Biographies & Memoirs

Chapter Three

The great day dawned. At least it did for Claudette and Véronique, her daughter, who were both at the hairdressers at seven a.m. Knowing that it would be a long day; mercifully not on parade until midday, I didn’t get up until eleven. There were some compensations in being hors de combat. We wondered how the broken nose was faring.

The sky was cloudless. There was not a breath of wind. As Mike put on his suit and knotted his rarely used tie the temperature rose into the high eighties. I was very glad I had brought an antique silk dress as by mid-afternoon anything synthetic would have been unbearable.

At the farm there was great excitement. Mike’s unusually formal appearance was greeted with shouts of approval. Raymond looked as though he had been professionally cleaned and polished, and Claudette emerged triumphantly down the steps wearing a smart little black straw boater and an extravagantly draped dress the exact shade of one of her apricots. Everyone glowed with anticipation. More and more people arrived. The courtyard filled with enthusiastic friends and relations and at one thirty we all moved off to Corinne’s farm some three miles away.

On arrival we had to slow to a crawl at the beginning of the long drive as the surface of the road had been decorated with intricate patterns of cut leaves and flowers. What time had they got up to do this we wondered? The courtyard and garden were transformed with tables and chairs arranged under the trees. In the centre a dance-floor had been constructed, arched over with branches of evergreen, wild asparagus fern and dozens of paper roses. We were all directed to a special area behind the great barn, where Corinne’s brothers and cousins decorated each car with wild flowers and streamers. Button holes were fixed and everyone was then rehearsed in their positions for the grand procession to the Mairie for the civil ceremony, and afterwards to the church for the blessing.

Corinne’s father, his nose happily not broken welcomed everyone. Exquisitely dressed children jumped up and down with excitement as Philippe and Corinne came out onto the garlanded balcony to cheers and whistles. Philippe in a dark suit and wing collar with a pale grey bow tie looked handsome and a little dazed. Corinne was radiant as she walked down the steps in her fairy-tale wedding dress with billowing skirt, a simple spray of flowers in her hair, a worthy leading lady of this whole joyous production. The decorated car aerials glinted in the sunlight. We prepared to move off when suddenly Corinne’s mother rushed along the lines of cars.

‘Il ne faut pas klaxonner!’ she shouted. ‘A cause des vaches du voisin!’

It is the custom in France for wedding parties to signal their joyful purpose by sounding their horns almost continuously on their way to and from a wedding. As everything else on this hot afternoon was being done with such enthusiasm Corinne’s mother had rightly anticipated a continuous cacophony on leaving. But the message did not get passed along the entire line of cars and the last few, perhaps trying to make up for the unaccustomed silence in front, klaxoned loudly as we left and the neighbour’s cows gave us a galloping send-off.

As the civil ceremony in the Mayor’s office necessitated standing I was excused. I sat on a wall in the shade and talked to Madame Esther who is well over eighty, on crutches and also not too good at standing. She is the niece of Anaïs, my predecessor at Bel-Air, and I am always glad of a chance to talk to her.

‘Ah, les mariages,’ she sighed. ‘Ah oui. They bring back so many memories.’

And then in her usual fashion she lapsed into a patois so rapid that I was completely lost. But in any case I felt that she was really talking to herself.

The legal part of the wedding over we now processed as rehearsed across the square to the church. More juniper trees graced the porch. On the steps, underneath a garland of paper roses stood the curé to welcome us. Round and kindly, and, at over seventy, officially retired, he has been kept on to serve a community which would otherwise have no priest; as is the case in so many parts of rural France. He beamed at the beautiful young couple and led us all inside into the cool interior until it seemed the church would burst its walls.

It was a strange but moving service, not a traditional nuptial mass. It was a marriage in itself, a mix of the sacred and the secular. A poem L’amour fragile comme un enfant, was followed by a fine reading of The Song of Songs, which somehow in French sounded especially passionate. As the flash bulbs popped and the video cameras whirled the genial little priest seemed quite content to add the religious content from time to time. When it was all over we poured out of the church into a heat which took our breath away, and Corinne began the kissing for which the make-up had been so specially constructed. But she was so radiant that it was, in any case, unnecessary.

