The other day, as I was feeling sorry for myself that I didn't have a social life, there was a ping in my inbox and an invitation to dinner forced me to abandon my sulk.
Sylvie, a friend of ours from 'les filles de Mardi' was having a dinner party on Easter Sunday. Les filles de Mardi is a group of women who used to meet every Tuesday night at the Theatre Restaurant and who we befriended over time, gradually moving from our table for two to join their table and eventually becoming fully integrated into the group.
It got me thinking about how different a dinner party in France is to a dinner party in England. For a start, you are rarely invited to dinner in a French house, this is normally reserved for family celebrations. Maybe that is why a French dinner party resembles that of a family table. There is little small talk, people don't do one to one chit chat with the person sitting next to them; one person holds forth with their point of view and everyone else comments, agrees, disagrees or takes over the baton for their say. It’s very competitive and is often down to he or she who shouts loudest. If you're not up for the game, or feel self-conscious about your French speaking skills or your ability to shout loud enough, you will find yourself out in the cold, conversationally speaking.
To begin the evening there is always the apero! This is the most important drink of the day, and is either pastis or whisky, but more often than not whiskey.
The French love whiskey, Scottish, American, Irish, blended or single malt, it makes no difference. They usually drink it with coke or neat with ice; I've never seen it served with water, though someone told me that they had recently had it with Schweppes (I presume tonic) and it was quite good! Well you learn something new every day.
Aperos can go on for quite a long time and are always generous (none of your stingy English pub measures), so by the time everyone sits down to eat, everyone is more than merry.
Sylvie's party was much the same. We had picked up Papou and Fabrice at the agreed time of just after 8 from the quay where they keep their boat in Beaucaire. We then drove up to Sylvie’s house, a villa in a lottissement (posh housing estate) above Beaucaire. The French like to live in these new purpose built houses, leaving the old crumbling stone buildings to immigrants like us. When we got there we were the first. The TV was on and there was an identified boy lounging on the sofa watching an old Zorro film. The rest of the guests didn’t arrive for another hour and a half, by then we had had quite a few drinks and numerous olives and peanuts. We were 15 altogether and Sylvie had a chair crises, so various people arrived carrying chairs, which was quite convenient, as they could sit down on their own chairs as soon as they arrived.
Sylvie thought a little ambient music might go down well, but one of her friends, D, a tax inspector (always good to know one!) told her to turn it off as it clashed with the TV which was still on. As more aperos were poured, the Artist and I (sticking to white wine) were wondering if we were ever going to eat.
‘I can’t see any sign of cooking’ he whispered sotto voce to me.
Finally around 10.30 we sat down. After singing Happy Birthday (in English; it was Sylvie's birthday, though she had omitted to tell us so) and done various hip hip horray's (in French) the first course was unveiled; two whole poached salmon garnished with watercress, Blinis spread with Brondade a la Mourue, tomatoes, radishes and a Salad Russe, (tinned vegetables in mayonnaise),and two types of mayonnaise, and bread, of course.
The conversation started with the evils of mass consumerism, then moved on to Le Canard the French sytirical weekly paper and apparently the only dependable source for political information, to politics in general and how everyone in the government is a 'con'.
Then came the main course, frankly I was already quite full from the first course, (not to mention apero nibbles).
Two large plates of pommes dauphinois, two legs of lamb and their 'jus' and a large portion of aubergines were placed on the table. As soon as everyone was served, the discussions continued. Every now and then Fabrice, who seemed to be doing most of the talking would aplogise to me and the Artists for talking too fast, adding that we wouldn’t be able to understand or follow the conversation. After a couple of these announcements, I pointed out that it wasn't because we didn't understand what he was saying, but rather that it was difficult to get a word in edgeways - (sadly there isn't such a wonderfully descriptive word as edgeways). So he then asked me what I thought about the Iraq Enquiry, I was about to answer, when the conversation moved on to the ‘special’ relationship between Blair and Bush, and I hadn’t even opened my mouth!
For dessert there was a tart of strawberries and cream, (I was pleased to note that the pastry 'fait a la maison' was no better than mine, I loath making pastry and have recently served up various inedible pastry dishes in an attempt to master it, don't ask me why, you can buy perfectly decent ready made pastry in every supermarket and most french cooks do!)
Then someone put on 'Hotel California' at full blast. D immediately got up to turn it down and in so doing turned it off.
Papou turned it back on again, at a lower volume and half the diners got up and danced.
At around 12.30 the Artist and I got up from the table and said it was time for us to go.
Cries, of 'pourquoi,' and the party's only just begun and we must have a dance before we go, regaled us, as we took our leave.
When we did the rounds of bisous, our friend apologised for not giving us any one on one attention and hoped we hadn't been bored, 'Of course not,' we said.
We drove back home.
“Well that was very French,” I said as we drove down the hill back to Tarascon.
"And you say you don't have a social life," the Artist replied.
“O.K.” I conceded, “it’s just a different kind of social life.”
At the market this week they were selling a large bunch of chard for €1! I was shown how to make this Tarte aux Blettes (Chard tart) by an ex restaurateur who gives cookery classes in the Marie in Flaux, a tiny village near Uzes. I particularly like this pastry which is made with olive oil.
For the pastry:
250g flour (I like wholemeal)
1 glass of cold water
5 tbls. Olive Oil
1 pinch salt
A sprig of rosemary
For the filling:
1 kilo Chard
2 tbls. single cream
Salt and Pepper
Pre-heat the oven to 180 c.
Wash and cut the stalks of the chard and cook together with the leaves in a small amout of water for 20 minutes, then drain and leave to cool.
To make the pastry: mix the flour with the salt and chopped rosemary, oil and water. I do this in my ancient Robot Chef, but you can also do it by hand. When the pastry forms into a ball, put it onto a floured board and roll out to line your tart tin (you can also leave it to rest, wrapped in clingfilm in the fridge for 40 mins which makes it less sticky).
Bake blind for 10 mins. the fill with the chard
Meanwhile whisk the eggs with the cream (or milk) and add salt and pepper, pour this over the chard.
Bake for about 45 minutes. Can be eaten hot or cold!