This weekend celebrations were held all over France to celebrate the Fête of St John the Baptist. In pre-Christian days there was a pagan ritual to celebrate the summer solstice but in the fifth century Clovis, the Frankish king, decided that St John the Baptist’s birth would be celebrated on June 24, very near the summer solstice. This overshadowed the earlier pagan festival in much the same way as Christmas did the pagan midwinter festival.
Clovis’ Fête de la St Jean also borrowed the bonfire idea, originally a solstice tradition, and cleverly paralleled the role of the solstice of announcing summer’s light with John the Baptist’s role of proclaiming the arrival of the Messiah.
Our celebrations were organised by the group of five local villages. During the week the men went out to the forest with tractors to collect wood and tie it up into faggots which were stacked up to make the chavanade. When darkness fell everyone gathered to see the bonfire lit by the worthies of the commune.
The fire is lit....
It was an enjoyable night, sitting out on a warm clear night with friends and neighbours. The music was good with all the old favourites, and the buvette did a good trade with wine and the home-made cakes made by the ladies of the villages. We left early, about midnight, but I think the party was only just beginning….
Next day we heard the party went on until 5 in the morning.
We are useless at eating French fashion. By this I mean having our main meal in the middle of the day and relaxing quietly for an hour or so before starting work again in the afternoon. Believe me, we have tried to do this but we find we are reluctant to take a break for more than the ten minutes it takes to eat a baguette with cheese or paté. And no matter how much I eat at lunchtime I am still programmed to require a good meal at teatime.
But today we were bien des français as we were invited to a typical French Sunday lunch. We started with pink crémant, followed by the hors d’oeuvre of crevettes (prawns) in garlic oil, the dish mopped clean with a crusty baguette. The next course was a tossed green salad before the main course of gigot d’agneau (roast lamb) and vegetables. Next came the cheese course which you always have before and not after the sweet course. The sweet was a fresh fruit tart ordered from the village patissier. To round off the meal we had coffee and chocolates.
Good company, long conversations and a big lunch outside in the sunshine. It won’t be long before we get the hang of living in France!
Foraging is a national pastime. It’s in the national psyche. There is a certain satisfaction of getting something for nothing; it’s fresh and tastes twice as good. The pickings around here are plentiful but you need local knowledge about when to find things and where to look.
We are in the middle of the Jonquil season. For three weeks the woods north of Cormatin are visited en masse and stripped of their jonquils, a tiny wild daffodil. I have no idea why, as once picked they do not last long. Signposts lead to car parks where buvets are set up to provide refreshments.
Today saw the first day of the trout season and groups of men dressed up in full gear were to be found fishing in the ditches that drain the fields. The run-off from the mountains at this time of the year brings down abundant trout.
Very soon we will be looking for the wild asparagus amongst the wild garlic in the woods above the village. Dandelions are picked before flowering to make salads, especially tasty with bacon and a lightly poached egg.
There are many edible types of mushrooms. If in doubt you can take your basket of fungi to the pharmacist to make sure they are safe to eat. We were told the secret of where to find morels but we have yet to find any (under the ash trees near the voie verte!). When collecting mushrooms you use a loose weave wicker basket to let the spores drop out along the way and propagate. Luckily I happen to have made several baskets with holes in the bottom in our vannerie sessions!
Of course in the autumn there are blackberries, walnuts and chestnuts along the hedgerows. Figs and hazelnuts, apples and cherries are also plentiful.
Then we are into winter again and the hunting season. A most popular pastime using dogs which are kept solely for hunting. They say that without the hunt wild boar and deer would overrun the countryside. Despite that I am always pleased when I pass hunters standing out in the cold and rain not finding anything to shoot.
It is said that Valentine’s Day started in France during the Middle Ages as people noticed the birds singing and pairing off at this time. The birds in the garden certainly seem to be becoming more lively. We have become rather fond of a woodpecker who was on his own last winter but now turns up with a friend. This is a picture of him taken at Christmas.
Valentine’s Day doesn’t seem to be so commercialized in France as in the UK. Cartes d’amities and Valentine’s gifts are most likely on sale but I haven’t really noticed. We make all ours!
It’s a pity that the old custom of la loterie d’amour has been banned by the Government. Apparently single people used to go into houses opposite each other and call out through the windows for a partner. If a man was paired up with a girl he didn’t like he would promptly abandon her. This gave the spurned ladies licence to light a bonfire to burn effegies while cursing the ungrateful men in a thoroughly unladylike manner.
Poor old St Valentine isn’t having too good a day. It’s the first rainy day we have had for weeks. I doubt the birds will be singing in the forest or the ladies lighting bonfires!