I WAS sitting quietly at our village mediaeval banquet discussing philosophy with my friend Jean-Claude when a bread pellet thrown from three or four tables away struck me on the shoulder. Another followed a couple of seconds later, narrowly missi
I WAS sitting quietly at our village mediaeval banquet discussing philosophy with my friend Jean-Claude when a bread pellet thrown from three or four tables away struck me on the shoulder. Another followed a couple of seconds later, narrowly missing my ear. A clear case of naked, unprovoked aggression.
"C'est le garçon en bleu," Jean-Claude said. "I saw him." Garçon is one of those French words you have to be a bit careful with. As often as means 'male child' it means lad, chap, bloke, geezer, dude, old boy, etc. (So you can see it's probably better not to address your waiter as 'garçon'.) At that moment the ranks of mediaeval diners, including the village maire, dressed for the occasion as a serf, parted and allowed me a distant glimpse of Gaspard, a blue-shirted lad, chap, bloke, etc. (take your pick) in the very act of rolling his own (ammunition, that is) and looking away, all innocence. A garçon, moreover, at whose grateful table Josephine and I had sat earlier in the week, when he'd shown no sign of aggression and when, sitting opposite him, I would have presented a much easier target.
More bread pellets arrived, some on target. Retaliation called, with a few misgivings: in a school I once worked in, table manners were codified in a manner not far removed from the Ten Commandments. Throwing food, like spinning knives to tell fortunes, was practically a capital offence. On the other hand, a few years ago I'd been to a French 50th birthday party where, to while away one of the often lengthy breaks they have between dinner courses, the entire company of 50 guests had been issued with pea-shooters and generous amounts of papier maché pellets.
So precedent overcame the dreaded table manners rules. Remembering the principles of mediaeval siege catapults, I lodged a pellet in a plastic spoon, took aim, pulled the spoon back . . . and of course the wretched thing snapped. In mediaeval times they'd have been made of horn. Much more supple. Joan of Arc's troops never had this trouble, surely. Henry V's archers at Agincourt had a better idea; scatter your shot as thickly a possible, darken the sky with your arrows. So I bided my time until I had a good handful of Gaspard's pellets and heaved them back in a mighty broadside. Some innocent diners may have been caught in the crossfire too. I don't know: I was too busy making it seem that the salvo had come from August, a scholarly German two or three places down the table, to follow up the on-target strike rate. In any case Madame Gaspard now called time, before WW3 between Gaspard and August broke out.
I rang Gaspard the next day to inquire after his injuries. He was back on his feet, he said. He'd been anxious to instil a little hearty mediaeval spirit into the proceedings. A breadfight seemed just the thing. What a pity it hadn't become general . . .
A MEDIAEVAL dinner had beeen dreamed up by Emilie, the energetic and imaginative girl in the village Office de Tourisme. That weekend was designated thoughout France as Les Journées du Patrimoine, Heritage Days, when churches, castles, historic sites and monuments open to the public at little or no charge. In the village the church vestments and treasures were on display, the archaeological site was open, a concert of Renaissance music had been arranged, and I had a small part in demonstrating the church organ, classed officially as an historic instrument. Nothing much of this kind happens in France without substantial refreshment somewhere along the line, so Emilie had put her thinking cap on and had come up with a mediaeval meal to round everything off.
If in doubt, try the internet. Emilie fed 'repas médiéval' into the search engine and up it came, a complete menu with recipes, ingredients and all, from Soupe de la Vierge (eyebrows were raised: Virgin Soup?) down to the digestif, Hypocras, at the end. Hypocras is spiced and sweetened wine, supposedly a tonic, taking its name from Hippocrates, the Greek physician.
MENTION OF Hippocrates leads naturally to a curious little episode earlier in the summer. We went to St Martin de Londres, a village north-west of Montpellier, to team up with some friends, one of whom had recently had an ear operation and was having a problem disentangling what people were saying to him from the ambient noise. Where better to meet than St Martin de Londres, a sleepy little place, where the ambient noise should have consisted of the gentle gurgling of the fountain in the village square, the angelus ringing from the village church and the gentle clack of boule on boule in the shade of the plane trees, where cicadas sang through the heat of the day?
I suppose we should have foreseen the shattering ripsnort of teenage motorbikes and scooters, scourge of siestas in the sun, but what we hadn't anticipated was the arrival of the circus. Violent macho music split the air, a mighty echoing voice announced the delights on offer that evening. Round and round the village the circus truck went with its zillion-decibel loudspeakers, until nobody could possibly have any excuse for not knowing about it. Deafened and defeated on our café terrace, we lapsed into a companionable silence.
But the loudspeaker truck was also towing a large crate on wheels, a solid affair with stout iron bars along the sides. Inside, swaying uncertainly round corners and over the bumps and dips in the village roads, was a hippopotamus, glistening where someone had sprayed it with water against the heat and munching dispiritedly at some hay when it wasn't vainly biting at the iron bars. One day something really sensible will come out of Brussels, like an order banning this kind of animal abuse and hippos can be left to their own devices wallowing in the great green greasy Limpopo.
But never mind all that. You've seen the connection, of course? Hippo? Crates? Hippocrates? Ho ho.