-Michel, ever practical, has solved the problem by making them a very large aviary the length of a barn. Claudette hopes they will breed and then she will be able to train the young birds to stay fairly close to the house. I hear their strange cry up at Bel-Air and think of the General’s wife in Anouilh’s Waltz of the Toreadors eternally calling her husband, ‘Léon, Léon!’

Before les Fostaires left they wanted to take us out to eat at our gastronomic find, the Hotel de Quercy at Lauzerte. It was a very hot day and we were surprised to find even the lower streets of the town crammed with both vans and people until we learned that it was the 54th year of the Dog Fair. M. Bacou, the chef’s father, who often takes the orders, was apparently already at the fair. Madame welcomed us and there was a great air of bustle as the last diners arrived and took their places in the pleasant room, the half-closed shutters shielding us from the heat outside. They were mostly family groups with children perched on cushions, and grandmothers adjusting their spectacles to read the menu.

We chose from the 165F menu, the most expensive, apart from a menu surprise at 225F. We wanted the pleasure of deciding for ourselves, but it was not easy, with such a choice.

‘Perhaps you would like…just a little soup, while you decide?’ suggested Madame. We sipped away and made our final order. We chose as many different dishes as possible as we knew we would inevitably taste from each other’s plates. For the first course we had foie gras either cold or hot. The cold was served with both red and black currants and a sprig of mint. Raymond would not have approved! The hot version was fried quickly with apples which had been cooked in honey and spices. They were both delicious, but I think I prefer it cold. Next we had a choice between ris de veau, saumon, or sandre – a river fish with thick, firm flesh and a delicate flavour. Judith chose the sweetbreads – the timbale de ris de veau aux cèpes et champignons – and it looked so beautiful when it arrived in a white china goblet with a pastry lid. The sandre was arranged with the thinnest of sliced potatoes and a sauce of sorrel and red wine; and the salmon, in a wonderful hollandaise sauce with almonds, was sandwiched in filo pastry and served with oignons confits which I have never tasted before. They were deep red, almost caramelized and delicious.

There was much passing of plates. ‘You must just taste this – it’s so good!’ There were sighs and groans of pleasure and licking of fingers. We drank a Gaillac Blanc Sec which was perfect, and as we wiped up the last smear of sauce and waited for our next course we watched a father at an adjoining table carefully cutting up steak for his small son. The child, napkin tied firmly round his neck, became impatient and slid off his chair. There was a sudden great noise of barking just outside and the child quickly remounted. There were raised voices and Madame came in with a flushed face and disapproving look.

Les chiens!’ she said. ‘And – as if we would have a table at this hour!’

Was our food to our taste, she asked. At our enthusiastic replies she smiled. ‘Ah well, we have the chef you see.’ She served our red wine, a Cahors, her good humour restored.

Next we ate a filet mignon de veau cooked with truffles and served with a little mound of finely chopped egg and mushroom. Barry chose a tournedos with a small slice of foie gras on the top and served with a square of layered courgettes and tomatoes. It was all beautifully presented, carefully cooked and just the right amount. We nibbled from a very good cheeseboard and then came the difficult task of choosing a desert from a long list which included mousse of mango and passion fruit, chocolate, or raspberry; tart with apricot or spicy fruits; and various ice creams. Barry was pleased to find Tarte Tatin, made this time with pears instead of apples and Madame apologised that they had completely run out of crème fouettée.

As we drank our strong black coffee with a square of bitter chocolate we delighted in the growing success of this unpretentious restaurant and wondered whether Frederic Bacou, the young chef, would, in the end, be persuaded to try his skills in grander surroundings. His mother had already told us that hoteliers from Switzerland had already tried to lure him away.

‘Only once Maman,’ he protested. ‘They rang again, twice,’ she insisted proudly.

This was their fifth year at the Hotel de Quercy. Frederic did his training first at Toulouse and then spent two years at Mazamet, returning to Toulouse for a further year to study wine under ‘un professeur…qui m’avait passionné.’ He had worked all over the south-west, and finished with a season in Lorraine. On his return from a holiday in Paris, his parents had told him that the Hotel de Quercy, then extremely run down, and without any gastronomic reputation at all, was for sale.

‘That same afternoon I went to look at it and to talk to le patron,’ he said, his eyes still alight with the excitement of it all. ‘Within three months we had begun our project. If it isn’t a success, it’s not the end of the world, but I wanted to try. It’s always been my ambition. I have worked in really grand places, but I’m not cut out for that style of thing…It is very hard. I want to run a restaurant with a cuisine…comme on l’a fait nous…c’est beaucoup plus sincère. I want a place with un atmosphère chaleureuse where one can eat and drink really well and still be at ease.’

He has certainly created just that, and, as far as we are concerned, long may he continue to do so.

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