Thursday, 15 May 2014

Spring time in La Charente and the "7 Hour Lunch"

Spring has arrived in The Charente. Delightful multiple nuances of green enliven the fields and the copses. Roadside grass grows high at an astonishing rate. The laneway into our hamlet, Le Petit Maine, has become a beautiful welcoming fairway to our own “stress-free” but temporary Chez Hughes. Clumps of wild yellow iris have sprung up along a small stream that crosses under the lane just outside the hamlet.

Monsieur M's boule garden
Monsieur M, from one of our four neighbouring homes, owns a large plot beside the stream and next to the lane. We have noticed, and heard, Monsieur labouring in the area just about all winter. The results are delightful. The plot contains a quite large pond (unfortunately with no fish, he reports), a rustic BBQ area, rude seating and boule pitch all shaded by the new growth.

Yesterday, as Val and I took a late afternoon promenade as far as the local mayor’s farm, we were struck by the profusion and variety of wild flowers on the roadside. By the time we got home Val had collected a delightful posy to brighten a favourite kitchen nook; on counting we found that the posy has 14 different variety of wildflower!

Spring, it seems, is also the time for villagers to renew “the merry month of May” traditions.

Passirac is a typical small Charente commune, 257 inhabitants, and home to one of our new British friends. Barbara, a live wire very active in the community, advises that village life revolves around the Salle de Fete, or community hall. The village “Committee de Salle” co-ordinates the celebratory activities of the les Chasseurs (Hunters), les Randonnees (Walkers) and la Gym. Each year each group throws a banquet for the village and guests.

Barbara and husband Peter invited us to the “Banquet des Chasseurs” presented by the “Société de Chasse”, Passirac, on Samedi, 19 Avril 2014 at 12Hrs, at the Salle de Fetes. And what a banquet!

The guests gather, the tables are set, all ready to ''manger"
in the Salle de Fete, Passirac. Val's there in the centre. 
Having met at Barbara’s house at about 12.30 we walk to the Salle passing along the way a serious group of men gathered around a large aromatic and smoky barbeque.  The mayor is busy, beaming from his office window, greeting all comers enthusiastically, advising “Pierre” here and “Charlotte” there not to eat too much, but he doesn’t mention le vin though! Inside, Pete pushes his way through the merry throng to the bar to secure aperos for his group (cognac and soft drink, pre-mixed, powerful and delicious, Euro1.50).

After much greeting of friends, cheek kissing, chatter and aperos 130-odd diners finally find their seats; its 1.30.  Green and white napkins creatively folded into lotus flowers with a gold papered Easter Egg centre set off each place at the beautifully laid trestle tables. The marathon meal begins!

A cognac based aperitif leads off, a “Potage” (chicken noodle soup) follows and now we are presented with a superb “Delice des Flots”(a thick slice of cooled pink Atlantic salmon, thick creamy herbed mayonnaise piped on top and set off with just a light touch of green salad and half a boiled egg).  That’s absolutely fine for starters. Let the banquet continue:
  • “Civet de Chevreuil” – the Chasse’s own venison, slow-cooked in garlic, herbs and wine (of course) and then shredded and heaped on bread which one first rubs with cloves of garlic.  Seriously good!
  • “Coup du Milieu” – a citrus sorbet;
  • “Sanglier braise” – slices of the Chasse’s own wild boar, barbequed to smoky, juicy perfection. I take a second chop as the plate is enthusiastically passed around a second time.
But wait, there’s more:
  • “Roti de Boeuf” – slices of roast beef, crisp on the edges but still tender and red inside, served with haricots blanc in white sauce (here you may kiss the tips of the fingers, French chef style);
  • “Salade vert et fromage” – green salad and brie but I didn’t really need to translate that, did I;
  • And at last “Dessert” – strawberries and ice cream with a (you guessed it) cognac topping.  
In between the courses, a “chook raffle” has been held. We of course buy tickets but although there are perhaps 40 prizes not one of our group wins a cigar, well, actually not cigars but potted red geraniums. Whereas, the other group at our table has collected enough geraniums to fill at least five Parisian window boxes!  

Peter: "I really think that the white is a little inferior
this year."  Val: "I'm absolutely shocked!"
Val a short time later with her new French friend
Patrick, one of our "chasseur" hosts

Did I mention the wine? No? Let’s see…carafes of vin blanc and then vin rouge and some time during the repast vin rose appears also. One in our group demonstrates rather a deft touch at garnering extra bottles as required from the passing volunteers…bravo Ian!!!  

By the way, its now about 6.30 in the evening, but no one’s looking at the clock and that’s quite, quite OK.

Delicious coffee is served, demi tasse style, accompanied, naturally, by après-dinner drinkies. Two members of the Chasse, bottles crooked in the elbows, look after our table. One has the cognac (and soft drink filler…iiiffff asked for), his partner offers bubbles. They reach the end of the table and start back down again. Bravo!  

Of course, this banquet is not at the total largesse of our new very good friends, les chasseurs. No, no: one has to contribute a whole 20 euros to the Chasse coffers. Mon Dieu!

It’s a week later and, having by now recovered from the previous feast, dear Barbara has us at the village of Rioux-Martin (she's a member of the walking group there) to participate in a traditional Charentaise “Brin d’Aillet”, a meal in celebration of garlic. The aillet is an immature garlic, 3 months old and 20 cm high. The bulb has not yet developed cloves and looks rather like a spring onion. Quite sweet to eat.

Each place in the Salle is set with two aillets and bread. The first course is pate eaten with the bread which is first smeared with the aillets. The second course is garlic and cheese omelette, as much as one can eat.  The trays of omelette just keep on coming out from the makeshift kitchen in the attached barn. A dressed green salad and cheese course follows while strawberries and ice cream finish this memorable luncheon, a mere three hours long.

Non-stop pressure in the kitchen
The garlic omelettes just keep coming!
By now in this little narrative, I’m sure I don’t have to mention the vino…the reader can safely assume a bountiful supply, and we do have Ian on hand to garner more as needed. Useful chap, is Ian!

Sometime during the lunch, Val and I visit the kitchen in the barn to watch and chat to the volunteers at work, Ian, that Very Useful Chap, doubles up as our official photographer, us having again forgotten the camera.  Everyone, cooks, dish washers, drinks attendants and us are happy and gay.  Wonderful atmosphere.  Wonderful people.

Bon Appetit to all our friends and readers
(PS to Caddy, our little doggy mate at home: sorry, couldn't keep any of the roast beef leftovers for you.)

Bryan et Val

PPS At another, earlier, Chasse lunch we had not won anything on the chook raffle. As we were about to leave the organizers presented us with two haunches of venison, a very generous gesture. One we gave to Jerome, our neighbour, ande one Val has now cooked. We had some for dinner last night; quite a good French meal and deliciously different but gamey as one would expect. The one haunch has made an enormous amount of  "stew" for us.   


  1. Wow the "Merry month of May" sounds fantastic to me!!!! Barbara and Ian are good people to know by the sound of it lol!!!! The Banquet amazing. Love the wild flowers Europe changes so much from Spring onwards everything comes to life, enjoy every minute. Weather is cooling here and I love it. Look forward to the next edition.Cheers Selwyn & Paula xx

  2. Brian, give me a break. That's too mouthwatering. Pete and I are here in Hanoi roughing it out in a third world country, the French influence not with standing. Though the service is truly seven star. Most hospitable people in the world. And just for extra sauce, I'm going to send you some pictures of Ha Long Bay when we get there. Lou