French Fêtes

Every summer, food producers from neighboring villages gather in the central town square to host a big picnic: fresh goat cheese, nut cakes, hot baguettes, salami, raw meats. The Dubois family sets up a table to display their foie gras and pâtés. Then Danie sends her grandsons to fire up one of the many grills for our beef kebabs, while we toast each other with rosé in plastic cups. When the food is ready, we eat at a long banquet table under a canopy, with village neighbors at either end. Everybody digs in. After dinner, Danie and I walk in the hot night air to the ice cream producer. With our four hands we get eight ice cream cones back to the family, just as the dripping ice cream reaches my elbowsThe French like to party. And they do it pretty well: often, and late into the night. We’ve been to a sorority-social-calendar’s worth of parties in the last month, but these are some of my favorites.

 

Village Party

My first Saturday in Peyrenègre is an introduction to the French country party scene. It’s a lot like a well-organized American block party: twinkle lights strung between the trees, kegs of beer, BBQ smoke, and little kids begging their parents for the French equivalent of quarters for carnival games. There’s also a large group, predominantly men, gathered around a set of three wood pins and a narrow dirt track. One at a time, players roll a small but heavy metal ball at the pins, just like bowling. If they knock down all three pins, they enter the next round. The rounds continue until there’s one champion, the one who hasn’t missed a single pin. It’s a serious game because it costs money to enter and the winner claims a handsome kitty.

Danie’s son Gilles buys me a turn. He shows me his form, and I squat low to mimic him. Thank god I’m wearing pants. After a few practice rolls, it’s game time. I toss the ball and all three pins tumble to the ground. Beginner’s luck.

About twenty-five other people take their turns, but only six of us make it to the second round. It’s my turn again, and all eyes are on the American girl. Incroyable! I do it again, all three pins down. Now a larger crowd gathers.

In the third round only three of us remain, including the moderator. I’m up first. I stride, swing my arm back and forward, and release the ball. It glides toward the pins, knocks over the first two, then slows down … but just before it stops, the ball taps the third pin and it topples over. Beginners luck? I think not. That’s pure metal-ball-pin-hitting skill. The other two players concentrate and roll, but each misses at least one pin, and I’m crowned “Rampo Champion,” the first American (and probably the first woman) to own the title. The village goes wild as I receive 150 €, (about $195) mainly in coins, that go in my empty beer cup for safekeeping.

 

Saint-Émilion & the Hundred Years War

When I’m unsure of a word, I’ll say it in English but with a bit of a French accent, then wait for either a confirming nod or a scrunched up face. This afternoon we’re off on an adventure, but I have no idea where we are going, what we are doing, or what I need to wear, so I ask, “Should I bring my jah-keht? {insert scrunched up face} No, I do not need my veste.

We pile into a bus with about forty people and settle in for a two-hour ride to Saint- Émilion, a famous red wine region near Bordeaux, where second-century Romans planted the first vineyards. After a quick tour of the ancient village, we hop back on the bus for Castillon, where the Hundred Years War ended in 1453.

Stepping off the bus, we enter a medieval village: Maidens, knights, and pigs welcome guests, and the sound of clanking swords reverberates in the air.

We enjoy dinner outdoors (melon, steak frites, Camembert, and red wine), then file into the spectacle – an outdoor amphitheater, which looks like a picture in my high school European history book. The spectacle is a re-enactment of the battle of Castillon, with an impressive array of live animals, each nailing its role: over thirty black horses gallop off into the night, a flock of geese waddles into town, enormous white cows pull a covered wagon, and goats and pigs mill about. At the end of the “battle,” the French are victorious over the English, and an incredible display of all white fireworks lights up the sky.

We return home at 3:30 in the morning, and I seem to be the only one exhausted and dying to crawl into bed. In hindsight, it would have been nice to have had my jah-keht.

 

Producer's Picnic

Every summer, food producers from neighboring villages gather in the central town square to host a big picnic: fresh goat cheese, nut cakes, hot baguettes, salami, raw meats. The Dubois family sets up a table to display their foie gras and pâtés. Then Danie sends her grandsons to fire up one of the many grills for our beef kebabs, while we toast each other with rosé in plastic cups. When the food is ready, we eat at a long banquet table under a canopy, with village neighbors at either end. Everybody digs in. After dinner, Danie and I walk in the hot night air to the ice cream producer. With our four hands we get eight ice cream cones back to the family, just as the dripping ice cream reaches my elbows.

 

The 15th of August

August 15th is a religious and public holiday in France: the day commemorates the Catholic belief that the Virgin Mary rose to heaven. It’s also another excuse to party. Mass is held in the village, and afterwards the mayor hosts a cocktail hour, or apéritif, in the town library. I’m introduced to the mayor as the Rampo Champion.

After the apéritif, Danie is expecting about thirty people at her house, so we spend the entire day preparing small bites, or, as Lilette says, practicing her English, “food fingers.”

We set up a banquet table outside: crêpes rolled with herbed cheese and smoked salmon, salami and comté canelé, basil shooters with dried ham, crostini rubbed with tomato and garlic, then topped with prosciutto, and bottomless pink champagne. I eat my weight in food fingers, then realize this is just another apéritif. Next we’re herded inside for biftek (beefsteak) and potato chips, then back outside for mini pastries from a local baker, moscato, and coffee. I’ve already penciled in a five-hour run for tomorrow morning and it will be worth every aching minute.