In France, it seems there’s a saint for everything, each with his or her own special day. There’s even a new saint — inaugurated by Julia McLean and her best friend Marie-Claude — who watches over special birthdays and ageing bosoms.
My best friend in France is a Saint – I mean really. But I haven’t told the Pope yet so you won’t find her in those French calendars that are distributed by eager businesses every year.
As the evenings draw in and dusk falls and wisps of greyish white mist rise up from the earth, sometime in December, there occurs the rond des calendriers. The eboueurs (binmen), the postie, and the fire service call around to sell really awful calendars, all printed in Times Roman, font size eight, with one very boring picture.
On these calendars you can see at a glance the high days and holidays and all the Saints’ days. Even though State schools haven’t taught religion since 1905, everybody in France observes certain fetes. All feast days are, in fact, just that – feast days – excuses to get together with your family and eat. The year is still organised around the Christian year except that many people no longer know the significance of some feasts.
One morning, Ted came home from the baker’s and the bar, where he goes for bread and the paper in turn, saying people were wishing him “Bonne Fete” (Have a Good Feast Day) instead of “Happy Birthday” and anyway it was nowhere near his birthday. He hadn’t realised that instead of saying “Happy Birthday”, people more often wish each other “Bonne Fete” because they all seem to know what Saint’s Day it is.
Most bars, flower shops and bakeries put up little notices to say ‘Today is the feast of St. Robert” or whoever, so you get ambushed in the bar by all the good wishes because you are expected to buy a round. It is a curious anomaly that people who receive no religious education in school and have civics lessons instead of learning the commandments, use saints’ days to wish people good luck rather than the civic date of their birthday.
When Christianity first came here, the local Gauls put all comers through the blender of their beliefs and the resultant saints kept them hopeful in times of need. St. Expedit expedites your wishes in double quick time and probably only existed in the acid tongue of some disillusioned peasant farmer to his wife. “Yeah, well, try asking St. Fastfix next time.”
Each of the saints had a particular power, and a prayer didn’t cost as much as a visit to the doctor. Besides, the doctor often made you feel as if your illness was your own fault. A saint may not cure you but there was always hope, so St. Clair was prayed to if you had bad eyesight (clair = clear); St. Denis if you had headaches (he had had his head chopped off), St. Ursine if your cattle suffered from foot and mouth; St. Celerin if your baby was slow walking. St. Philbert is, like St. Denis, an early saint who is known all over France; he has a local shrine where villagers pray to him to be cured of stomach ache. The church is directly opposite where Pont l’Eveque cheese is made, but I don’t think anyone has made the connection yet!
Our very own village patron saint St, Gorgon, is the patron of solicitors for whom Mammon seems to be more of a preoccupation than God. St. Gorgon also does a sideline in scrofula cures. Does that make him the patron saint of scrofulous solicitors, I wonder? There are saints for women’s troubles, shrines for infertility and for children with rickets and more, but the best Norman saint I ever heard of is St. Glinglin.
When Jacques Lamy, my friend Claudie’s husband, was practising at the bar in Lisieux in the 60s , he had to prosecute a wily old farmer on behalf of a simple peasant. They had struck a bargain and shaken hands on it, as you do, and the wily farmer had promised to pay his debt by St. Glinglin’s day. The other agreed, thinking this was one of the panoply of local saints with whom he was not familiar. The year rolled on and there was no sign of payment. The simple peasant was not too simple to hire a lawyer. Jacques prosecuted the wily farmer on his behalf and the judge, who didn’t appreciate the sly tactics of the old farmer, proceeded to give a real judgment of Solomon – he decided that as there was no feast recognised for St. Glinglin, this saint could well be included on All Saints’ Day so the debt had to be paid by November first!
There were several other invented saints too – St. Chopine for drinkers (a chope being a beer tankard); St Foutin for boozey celebrations (St. Who-gives-a4X); St Lache (Lax), patron of lazy people; Ste. Marche, patron of people with walking problems; St. Planplan, patron of easily satisfied people, and St. Va et Vient, patron of busybodies.
As Claudie and I have our birthdays on the same date, we started celebrating together, usually with friends and family. We also decided, in true Gallic tradition, to invent our own saint. Last year, I gave Claudie a funny British birthday card with the phrase “Show me your Tits” on the cover and a very old lady with droopy boobs on the inside. I had added the remark that our boobs may be drooping but our spirits were not. We called our patron saint St. Quitombe (les Seins qui tombent = droopy tits but sounds like a saint’s name). It’s pronounced sankitumbe!
After a few years of birthday dinners in odd locations (cross channel ferries, Mont St Michel etc.), we now mostly just invite each other for dinners to our homes. This year we went to Marie-Claude’s. She told us to be there at 7:30pm. I should mention that a French dinner invitation is filled with hazards. The French never turn up on time for a meal. There is an acceptable quarter of an hour’s tardiness permitted (le quart d’heure de politesse – the 15 minutes of polite behaviour) but many people were at least 45 minutes late. At first, I would be miffed but I shortly learned to adapt. The reason they were so late, it seemed to me, was that a roast would never be put in the oven until guests arrived because you would first have to have aperitifs (40 minutes), then an hors d’oeuvre (30 minutes), an entrée (30 minutes) then the main course. No respectable roast needed more than an hour and forty minutes. As we were invited for 7.30pm, we dutifully arrived at 7.45.
