The French for Christmas (8 page)

Having trawled
Mamie
Lucie’s notebook and the local stores for inspiration, I’d made a creamy
purée
of cauliflower and laced it with a little truffle-infused oil, then laid fillets of sea bass on top and decorated the dish with a few wafer-thin shavings of earthy black truffle, which made an elegant contrast to the pale flesh of the fish. To add texture and colour, I fried little cakes of grated potato and carrot until they were crisp and golden.

‘It’s very simple; you just need a cauliflower and, of course, a truffle from a grateful patient. A little goes a long way, so there’s still some of the truffle left over for you to take home and make your omelette tomorrow night. I’ll let you in on a cook’s secret too: if you put the truffle and the eggs all together in a paper bag for twenty-four hours, then the eggs will absorb the flavour and it’ll be even more delicious.’

He raises one eyebrow, shooting me a quizzical glance. ‘So tell me, how does an American who’s come via England know some of the innermost secrets of French cooking?’

I smile. ‘It’s my inheritance from my French grandmother. She grew up in Périgord, near Sainte Alvère.’

‘Ah, that explains your way with truffles then. Sainte Alvère is the very Mecca for gourmets. Do you know, they have a special Truffle Market there in the season? Every week, from December to February, people come from miles around to visit the
Marché aux Truffes
, where these inauspicious-looking fungi are bought and sold at about the same price, weight for weight, as gold. They end up in some of the world’s finest restaurants. But I bet none of their dishes could beat that one.’ He gestures with his wine glass towards his empty plate, which has been scraped clean.

‘And now tell me,
Madame
Evie, what brings you to this little corner of the world at such a bleak time of the year?’

‘It’s hardly very bleak,’ I laugh. ‘This beautiful sunshine, day in, day out? I’m used to winters in London where it’s grey and damp for months on end. And even those were a cake-walk compared to winters in Massachusetts; my dad’s least favourite winter pastime is excavating the driveway from under yet another couple of feet of snow. Give me December in south-west France any day of the week.’

‘Well, if you like it at this time of the year, you should try coming in the summertime! When I was a child, we used to spend our holidays down here. It’s truly a paradise from spring through to autumn; first the trees come into blossom, then spring really gets going and there is a riot of colour everywhere: wisteria, lilacs, magnolias flowering in every garden and wildflowers spilling from the hedgerows. And then the first tender green leaves appear on those dead-looking sticks out there in the vineyard.’ He waves his glass towards the window. ‘In the autumn we have the wine harvest and then the vines turn to scarlet and gold; it’s really a sight worth seeing. Thank goodness in the winter months we have this delicious liquid summer sunshine to keep us going!’ He takes another sip of the Saint-Emilion that he’s brought to accompany the meal. I’d hesitated when he handed me the bottle at the start of the evening: red wine with fish? But, in fact, it’s gone perfectly with the robust flavours that the truffle has imparted to the food. I make a mental note to jot that down after he’s gone, as a footnote to the recipe for future reference.

I place a platter of cheeses on the table between us and pour a little more of the wine into each of our glasses.

‘So why
did
you come here?’ Didier persists, not letting me off the hook with my attempts to divert the conversation with talk of the world’s weather.

It’s still hard to talk about Lucie. But I remind myself that, after all, it helped me begin to heal when I opened up to the priest that day in the church. I gather up my courage, pretending to concentrate on savouring a sliver of brie for a moment, contemplating the way the wine cuts through the richness of the cheese, giving myself time to choose my words carefully and keep my tone light.

Taking a deep breath, I say, ‘I lost a baby. My marriage didn’t survive. At least, my husband and I are separated, but I don’t think there’s going to be any way back. I got stuck; he moved on. Christmas is kind of a difficult time for me, so I thought I’d escape. And Max and Rose were kind enough to give me the loan of the house here as the perfect getaway.’

His blue eyes soften with compassion. My casual tone and forced smile clearly aren’t fooling him. I drop my gaze, not wanting to let my emotions get the better of me. We hardly know each other, after all. Another fortifying sip of the wine helps.

