‘Come with me’ Sandrine said. ‘Jean Marc is doing his special Soupe de Fève for lunch. You’re invited; you can work later in the afternoon’. A feature of summer here; a large tureen of hearty bean soup, lots of crusty bread, some cheese and summer fruits to finish. We arrived at noon; aperitifs were being served in a stunning, flower filled garden. On two small tables, elegant china dishes contained green olives as big as quail’s eggs, slices of smoked duck, morsels of quiche and cherry tomatoes.
Over by the charming old house, under a massive green and white striped awning, a huge table was set for a dozen people, glasses and tableware sparkled in the sunshine. Not a casual lunch setting, more an ad for rustic French living. ‘Ah, bonjour. Enfin, la dame irlandaise!!’ the hostess welcomed me warmly, as if finally meeting the Irish lady was one of life’s dreams.
For me, this reaction is common in Ariège Pyrénées. There are many other nationalities here, and while some ex-pats say they find the people of this department insular, I don’t. Here in the Grand Sud, after food and wine, rugby is everything. While now a Stade Toulouse supporter, having been in the hallowed Lansdowne Road is my passport to fame. Some of the party were guests from Paris, here for the excellent fishing – and obviously the reason the lunch was on a bigger scale than normal. Fishing provided another tie between nations; one of the men had been to Connemara and raved about it.
At twelve thirty, lunch for eleven French people and me, began. Three platters of pâté were passed around; homemade chicken liver, pork and rabbit. There were cornichons of course, baskets of bread and large jugs of wine. Commentary and exclamations on the food began immediately; the richness of the pâtés, its excellent consistency, small cornichons being much better than large ones, the perfect bread. ‘Quel bon Boulanger?’ I’ve become used to discussing every aspect of the food, constantly questioning and complimenting the cook.
The second course arrived, the special Soupe de Fève. The casseroles of southern France, like the celebrated Toulouse Cassoulet, are hearty, filling dishes, but this one was the stuff of mediaeval banquets. There were the broad beans, lots of them, but also four different kinds of meat. The man on my left suddenly shouted ‘Voila – je l’ai trouvé!’ and ladled a whole pig’s foot onto his plate.
The table was in raptures and the enthusiastic discussion continued, how long each ingredient should be marinated, how huge amounts of garlic and fresh herbs must be used for the dense aroma, how it must simmer for hours, with preparations ideally starting the day before. ‘Très bonne nourriture!’ No one appeared to draw breath, but all of the food was eaten and copious amounts of wine drunk.
Next the salads, the centrepiece an enormous, elaborately decorated plate full of asparagus, smothered in a mouth-watering dressing. There were bowls of tomato and potato salads too. The fresh basil and tangy, sharp dressings were refreshing after the rich, meaty main dish.
Each guest then had a small lemon sorbet and a tiny glass of fortified wine.
With so much splendid food and wine, and the general ambiance of the day, I wondered aloud if life could get any better. A lady from Paris sitting opposite me complemented my French, remarked that all Irish people must be wonderful, and why did I leave?
I told them all about Larry, who, at 7am one morning back in Dublin, suddenly announced that he was retiring early and that we were going to live in France. About me leaving everything and running off with him and eventually being married by the Mayor in the ‘plus beau village’ of St Lizier, with the villagers as guests. I said it had all been like something from ‘Chocolat’ and told them how much I loved everything and could never live anywhere other than La France and was this not ‘un jour le plus merveilleux?’ Everyone clapped and cheered madly.
Madame then brought out the cheese board and explained exactly where each cheese came from; I had three lots. A choice of light gateaux, rich fruit cake, artisan ice cream or fresh fruit for dessert, Champagne corks were popped and more toasts proposed. Amazingly, most of us managed a morsel of rich, dark chocolate with coffee, plus, the final touch, a small glass of Armagnac. The lunch party – and party it certainly was – finished at five thirty.
The following day, as I ate a small piece of toast, I thought of how, twenty four hours earlier, I had gone with my friend expecting a simple lunch made from the summer glut of broad beans. I should have known better; this is the Midi Pyrénées.