Marie-Claude, like every good hostess, always has a seating plan and will place you where she thinks you will be most at ease. If you are seated at the right hand of the host or hostess, you are the honoured guest. This time I was at Marie-Claude’s right and Ted was in charge of pouring the wine – a task he seems to take to without much difficulty. Most foreigners think you have to say bon appetit (enjoy!) at the dinner table but this is only said to other people in a restaurant as you are leaving and they are sitting down.
One of the first things I noticed about French dinner parties was that the tables are nearly always laid with crisp white damask cloths and huge napkins. The forks are often presented tines down to show the family crest on the back. Mostly, the porcelain is white with gold edging and the couple’s initials appear somewhere on the rim.
There are sometimes fish knives and forks, but most often, the cutlery is changed as the meal progresses. If the hosts want you to hang on to your cutlery, they generally put a knife rest next to your plate under the tip of the knife. There is usually just one set of cutlery on the table and the dessert spoons are brought out for dessert but are not present as part of the décor de table. The French have always been surprised at my coloured tablecloths and the harvest of cutlery and glassware.
In France, there are generally not a grand array of glasses. The husbandwill have selected the wines from his cellar (most people had a wine cellar – even the most humble) according to what his wife has told him, so there will be a glass for white wine, one for red and one for water. The host always makes the rounds of the table to serve the wine which, unless it is very old, is never put on the table in its bottle, and he never says, as Ted often has, “Help yourselves to wine or I’ll drink it all.” Uncouth or what?
It is customary to offer two types of water, flat or sparkling, but not to put it on the table unless it is in a glass bottle. The host asks if anyone would like water and at that point it is brought in. But not tap water. There was a time when tap water was uncertain in its health benefits, and then, when it was deemed to be something the State should see to, it was so chlorinated as to be undrinkable.
You never, but never, help yourself to wine. You could a la rigueur (at the very most) compliment the host on his wine, at which point he might notice your glass is empty and offer you more. Once, we complimented the host on his wine and he immediately strode off to his cellar to get us an even better vintage. It is quite acceptable to make positive comments about the food or wine but no criticism should be uttered.
In France, you can safely put your elbows on the table which enables your hosts (and especially, your hostess) to appreciate your bangles, baubles and beads. People mainly noticed that I didn’t wear a ring and I was always having to explain that no, I wasn’t a concubine, nor in the process of divorce, nor a militant feminist, just a a house builder, plasterer, mason and cook whose ring got “gunged” up with paint and plaster and grease.
What you should not do is refuse food so I eat a lot of bread with anything I don’t like – tripe mainly! It is just too rude to refuse to eat what your hostess had slaved over. The only time you can refuse is if you have an allergy to something, but you should have forewarned your hostess!
A good meal is a well-thought-out, well-balanced menu where nothing is too heavy nor too light. Claudie’s meals are always superb and, unlike many French women, she will share her recipes. My birthday meal was not only heavenly but a gourmet’s delight of moan-for-pleasure eating. Marie-Claude took the ingredients from a classic cassoulet and presented them a different way for a starter. Cassoulet is a dish from Perigord which is famous for its goose dishes – foie gras, confit d’oie, haricot beans (sometimes called navy beans in the States), Toulouse sausages and countless type of dried sausage. She chopped and fried a medium onion and three cloves of garlic lightly, poured in some left-over haricot beans in their tomato sauce (don’t make the mistake of using Heinz Baked Beans which are heavily sugared) and put the lot through her mixer so that it became a smooth paste, then added a bit of stock to thin it down to a thickish soup. She served this hot with two croutons spread with foie gras floating on the top. Delicious!
She then served two brochettes (kebabs) per person. These she had garnished with good sized pieces of fresh salmon and angler fish. She wrapped the angler fish around with finely sliced chorizo sausage to give them a bit of extra taste, dribbled oil over the skewered fish and grilled it in her oven. She served this with two vegetables (instead of the usual one vegetable followed by a salad). Chicory, that candle-shaped salad green, was chopped in pieces and cooked in stock and finished off with a dash of cream and a fine trace of chili pepper (to compliment the chorizo) and broccoli flowerettes, which she doubly cooked, changing the water in between to cut the heavy cabbage taste, and served also with a dash of cream.
She served a traditional cheese course of different goat’s milk cheeses from Perigord and the south of France: Cabicou – a soft creamy cheese from Perigord; crottin du Perigord – a harder cheese; Lou Perac – a soft cheese; and Ossau Iraty and a Bleu des Basques, a blue cheese from the Basque region. She chose only unpasteurised cheeses so they are all artisanal not industrial.
Our delicious light dessert was pineapple cut into bite-sized pieces, grilled, flamed with rum and served with a touch of maple syrup.
She chose her meal according to what she had in her wine cellar so we were lucky enough to sample a Pouligny-Montrachet which was 21 years old and an extremely respectable Bourgogne Aligoté.
I am amazed I am still alive as the meal was TO DIE FOR! All I can add is Vive Saint Quitombe –Long live St Droopiboob!
St. Expedit courtesy of Etsy.com
The following photos are courtesy of Julia McLean and friends:
Blowing out candles
La sainte qui tombe