‘And how about you?’ I ask, seizing the opportunity to divert the conversation away from my own predicament. ‘You said you are only standing in until they find a replacement for Doctor Lebrun. So where did you come from originally?’

It’s his turn to drop his gaze, and then those piercing, clear eyes meet mine again and I see there’s a flicker of something darker beneath their smile. Like a shadow passing across the sun. He’s silent for a few moments, and I sense he’s also trying to pluck up his courage, struggling to find the right words for the answer to my question.

‘I’m from Paris. And, like you, I’m on the run from Christmas. I was engaged to be married. Three years ago, my fiancée was driving up to Paris so that we could spend Christmas together. There was fog, a pile-up on the motorway. She was killed.’

We both sit, silent, for a moment, each digesting the other’s words. And as we do, I sense something change between us, a new, unspoken understanding. In our different ways, we’re both survivors of a terrible loss, struggling to come to terms with our grief, to find a way to start to live again. It feels as though the earth has shifted on its axis and suddenly there's a new gravitational force at play which bonds us to one another.

‘I’m so sorry, Didier.’ I reach out a hand to touch his. He lets it rest there for a moment, then folds his fingers over mine, giving my hand a squeeze.

‘We have that in common then,’ he smiles again. ‘Someone to grieve for. Especially at this time of year.’ He releases my hand and I cover my confusion with another sip from my glass.

Didier gazes out into the darkness beyond the terrace, the lights in the valley below mirroring the stars above that seem magnified by the frosty night air.

‘I hate the fog,’ he says, with feeling. ‘I felt I was suffocating in it.’ His voice becomes quieter, almost as if he’s talking to himself… ‘And then, like magic, it melted away and you appeared. With the sunshine in your hair. As if it was you who had driven the fog away.’

Our eyes meet again and we smile, understanding.

‘Okay then, two
compadres,
united in our stand against Christmas!’ I say. ‘I tell you what, if you don’t have a better offer, how about joining me for Not-Christmas lunch on the twenty-fifth? I’ve already started planning the menu.’

‘After a meal such as this, how could a man possibly refuse? It’s a date! Thank you, Evie, this has been wonderful. Perhaps, if I promise to bring you some more kindling for your fire, we could even consider doing this again. Before Not-Christmas?’

‘With pleasure. I guess I still owe you for a couple of medical consultations too,’ I smile ruefully, holding up my bandaged finger. ‘This time next week, maybe?’

‘That sounds perfect.’ He pauses. ‘Can I ask you one more thing? For Not-Christmas lunch? I’ve always wanted to try Christmas Pudding, since one of my English patients described it to me. It sounds such a bizarre idea, but they said it was delicious and traditional. Does an American know how to make such a thing? And is it possible to do so in France?’

I grin. ‘I do love a culinary challenge! Of course I know how to make it, after living in Britain. I have the perfect recipe, as the result of a great deal of experimenting. Of course, it should really have been made about a month ago, and now be sitting steeped in brandy waiting for the big day. But I figure it won’t matter too much. And if I can’t find all the ingredients here then I can always improvise. One Not-Christmas Pudding coming right up!’

In bed that night, I lie awake mulling over the evening and our conversation. Each look; the touch of his fingers closing around mine; his smile.

In my head, I’m already starting to plan the menu for our next dinner together... And trying to work out how I can create a Franco-American traditional English Christmas Pudding in a fortnight.

A screech from outside, announcing the barn owl’s nightly hunting trip, interrupts my train of thought. It’s funny; it doesn’t sound terrifying any more, but quite friendly really. Like it’s just telling me it’s there, acknowledging my presence here.
Happy hunting
, I think, and smile as I pull the covers up around me, going back to drawing up my mental list of pudding ingredients.

I guess I’ll have something to report back to Rose on my next trip to the office at the top of the hill—and it looks as if I just might be getting my cooking mojo back again.

The Boar’s Head Carol

T
he boar’s
head in hand bear I,

Bedecked with bay and rosemary...

