Feasts & Fêtes

Toussaint holidays have just finished and the weather was gloriously sunny and blue as it can be in October. Normally, we are up a mountain or at a beach for a bit – our best French holidays are often in the Autumn – but this year we were home enjoying local sunshine.
There is still the odd fête and feast going here. ‘Fête de la châtaigne’ recently down the road, with a lunchtime meal including, yes, chestnuts.
Chestnutfair
And the last one in my village, ‘Fête de Rencontres d’Antan’ – a celebration of ‘old times’ – where this year they cooked hams over fires, and served them with steaming pots of beans.
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My favourite local feast of the summer is the ‘barbecue géant’. Luckily for us, the field in front of the castle where all the fêtes are held is within ambling distance, so for this one it is just a matter of wandering up the lanes early enough in the late summer evening to nab a table and benches big enough to hold all the friends you have said you would meet. And remembering to pack the wine-bottle opener with the plates and cutlery. Our routine goes something like this: wives purchase meats and salads and drinks and cakes, husbands cook the meats on the row of oil-drum barbecues, and kids run round and play with the local mad inventor’s wooden pop guns and ride-on-mower-cum-train. The tricky bits are rounding up children in the dark and the wine-stagger as you get up to walk home again.
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If you are a fan of French cinema, the nearby film festival is not to be missed at the end of August. It is a feast of French films shown at a purpose-built outdoor cinema complete with talks by the directors and producers, and long afternoon discussions so beloved by the French of all things film. Actually, I kind of liked it better when the films were simply shown in the courtyard of the old school, (before the arena of seats and screen were built); the kids used to curl up in sleeping bags to sleep during the film, after we had listened to premovie bands and eaten dinner in a tent in the nearby field. What hasn’t changed ’tho, is the choice of food and bands still being offered before the main films. And we can often be found during the week-long festival feeding the kids organic quiche while we have paper cups of rosé and listen to the band. Next year we might even stay for a film!
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But the most French vision of the summer is when the committee comes to your house to collect money for the main village fête (a long, drawn-out affair in a hot tent with a serenading brass band – all a bit loud and sweaty). They always give a little gift in exchange and play you a song on the assembled accordions. It is a slightly awkward moment, but with the fête being proof that summer has arrived: the traditions, the sun on our fields, old truck with musicians on the back – these are the best French experiences.
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How to have a Curry in France

Take 1 retired NHS General Surgeon with a ruin of a stone house in France. Add 4 of his friends and colleagues, who like to come out once a year to help him work on the now-not-quite-so-derelict house. (Two consultant NHS general surgeons, one consultant NHS urologist, one orthopaedic assistant, and one anaesthetic assistant, their provenance is South Tyneside district hospital in South Shields.)

One is a Morris dancer, one was a Miner for 20 years, and two are called Chris.
And one is Kamil, born in Pakistan. At 16, whilst living with his dad and having to fend for himself, he began to take an interest in where his food was coming from and started cooking in earnest the curry’s he had been seeing his mum make all his life.
Thus by the time I came to cook with him on a hot June day in a tiny stone kitchen, he was cooking up a curry feast with knowledge and ease. Tomato based chicken curry, a marinated leg of lamb, two different types of Dahl, and at the last minute we were rolling out coriander naan breads and slapping them onto hot oiled trays into an oven turned up as high as we could. And talking about food. Non-stop.

So… finish with friends collected around a scrubbed wooden table in an old French farmhouse set in flowered meadows (as opposed to brambled, because of the hard work that had gone into removing them by the boys during the week!) on a glorious south west sunny evening, and that is how to have a curry in France.

Ps, The one flaw to this recipe, of course, is that unless you live near a big enough city down this way, lentils or dahls and pre-blended spices are really hard to find. That is why Kamil has PROMISED to send out a special package…

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Kamils Chicken Curry (for 8)
Chop 8 breasts of chicken into chunks, and leave them in a bowl rubbed over with 3 tablespoons of white vinegar and a little bit of salt.

Finely chop 5 large onions and start to slow fry them in a little oil (we had olive oil to hand) until soft. Add at the same time; 1 tsp paprika, 1/4 tsp turmeric, 1 tsp ground cumin, 1/2 tsp ground coriander, 1 tsp fresh ginger, 1 clove garlic finely chopped. Plus salt, pepper and chilli to taste. When this mixture is ready, remove from the pot leaving any remaining oil behind, and fry off the chicken to seal. (Or substitute whatever meats or vegetables that you would like.)

*At this point, we blended the spiced onion paste up, because, if you were cooking lamb for example, it takes longer to cook and can simmer for a lot longer, so the onion mixture will disintegrate itself into a paste. But chicken will cook faster so making the paste helps this breaking down process.

Add the onion paste back to the pot of chicken and add 4 large chopped up tomatoes. If you wanted a yoghurt based curry, instead of a tomato based one, you can add a couple of pots of yoghurt to the onion mixture instead of the tomatoes. (Add a couple of spoons at a time whilst the onions are still on the heat, and let the mixture reduce between additions.)

