17 Jul 2010
We are well into the season of village fêtes, vide greniers and celebrations. See previous post for more information. Bastille Day, 14 July, sees festivals and events everywhere. We went to one, and as always, encountered a few pretty unexpected incidents which we would never see in the UK.
Usually, the fêtes include a communal meal, most often served in a canteen style - line up with a tray and pass along the servers to get a starter, main course, piece of cheese, and a dessert. You then find a place on any of the long trestle tables under very large marquees; it rains sometime in Normandy. There will be a 'bar' where you can get bottles of wine at three or four euros, mineral water, and of course cider. There are variations, some feature mussels and frites as the main course, some grilled meat, some start with a rough - in the sense of not smooth, not low quality - pâté, occasionally served in very large terrines on each table to help yourself.
The fête we went to was called a 'mechoui' which strictly speaking is a word for a whole roast sheep, but locally is often used for a feast which may or may not include lamb. Here it did. There was a small vide grenier which was literally stuff from attics, and a bouncy castle.
The village has a population of just over 600; there were 731 lunch tickets sold. When we arrived, there was a huge modern marquee set up. No guy ropes and tatty canvas, this was a light weight state of the art metal frame with canvas stretched over it. It has a proper wooden floor. There were two rows of tables, each table seating 20 people. This was the first time we have found proper plates and cutlery - usually it is all disposable stuff. Though at one you were supposed to take your own couvert (plates, cutlery etc) which we had not realised. Fortunately near enough to the home of one of our party to drive back and get enough for all of us from her house. Like all French people she had enough stuff to cater for twenty or thirty at a meal at home. Here there were glasses made of glass, and paper napkins of superior quality, and all the places were laid out before anyone got there. Top stuff all round.
And the food was served to the tables, starting with a rosé wine based aperitif. The first course was one of those sort of fish terrines on a bed of macedoine veg, and mayonnaise. Taken out of a refrigerated lorry at the last minute, and brought round to the tables. This was followed by huge platters of barbecued sausages, traditional herb and spicy merguez together, with really excellent frites. Next were grilled lamb chops, followed by slices of roast leg of lamb and more frites. The lamb was probably the best, most tender, lamb I can remember. We had earlier seen the meat being grilled behind the marquee. a dozen or so big square barbecues for the sausages, and two huge rotisseries for the lamb, each with I think eight spits, each of which had seven or eight whole lamb legs over fires of large logs. They were hand cranked, basted with home made basters made from long poles with a metal cup or bowl attached to the end, and a large tray under the meat to catch all the juices. The meat was also basted with a broom made of bunches of beech leaves tied to a pole.
After that, a little portion of camembert followed by an ice cream (industrial, but French catering quality). Not bad for 15€ each. There were 61 volunteers setting up, cooking, serving and washing up afterwards.
The after lunch had finished (about 4.30) entertainment was the donkey races. These donkeys are not the tiny things at English seaside resorts, or wavering under huge loads or very fat men in the Middle East, but Normandie donkeys, of which there are two races: the âne Cotentin, from the Cotentin peninsula (you probably guessed that) which is pale with a dark cross of St André on its back, and the âne Normande which is browner. Both are threatened species and you can - apparently - receive a subsidy for keeping them. These donkeys were ridden for four laps round a little oval hippodrome type circuit, with volunteers riding them. These jockeys were adults who had clearly enjoyed their lunch, and had taken some wine with it. The donkeys were like donkeys always are, reluctant to co-operate very much. The result was that half the riders or more fell off, and by the last lap the donkeys slowed down, sometimes turning round and going the wrong way. The fallen riders seemed not to get trampled, even when they fell near the beginning when the donkeys were trotting along at a reaonable pace. There were no helmets, no saddles or reins, no liability disclaimers to be signed, no elfin safety of any sort. No one was hurt, and everyone laughed.
A couple of other things were going on, including a raffle where everyone got a prize (otherwise it was gambling and required a licence), and something described as a lapinodrome. This was a low wooden circle with numbered holes cut in it. Inside the circle were some rabbits (lapins), and the public bought tickets with the same numbers. The winner was the one who held the ticket with the number of the hole through which the first rabbit emerged. Similar games in the UK. The difference here was that the winner kept the rabbit. The event continued until all the rabbits had been won. They were not taken home as pets. Many country people keep rabbits as a food supply. They know how to deal with a live rabbit.
The other similar thing was fishing for ducks. One sees this at many events, lots of little yellow toy ducks with loops attached being caught by very young children with sticks with little hooks. At this feast, the sticks had three inch rings on the end, and the ducks were live. What they call cannettes, young ducks. And, as you might now guess, if you got a ring over the neck of a duck, you won the duck. One boy of about ten announced that he had just got his third duck, and ran off with it to put it in his parents' car. There was no likelihood that the duck would do any damage. Or indeed, anything by then.