M
athieu is a huge
, shaggy, bear of a man. He looks as if he’d be capable of wrestling a grizzly and coming out on top. He’s also very, very shy. Whenever he sees me coming, he ducks his head and shambles off in the opposite direction, so all we’ve exchanged so far in the way of direct communication is a wave of the hand if he catches sight of me when he comes to bring the horse into the barn each evening. Eliane has told me they’re taking particular care of the grey mare as she’s in foal. Come spring, there should be a cute addition to the view from the windows of Rose’s house.

So I’m surprised when, early one evening, there’s a tentative tap at the door and I open it to find Mathieu standing there, blushing as pink as a boiled beet. In his hands, he wrings out the cloth cap which he’s just whipped from his head, in an agony of bashfulness.


Bonsoir, Madame,
’ he mumbles, gazing fixedly down at my slippers. ‘Eliane has asked me to inform you that we’re going to be butchering the pig tomorrow. If you would be prepared to come and assist us, then that would be greatly appreciated.’

I strain to understand what he’s saying as his accent is pure
sud-ouest
, as chewy as a slice of
Tarte Tatin
. He uses the formal ‘
vous
’, and it sounds as if he’s been rehearsing this speech on his way over here, probably dragging his feet reluctantly, having been sent by Eliane on this terrifying errand.

I reach out my hand and shake his large paw. ‘
Bonsoir, Mathieu
. It would be a pleasure. What time shall I come?’

‘About nine o’clock? We start earlier, but the preliminary preparations we will handle ourselves.’

I suspect these ‘preliminary preparations’ involve doing the dire and dreadful deed itself and—call me a coward—I’m secretly relieved that I won’t have to witness it. I’ve really grown quite fond of that pig, becoming used to his appearances as he totters into sight across the lawn while I’m busy with my cooking. And I’m pleased to think that at least he’s had several feasts of my gently fermenting apples to cheer his twilight days.

‘We’ll be in the old scullery, round the back of the house.’

‘Okay, I’ll come find you about nine.
A demain
.’

He shambles off, settling the cap back onto his grizzled head, and disappears back across the yard at some speed, clearly relieved to have delivered Eliane’s message.

T
he scullery must once have been
a dwelling in its own right, before the farmer’s cottage was added on in front. It looks positively mediaeval: a dark, cavernous room with low-slung, smoke-blackened beams that skim the top of Mathieu’s head. The floor is uneven beneath our feet, but its ancient clay tiles have been scrubbed until they’re spotlessly clean. The rough walls are freshly whitewashed and there’s a long trestle table in the centre of the room, whose pine top is bleached from years of thorough scouring. Against one wall there’s a vast stone fireplace, tall enough for me to stand in, where a lively fire crackles beneath an iron pot that looks like a witch’s cauldron.

Eliane, wearing a clean apron, comes to kiss me as I peer tentatively in through the open doorway, and Mathieu raises one bear-like paw in greeting, brandishing a serious-looking butcher’s knife whose long steel blade glints, sharp as a razor, in the firelight.

One half of my old porcine friend is hanging from a beam near the door, where the chill air keeps it cool. Mathieu is busy carving the other half of the carcass into neat sections. He wields the knife with precision, delicately, almost as an artist would wield a paintbrush, and I watch, fascinated, forgetting to feel squeamish as I watch the single slab of meat become transformed into cuts that would look familiar on a butcher’s counter.

Eliane explains what is involved in preparing each different part so that the meat can be stored to keep them going through the coming year. We need to cure the hams, packing them with salt, pepper and bay berries before wrapping them in muslin; they’ll be hung in a cool, dark corner to dry for several months, until they’re ready to be served in wafer-thin slices with summer salads. The main cuts for roasting, or for making into tasty stews and
carbonnades
, can simply be wrapped up and put in the freezer for future use. But most of the work is in mincing up all the scraps that are left over and using them to make pâtés and sausages. Every single part of the animal is used so that not a thing goes to waste. The scraps that are too fatty to put through the mincer are thrown into the cauldron and slowly rendered down so that, by the end of the day, we have several large jars of pure white lard which Eliane will use for cooking. And even the tiny scraps of leaner meat, that are skimmed out of the cauldron once this fat has melted, are packed into jars to be eaten with hunks of bread. ‘We call these
grattons
,’ Eliane explains. I’ve seen them in charcuteries before, but never knew exactly what they were.

