SUNDAY MORNING, early. Yawn, stretch, rub eyes, peer at watch in pink dawn light. 7 o'clock. Breathe in fresh morning air, a wonderful daily treat after weeks of stifling summer temperatures. Through the open window the angelus rings faintly, from
SUNDAY MORNING, early. Yawn, stretch, rub eyes, peer at watch in pink dawn light. 7 o'clock. Breathe in fresh morning air, a wonderful daily treat after weeks of stifling summer temperatures. Through the open window the angelus rings faintly, from the church at St Martial two or three kilometres away. 3 strokes, pause. Another 3, another pause. 3 more, a final pause, then 9 strokes, summing up what's gone before. 3 x 3 = 9. I expect there's a more than arithmetical significance in all this. (Would any reader care to explain?)
No time for religious ponderings just now. Scramble into summer kit, shorts, T-shirt, leather sandals bought several years ago from a travelling sandal-maker in St Rémy market for £10/$15. Away down the lane to the village. This morning air is something else: it's like the sinus-teasing bubbles in good champagne, it's like the scent of crushed mint, it's like sliding into a bed of crisp new linen, it's like the tingling all-over rinse of an astringent shower-gel. I suppose I could go on, but I'm sure you've got the message, and anyway here we are at our destination, the boulangerie.
THE SHOP'S just open, although Monsieur Gosset the master baker has been working on the premises since 9.30 the previous evening, preparing his trays of baguettes, flûtes, miches, ficelles, épis, fougasses . . . and croissants. It's M.Gosset's croissants that bring me here every Sunday morning. I don't think the art of croissant-making has ever been completely mastered in the Midi: maybe it's something to do with butter not being a natural ingredient in a land where olive oil reigns supreme. But M.Gosset, an incomer to the village, has brought from his native Belgium the true art, and never did croissants melt in the mouth more seductively than on our Sunday breakfast table.
Argument simmers about the origins of croissants. The word itself means 'crescent', I suppose because that's the general shape croissants have when they come out of the oven. Some say no, no, get a life, everyone knows they're called croissants because they came back from the crusades, where of course the badge of Islam was – and still is - the crescent moon. I don't know where M.Gosset stands on this theory. He's proud that his part of Belgium gave birth to Godefroi de Bouillon, a leader of the First Crusade which captured Jerusalem in 1099 and set up a Christian tenure about as stable as the current US/UK occupation of Iraq. Who cares? I'd rather have butter in my croissants than history any day.
It seems perfectly obvious to me that croissants really couldn't be any other shape. M.Gosset makes his by wrapping a slab of butter, beaten with a rolling pin to about the size and thickness of a roof tile, in an envelope of a sort of puff pastry dough. He then cuts the wrapped slab into squares, which he rolls up diagonally, fat in the middle and thin at the ends. Before baking he may tweak the ends round a bit to give his croissants their traditional curve, but he doesn't always bother.
HOW DO I know all this? Well, last Sunday morning Mme Gosset was on duty, I suppose having got out of bed just as M.Gosset was getting into it, in their tiny boulangerie in the village where customers are announced by a stuffed marmot or gopher just inside the door, which wolf-whistles as you come in. Mme Gosset served me our croissants, but also gave me an untitled video cassette. Surprised, I asked what it was about. C'est pas grand' chose, it's nothing much, she said: it's just about us. So I took it home, not expecting to be much edified by the home videos of a family we only really knew across the shop counter.
It turned out to be fascinating, a little slice of France few tourists would ever penetrate. It featured firstly Mme Gosset's delivery round, threading a tortuous route through all the ancient stone-built hamlets and isolated settlements of this wonderful Languedoc hill country where the concept of daily bread is undiminished. The second part took us into the bakehouse by night to watch the master baker at work. No real secrets betrayed, of course, but sharp insights - as witness the croissants - into a profession at the heart of everyday French life.
Hot Nights with Monsieur Gosset, as you might say, but I was led back to Sunday mornings years ago in Scotland, seated at the organ accompanying hymns, among them one whose seriousness of purpose would surely appeal to M.Gosset: I knead thee, how I knead thee; ev'ry hour I knead thee. Ho ho.
ANOTHER OF M.Gosset's specialities is his fougasse, a kind of savoury super-bread that's virtually a meal in itself and is very popular here as a snack or nibble as well as a worthy accompaniment to something more substantial. Hot Nights with Monsieur Gosset showed him seething chopped onions in white wine ("they're done when they're the same colour as the wine"), frying up lardons (small strips of thick bacon cut across the grain) in their own fat, and then stirring both onions and lardons into a bound and enriched with olive oil, adding a handful of chopped green olives for good measure.
The flat loaf, about the size of a dinner plate, comes out of the oven golden brown, and scored across for ease of breaking into sections. It's perfectly delicious. Bon appetit!
SOME YEARS ago friends from Scotland brought us a small home-grown wistaria - glycine in French - in a pot. Seduced by the idea of swags of blue flowers hanging in profusion over the terrasse, we hacked out a hydrangea – hortensia in French: let it not be said you come away from this column empty-handed – and planted our infant Mcwistaria in its place. It began to grow hyper-enthusiastically, like Jack's beanstalk, so we harried and cajoled local blacksmith Philippe Fontès into building an immediate wrought-iron pergola for it to disport itself in. In no time at all it had wound itself up a string to reach Philippe's pristine ironwork. Autumn came, the leaves fell, we waited impatiently for spring and breakfasts – croissants, naturally - on the terrasse under the gorgeous canopy of bee-busy wistaria. Who knew, coming from Scotland, the flowers might even be tartan.
"Did the seedling have a flower on it?" asked Corrie, a Dutch friend and keen gardener, when we told her about it. We shook out heads. Future flowers in vast, heady profusion perfumed our imagination, but not a single petal had there been in reality. "Then you'll have to wait for seven years before it flowers," Corrie said. H'm.
Meanwhile we're building a new house a little further up the lane. I expect just as we move into it the Mcwistaria will decide to flower. Other men's flowers . . .