Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Culinary gifts of a good-fairy house

The very year I was born, my parents, who were then working as expatriates in Indonesia, bought their first house, with my grandmother's help. La Nouvelle Terrebonne, as they named it(after my father's French-Canadian ancestors' grand manor house at Terrebonne near Montreal—the house still exists though it's no longer in the family), was at the time a large, beautiful but crumbling late-eighteenth and nineteenth century house, with dilapidated seventeenth century outbuildings, in a south-western French village called Empeaux. It was an unfashionable, eccentric—and cheap--buy at the time—for back then Empeaux was thought to be much too remote from the city--a whole thirty-five kilometres from Toulouse-- for most middle-class people to want to live there. Besides, the house had been allowed to go to rack and ruin, and there was heaps of work to do in it and in the large overgrown parklands that surrounded it, with its ancient trees. Much too much, most people thought.
Well, nothing daunted, my parents set to work or rather set their expatriate salaries to work, first in Indonesia and then in Australia, paying a succession of masons, tilers, electricians, roofers, painters, carpenters and lots more local tradesmen, who slowly but surely, under my parents' guiding hand, turned neglected Cinderella into a beautiful princess admired by all, at considerable expense it must be said. And as we settled into a routine of three years in Australia, three months in France, the house became our French base.
We loved it. It was an utterly magical place. In that enchanted Narnia-like space, everything was extraordinary. The house had an amazing history, full of strange, sad and mysterious stories: stories of the haunted red room, where a young man had hung himself, a hundred years before; of the well, where a witch had been thrown, centuries ago; of the majestic elm tree outside my parents’ bedroom window, planted by one of Louis XIV’s ministers in the late seventeenth century(which was protected by order of the French state, though later, very sadly, it died in the Dutch elm epidemic of the 1980's). The stairs creaked, the attic was spooky, the cellar dim and creepy; there were storage antechambers off just about every room. Each of these storage rooms had its own exotic cargo: a huge oak wardrobe full of old fur coats, including my great-grandmother’s Canadian wolf-skin coat; an old wicker doll’s pram with my aunt’s doll in it, sporting a wig made of her own, blond childhood hair; and in another, the baskets brought back by my parents from Indonesia, full of red and gold and green and gold costumes. And tall pottery jars full of goose and duck confit in the winter, for it was so cold in those unheated antechambers in winter that they might as well have been fridges, and you had to quickly ladle out what you needed from the pottery confit jars before your fingers dropped off!
It was a house that breathed presence; a presence that despite the many terrible stories associated with it radiated a kind of good-fairy benevolence. It was a presence that nurtured people, especially children, and all of us children remember it with huge fondness and a real melancholy, for it is lost to us now--in the early 90's, after they'd returned permanently to France, my parents finally sold La Nouvelle Terrebonne and moved to another region. But I still go and visit it when I am back in France, as do my siblings; it is a house that haunts anyone who's ever lived in it—even when we were living there, former residents would sometimes drop by to look at it again just like we do now--a house that forever becomes a part of your emotional and imaginative DNA.
But if, like a good fairy at a christening, La Nouvelle Terrebonne and the village of Empeaux(we tend to conflate them, and just say 'Empeaux') have given me an integral part of my creative inner landscape and in different guises have emerged in many of my books, they are also a part of my culinary DNA—of my most cherished memories of food, influencing how we eat now. It wasn't just the jars of confit in the storage-room. It was also the thrill of finding, when we would first arrive from our long and gruelling voyage from Australia, that the wonderful Madame Baron, a local farmer's wife who looked after the house in our absence, had laid the scrubbed old kitchen table with a cheerful tablecloth and a fantastic simple local lunch: a big pat of creamy golden butter she'd made from the milk of her own cows; a big round loaf of fresh local pain de campagne; a plateful of thickly-sliced local air-dried ham, jambon de pays, with its gorgeous pepper-flavoured rim of fat and delicious texture; a selection of local cheeses; fresh fruit in season and a big salad, ready to be tossed. It was also looking up at the huge jambon de pays she'd cut the slices from, which swung snugly in its pillowcase from the ancient bullock-yoke suspended above the table on chains; the garlic and onions in their tresses beside it. It was stepping down into the earthern-walled pantry just off the kitchen which breathed the cool of ages, with its shelves lined with preserves and bottles and groceries of all sorts(though I was always a bit scared that one of my mischievous brothers would take the opportunity to lock me in there—it was windowless with a very low ceiling!)It was gorging yourself on fruit from your own trees—the cherry, the fig, the apple, the reine-claude,(greengage), and picking mushrooms and hazelnuts in the woods with Dad if we were there in the autumn. I wasn't so keen on another kind of picking—dandelion leaves, which my parents, especially Dad, were very fond of for salads but I didn't like much at all, not only because of its slightly bitter taste but because of its name(in French, it's pissenlit—literally 'piss-the-bed'--!) It was about going to another farm, the Miquel place, where a black-clad Madame Miquel, with her wisps of grey hair, crooked nose and few teeth she displayed in a crocodiley smile that was meant to be friendly, put me irresistibly but banally in mind of a witch(though I knew she wasn't—the real village witch was a striking youngish brunette!). My parents bought eggs, chickens and ducks and geese from the Miquels(the ducks and geese were turned into that confit that sat in the pottery jars), and also some vegetables and the occasional rabbit. But we bought butter and milk from Madame Baron, whose farm had a much more sympathique atmosphere and who always invited us in to have a little snack and a glass of something with her family. If it was afternoon—and it generally was—it'd be a small glass of fiery home-made gnole for the adults and mint or pomegranate or berry cordial for the children sometimes with the extra of a tiny cube of sugar soaked in a little gnole once you reached a certain age. It was about going to the markets in l'Isle-Jourdain or St Lys and buying fresh pates and terrines made from deer and boar and hare and partridge hunted locally—for there are fine rich hunting woods around there—and hearing the joyful toot-toot of the baker's van or the greengrocer's or the fishmonger's or butcher's or horse-butcher that would come tootling into the village once every couple of days or so, for Empeaux did not have any shops. It was about going off on our bikes to the next village, Saint-Thomas, only three or four kms away and possessed of a great attraction: a cafe, where you could get a meal or an icecream or cake or coffee or a glass of wine(if you were an adult of course!)Yes, it was about all those gorgeous, wonderful things that people now think of as slow food, of the regional, the local, the intimate—nothing to do with fashion or fad but just the way people had always eaten around there. And that has stayed with me ever since.

(Photographs are 1/the house from the back, with dependencies on right hand side and beginning of the parkland garden in front, and looming over it on the right also is the castle of Empeaux. 2/my parents and three youngest siblings at the Nouvelle Terrebonne kitchen table in 1984--my brother Louis is holding my then 2 year old daughter Pippa.)

1 comment:

  1. So well written and interesting. I hope I can find some of your books!