We make yards of sausages, flavoured with onions, and thyme, sage and fennel seeds from the
potager
(the herbs are my suggestion), and add garlic and seasoning to the minced meat to make farmhouse pâté. Once the mixture has been packed into jars, each with its rubber seal, and the glass lids wired tightly shut, the pâtés are stacked into a large pressure cooker that Eliane has sitting ready on top of her stove in the kitchen. She fills it with water to cover the jars and then slots the top onto the pot, screwing down the lid so that the steam can’t escape, other than through the valve that regulates the pressure, and ensuring that the pâtés will be cooked thoroughly at a high temperature.

We work all through the day, pausing only for a lunch of
jimboura
, a surprisingly delicious broth made from the water which has been used to cook the black puddings (yes, we even used the blood!) and then had carrots, leeks and cabbage added to make a filling soup. Mathieu uncorks a bottle of red wine and pours generous glasses for each of us.

‘Oh, this is all so good,’ I exclaim as I mop my soup plate with a crust of bread.

‘You won’t find dishes like this in any restaurant these days,’ Eliane observes. ‘Traditional cooking has all but died out. Everyone is in such a hurry nowadays, wanting to cut corners and use ready-made stock or instant sauces. Whatever happened to taking your time, making simple food with love and a true understanding of the ingredients? You know,’ she continues, fixing me with her clear gaze, ‘there’s scope for someone to open a really good traditional bistro around here. Rose tells me you used to run such a restaurant in London.’

I nod. ‘I learnt my cooking from my grandmother and she was a woman after your own heart. When I was at the cookery school in Paris, we studied traditional French cuisine. You’re right; there’s a good deal to be said for a return to the old ways, cooking seasonal, local food. Better for the planet as well.’

I should have known better than to mention global warming, even obliquely, because Eliane launches into another diatribe about the very bizarre weather that we’re having nowadays, accompanied by frequent sighs and shakings of the head from Mathieu as he ladles more
jimboura
into his bowl from the china tureen on the table in front of us.

To try and distract them from the doom and gloom, I ask, ‘Do you ever name your pigs?’

Eliane shakes her head firmly. ‘No, it wouldn’t do to name something that we were going to end up eating.’

Mathieu raises his head. ‘Tell her about the President.’ He gestures with his spoon and then tips a little rough red wine from his glass into his bowl to help flush out the last dregs of soup, which he relishes with another appreciative slurp.

Eliane grins. ‘Ah, yes, that was a good story! The mayor of a neighbouring commune, over at Coulliac I think it was, decided to name his pig one year and called it
Le Président
. When the time came to butcher it, he was having a drink at a bar with some friends and was overheard saying, “So who will come and give me a hand tomorrow. We’re going to be killing
Le Président
.” Well, of course, someone overheard and the next thing the mayor knew, he had a posse of policemen on his doorstep demanding to know what he was up to and saying they were there to prevent a
coup d’état
! He had a hard time explaining his way out of that one, until he took the
gendarmes
to the sty and introduced them to his pig in person.’

Mathieu guffaws appreciatively, slapping his hand on the table.

‘Ah, yes,’ I say, nodding gravely, ‘I can see that naming one’s pig could be fraught with jeopardy.’

After we’ve consumed the best part of a wheel of creamy camembert, Mathieu uncorks an unlabelled bottle of deep gold liquid. ‘
Mademoiselle Evie, un petit Armagnac
?’

I allow him to pour a little into my glass and take a sip, trying not to gasp as the firewater burns my throat. It’s certainly fortifying, and fleetingly I give thanks that Mathieu’s work with those lethally sharp butcher’s knives is pretty much finished for the day. As he makes to refill my glass, I shake my head with a laugh and put a hand over the top of it. ‘
Merci,
but I’d better not... or I might be arrested for a new criminal offense: drunk in charge of a mincing machine!’

