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26 Jun 2009

Fetes, foires and food

The summer fêtes are starting. The comités des fêtes in most communes arrange some sort of annual summer event, ranging from small fairs and a few stalls, to quite significant undertakings. Most of them this being France, include either lunch or dinner in the open or under marquees (sous chapiteau). Many also finish with free firework (feux d'artifice) displays in the evening, and free dances (bals publiques) in the village hall (salles des fêtes), with live music. Many events also include specialist entertainments, and many have the same type of entertainer each year.

These fêtes or foires are usually advertised by leaflets in the windows of local shops, especially boulangeries and bouchers, presumably because everyone goes to them regularly. There are often series of A4 posters on sticks around the villages of the commune, though you have to drive fairly slowly to read them.

Eating at fêtes is an interesting experience. Communal tables under huge marquees, first come first served benches to sit on, and as wide a cross section of French country people as you could wish to see. You usually have to reserve in advance, but many will still have places on the day. The food will not be haute cuisine, but good basic bouffe. There will be a starter, often country pates or terrines, followed by a main course of something like moules frites – mussels and chips – or entrecote steak, followed by cheese, and then dessert. In Normandy the cheese is almost always a wedge of camembert.

Typically, everyone queues and gets a canteen style tray with the food (all the courses) put on it, and then finds a place to sit and eat it. Wine is usually available at about 3 euros the bottle (five for the better stuff), or cider, or mineral water.

Things that always amaze me are how they manage to prepare freshly cooked hot food for several hundred people all at once, and how the peaches or other soft fruit are always ripe, soft and delicious. In the UK supermarkets and greengrocers seem to believe that all soft fruits such as apricots, peaches and nectarines should always be as hard as granny smith apples. If I go against my own experience and buy what looks like a nice ripe peach in Tesco or Sainsbury, it is as hard as the outside of a melon, and stauys that way for five days, after which it turns into rotten liquids and mould in about ten minutes, without warning.

The last time I ordered a starter of mussels in a London restaurant, I got six of the little fellows. Six. And they were all overcooked and had the texture of a tractor tyre. Yet in these little villages huge great steaming cauldrons of mussels are produced one after the other, perfectly cooked: tender and juicy.

Last year I went behind the scenes at one foire, to see how they did it. There was a huge refrigerated lorry, full of sacks of mussels, with the back doors open, and someone inside handing down another sack every three or four minutes. Lined up were a dozen portable high powered gas burners, with the huge cauldrons on top, and each with a cook managing it. Into a cauldron went several big handfuls of chopped onions, a big scoop of chopped parsley, a prodigious quantity of white wine, and as soon as it was all boiling away, in went the mussels to nearly fill it. Three minutes shaking and stirring, then a bucketful of creme fraiche. A strong woman then came and took the cauldron into the marquee, where it was served up to the waiting queue. As soon as it was empty, it was replaced by another. This went on for a couple of hours.

The secret of cooking shellfish like mussels is speed. And of course freshness of the shellfish to start with. In this case, they mussels were harvested from a mussel farm at Coudeville-sur-mer, kept in sea water overnight, then picked over by hand, beards removed by a machine, and put in sacks in the lorry.

The other surprising thing is that the people doing all the work for the meals were all the locals – peasant farmers ladling out food beside the bank manager, and the lady who runs a till at the nearest supermarket by the doctor. Egalité, fraternité, liberté, still means something.

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