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.

And so the Journey Begins!

We arrived in Lyon on Tuesday August 3, a bit late, but calm after an uneventful flight. Peta, Bryan & Matt were there to greet us and whisk us away to a small park, where we started the day with Cremant (Champagne), Orange juice, croissants and pain chocolat. A repast that ensured that I drifted in and out of consciousness on the rest of the drive to Bel Air.

Bel Air sits atop a hill outside of the farming town of Digoin, in Burgundy. The original part of the house was built in 1776, and various additions were made over the centuries, all in keeping with the original style. Bryan and Peta bought it 20 years ago and Bryan has been working on it ever since, adding new sections, fixing up the old. As a result there are many nooks and crannies and they are able to house family and friends in abundance.

Tim and I are staying in the gite at the end of the building. It is a perfect cottage, furnished with a kitchen, bathroom, living room and bedroom. Private, but company is just next door. We’ll be in this section for a few days until a renter arrives, when we’ll move into the main section of the house.

Bryan says he built the pool before the house was even livable. The boys were little then, and he said it made sense to build the pool because they would be entertained for hours while he and Peta could get on with the renovations. Now, it is sheer heaven to cool off with the swallows skimming the surface of the water and the valley opening up beyond.

Gentle industry takes place all around us. Roosters crowing, cows lowing. A pace of life that has existed here for many centuries. It is hard to imagine the world beyond, except for the occasional boom of the Mirage jets in training, breaking the sound barrier. On my walks I see working farms, but also families who, like Peta and Bryan, have chosen this as an alternate to city life. I feel spoiled and indulged, but also can’t help but feel blissfully happy.

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