Happy Birthday Tim

Friday was Tim’s birthday. We have spent 37 of his birthdays together, and although I can’t remember each one, this one was pretty special.

The main event was a huge lunch at L’Escale, a restaurant in Digoin. Happy birthday was combined with farewell toasts to Richard & Johanna, who were leaving to go back to London. The restaurant was a simple affair, filled with local folks enjoying, as we were, a large mid-day meal.

Tim with Johanna & Richard Godwin

First course was a choice of charcuterie, poisson or crudité. Second course was a choice between 3 different cuts of steak or tripe, served with fried potatoes. (They were kind enough to make an omelet for Johanna) Third course was either fromage blanc or a cheese platter. This was followed by dessert of either ice cream, flan or fruit plate and finished off with coffee. Wine throughout – white, red and rose. The price worked out to about 16 euros each, which included a large tip. Eating to excess at a minimum of expense!

There were many new things for me to learn. The different words for the rareness of your steak (bleu, saignant, en pointe). The fact that crudité does not mean raw vegetables — in this case it was rice and tuna salad and a couscous salad (when I was dying for a bit of lettuce). And then there is the peculiarity of fromage blanc. I don’t really get fromage blanc. It doesn’t have much taste on its own, so you are supposed to do something to it to make it exciting. Matt on one side of me covered his in sugar, the most typical treatment. Bryan on the other side asked the waitress if there was any garlic, and she brought him a bowl of 5 large buds. He ground fresh black pepper onto the fromage blanc, then proceeded to carve off thin slices of one of the buds of garlic and blend them into the cheese. An acquired taste, perhaps, but an equally acceptable treatment.

We rolled out of the restaurant several hours later. Tim & I walked back from Digoin, while Bryan & Peta drove Richard and Johanna to Le Creusot to catch a train to take them to London via Paris. Our afternoon was spent cleaning – there is a family coming to rent the gite that we have been staying in, so we moved out and into the main part of the house.

A Happy Birthday toast before dinner

There were many toasts to Tim later in the day, in the sunshine, in the sunset, by the moon rise.

Watching the rise of the moon

Peta got him a lovely local Pinot Noir that was exquisite to drink under the stars. I made a Chocolate Almond Torte to sing Happy Birthday over.

Happy Birthday, dear Tim. You get more wonderful with each passing year.

Cooking (and eating) to excess

With the immanent arrival of Seb, Charlie, Pete and Fia we will be 12 to dinner. Richard, Johanna, Tim & I decide that we will become the kitchen staff, meal planning and shopping amongst ourselves. The four of us imagine and re-imagine different menu scenarios. Bryan and Peta need to take Annie to catch a train that will take her back to England, so they are happy to relinquish cooking responsibilities.

Tim & I decide to do a Greek meal. Lemon roast potatoes, lemon grilled chicken kabobs, breaded and fried courgettes, and salad. I’s like to do a bit of something special at the end of the meal, after the cheese course. I have been told that a Frenchman does not consider he has had dinner unless there is a cheese course.  After cheese we usually have a demitasse of coffee. I investigate kitchen supplies and decide to make biscotti.  I find some wonderfully fresh cardamom seeds and know that this will be the perfect taste, with lemon and almond, to compete the meal.

Richard, Johanna and I wend our way down the hill to Digoin. The route is becoming familiar, although when we work our way back the packs are alarmingly heavy and full. Tim meets us after he finishes work and I am happy to share my load. We arrive back at Bel Air at almost 4:00, looking forward to a lunch of left over tagine and couscous.  We wolf down our late lunch and kick into high gear to make supper.

Seb and Pete just before aperitifs

Potatoes in to roast, chicken on to marinade, biscotti cooked once, cooked twice. A massive salad – neighbour Suzanne has given us tomatoes from her garden that I mix with chunks of cucumber, red and green pepper, and red onion. I toss in some garlic, a bit of vinegar, some oregano and a bit of olive oil and let it all marinate for a bit. It is clearly too much salad for the new prized platter, so we line a huge salad bowl with lettuce, pour the vegetables in and sprinkle a massive amount of feta and black olives over top.

In the kitchen getting dinner & aperitifs

Bryan and Peta return with fresh supplies of Cremant, gin and tonics and various other libations.  Richard introduces us to Negronis – a wonderful aperitif of equal parts Campari, Red Vermouth and Gin. Fia is Swedish and has brought 3 different kinds of pickled herring to have with Schnapps. Each mouthful is a different blend of salt, vinegar and alcohol. Startlingly good.

The Schnapps and Herring Course

Somehow we manage to get dinner out at around 9:00, early by some evening standards. The sun sets, the moon rises, the conversation and laughter flows.

we sit well into the night

Marché des Puces

Once a year, on the Monday of the Esgargot Festival, there is a Marché des Puces (Flea Market) on the streets of Digoin. The main streets are closed to traffic and give way to sellers from throughout the region and beyond. It is a blend of yard sale and antiques market, with treasures and junk all awaiting bargain hunters.

Stalls along the canal

Peta and Bryan are in search of very specific items for Digoin. Light fixtures, cupboards, furnishings that might work with the farm/cottage décor of Bel Air. I have only one mission – to find a nice serving platter. This will be one of our contributions to the furnishings at Bel Air. Tim has to spend the day working on his students from Vermont College, so I am charged with the task of hunting for an appropriate platter – something that a Greek salad might be served on in a day or so.

Annie, Richard, Johanna and Matt are not as interested in des Puces, and instead head to the grocery for ingredients for our dinner. Between Richard and Tim there is a slight food competition emerging and Richard is definitely upping the ante this evening with the promise of a lamb tagine.

The canal in Digoin

The stalls line the canal, as well as the streets of the town. There are boxes of old records, postcards, books and glasses. There are wonderful sideboards and corner tables topped in marble, and an odd cupboard of tiny drawers perfect for a workshop. I look at it longingly, thinking of how perfectly it would go in my studio, filled with pens, nibs and paints.

Bryan finds a pair of hip waders, almost in his size. “For cleaning up the pond”, he announces triumphantly. The vendor asks 2 euros for the pair, and not even Bryan can barter that price.

Bryan's waders

Platters, as it turns out, are not in abundant supply. There are fancy wall plates and a few sets of jugs and platters, but I have a hard time finding one that is both the right size and style. I finally find one, but at 12 euros (originally 15), it seems a bit dear. So we walk on, mulling it over, still looking. We see another of the right size, thinner and less substantial, plain white, but close. The owner of that stall is not around, and the friends who are stationed there cannot tell us the price, so we keep on walking.

Annie, Johanna, Richard and Matt come to meet us, stationing themselves with coffee at tables outside one of the cafes. I head back to buy the platter, now fully prepared to pay the 12 euros, sure that it has already sold. But I am in luck. The platter is mine, and for good measure, Peta and I go back to purchase the plain white one as well.

We drive back to Bel Air with a car full of platters, hip waders, light fixtures, even a bathroom sink, amidst the groceries for the tagine.

In the evening we are rewarded for our Marché des Puces labours with Richard’s Lamb and Apricot Tagine — one of the most succulent lamb tangines I have ever eaten.

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