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.
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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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Feasts in Summer!

Where has the summer gone? Suddenly, it’s time to organise everything for réentrée here in France, the week when the schools begin again, the hot weather finally kicks in, and we can start to have a maybe more normal juggle of family and work, instead of a chaotic mix of kids, work (read ‘weddings’), visitors, work, and all the extra social events that go on here throughout August, and work…
Summer here means fields of sunflowers or freshly bailed hay, visiting castles, swimming in pools, outdoor concerts, village fêtes and night markets. And beaches. And moules frites! Such a French thing, mussels and chips, summer isn’t summer without them. We had mussels on both sides of the coast this year, Mediterranean coast ones while staying with friends on the Spanish Costa Brava, and Atlantic coast ones at Soccoa near St Jean-de-Luz.

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If you’re driving down the Mediterranean coast of France, be sure to make a stop at Leucate to buy big bags of oysters and mussels direct from the farms that line the salt-water lake Étang de Leuacte. (If you are on the A9 motorway, going south from Narbonne towards Spain, take Junction 40, which leads past Leucate on the D627, between the sea and the étang. If you’re coming up the other way, take Junction 41 and follow the signs for Port Leucate on the D83, which leads to the D627.)
Halfway between the village of Leucate and Port Leucate, look for the signs to turn off for the Centre Ostréïcole, and you’ll end up in a car park in front of the row of outlets – some with cafes – where you can sit and watch the flat-bottomed little boats that come in with the haul, and eat the freshest of oysters and mussels. Go for a stroll on the beach before buying at the cheapest prices you will ever find.

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On the Atlantic side, we arrived at Chez Margots in Soccoa (see post 23/03/2014) dead on lunchtime on a Friday – perfect timing for a chilled bottle of Jurançon Sec and moules frites all round, sitting outside on the terrace at this time of year, of course.
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(The postman strolled in just after us, and sat down for his lunch too).

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After an afternoon sleeping off the wine on the beach we headed inland and just over the Spanish border to our favourite little Spanish hostal, at the base of Mount Rhune – ‘La Runa’ in Basque. Here, at Col. Lizuniaga (owned by M. Ascen Irazoki Echegaray – that’s very Basque!) there are four spotless rooms that cost less than €40 a night each. Or, if you’re walking on the Grande Route or Haute Route Pyrenees, which pass directly through this valley, you can camp for free in the field. Despite a vast terrace and big dining rooms inside, only we and one other family of campers ate on Friday night. Plates full of croquettes, fresh squid rings, local ham, Spanish salad tapas, and rotisserie chicken, with fabulous Navarra rosès at amazingly cheap prices, meant we could feast freely.

For breakfast on Saturday, we walked through the kitchen (where the owner was rolling the little potato cakes she was making, and chickens were lined up for basting) and had hot chocolates, cakes, and bread for €2 a head! Then we walked straight out the door to climb Mount Rhune at a reasonably fast pace – a steep ascent of 670 metres – sweating pure rosé all the way; I wouldn’t say that I looked particularly fit and energetic. After crossing the French/Spanish border all the way up by following the stone border markers, we were treated to spectacular views of the coastline stretching north as we crossed the flank to the summit. We watched the trains clank slowly come up from the French side ( they were winched up the last bit, so I was quite glad I walked actually).

I never did get a photo of the all the fresh produce piled up outside the hostal kitchen door. This mountain of food (which had also been there on previous visits) had always puzzled me, because we had mostly dined alone (albeit cheerfully waited on for as long as we liked), so why would they need so much food? As we rounded the last corner of the descent however, through the field back towards the hotel, the reason for all the boxes of veges and the rows chickens being rotisseried in the morning became clear; with a pleasant buzz of chatter and kids running around, there were all the Spanish families out for the weekend, drinking wine and eating until late into the afternoon – we wanted to join in immediately! But we’d had our picnic on the mountain top, and besides (we reminded ourselves), we were about to hit the tapas again that evening. But not before taking a small drive further into Spain to enjoy some very distinctive Spanish Basque villages and some spectacular medieval towers and churches.

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It was a perfect 3 day break before needing to get back to parties for work, and of course, more summer parties in the village…

Dessert to finish a curry with…

Can you think of a better pudding for a group of grown men after a curry?

Caramel Mousse – Nursery food at its best!

Take one can of condensed milk, and boil it unopened, in a covered pot for 2 to 3 hours. Check the water isn’t boiling away from time to time. (Do several at a time so you have them ready in advance for next time.) When it is cool, open and empty into a bowl and mix with the juice of one lemon. If it is still really stiff, add a little milk to make a smooth thick mixture. Whisk 2 egg whites and fold in. If it is only for adults, add some whisky or brandy before the egg whites. Put into nice glasses and leave to chill in the fridge. Top with chopped chocolate, and serve with some little French ‘langues du chats’ biscuits… (nb, which are not the ones shown here!)

