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Authors: Ruth Silvestre

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BOOK: A House in the Sunflowers
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It was then that M. René and his wife took him in
under an agreement called
rente viagère
. It is, in effect, a life annuity contract still quite common in rural France. An old person without relatives to care for them may make a contract with a friend or neighbour to be looked after and supported financially until they die, in exchange for their property. When I first heard of it I wondered whether it might be open to abuse, but as Mme Rene said, ‘if anything were to happen to old Benoît I would be the first suspect.’

One evening when Raymond had just finished harrowing
le grand champ
, relaxing at Bel-Air,
Pastis
in hand, he told us that it was exactly by such a contract that he had acquired our house and land. Anaïs, then almost ninety, had come with her son, himself in his late sixties, to ask Grandpa if he would consider such an arrangement. With no running water and their only heating the great open fireplace, which meant the constant cutting and carrying of wood, they no longer had the strength to care for land and livestock. Their only relative, a niece, was herself already looking after aged parents and parents-in-law. Grandpa agreed but asked them to wait until the following year when his daughter would marry Raymond and then the young couple would sign the document. And this they did. Seeing that I was very interested Raymond brought me the agreement to look at. It was the sheer practicality of it that impressed me. At that time, 1961, the house and all the land – vineyards, woods, fields – had been
valued at 14000 francs. Raymond and Claudette paid 4000 francs and then agreed to supply annually:

fourteen hectolitres of wheat at each harvest

three barrels of 220 litres of red wine

a pig of 100 kilos live weight at
carnaval

200 kilos of potatoes

4 cubic metres of firewood in September

50 Faggots

enough barley, oats and maize for 12 fowl.

The old couple kept the right to all the fruit and vegetables but not to sell them, and at the end was the most succinct detail of all: ‘It is agreed that all these items shall be halved on the death of one, except the firewood.’ I don’t know how the chicken managed! Raymond paid the rates and taxes and Anaïs did not need to worry about her handicapped son. She died two years later.

One can only imagine how lonely and isolated Alaïs must have felt after his mother’s death. For many years he had suffered with ulcerated legs and he now neglected them until he was obliged to go into hospital for lengthy treatment. Once there he became frailer and decided to remain. Each Sunday Raymond took him his week’s supply of wine and tobacco and anything else he needed, and when the weather was fine he would bring him up to Bel-Air to sit in his favourite spot, looking southwards down to the distant hills on the far side of the river Lot.

In 1968 he died and was buried at his mother’s side in the hill-top churchyard in the next village. Raymond and Claudette, young newly-weds, took over the land, the woods and the vines, the barn and the pond. But the house was closed and left to the spiders to wreathe in cobwebs, and the mice to nibble in the attic. For the next eight years it quietly gathered dust waiting for us to bring it back to life.

One hot afternoon, the box in the village being out of order, I went to the farm to use the phone. My number was engaged and while I waited talking to Claudette I was about to lean on the table behind me when I was stopped by a great shout and throwing up of hands. Looking round I realised that what I had taken to be a white tablecloth was in fact a covering of the thinnest of pastry pulled out and left to dry. I had almost caused a major disaster.


C’est pour la tourtière
,’ laughed Claudette, the danger averted. We had seen these splendid almost
sculptured apple pies in the
pâtisserie
and at the farmers’ markets but a price of between six and seven pounds each had stopped us actually trying one. ‘
Venez voir
,’ she said. In the kitchen was another equally long table already covered with a floured cloth. As though making a television programme she took a lump of soft dough from a box in the refrigerator and said, ‘I shall start this one while I’m waiting for the other one to dry.’

Sprinkling a little more flour on the cloth she then lifted the supple dough. She put it across her upturned palms and wrists and, like an expert juggler, raised them alternately while gradually moving them apart. When the pastry was about two feet long she laid it gently down in the centre of the table calling, ‘Eh, Oh!’ over her shoulder. In an instant Grandma appeared to help her. ‘
Doucement! Doucement!
’ she said softly as together they began to pull the pastry outwards to the edges of the table. Round and round they moved in harmony, Grandma clicking her tongue and muttering in patois when the smallest of holes appeared.

Twenty minutes later the long farm table was completely covered and the pastry hung several inches over the edge. Grandma trimmed it. ‘The edge is far too thick to be used,’ she said. ‘Now we must leave it to dry.’

‘For how long?’ I asked.

‘Usually an hour and a half. It depends on the
temperature and the humidity. Now we can continue with the other one.’

The pastry on which I had almost sat was now transparent enough to show the white cloth underneath. Grandma appeared satisfied. She lined a large round baking-tin with foil and used a turkey feather to oil it. Then she dipped the feather into a small enamel saucepan of melted butter and covered the whole surface of the pastry. ‘You’ve missed a bit over there,’ cried Claudette.

