Agnès is young, attractive and cheerful, the sort of person who makes you feel better just by looking at her. She and her farmer husband Colin are building a house a little further up the lane. Not personally, of course: her hands-on extend
THERE'S A mid-morning tap at the window. We look up from the milky instant coffee we've never quite abandoned in favour of the French mini-cups, hot and strong, and we're pleased to see our doctor, Agnès, with a large cardboard box in her arms.
Agnès is young, attractive and cheerful, the sort of person who makes you feel better just by looking at her. She and her farmer husband Colin are building a house a little further up the lane. Not personally, of course: her hands-on extends to pulses and dislocated thumbs and soothing the fevered brow, but not to bricks and mortar. No, Monsieur Panafieu the maçon from the next village and his happy band whistle and sing from morn till night, when they're not trembling in their boots, because Agnès, when provoked, has a fiery temper and a tongue spiced with oaths anything but Hippocratic: woe betide any builder who leaves nailheads showing or dollops of crépi (i.e rendering) lying about. Indeed, there's a French proverb On connaît le maçon par le pied du mur, you can judge the builder by the foot of the wall. How M. Panafieu rates on the crépi-dollop scale I don't know, but the house is going up slowly, and by the time Agnès has moved in and has become our nearest neighbour I might actually have got round to telling you what was in the box she was carrying.
Well, it was meat. Prime cuts of lean beef, vacuum-wrapped and labelled according to the French traçabilité system, so that you can tell exactly where the animal came from, when it was slaughtered and all the other details needed to reassure a country – indeed, a continent – shaken by the incidence of BSE that their beef is safe.
We were rather surprised. It's not every day that your doctor appears on the doorstep with a gift of about £50 or $70 worth of best beef, is it? There's no market for her husband's cattle just now, she explains; it's cheaper for him to give the meat away than to keep on feeding his beasts. It's an ill wind . . . and I can't think of any better guarantee of its quality than your own doctor's endorsement.
WOULD MARIE-ODILE have done the same?
Marie-Odile was another lady doctor I had a few years ago, when I lived in Mousse les Grieux. She was wirier and tougher than Agnès but no less attractive, in a gamine sort of way. To Marie-Odile I went once, after a spell in a Toulouse cardiac unit, to consult her about a low-cholesterol diet. (The arterial damage had been done in Britain, not in France.) A-tremble with expectations of a life sentence to bread and water, I sat down in her surgery under the spell of her blue eyes and wheaten hair while she listed the items à privilégier, poultry, fish, fruit, vegetables, pasta and so on with such an engaging smile that it was easy to promise to lay off animal fats, eggs, most dairy products including my beloved cheeses just to please her. Piecrust too, maybe, but I have to say that fancying your doctor across the consulting room desk really does encourage you to do what you're told.
But suddenly, as though she'd divined this thought, her manner changed into its chilled steel mode: 'STOP sucreries!' she said sharply, and wrote it down. I sighed. Heigh ho. No more sweets, jams, custards, puds, chocs, all that. Well, fair enough. No real problem, I supposed; the French consume a tiny fraction of such things compared with the sweet-toothed Anglo-Saxons.
Then the real blow came. 'STOP alcohol!' she ordered, as though she was a dormitory prefect (oh! wild thought!) who had caught me pillow-fighting. 'No alcohol. Give it up. No more.'
Night suddenly fell, a black night of agony and anguish unparalleled in gloom since the lovely Alison turned me down all those years ago . . .
. . . but Marie-Odile was still speaking, honeyed words of comfort and joy: 'Yes, wine with each meal, of course, that goes without saying. And maybe a finger of whisky at night to help your circulation. But otherwise cut it right out, Monsieur.'
Marie-Odile was loved throughout Mousse les Grieux. And rightly so. I don't expect you ever became a doctor, did you, Alison?
THIS REFRESHING French attitude to wine was underlined during that selfsame stay several years ago in the excellent Clinique Pasteur in Toulouse having a coronary artery reamed. The lunch trolley would trundle down the corridor shortly after midday, and a clinking of plates and cutlery would precede a discreet tap at the door. In would come an attendant bearing a tray with the day's special, salade niçoise followed by colin à l'oseille or whatever, and invariably there would be a 25cl bottle of rouge to help it down.
A private clinic, the Clinique Pasteur? Not at all. It was all on the French national health system. Little wonder the usual French toast is Santé! Good health!
SMALL, UNIMPRESSIVE but sympathique prize to be won!! (It's the chocolate cicada I would have wolfed if I hadn't made certain promises to Marie-Odile.) A bijou bite, as you might say.
An appointment at the eye clinic in the Guy de Chauliac hospital in – but I'm not telling you where – left us with time to make a short détour to the Domaine du Poujol, a winery operated by Robert and Kim Phipps, who have applied expertise from California and South Africa to our native grapes to produce arguably one of the greater whites to be found south of the Loire, a larger-than-life white, one you simply can't ignore, rich, rounded, redolent of the vibrant colour and heady éclat of the Midi. So several bottles found their way into the boot (or trunk, if you're reading this in the USA, and I hope you are) of the car, followed by Domaine du Poujol's younger sister Pico, who is fast growing up into . . . but here, I'm getting carried away.
OK, down to earth. The competition: what city has a hospital named Guy de Chauliac, after the founder of one of the world's oldest medical schools? And a quarter called Millénaire, and shares its name - apart from a slight difference in spelling - with a smart thoroughfare in Cheltenham, UK?
Clue (but not much of one): Sherlock Holmes studied coal-tar derivatives here.
First correct e-mail answer wins. Bonne chance! . . . bon appetit . . . and while I'm at it, bonne année too.