I had met the couple in question at my father’s
seventieth birthday bash
at Flowers East in London. Towards the end of our engaging conversation, mostly about opera, Penelope informed us that they were going to be ‘somewhere near Avignon’ in a couple of weeks. Naturally, I proposed that we get together for lunch, it being forty minutes drive from where we live.
When the email came nearer the time I discovered that our new friends were in fact going to be staying in the next village to us, at the Hostellerie de Crillon le Brave
. Pausing before I replied and invited them to dinner, I looked down at my feet all dusted with hemp floor (this was BT - Before the Tiles), my hands rough from wire-wooling the gunk off home made paint, and at the cat prints and packing materials covering the un-waxed table.
‘Do come for …’ I hesitated again, clicked discard and started over. ‘Option 1 is that we all have dinner in the very chic restaurant of your hotel where the gorgeous terrasse has one of the most glorious views around and the food is good (last time I went a couple of years ago!).' Was I selling the preferred option too hard, I wondered. Then again, we always get that warm glow cooking for people. 'Option 2, because we are in plein travaux at the house, is that you join us at our unplastered home at the foot of the mont ventoux for a very simple supper and some good wine.’
They, as I suppose we all would do, opted for the simple supper. There then followed a short exchange about Wellington boots:
‘Simple supper at our boho gypsy camp it is, then. i so hope you will not be too put off by what will one day be a terrace but is currently a huge messy 'chantier' (will it ever end?!) Rx’
‘Then I hope you won't be offended if we don't wear our best shoes P Xx’
‘wear your wellies to get to the front door then wear whatever you feel
most comfortable in! Rx’
‘If you think I travel with my wellies, indeed have any...! Actually, I have
a pair of pink one made by HM Supplier of Wellingtons to the Queen, but I'm
too embarassed to wear them even in my own garden. P Xx’
And that (that she owned but dared not be seen in a pair of pink wellies), apart from us all loving Handel’s Theodora, was about all we knew of our guests.
The morning of the simple supper it was the market in Bedoin. We tend to avoid it during the summer as it is overrun with paella stands and people selling ceramic clacking cicadas. However, a quickish whip round (winding in between Dutch and Germans all agog with the smell of lavender) takes me to the stalls I know and like – primarily the fish and the goats cheese – and the ruddy boulangère, and then I move on to where the vegetables are really at – the ‘Marchés de Provence’. It always seems sad to me that in the sprawl of my local market I cannot find the fresh fruit and vegetables I want. There is a nice girl who sells the basics with the right glow about them (emerald green tops on aubergines and bulbous, crinkled old- variety tomatoes) and there is, on non market days, a sweet little ‘marché agricole’ in the evenings (but we are usually too well into our aperitif to get to it), and in winter, when the market is a quarter of the size and minus the rubbish, the real sellers seem to come out of hiding. I cannot help but remember that the bearded lady who sold goats’ cheese before - each one carefully decorated with a sprig of something from the pasture - and who looked like one of her herd was told she could no longer come to market to sell her wares because she did not have the right EEC regulation fridge. Anyway, like most places, you have to know where to go and, as Julian
does after ten years’ living here, I follow his lead to our local town.
In Carpentras I am immediately showered with a delicate aroma. I know it is an expensive one but cannot quite place it until later when I get to the till. Meanwhile, I choose four white peaches to be grilled with vanilla, and one extra for Julian to paint, and finally pluck up courage to ask for a lesson on choosing a melon. The server knows us well by now, and I have even shown her reproductions of Julian’s paintings on the Queen Mary II
, all of which feature her produce, and so she obliges:
‘ You have to pick one which is in-between yellow and green’ she says ‘green is not ripe and yellow is too ripe. And, it has to be HEAVY.’ She skims the hundreds of globes before her with her gaze and in a second snatches one up, bouncing it like a rugby ball in the palm of her hand. ‘This one will be excellent. You will be very happy.’ Indeed, later, we are (and I have now chosen three excellent melons in a row). I gather four handfuls of slim fine beans, a lettuce, some chives and chervil, and go to pay. Sitting by the till is a basket of great knobbly black forms, which I know immediately to be producing the rather erotic smell that has been following me round the shop. There is a small sign pinned on the basket:
‘Truffes Blanches du Mont Ventoux. 98€ le kilo’.
Summer truffles! We know the black winter variety but have only ever had the white in Tuscany and thought it to be more perfumed. And here they are in our local greengrocers. I immediately buy the heaviest of them to share with our guests, already planning to open our best bottle of Cuvée Florence from Goubert
to accompany it and knowing Julian will make his own fresh egg tagliatelle to honour it. Suddenly I am very excited about our simple supper.
The fish is stuffed with fennel picked from the byway, with the help of Oscar the cat whose pawprints are also wiped from the table, the pasta hung up to dry, the peaches grilled, and the cooks’ privelege glass of white poured. Our guests arrive in the pouring rain (Wellingtons would have been handy after all) with a bottle of champagne and a book about Lytton Strachey he has written, and we fall into the sort of easy conversation one never wants to end, mostly, as far as I can remember in the haze of it, about food.
‘We heard you were foodies so we have a summer truffle for you!’ I announce, or do I….?
When they leave, as modern hosts receiving mysterious visitors must often do, we google him. It turns out that the lovely chap who has been sitting at our table in our unplastered kitchen sharing our humble fare is Paul Levy, the food and wine writer; that he infact invented the word ‘foodie’ and that his trip here was to research this article
. (Yes the bream he speaks of were grilled by Julian). We are both glad we didn’t know beforehand as we would probably have made some complicated dessert which we would have cocked up, or attempted and ruined some posh sauce. As it was we had a good simple supper, a lot of fun and some excellent wine. We also became addicted to summer truffles.