October 12th, 2006

International Kittens of Mystery

Three Fêtes and a Football Match Part Two (Ricard, Rose and Red)

It's June, 1995 and the story continues...

On the day of the fête we strolled down the hill just before noon. The sun was high overhead, the air still and the temperature soaring.

As the church steeple came into sight we wondered what a French village fete would be like. Would there be raffles and stalls? Would we be fined for not bringing our boules?

The first sounds wafted towards us as we neared the church. But from where? We'd expected the meal to be held in the village square. The word 'square' being used here in its loosest term, a more accurate description would be the space between the church and the road. But square or space, the adjective 'empty' was undoubtedly the correct one to apply.

We followed the noise around the church walls and into a place we didn't know existed. A cleared area behind the church which was now full of trestle tables, benches and about two hundred people.

It looked idyllic, an island of bright crushed stone leading down to a meadow and a small meandering river. Tree-lined hills rose up majestically from the valley floor, the hillside flecked with occasional stone buildings, farmsteads and barns, shining off-white in the sun and capped with the uneven reds, pinks and pale yellow of the old clay tiles.

And the fête had started.

We soon realised our mistake in not arriving earlier. All the shaded seats were taken. Most of the village crowded around a bar area underneath a huge tree, a few sat on shaded benches, no one sat in the full sun.

Which beat down upon the scene with a growing power. Luckily we'd brought our hats, we'd both had enough of sunstroke that year.

The bar was interesting - quite unlike anything I'd seen at an English fete. No beer, no lager, no cider. This was strictly an aperitif bar - plenty of Ricard, muscatel and port. But mainly Ricard. Which, from what I could see, could either be green, red or cloudy - none of which appealed. I find something intrinsically off-putting about drinking something brightly coloured - especially green. We stuck to the port. Unadventurous but safe.

We were soon found by three English people. There must have been something instantly recognisable about us - the lost look of an English couple abroad. Within minutes we were being introduced to a bewildering number of locals who all seemed to be interrelated. It was quite surprising. Everyone seemed to be someone’s cousin or married to someone's cousin or sometimes both. It was like one big extended family celebration.

And very confusing. All the names and faces blurred into one.

By half past twelve a general consensus erupted and, like a flock of birds, the village turned as one and descended upon the benches. We lost our fellow nationals in the rush but found ourselves sat next to a family we later discovered to be our neighbours - they lived about a mile away but farmed the fields adjoining ours. We both had difficulty introducing ourselves. He became the-man-with-the-black-and-white-cows, a fine old Indian name if ever I've heard one, and we became Les Anglais.

And the wine flowed.

And a myth burst.

I had heard, probably from the same French lesson that introduced priorité a la droite, that even the humblest paysan was at heart a connoisseur of the grape and would insist upon a fine bottle of wine to accompany dinner.

But I recognised the wine being handed out. Not from its label - detailing its chateau or its year - but from the embossed stars on the glass. Six étoiles, the brand we bought, six francs a litre and a franc back on the bottle. This was more like it.

And there would be a tidy sum collected on the bottles from what I could see. Litre bottles of red and rosé alternated along the centre of every trestle table - one bottle between two people. And that was just the start, there were plenty of full crates stacked up for later.

(next instalment: Paella and the Art of Housing the Five Thousand)