Grandma sighed and moved round the table. ‘My eyes are not what they were,’ she said. She sprinkled the pastry with fine sugar and poised her knife for the first cut.

She removed a circle large enough to cover the base and sides of the tin, then put in three more, one on top of the other with the edges placed deliberately to look a little haphazard. She carefully arranged thick slices of raw apple over the base and sides, and then fourteen large sugar cubes were evenly spaced between them.

‘Couldn’t you use powdered sugar?’ I asked, puzzled.

‘Certainly, but fourteen lumps is our
système
.’ Grandma was definite. I should have known better than to ask. Claudette sprinkled on a packet of vanilla sugar and then poured in two small tumblers of liquid. These were
eau-de-vie
and rum, each glass
being diluted with an equal quantity of water. Circle number five was placed on next and then came the fascinating decoration.

They cut the remaining pastry into small shapes: strips, squares, triangles – ‘
n’importe
’ – and, working from the outer edge, they folded and curved the pieces, standing them up to gradually cover the entire surface. They worked in absorbed excitement, like children on a beach, until with little sighs they stood back to admire their creation.


Pas mauvais
,’ they grinned at one another. Grandma gave it a final sprinkling of sugar. I noticed there were still some pieces left.


Plus tard
,’ said Claudette, anticipating my question. She explained that the pie must be cooked for fifteen minutes at gas mark 6, a further half hour at mark 5 and then those last curls would be piled even higher before the final fifteen minutes in the oven. ‘Sometimes it works better than others,’ she said, ‘you’ll be able to judge for yourself tomorrow.’

We had already been invited for Sunday lunch. ‘Nothing special,’ Claudette had said, ‘just a few friends and some of the family.’ But we’d never had
la tourtière
before. Was she sure they weren’t celebrating something? ‘No,’ she laughed, ‘I just felt in the mood.’

The next day the sun was even hotter and what little breeze there had been the previous day had dropped. At
exactly twelve-thirty we drove down to the farm and joined a leisurely gathering in the flowered courtyard. Raymond was serving
apéritifs
to two town cousins and their children and to Grandma’s jolly brother and his wife. He paused to introduce us to the only people we had not previously met, the local taxidermist and his ample wife.

In flowered aprons Claudette and her mother appeared for a brief ritual kissing and then hurried back to the kitchen. After a single aperitif we processed expectantly into the dining room on the veranda. Clearly this was not to be just an ordinary Sunday lunch. Our names had been written on torn scraps of paper and placed in the soup plates. RUHT, clearly they find my name as difficult to spell as to pronounce. We eventually settled, picked up our napkins and smiled at each other.


Servez-vous! Servez-vous!
’ called Claudette from the far end of the table. The taxidermist’s wife was quick to oblige. The soup was a thick
bisque de crevettes
and there were immediate murmurs of approval. Once it was finished and the plates collected by Véronique the first wine of the meal was poured. It is
deféndu
here to drink wine before soup. There was a glass of local red to start and then a Sauterne ‘76 to accompany the
foie gras entier de la maison
which followed.


Fai calou!
’ agreed the old folk in patois and it was indeed hot even for early August. The small, thick
creamy pieces of duck liver were eaten with an intense pleasure and compared favourably with last year’s. Next came huge slices of my favourite Charentais melon from the garden. I watched Grandpa sprinkle his with salt and take the first bite from the end of his personal folding knife.

‘Oui, c’est bon
,’ he declared. It was delicious and just the thing to cleanse the palate before the next course, a careful arrangement of
oeufs farcis
and curls of smoked salmon on a bed of tiny vegetables in mayonnaise, with which we drank a very dry Côte de Duras. What next we wondered.


Moi, je mange trop de pain
,’ sighed Raymond reaching for another slice as Grandma carefully carried to the table a shallow tureen, steam rising from the dark aromatic sauce. This was our first experience of a
civet de lièvre
. It had been made from a hare shot by Grandpa and the flesh fell from the bones. It was extremely rich and thinking about the
tourtière
I took a very small helping. We drank a red wine from the
Cave Coopérative
at Monflanquin, which seems to improve every year since it first opened in 1978. In the kitchen Claudette was busy carving a huge
rôti de boeuf
. She piled up the thick slices and surrounded them with a great quantity of
haricots verts
which were gleaming with oil and dotted with garlic, while Raymond dusted off a hand-made bottle without a label. Eyes widened.

‘What is it?’


Un vieux Corbière
.’ He tried to look nonchalant but failed. The excitement mounted.


Mais de quelle année?