Add some boiling water if you need more liquid and let simmer for around half an hour.

When you turn the heat off, add some fine strips of raw peeled ginger and a whole green chilli and let it sit with the lid on for a while. This infuses the smell of the chilli, rather than heat!

Tarka Channa Dahl

Wash and drain approx. 200g of channa dahl, or yellow split peas if that is all you can get, (which don’t have quite the same nutty flavour) and put in the pot with approx. 1 litre of boiling water. Add some of your favourite spices; 1/2 tsp each of garlic, ginger, garam masala, or turmeric, or cumin. Cover the pan and cook on a low heat for about half an hour or until thick. Watch it doesn’t burn. Add more water or cook longer as needed to make a chutney-like consistency. Add salt and turn off the heat.

The Tarka is the oil that you put on top whilst it is still warm in the pot to infuse gently in the dahl. Gently heat 1 tablespoon of oil in a separate pan and add the aromatics of your choice that you want to imbue; a whole green chilli, a cinnamon stick, cardamom pods, a few cloves, garlic, a couple of bay leaves. Pour over the dahl and leave for a little while before serving.

Marinated chicken or lamb – here is a yoghurt marinade that I use for chicken.
(Kamil used a similar mixture to slater all over a leg of lamb and left to marinate for a night before cooking covered, at a gentle heat 130° or so, in the oven for 4 hours. Then take the foil off and turn the oven up to 180° for another hour, but don’t let the yoghurt covering burn.)
Mix up 1 small pot natural yoghurt with 1 crushed garlic clove, ¼ tsp each of ground cumin, ground coriander, turmeric and paprika. Add some chilli if you want to. Lightly slash 2 chicken breasts and smother them in the yoghurt mixture. Leave in the fridge to marinate at least 2 hours or overnight if you can. To cook, fry in a little oil for approx. 6-8 mins each side until crusty looking and cooked inside.

Naan Breads

If I have an hour and a half spare, I will make the bread dough in the bread machine. If not, I put the dry ingredients in a bowl and add & teaspoon of baking powder instead of the yeast. Then add the butter, yoghurt and water and mix and knead for 5 minutes. Leave to rest for 20 minutes before continuing.
100ml water
60ml plain yoghurt
280g flour
1 garlic glove chopped
1 tsp ground coriander
Some chopped fresh coriander
2 tsps. runny honey
1 tsp salt
1 tbsp. really soft or melted butter
1 packet easy blend yeast stuff
Mix on the dough setting in bread machine. Take out and roll into naan shape size and thickness. (A teardrop shape, no more than 1 cm thick. This makes about 6 smallish ones.)
Oil some oven trays and get them really hot in a hot oven. Slap the breads onto them and then bake for 3 to 4 minutes. Brush with melted butter and put under a hot grill to finish if you feel like it – I don’t usually get that far  before they are pounced on to eat!

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DEFINITELY NOT GOURMAND… but the joy of local traditions instead.

It wasn’t that I was excited about a glass of warm cola and a plastic cup of crisps, but I was particularly thirsty after wandering through the village – twice – with a straggly bunch of kids on a sunny Sunday morning in spring.
This is ‘Carnaval’ in France, a tradition of fancy dress, parading through the town, singing and dancing, and the highlight – the burning of the effigy ‘Monseiur Carnaval’. It seems to be a combination of religious revelling before lent, (as in ‘Mardi Gras’, the Tuesday of eating up all the remaining fatty stores of the winter before lent began on Ash Wednesday), feasting pagan celebration of winter,  the coming of spring, the burning away of bad luck…
According to my neighbour who has lived here all his life, they were still celebrating Carnival  in each little village with a ball, dancing feasts (and the effigy burning, of course, although he couldn’t tell me why!) – up until he was a teenager at least. But the organising seems to have been centralised and taken up by the (district) school here for years now.
So, as each of my children discovers the delights of Carnival as they go through primary school, we pitch up in costume of a different theme each year, walk around the town, through the market, and down to the lake where the kids all hold hands and sing and dance around the papier-mâché figure that is merrily burning away. Not a sniff of health and safety regulations in sight. It’s brilliant! Each year I complain about standing around waiting for ages for everyone to arrive and get their act together, so that we can inch our way around the village (thank goodness it is tiny). And each year, it also strikes me how much I enjoy the sheer tradition and the community spirit of it.
Depending on the enthusiasm and contacts of the school staff, sometimes we have musicians; sometimes, like this year, displays of traditional Occitan dancing that has been practised for weeks beforehand. Some years the costumes perfected during art class are amazing (or sometimes, my children absolutely refuse to wear them). And the effigy can vary – I do remember one particularly spectacular ‘Darth Vader’ with a slightly obscene light sabre (the theme that year was space – don’t ask how they got to Darth Vader) .
So, there I was again, standing around waiting to gather up my excited kids, ash fluttering about from the Mr-Carnaval-no-more on the floor, finishing my fizzy-drink feast for another year and appreciating another reason I like being…in France.
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