FINDING OURSELVES on our own, we went out for Christmas lunch, probably for the first time ever. Most of our favourite restaurants close during the winter, but our old friend Gilbert in the next village keeps the French gastronomic flag flying win
FINDING OURSELVES on our own, we went out for Christmas lunch, probably for the first time ever. Most of our favourite restaurants close during the winter, but our old friend Gilbert in the next village keeps the French gastronomic flag flying winter or summer, so we booked in there. I haven't mentioned Gilbert for months, but regular readers of this column (now entering its tenth year) may remember him: the right-wing guitarist, choirmaster and restaurateur of whom it's often said, by me if by no one else, that in a world of ever-shifting and ever-gloomier uncertainties there are three things you can put perfect trust in: death, taxes and the unchanging nature of Gilbert's menus.
All the same, Christmas is a time for giving, and Gilbert had given himself a little leeway in planning his Christmas lunch, and in describing it to you I'm going to start at the end and work backwards for reasons that will eventually become plain. So picture us, replete among the crumbs and crumpled napkins, the dregs of verbena tea which Gilbert serves as an alternative to coffee, if you don't want anything stronger, and the bottle of Berloup Schisteil rouge by now as empty as my wallet will be in a moment. A little while earlier we polished off the last shreds of our dessert, a feuilleté au chocolat, several layers of vanilla wafer, dark chocolate and orange cream, all surprisingly light, and served with a coulis of red fruits and cumulo-nimbus clouds of whipped cream, if you want it. Mmm.
Cheese is served from a noble platter. You can have as much as you like from the selection on offer: Brie, Cantal, Beaufort, Bleu d'Auvergne, Ossau-Iraty (a sheep's milk cheese from the Basque country, rich, full-textured and creamy), Pelardon (generic term for goat's milk cheese shaped into small discs), and Ribaudou, a hardish yellow cheese which comes from a farmer in the neighbouring Tarn département who sings in Gilbert's choir.
The principal course is Gilbert's pièce de résistance. In the main body of his dining-room is his cheminée, a large fireplace with iron dogs that take metre-long beech logs. The fire has been lit since 9 o'clock that morning, and you can feel its warm aura and the scents of good things cooking as soon as you step inside. As we arrive Gilbert is basting a row of capons on his spit. He has a special tool like a candle-snuffer with a long, curved handle: he fills the cone, which has a small hole at the narrow end, with solid fat, which he heats to melting point over the fire. It's called, in the dialect of the south, a flambadou. When it's hot enough the fat spurts out in a long fiery stream, basting the meat to a golden brown and giving it an irresistible scent and flavour no oven could ever provide. Gilbert himself carves generous slices, spoons on a few potatoes roasted in the drip-trays beneath the spit, adds timbales of spinach, purée of carrot and celeriac, plus a delicious confection of chopped chestnuts dressing a purée of turnip and cream cheese, and serves us himself, wishing us bon appetit. You can see that Gilbert's cuisine has a certain robust quality.
For an entrée, or starter - but this is where we leave Gilbert for a moment. We'll be back . . .
* * *
Many years ago I worked in a primary school in Southampton. Teachers were encouraged to keep pets of one kind or another in their classrooms, hamsters, gerbils, stick insects and the like. One flashy, glory-hopping teacher kept an incubator and subsequently chicks in his classroom and made his kids weigh, measure, graph, report, draw, clean out, observe, sing (Chick, chick, chick, chick, chicken, lay a little egg for me), anything he could possibly derive from the cheeping coop beside the blackboard. Not to be outdone, and suffering from a maverick, subversive streak laced with a goodly dose of competitiveness, I found a large aquarium and asked my tribe to bring in one snail each from their back gardens, or anywhere. So they did, and together we trounced Chickenman (apart, it has to be said, from finding songs about snails) to the point where Class 7 were invited to display their Gastropodium and the classwork it had generated at Southampton Show. In the meantime our snails had mated ('ooh, Sir, look, they're kissing') and laid eggs, which was more than Chickenman's paltry poultry could do. Snails - as if you didn't know - dig holes about 5 centimetres deep to lay clutches of about 50 pinhead-sized eggs in. The Show took place, Class 7's exhibit was deservedly Highly Commended, term ended with the eggs unhatched, the kids dispersed and no one could be found to look after the celebrated Gastropodium.
So I found myself driving to the north of Scotland, where I lived at the time, with a fish-tank in the back of the car containing about 25 snails, covered by a perspex top resting on beads of plasticine, leaving a two-millimetre ventilation gap. I drove through the night, and it must have been somewhere about Abington in the Borders that the eggs decided their hour had come. I stopped to stretch my legs in the July dawn of the Sma' Glen, near Crieff, and noticed the back of the car was covered in tiny creeping excrescences, like minute warts. Horrified, I did quick sums: if all the snails had laid, that made a possible total of 1250 snail-lets crawling about my car, leaving tiny slime-trails behind them. I drove the remaining two hours home, picked them all out meticulously and turned them out into the wild to survive the Highland climate as well as they could. Their descendants were still there when I moved elsewhere ten years later, so they must have done. But you can't lavish care and attention and take close interest in the personal - not to say intimate - lives of a rout of snails without developing a certain affection for them, so that when . . .
* * *
. . . Gilbert proposed escargots as a starter for his Christmas lunch, there was a certain hesitation, certain prejudices to overcome, long-held and unquestioned attitudes to come to terms with. They arrived - unshelled, of course - at the table, piping hot, half a dozen in a special dish with snail-sized depressions in it, seething in molten butter flavoured with garlic, parsley and a little salt. I took a mouthful of bread, picked up the little fork Claudine, Gilbert's elegant wife and maître d', had laid for me; prejudice and any nostalgia for far-off Southampton days fled headlong before the merciless assault on nose, tastebuds and tum; I was converted. Merci, Gilbert, merci, Claudine. I wonder if Chickenman ate his brood, eventually? I bet he did.
No time to write of other rewarding Christmas experiences, like introducing crackers (Christmas crackers, that is, with paper hats, trinkets and idiot riddles inside) to wondering French friends; watching a report on French TV on the growing popularity of snail's eggs as a kind of caviar; and gloriously snowy scenes everywhere.
Here's the view from my study window. I don't ever remember seeing that in Southampton. We're very lucky.