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I'M NOT much of a betting man, but I contacted - on line - London bookmakers William Hill the other day. I wanted to find out what odds they were giving on the French presidential elections, in which first round votes are being cast


I'M NOT much of a betting man, but I contacted - on line - London bookmakers William Hill the other day. I wanted to find out what odds they were giving on the French presidential elections, in which first round votes are being cast even as I type this. Nicolas Sarkozy, the favourite, at 3-1? Ségolène Royal, widely tipped to come in second, at 7-2? The sinister National Front leader Le Pen at 10-1 against? I soon found I was wasting my time. Not only with W. Hill. Neither Ladbrokes nor Coral so much as mentioned them. A shame. Bookies' odds are a sounder guide to the eventual result than the countless opinion polls we've been subjected to over the last few months in the presidential election run-up. But maybe there are other crystal balls to gaze into?

If the ancient Romans had ever had presidential elections, the augurs would have been busy counting birds in the sky, consulting oracles, examining the entrails of sheep and so on trying to discover whom it was best to cosy up to ahead of the decision, but auguries are notoriously ambiguous. At the previous election, which involved the second round vote-out between Jacques Chirac and Jean-Marie Le Pen, there were auguries in our letter box for the taking: a mortal contest between a wasp and a spider foretold the victory of one of the candidates, but which?

A few evenings ago we celebrated the sixth birthday of the small choir I conduct, a group called Les Jeudistes because we rehearse on jeudis, i.e. Thursdays, and in case you're wondering why I haven't dignified jeudi with a capital letter it's because one of the idiosyncrasies of French is that days of the week and months of the year don't normally have initial capitals, so that's them put in their place. We were also celebrating the success of Patricia, a gifted teacher and one of our sopranos, who after months of an extraordinarily rigorous selection procedure least as emotionally draining as a presidential election, had finally been promoted to maître formateur.

Some of us weren't too certain what this meant, so Patricia explained that she was now responsible for the appointment, assessment and ongoing training of teachers of English and Spanish in the département. (The UK equivalent would be senior adviser or inspector.) While congratulations flowed as fast and as merrily as the quavers in the music we sing, some of us who lurk in Pedants' Corner like toads in the hole wondered if her new title shouldn't really be expressed in the feminine, i.e. maîtresse formatrice? Patricia was doubtful: things didn't always work out quite as logically as that in French, and besides the title would then mean someone who appointed, assessed and saw to the ongoing training of mistresses, quite another matter.

With birthdays and promotions a special celebration was called for, so Josephine cast around for a dish worthy of the occasion and came up with a stroke of genius: trifle. Trifle is unknown in France, or was until a few days ago, when the assembled sopranos, altos, tenors and basses demolished the two - yes, two - that she produced molto allegro, con brio (very fast, with vigour). Three of the vital ingredients - sherry, sponge, whipped cream - that we know and love from our childhoods are all but unobtainable in France, but Josephine gave a great deal of serious thought to the matter and came up with the following table of equivalents:

Anglo-Saxon ingredients French approximations

Sponge, Swiss roll or boudoir biscuits

Madeleines (sweetish sponge cakes about the size of a small potato, Proust's staple diet, apparently)
Sweet sherry Muscat (sweet fortified wine), one from from Corsica, a present from the same kindly neighbour who once brought us a bag of loo rolls with a request to ask for more when they were finished, an invitation not extended to the muscat
Whipped cream Crême fraiche (a reduced-fat sourish cream) mixed with natural yoghurt.

I have to say if ever you feel the need - and I hope you do, and often - for an impromptu and triumphant celebration, there's nothing to touch trifle and champagne. And champagne's really what this story is all about.

Champagne is a lively child, rarely behaving as you expect it to. My method of opening champagne is still undeveloped, mostly through lack of practice, but I try to ease the cork out with the minimum fuss and noise, leaving gassy explosions and cascades of foam to Formula 1 winners. In fact I said to Patricia the newly-fledged maître formateur next to me, borrowing a line from Posy Simmons the author/cartoonist, that champagne should be opened 'with the sigh of a contented woman' and went on in my overweening vanity to demonstrate what I meant.

Well, you never saw such a mess. Not the slightest suggestion of a contented sigh, but a vicious explosion followed by an unquenchable gusher of the creamy bubbling juice into my trifle dish, all over the table, my chair, my clothes, to say nothing of the floor. The ever-resourceful Josephine leapt to the rescue with a glass to catch the wayward foam, and I expect our neighbour down the lane looked up from counting his stash of loo rolls and bottles of Corsican muscat, glanced in our direction and wondered what all the laughter was about.

But I had other things to think about. It's not often that auguries like this are handed to you on a plate, let alone squirted over your trousers from the neck of a champagne bottle. What happened to the sighs of contentment? What else could this be but a crystal clear pointer to the result of the presidential election? What else could this prefigure but Ségolène Royal's flowing tears of disappointment?

By the time you read this you'll know the result, you'll know whether the French nation will be referring to Monsieur le Président or Madame la Présidente. Cynics will say the champagne obviously pointed to Ségolène Royal's victory celebrations. They're like that, auguries, slippery so-and-sos, two-faced and ambiguous. You're on much firmer ground with trifle, really.