Wild Orchids in the fields. Wild strawberries on the lane. Picking mushrooms. Toadstools in the woods. Butterflies in the herb patch…
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The French hunting season is a long one, and for four days a week during the winter we often have the odd hunting hound (or several) who has got separated from the pack and come lolloping through our fields, whilst their ‘battalion’ of hunters crash around in the woods below us. The sound of the hunting horn and the rest of the hounds baying means that they are close on the trail of deer or boar – making the hunters’ hours of standing in groups on the roadside waiting for the prey to be flushed out worthwhile, I guess. Whether one agrees with the French way of hunting or not (a rare sighting of a boar and piglets is a treat, but then, I haven’t had my garden completely trashed by them as I know others have), it is worth going to a local chasse dinner, held at the end of every hunting season, in practically every small village down here in the South West. It is usually in a brightly-lit hall, crammed full of long lines of tables to fit everyone in, and the accordion inevitably pulled out at the end, and some traditional dancing along with it. But it is the (old fashioned?) communal celebration that should be appreciated as well as the food. I didn’t make it to the one in our village last week, but my French friend who did posted this:
“Another fantastic hunter’s dinner in our village hall last night. Soup, salad with lots of gésiers and smoked slices of duck, delicious venison and wild boar civet (cooked in red wine), venison roast, cheese and beautiful local pastis (apple pastry) made by Lulu, the village 80-year-old lady. And of course, plenty of liquid including strong plum alcohol at the end, with the coffee. Wonder why I did not sleep well last night…and am more or less fasting today!”
I love the diversity and affordability of eating in France–it is easy, and a lovely treat, to have a Michelin-starred meal here. But fabulous local cuisine faultlessly cooked also abounds at a price–that as my friend George puts it–“they are paying us to eat!”
Although, I do have to stress that such places have to be weeded out from the mass of average price, average food available…here is a good one:
I was lucky enough to be in the Basque region of France last week, so could visit my favourite Chez Margot. http://www.chezmargot.com.Across the bay from St Jean de Luz, Chez Margot is on the end of a line of four or five restaurants in the charming little ancient fort and port of Socoa.
Presided over by the indomitably straight-backed, 76-year-old Yvonne, who has lived and worked there all her married life, and is always ready to make sure you have not left the choicest morsel of the fish, she is the daughter-in-law of the original matriarch of Chez Margot.
Asked if some of the artefacts in the packed-full-of-curiosities interior are from their travels, she said “No, they are gifts!” (apart from the antique hand-painted French porcelain) But yes, she has travelled, she has travelled as far as Bayonne…“No, no need to go to Spain, there are no fish in Spain.”
With Basque additions–obviously–to the menu, the other reason for eating here is the freshest of fresh seafood. (Mussels were not to be had this time because they were out of season. The only ones available were from said Spain, and Yvonne would have none of them). And the homemade mayonnaise! It is as pleasant to eat outside in the off-season sun as it is to eat indoors and admire the decoration
. I am always reluctant to leave Sarah, the waitresses’, friendly service, and the chat with Yvonne–but what sent us out into a brooding storm over the harbour (with waves spraying artfully over the impressive fort), was the postman’s arrival. Yvonne immediately stopped talking to get the sangria out and went off to get his lunch…