By the light of the silvery moon: A Gascon dinner party
They say even the poorest Gascon peasant eats like a king. I went to a friend’s memorable birthday dinner one year – they keep Spanish hours, which is exhausting: you are invited for eightish and lucky to leave by three in the morning!
Although the aperitif lasts until about 11, somehow only the English ever seem to get drunk. I always arrive late and leave early, but no one minds as I bring homemade soup, which the others can’t be bothered to make and, when asked, will go to a lot of trouble over a seating plan.
These friends live about 20 minutes away, up a long, long drive past a hide in which, during the shooting season, wood pigeon hunters conceal themselves for hours at a time. Over the years, the ruts have deteriorated into potholes but as I’m writing it’s summer here, so at least they are not muddy lakes.
It doesn’t get dark – or cool – until about 10 in midsummer, so we sat outside in the evening sun, eventually watching it set. Then a bright crescent moon and sky full of stars appeared and sparkled while we drank champagne and ate peanuts, melted cheese on bite-sized toast, and deep-fried whitebait from Spain, which should have been crisp but wasn’t. Perhaps the oil wasn’t hot enough.
Conversations were the same as they would be anywhere in the world, ranging from philosophical to personal with a sprinkling of political. We talked about the surprise runaway bestseller of the publisher sitting next to me – a 700-page volume that came out in September 2015 about a French murderess called Pauline Dubuisson. Travellers’ tales of course too: Cuba, Vietnam, Laos – someone was just back from New Zealand, where he had eaten tuatua and been tattooed.
No one dressed up: most of the men wore shorts, but Frenchwomen have a supreme and most admirable confidence in their innate sense of style.
Interestingly, they have the same confidence in their cooking and foreigners expecting effortless miracles are often amazed at how disappointing meals can be in French homes.
Having spent most of my day on the seating plan as numbers changed from 21 to 17, working out how to separate husbands, wives and houseguests, to remember who had sat next to whom last time and change neighbours and to distance people who don’t care for each other, I did not expect tears and tantrums when one woman insisted on sitting next to our hostess.
After I had rearranged everything she kept coming up and hugging me. The French rarely sit around to eat – even picnics are conducted at a table with cloth and napkins and often a television set plugged into the car.
The hostess had wanted a cold, pale green soup to match the table napkins. So, I used leeks and courgettes and heightened the colour with frozen green peas.
After the soup came an unusual waterzooi, a creamy Belgian dish of different white fish, salmon, mussels and octopus stewed with carrots and leeks, followed by delicious boned shoulders of local lamb and mountains of summery ratatouille.
The salad had come straight from the garden and was served with ripe cheeses, and there was ice cream melting in the heat for dessert. We drank champagne and then local white and red wines and Armagnac with the coffee.
I was the first to get up, shortly after 2am – everyone else was still chatting merrily around the table. As I rattled down the drive and home along straight, empty roads, exhausted but replete with food and friendship, I remembered US journalist L.M. Boyd writing:
“Anyone who eats three meals a day should understand why cookbooks outsell sex books three to one.”
Photo courtesy of Penny Wadsworth