Perhaps it’s the Armagnac that loosens my tongue, or perhaps it’s the memories of cooking alongside my grandmother that this day is conjuring up but, as Eliane and I work side by side that afternoon, I find myself telling her about the years in Paris and London. She asks about the bistro, enthusing about the dishes we used to serve. Pausing as she lifts jars of pâté out of the pressure cooker and sets them on a rack to cool, she glances at me appraisingly.

‘You know, Evie, your eyes really shine when you talk about your work. You must miss it?’

And I nod slowly as I realise that, for the first time in a long while, I really do.

Seeing myself through Eliane’s eyes—in my element as I chop and stir and adjust a seasoning here and there—suddenly I understand that losing Lucie was only a part of my bereavement. A major part, of course. But losing my work was another blow. I hadn’t realised until now, working in Eliane and Mathieu’s rudimentary kitchen, that my cooking is such a fundamental part of me. It’s how I best express myself: it’s my heart and soul. And today has given me back some of the sense of self that the events of the past year had taken from me.

I leave at the end of the day, breathing in the crisp evening air as the huge crimson sun sinks below the horizon. On one arm I’m carrying a basket, into which Eliane has packed several chops, a couple of pounds of sausages, some links of
boudin noir
, and three jars of pâté. And under the other arm I’ve got the pressure cooker, which I’ve borrowed from Eliane in order to cook a Christmas Pudding in double-quick time.

It’s been a satisfying day’s work...

Although I do think I might just make myself some vegetarian pasta for supper tonight, as a welcome contrast to all those mountains of meat.

D
idier is leaning
against the kitchen counter, savouring a glass of well-chilled Bordeaux
blanc
as he watches me preparing our supper. I’ve spent the afternoon making the Not-Christmas Pudding, chopping and soaking dried fruit, stirring the ingredients together and letting the whole lot steep in a generous splash of amber cognac, which hasn’t had to travel very far from its home just to the north of us. I couldn’t find all the dried fruit that my recipe calls for, but I’ve experimented a little by using some plump Agen prunes in place of currants, which I hope will enrich the mix in lieu of a month or so of maturing. The pudding is now in the pressure cooker, which is just starting to get up a head of steam on the stove.

Tonight’s supper, since you are so kind as to ask, is going to be simplicity itself: some of the home-made sausages from yesterday, served with fluffy mashed potatoes which have had a generous dollop of wholegrain mustard stirred through them to add a little piquancy. And, in a nod to my Irish roots as well, I’ve shredded some dark, leathery leaves of Savoy cabbage which I’ll steam, so they still have a little crunch when I dish them up, as green as Galway grass, alongside the sausage and mash.

Couldn’t be simpler. But then, as
Mamie
Lucie used to say, the best meals are those seasoned with friendship and conversation. And, I might add, if the seasoning happens to bear a striking resemblance to Bradley Cooper then
tant mieux
. I realise, too, that a major part of regaining my love of cooking lies in preparing food for others. There seems so much more point to it than to half-heartedly cobbling together something for myself alone.

We’re just finishing the main course, and I’m in full flow describing yesterday’s butchery master class, when suddenly there’s a violent rattling noise from the pressure cooker. I notice that the steady plume of steam that has been streaming from the safety valve on the lid has disappeared. The valve must have jammed shut and now the pot has built up so much pressure that it’s in danger of exploding if I don’t act fast. I leap up, turn off the heat under the pot, wrap a dish towel around my hand and grab a long-handled wooden spoon so that I can give the valve a brisk tap without risking scalding myself. There’s a loud, hissing sigh of relief as the valve releases and a cloud of the trapped steam escapes, condensing into water droplets on the cooker hood above. As the steam clears, I take the dish towel and mop the water away. Checking my watch, I figure the pudding’s probably cooked long enough for now anyway and can sit happily in the pot until it’s finally cooled.

Didier is watching closely. ‘Wow, I didn’t realise Christmas Puddings could be so dangerous! What was that you just did?’

I tell him how the pressure-release valve works, shaking out the damp dish cloth and draping it over the handle of the oven door to dry. As I explain, a strange look comes over his face. And then he suddenly leaps up from the table, grabs me, hugs me tightly and plants a smacking kiss on my forehead.

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