He shrugged. ‘
Je ne pourrais pas le dire.
’ He turned to Grandpa. ‘
Quarante-huit? Quarante-neuf?
’ The old man nodded. It was he who had bottled it when he returned from the war. The Corbières was a dark brownish red. It gleamed and was wonderfully smooth and was savoured with reverence. The beef was wonderful too. A town cousin, his chin glistening, asked if it came from one of the farm cows. ‘Of course,’ Raymond answered with pride. ‘Don’t you mind?’ enquired one of the children. He shook his head, smiling at the boy.

After a simple green salad Claudette, to many oohs and ahs, carried in the
tourtières
, this superb south-west France version of an apple pie which I had so nearly ruined the previous morning. They were masterpieces, the golden curls of tissue thin pastry standing five inches high. We all applauded.


C’est ma fantaisie
,’ said Grandma modestly. This tiny, tough old lady who can drive a tractor, kill a duck and harvest in the field with the strongest has little enough opportunity for
fantaisie
in her busy life. The pastry melted in the mouth and the interior was soft, sweet and extremely alcoholic. But we had not finished.
Sorbet de cassis
was in its turn followed by
bowls of peaches and apricots and we drank our last wine, sweet and golden and made from the family vines on the hills above Bel-Air which had once belonged to Anaïs and her son.

When the coffee was finally poured into the tiny Limoges cups it was almost four-thirty and still the conversation rolled around the table. We struggled to understand as much as possible but were defeated when the old people slipped into patois. As we were offered
digestifs
there were impassioned discussions of the relative merits of Armagnac
haut
or
bas
, and the town cousin tried a Calvados brought back from a visit to the dreaded area north of the Loire. Raymond refused to touch it complaining bitterly about the lack of sobriety among the Bretons and Normans.

‘If it weren’t for them,’ he muttered darkly, ‘the law wouldn’t have been changed. We wouldn’t have lost the right to distil our own spirit.’ French law was changed in 1960 and only proprietors existing then may keep the right to distil. Unfortunately this was just one year before Raymond and Claudette were married and took over the farm so the right will disappear with Grandpa when he dies, and the travelling still or
alambic
will no longer trundle into the courtyard to distil the fermenting barrels of plums and pears.

Lunch finally over we staggered outside to rest under the trees. Conversation languished for a while but soon the
boules
appeared and fierce games were
played, English versus French, old versus young and town against country, with many a Gascon shout of rage or triumph as minute distances were checked with a ruler. Later some of us strolled through the farmyard to inspect the pigs, the rabbits, quail and guineafowl and on across the fields to admire the lake, newly dug for irrigation. In spite of government grants it was so expensive that the pump must wait for next year. In the next meadow a herd of
Blondes d’Aquitaine
regarded us inquisitively, flicking their creamy tails. We wandered back through grass alive with butterflies and grasshoppers and were about to make our farewells. Raymond looked surprised.

‘But you can’t go now. It’s almost time for supper.’ We were staggered. We had barely recovered from lunch. We tried to explain that we didn’t think we could eat any more that day.

Claudette giggled. ‘Wait and see. Now it’s cooler. About nine o’clock you’ll feel like a little something.’

It was with a certain sense of
déjà vu
that we once again assembled round the table. We were however one short. The taxidermist, accustomed it would appear only to stuffing other creatures, had gone home with a
crise de foie
but his wife was already seated, smiling and eager. ‘How could I resist?’ she appealed. ‘I just left him tucked up in bed. He’ll be all right.’

And so we began again, this time with a delicate beef
consommé
and, miraculously, our appetites
returned. We drank no fine wines, just last year’s local red, judiciously watered by all. But there were other treats, roasted guineafowl served on thin garlic rubbed toast was followed by a dish of
cèpes
, brown and crisp. Raymond closed his eyes as their perfume reached him.


Ah, ils poussent de bonnes choses dans les bois
,’ he murmured. The
cèpes
were compared with
chanterelles
,
morilles, girolles
and a host of other fungi which they were amazed to learn are largely unappreciated in England.

‘And you don’t even collect
les
trompettes de la mort?

We had to admit it. ‘Are they good?’ we asked.


Formidable!
’ They sighed. There was no understanding the English. Raymond insisted that much of the tinned
pâté truffe
was actually flavoured with these
trompettes
, so named because they are black. We ate our
cèpes
dutifully but as they needed liberally flavouring with both garlic and parsley, I could not see that they were as delicious as a fresh field mushroom that needs nothing to improve it. After bowls of chocolate mousse and
crème anglaise
we were still talking and drinking coffee with Raymond who was as lively as at midday. We knew that he would be hard at work soon after six the following morning but we felt that we would take a little longer to recover.

BOOK: A House in the Sunflowers
8.46Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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