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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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Things I forgot to say about Spring…

Wild Orchids in the fields. Wild strawberries on the lane. Picking mushrooms. Toadstools in the woods. Butterflies in the herb patch…

Being a glutton/gourmand in Spring…

Picking cherries…

 

Picking garnishes in the early morning…

First salads…

First wedding of the season…

Aperitifs!

 

 

FROM GLUTTON TO GOURMAND IN TWO EASY STEPS…

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2. Gourmand.
Not quite so cheap (as in gratuit), but I bet, pretty inexpensive compared to the UK, was a night away a few weekends later, staying at the delightful Le Pont de l’Ouysse in Lacave near Rocamadour. http://www.lepontdelouysse.com
By treating ourselves (just me and husband) to a get-out-of-life-free-for-one-day-only card and aided by having no agenda except for deciding when to eat, it was spent following our noses and enjoying more of our corner of the midi Pyrenees;
First up, Tea in the tiny tea rooms in Gourdon, (look for the only tea shop on the main street) served in proper pots and big mugs, my favourite place to sit is in big armchairs in the tiny room out the back. Wander up the medieval streets to the castle at the top of Gourdon whilst you are there. Typical of so many working towns in this region, Big church, old castle, old winding streets and ancient buildings, but not a tourist destination particularly.
Next up, plate of the day of duck confit & salad at a family run restaurant in the middle of Rocamadour. (Mum, daughter, and granddaughter all serving.) Although it can be heaving in the height of the tourist season, spring isn’t so bad and I always enjoy the fact that it has a slight scruffiness and a low-keyness to it, despite being a major pilgrim centre and pretty amazing town perched on the edge of a cliff. http://www.sacred-destinations.com/france/rocamadour-shrine.
After climbing the 216 stairs to the church of Notre dame, we happened upon an impromptu duet by 2 members of a visiting choir in a small chapel – thinking it was a recording at first, we and the smattering of tourists were struck dumb by the beautiful voices soaring in the tiny vaulted space.
Ps, a hot tip for anyone visiting Rocamadour who can walk and not needing the tram to get up and down – avoid the tourist buses and crowds at the carparks at the top where everyone is looking at the view, and take the road right down to the bottom of town where there is plenty of room to park/picnic/take dog for a run. There is a tourist train in high season to take you to the first street if you can’t manage the hill walk up, and from there a lift to the church, and then a tram to the castle at the top.
There are oodles of other things to see & do around Rocamadour – Eagle parks, Monkey parks, Dinosaur parks, enormous caves and grottoes, but on the way to our hotel on the Rocamadour-Soulliac road, we stumbled across La Borie d’imbert http://www.laboriedimbert.com, a goat farm that makes a Cahors AOC rocamadour cheese, and then feeds the whey to a whole bunch of mud wallowing, snorting, greedy pigs that you can visit in the fields. Actually a fascinating lesson in food production cycles. You can watch goats being milked, cheeses being made, all for free, AND you can visit the nursery shed piled full of of snuggly, nibbly baby goats! Pop over the shop across the road to stock up on the fresh cheese and pig produce direct from source…
So a gastronomic day, topped by the gourmet finish of the 1 Michelin star meal at the family run Pont de l’ouysse; Hors d’oueves with cold white wine sitting on couches by the ouysse tributary, quails egg ravioli for an amuse-buche, foie gras, seared river fish with dainty vegetables, chocolate mille-fueille, tiny petits fours with coffee – it actually won the contest of how much delicious food I can stuff inside me, over how much is given. The service can be slightly formal-French and stuffy, but we take no notice – if you enjoy talking about the food and surroundings, the team will soon start to talk to you too. The young Sommelier was particularly full of himself, and got some information wrong, but this did result in me trying the best glass of (Louis Latour) chardonnay I have ever tasted because I didn’t like what he had selected. Or was it just the excess of fabulous food and drink talking by then?!

How to make Duck Confit:
A traditional method of storing Duck for a long time. So easy to buy in large tins by local producers here, but so easy too, to buy tubs of duck fat if you want to try it…

Legs and wings of duck only
Melted duck fat
1 bay leaf
Some thyme/sage/rosemary
Plenty of salt.
Put some salt and herbs in a flat container (and some garlic if you want to) and place the duck on top. Sprinkle with some more salt and leave overnight.
Brush off the salt and put the duck in an oven proof container. Pour melted duck fat over the top, you can use a mixture of duck fat and olive oil if you need more, as you need to cover the pieces. Cook in a really low oven (100°C/225°F) for about 3 or 4 hours. Leave in the pot in its fat and it will store in the fridge for weeks. Crisp up the duck legs in a frying pan when you are ready to use them, and keep the fat for frying or roasting potatoes!

