Another summer morning, time to draw the curtains, fling open the windows and let the early morning breeze fill the room. Summer always smells warm and enticing as it fills the house each day, and the instant sound of bees in the wisteria and the sight of swallows flitting past in a blur of winged shadow add to the sense of season.
Summer is rushing past just a little too fast. August is the month when half of France seems to come to a complete standstill and it’s the time when over 50% of the population take their annual break. Factories empty, shop-fronts close, and schools sit idly on dusty streets. And so, even though I am still at home, I find myself swept along by the holiday spirit and I feel as though I’m on vacation too.
Briefly shopping in Rochefort earlier this week I wished Roddy had been with me. It was past 6.00pm and the cafés were full of people enjoying their evening apéritifs, and they were dancing in the Place Colbert – I asked myself, why not? Could there be a better way to spend an evening? An apéro, a little dance and then some candlelit dinner on a warm summer’s night; it sounded like a fine idea to me.
The 15th of August was Assumption Day, a public holiday in France which has been a nationally important day since Louis XIII first declared it in 1638. Across the country various events were organised, not just on the 15th but throughout the entire long weekend, and many French took the monday as a holiday too, making it a four-day weekend. It’s the last big holiday of the summer.
On Sunday we visited the local Fête des Battages, a harvest festival. It’s an annual event held just outside the village of Trizay and we have been every year since we first moved here. It’s become something of a tradition for our family and it’s a wonderful daylong event that typically includes a sprawl of ancient farm machinery in full whirring-belt mode.
It has changed a little over the years. I remember our first visit when there were a few people eating lunch, carefully arranging picnics they had brought themselves on the open trestle tables, but mostly it was more of a Farmers Market with local producers selling everything from honey, to soap made from horse milk. This year there were less stands than in previous years; the mares milk soap was still there and so was the honey, and the rapeseed and sunflower oil stall was in full operation, pressing its seed right there for all to see.
The chicken man was in his usual spot at the entrance, selling ducks and hens in large pens and also quail; and an interesting snippet of information that Millie told me is that the quail are housed in such low cages deliberately – any more headroom and the little birds would jump and hurt themselves.
However, undoubtedly, the main event of the day was lunch.
This is where we saw the biggest change from previous years. There was no evidence of lavishly prepared meals at home. Now it seemed one arrived with just a bag containing one’s plates, cutlery, glasses and a bottle of wine. The actual food is then purchased on site. This gave the chosen local butcher an opportunity to do a roaring trade with people queuing up to buy cuts of beef and lamb, select pork pieces, or a slew of different sausages.
Once you had purchased your chosen meat you then took it to the giant barbecue and cooked it just to your liking.
But before les plats principeaux, perhaps one should start with some oysters? Or perhaps forego the barbecue and meat altogether and opt instead for Moules Frites?
If one is still not entirely sure of the menu, how about starting with a little salad of locally produced goat’s cheese and tomatoes?
Then of course, there was a huge pail of snails, and this is very French……though the Charentaise do love their snails in a bolognaise sauce, not just with garlic butter.
No meal would be complete without a little cheese, and this is the stall where I will always find Roddy should we part ways and be lost.
And if you forgot to bring your own wine, or just felt the need for something a little more thirst-quenching, there was locally brewed beer, with surely the most appealing of all names – Tête de Mule, or Mule’s Head!
After lunch there were several displays using the pre-war tractors and antique threshing machines.
And if – after an afternoon’s wander – you were still hungry, or the hour was close to 4.00pm, l’heure du goûter (afternoon tea) for the children, one could always enjoy freshly prepared crêpes with a multitude of fillings; jam, honey, that firm French favourite, Nutella, or perhaps a coating of plain sugar. This being a farmer’s market, the flour used in the crêpes was on sale too, as were the eggs. There was no possibility of one not knowing the precise origin of absolutely everything on sale that day.
With the temperatures soaring to 36C/97F on Monday, we headed to the beach and a relatively quiet spot on a tiny part of the Atlantic coastline known only to locals rather than to every tourist who sets foot in the Charente Maritime! It involves a dark lane, pine trees, and a narrow dusty sandy path through stunted green oak trees before the sea stretches out before you.
A couple of days later I finally was able to stop at the little brocante which I showed you a photo of a few weeks ago. I have passed so many times and am always in a rush but for once I had the time to go inside.
When I left, I took a wrong turn quite by accident and found myself on a road I have never travelled before. Before I realised it, I’d passed the most beautifully manicured property. Screeching to halt I reversed back down the road (we’re talking a tiny country lane, so there was no one else around) and parked so I could hop out and take a few sneaky photos! In my dreams the owner would just happen to have walked out at that moment and of course he or she would have been utterly charming and be so thrilled that I loved their house enough to take photos that they would have invited me in for a good look around. Of course I would then have shared their enchanting home with you all! Alas, there was not a soul in sight and after a guilty few moments I continued on my way, took a few more lefts and rights and then I was back on the right road again.
Talking about ‘home’, we have our first ripe figs. I am not quite sure what happened; a week ago when I looked at them, a little forlornly, I wondered if they would ever be ready, but then overnight it seems some grew in size quite dramatically and changed colour. Suddenly we are inundated and we’ve been feasting merrily on them now for a few days!
The first ripe ones are always at the very top of the tree which sprawls out over our garage roof, so we dust off the big wooden ladder and it takes up its annual stand against the garage guttering! It lives here for a month or so, offering instant breakfast delights straight from the tree. But the rewards are more than worth the effort and the view out over the village from this vantage point is rather special too.
And that really takes us to the end of another week of summer, part of our seasonal Charente Maritime year….
However – before I say au revoir, I have a couple of questions for you to ponder on. While taking the photo of the figs, I noticed Bentley laying on the other side of the garden bench, apparently as happy as anything. Why oh why, when it is 35C/95F, would he choose to sit, entirely by choice, in full midday sun, panting away, rather than seeking the shade? I’ve never understood this…….
And finally, driving my most frequent route, we slowed down at a roundabout and in front of us was perhaps the most iconic of French cars, a Citroën deux chevaux, proving what a wonderfully adaptable vehicle it is. Fortunately the children were with me and thanks to a handy iPhone they grabbed a photo as we passed.
So, the question is – is this the perfect convertible?
Or is this?
That same day, taking the same route homewards a couple of hours later, we followed this convertible for a while too, before it found a straight length of tarmac and breaking every speed limit and then some more, effortlessly left us behind in a quiet purr of ridiculously expensive exhaust; ironically it was also sky-blue in colour, but this time it was a Bentley, with a price tag starting at €250,000 (£200,000/US$260,000)….
Perhaps this is the perfect convertible? A difficult choice……sigh