So we were at one of these book salons / festivals last Sunday. Every place seems to have one - from the huge ones like Paris and St Malo, to tiny villages. First of all I should explain - signing books in France is a lot different from signing books anywhere else. In most other countries you turn up for an hour or two at a booktore, maybe give a talk, sign books for a line of people, then sign a pile for the store to sell to collectors, then you leave.
In France, each book salon is a once-a-year signing-fest for that location. It can last anywhere between one day and one week. and fans arrive to meet many many authors, get a chance to talk to them one-to-one about their writing, then leave laden with enough personalised copies of books to last them till the following year. Whether it's a local village hall, or one of the enormous exhibition centres, the set-up is the same. A local bookstore or bookstores invite the authors and supply the books. The authors sit at desks piled high with their produce like stall-holders at a farmers' market. And often, they're expected to be "on duty" all day, or all weekend, to talk and sign books.
Last Sunday, it was just for a day. In a tiny village in the middle of deepest, darkest "La France profonde".
Le Chef only agreed to go because it was just 20 minutes away and it was a fund-raiser for a local organisation. Amazingly, the place was packed, people had traveled from miles around. They crammed into the village hall and squeezed along the rows, sometimes making five or six circuits of the hall to makes sure they got a chance to see all the authors and scrutinise their work.
But here's the thing that's really French... a priority here, is everyone's nourishment. So these things always close down for lunch. There were so many writers that the village's little inn had to take them in two sittings, but that didn't mean they were going to make lunch less elaborate. No no, oh no, not at all. We had soup, followed by a platter of cold meats and paté, followed by chicken casserole and rice, followed by cheese, followed by dessert, and then coffee to finish it off. Throughout the meal there was a never-ending supply of carafes of soft, quaffable red country wine. It was not "haute cuisine" but it was a fantastic example of real rustic, country fare, well executed.
The people at the table around us were rather shy and hesitant until they established...
1) that we could speak French
2) that we were Scottish and neither English nor Dutch (sorry to the English and Dutch out there, but according to the French you have a reputation for not integrating here very well - so other nationalities reap the benefits)
3) that le Chef first fell in love with the area 33 years ago and returned every year until we moved here full time
...so the door creaked open enough to let us proceed to Stage Two
What's Stage Two? Well we had to try to pass the "fitting in to France" quiz, during the meal...
What did we think of the bread at the restaurant? What did we think of the soup? Did we know what "chabrol" was? Le Chef poured some wine into his soup plate when he had finished, swirled it around to get the last of the soup, then lifted the bowl to his lips and slurped it up. Big smiles all around! He's a Chabrol Man! We were doing OK so far.
The chicken casserole was a very traditional recipe, were we acquainted with it? Of course we were, we said, we ate it for the first time at a village party years ago. Oooh - points for knowing the dish and bonus points for attending village parties.
Then came the cheese test, how many local cheeses did we know? Well really, how could we live here and not have tried every cheese from this region and all the surrounding ones! We ran through them all. But did we like them? Mais bien sur! And what did we think of Cabecou? Ahhh... when it came to Cabecou (little round goat's cheeses) I had to express my preference, not just for the cheese, but for a certain local producer, Monsieur Estip of Autoire. Of course this meant points won for knowing and having a preference, but points deducted, because my preference conflicted with the questioner's own preference. His favourite maker, he explained couldn't produce Cabecou all year round as he refused to freeze milk! And since no respectable producer can have milk all year round, the others must be freezing theirs!
So we moved from local cheeses to cheeses from faaaaar away, i.e. Normandy. What did we think of Camembert? We said we liked it of course. At this point, one man at the table who had been silent, suddenly came to life - aaaah Camembert. You haven't lived if you haven't tasted the best Camembert. We said we'd tasted some truly exceptional Camembert. The main interrogator wasn't convinced. He told us you can only get the best by going to where it's produced. Aha not so, I said. When le chef was being inducted as a Chevalier for Gaillac wine (surely lots more bonus points for that one!), there was a banquet and one group of guests at the banquet was a delegation of Camembert cheese producers who had brought with them their best offering (la creme de la creme...?) for everyone at the banquet to savour. Touché! The Camembert lover thought, then, in that case, we had definitely been privileged. He then went on to share with us his secret source for the best cheeses in the area - which turned out to be our favourite cheese stall-holder at the Bretenoux market. Well! He could hardly believe it! I think that means we're friends forever! Not to mention getting record-breaking scores on the integration quiz.
Which made me think about those TV ads that we take for granted in France, which you simply wouldn't see in the USA or UK. No I don't mean the ones for shower gel or shampoo which show girls displaying an awful a lot more than Janet Jackson at the superbowl.
No no. I mean the ones where four or five extremely large and hunky man-the-hunter types are out in the woods together. Fatigued - presumably from stalking the deer and wild boar - they sit for a moment on some conveniently placed fallen tree trunks. They look at one another, and with no need for words, get out their Laguioles (fancy folding knives that all real men carry here), pull out their baguettes, and start to pass around the cheese.. creamy Camembert... crumbly Roquefort... whatever... they pop it into their mouths and savour it. With knowing smiles they chew and nod at one another. "Does life get any better than this...?" is the unspoken message... "Out in the woods with my mates. My baguette in my hand, and cheese melting on my tongue."
You know, now that I think about it... maybe they're not hunters... maybe they're lumberjacks... Whatever. Here's the really weird thing about living here - I watch ads like that, and they don't seem odd to me...