FROM GLUTTON TO GOURMAND IN TWO EASY STEPS…

1. Glutton.
The nice thing about living in France is that foodie pleasure can be found in many forms.
Take election time. Elections in a small village such as ours consists of being given just one list of the mayor and his team that you are going to vote for. So either you vote for them all and the vote is counted, or you don’t vote at all. Apparently, you can cross someone off the team that you really don’t like, but I’m not sure if that was just advice from a local with a vendetta!
So off we trot with our one piece of paper in its envelope, stand behind the screen and pretend to do something (I was humming your standard strip-tease music, but no-one laughed), before posting it in the box, and a few weeks later it is time for the village celebrations to honour the Mayor and his team, the conseilleurs.
Because this was happening around the same time as la fête de la victoire, the ritual began with a victory day observance. WWII Victory Day is a holiday to celebrate the end of World War II (when Charles de Gaulle announced the end of World War II in France on May 8, 1945.) and thus Frances freedom. They remember those who died during the war. Interestingly, no one died for their country from this village in WWII (so they read out the names of WWI fallen instead) as the actual war for the French was very short before they were occupied. But this is a muddy subject as this doesn’t take into account people sent to work elsewhere in Europe, the resistance, deportation…
Anyway, on to the new Mayor’s speech (except he forgot to put his tri-colour sash on to be all mayor-like) and the serious business of eating and drinking. Here is the Glutton and the pleasure bit. The new conseilleurs had gone all out to welcome the community. A lovely spring evening, lots of fabulous ancient faces from the older residents of the village, and a good sprinkling of young kids running around too. Not only did we have those favourites of mine, crisps and cola (see post 14/04) there were Quich-y bits and pate-on-bread bits and lashings of cheap rosé, of which I drank far too much… so it was very easy and a totally enjoyable evening to boot to be a Glutton.

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Don’t tell the French!…

With more contact than usual with UK media over school holidays, I am mindful of the foodie interest in provenance, food miles, and local culinary practice. I came over all smug with this recipe …until I remembered the beans.
What better way to feed a large number of visitors over Easter than to use up the last haunch of venison, still in the freezer, for the main course? Although I knew it was from the woods in the valley directly below us, I wasn’t completely sure of its age, so decided to slow roast to ensure tenderness. (This recipe is adapted from a slow-roast lamb dish I cut out of a long-forgotten-which-one magazine).
Knowing it wasn’t going to be warm-and-sunny salad type of weather, I paired it with a potato dauphinois, with potatoes provided by the neighbour – grown each year in his enormous plot that borders our fields, and then stored in his garage. This recipe is fail-safe and fantastic for large events. (Duphinois recipe taken from a book put together by volunteers of the American Hospital of Paris.)
Lastly, I used lovely big vibrantly green French beans, sautéed in garlic…But they came from the local supermarket. They were there in abundance because, as the blackboard sign clearly stated, they came from Morocco. Miles away. Don’t tell the neighbour, he would not be amused!

Slow-Roasted Haunch of Venison

• Shoulder or leg of venison (that has arrived, in a dripping plastic bag, from the local hunters. Defrost first if you have frozen it.)
• Herbs of your choice (from the garden)
• 2 onions (grown by the neighbour)
• Approx. 300ml (½ pint) red wine (mine was local Cahors AOC)
• Approx. 1 litre (2 pints) chicken stock (mine was fresh from a chicken bought in the village – told you I was feeling smug!)
• 6 garlic cloves (from France)
• A couple of teaspoons of honey (local supplier at the market)
• Approx. 150ml (1/4 pint) balsamic vinegar. (Oops, produced in Italy)

Peel and cut the onions into chunks, and put in a large roasting dish, along with the peeled garlic cloves and herbs. Place the venison on top. Heat the wine and stock together and pour over the venison in the roasting dish. Cover tightly with foil. Cook in the oven at 130°C (250°F) for 4 hours. Uncover, mix balsamic and honey together and baste with this mixture. Cook uncovered for a further hour at 180°C (160°F, 350°F, gas 4). Rest for at least 15 min before serving. Use the onion broth that is left for gravy.

Gratin Dauphinois

• 1kg potatoes (The neighbour grows ‘Spounter’ potatoes because they keep well)
• 3 cups of milk
• 1 cup cream or crème fraiche
• Salt & pepper & a pinch of nutmeg
• 100g butter and 1 garlic glove
Peel and cut potatoes into very thin slices. Heat the milk in a large saucepan without letting it boil over. Add the salt & pepper, nutmeg, cream and potato slices. Bring to a boil again and cook on a low heat for 10 minutes. Don’t let it stick to the bottom of the pan. Prepare a roasting pan or gratin dish; melt the butter and mix it with the crushed or chopped garlic, and wipe this all around the inside of the dish. Pour in the potato mixture and bake in oven at 150°C (300°F) for 2 hours – check to see that it is cooked through and all the liquid has been absorbed.
This can be made beforehand if required, sliced into desired shapes, and reheated in the oven.

Green beans sautéed in Garlic

Buy French beans that have been locally grown! Trim off the ‘picked’ end – I leave the slightly curly other end intact, although I have been told (locally) that this is not acceptable to the French, they always trim this end off too.
Boil until just tender, about 10 minutes, but regularly check by eating one (finish it, don’t put it back!) until they have the perfect crunch. Drain and soak/ rinse under cold water to stop them cooking. Heat a non-stick pan and sauté them very briefly with a little olive oil and finely chopped garlic to taste.

 

Neighbour's vast garden Stored Potatoes

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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