Back once more at the farm the fun, and most importantly, some eating could begin. It was almost four o’clock and the hottest part of the day but no one had had any lunch. Unthinkable! Music from a disco manned by a young relative began and the quails’ eggs and pizzas disappeared with speed and were replenished just as quickly. Corinne and her gallant father, his nose just slightly swollen, took to the garlanded dance-floor. With a handsome new husband, three brothers and umpteen cousins the bride did not lack for partners. Everyone danced with abandon, even her great aunt, lately retired from religious life. Endless photographs were taken, toasts were proposed, drunk, and proposed again and we processed indoors in smaller groups to view the room full of expensive wedding presents. Granny and Grandpa had bought them a washing machine.

At last the sunlight slanted lower in the sky, the guests who had been invited for le vin d’honneur began to leave. The moment came for the one hundred and fifty close friends and family to assemble for the last procession to the so carefully planned wedding meal.

The Restaurant Palissy must have been warned of our imminent arrival by the chorus of ‘klaxons’ echoing through the valley from Gavaudun. Home of the lepers in the Middle Ages, the caves in which these piteous creatures were forced to live, and from where they lowered their baskets for food can still be seen high up in the cliffs overlooking the idyllic scene below. But our party gave them little thought.

On our arrival juniper trees once more stood sentinel as we filed through the small bar to the large room at the back where M. Allo, a gleaming white napkin over his arm, stood to greet us with his wide anxious smile, and the next six hours passed in a haze of music, wild voices and wonderful food. Again it was a meal to write about. We began with melon au porto, followed by salmon braised in champagne. Then the so carefully chosen rôti de boeuf with a sauce Perigueux was carried in. The sauce was a rich Madeira sauce with the addition of truffles and cognac. It was the best beef I have ever tasted and clearly I was not alone. There were raised eyebrows at the first bite then kissing of fingers, groans of delight and the taking of second helpings as the great platters were passed and repassed. M. Allo, who has been especially solicitous to me since his photograph appeared with an article I had published in The Lady, urged me to take a third helping.

‘Mais…on m’a dit que vous êtes malade,’ he said. ‘Il faut bien manger.’

There was dancing in between the courses, which was just as well, for the beef was followed by roast guinea-fowl cooked with prunes and flambéed in Armagnac, together with potatoes sautéed with garlic, stuffed tomatoes, and green beans. I know there was a salad and a cheese board because I kept the menu but I don’t remember eating them. I was watching the dancers. The Lambada was all the rage then and its exotic, pulsating beat was irresistible. Raymond and Claudette spun round the floor as expertly as they always do while Corinne’s mother danced with all the young cousins. There was no polite parental decorum but a joyous, uninhibited celebration of life. How I longed to join them on the crowded floor.

Towards midnight more young people began to arrive to fill the dozen or so empty places.

‘They’ve come for le dessert,’ explained Raymond.

This it seemed was yet another category of guest, invited for the end of the banquet and the dancing. They tucked into enormous helpings of baked alaska washed down with champagne. Corinne came round to everyone with the packets of sugared almonds which I had helped to prepare but there were no speeches. The meal finished with a pyramide de bonheur, or pièce montée. The French equivalent of a wedding cake, it certainly couldn’t be cut up and dispatched in small boxes. It consists of dozens of profiteroles filled with crème pâtissière piled high and glued together with stiff caramel to form a small mountain.

Coffee was served, cousins and friends told jokes and did sketches, and the dancing grew wilder. I did manage to sing as requested but had to sit on a stool, something new for me. It felt very odd. It was a wonderful evening, but by half past three I knew sadly that I had had enough. Granny and Grandpa, also tired but not wanting to be the first to leave begged a lift home. ‘Aren’t you exhausted?’ I asked Corinne as I kissed her.

‘Mais non!’ she said. ‘Only my feet perhaps.’

I slept nearly all the next day. I was excused the two o’clock Sunday lunch ‘en plein air’ chez Corinne, but Mike went and said it was, of course, delicious. Philippe and Corinne had got to bed at five only to be woken at six by a rowdy crowd carrying le tourin. This is a custom which is usually performed after un mariage but which, as we once discovered in our early days at Bel-Air, can happen at any time anyone feels in the mood. Le tourin is a soup fortified with a great deal of garlic which is stealthily brought to the bedside of a sleeping couple by as many people as can cram into the room. It is the signal for yet another party. At last, late on Sunday evening the newly-weds left, not for a honeymoon – that would come two months later – but to prepare for work the following morning. For ‘un mariage à la mode du Sud Ouest de la France’ you need to be, as Raymond said ‘en forme’ indeed!

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!