Willkommen Bienvenue Welcome

Welcome, gentle readers.

This is an everyday tale of regular folk, who moved from Sheffield to the deepest Corrèze in France Profonde and thence to the rather more cosmopolitan Lot in search of something… different. We certainly found it.

The Lot is an area of outstanding natural beauty. Reputedly, a famous TV globetrotter was asked where, of all the places in the world he had visited, he might return to. He answered, ‘The Lot’.

Fans of Channel 4’s Grand Designs will know that we built a somewhat quirky straw bale house-with-a-view here in the Lot, not far from the celebrated Dordogne river. You can read all about it in my book,
Bloody Murder On The Dog's Meadow, or watch the re-runs of the programme on More 4, or view it on You Tube.

After a break in the proceedings to write a book or two, this blog now takes the form of an everyday journal. Sometimes things happen, sometimes they don't (but the art school dance goes on forever). I hope it will give you an entertaining insight into what it's like to live in a foreign country; what it's like in the slow lane as an ex-pat Brit in deepest France.

I shall undertake to update this once or twice a week, unless absent on leave. Comments always welcomed, by the way, but I do tend to forget what buttons to click in order to answer them.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Eggs Over Easter

I’ve always loved Easter. Part of this affection derives from its unpredictability. Unless you stay alert, it can sneak up and surprise you. There’s none of the relentless build-up to Christmas that keeps your eyes fixed on a firm date. Faced with an unmarked calendar, would you know from one year to the next whether to plump for March or April?

In France, they might well kiss on Main Street, but they certainly don’t feel comfortable about Easter. When we mention to French friends that we will be celebrating Easter this year as every year, their looks suggest that we’ve just come out as born-again Christians. It’s as if the religious origins of the holiday are still too potent. They must be resolutely denied if the country is to keep on its secular Republican course.

As a kid, of course, Easter coincided with two weeks off school. My maternal grandparents would send us a box full of chocolate eggs from the mainland, in case you couldn’t buy them in a far-flung corner of the British Isles like Northern Ireland. One Easter, I remember rootling through the straw or whatever packaging it was they had used to pack out the box to find a Corgi car for each of us four grandchildren. The surprise was all the better because you don’t expect that kind of thing at Easter.

And so there’s no denying Paques. Ever since we’ve lived here, we’ve marked the occasion in the face of local indifference. For many years, until The Daughter grew too old to oblige, it has usually meant an Easter egg hunt involving friends with young children. Come rain or come shine – and usually, because Easter comes at an unpredictable time of year when spring is struggling to slip out of winter’s grip, it has meant rain or cold or both.  

This year is our first year without our sentimental child’s moral support. Fortunately, a friend of hers from schooldays in Brive has gone to Paris to spend the weekend with her. Otherwise, she would have been inconsolable. We would have to celebrate Easter Sunday without her youthful input.

As a student, Debs used to invite friends round for hand-painted boiled eggs and toasted ‘soldiers’. Maybe this is why we opted for an extended ‘jazz brunch’: with scrambled eggs royale on toast (cooked very, very slowly in the way suggested on the Guardian home page, enhanced with chopped smoked salmon), more toast, more smoked salmon, mounds of croissants, multifarious fruit juices and lashings of strong coffee, set against a soundtrack of Duke Ellington, Kenny Burrell and the Bill Charlap Trio’s interpretation of West Side Story. Yes, everything’s great in America and not too bad in the northern Lot either. In the sunshine, you can forget that the whole world’s locked in a state of chassis.

It was an international brunch with six Brits, two tall Germans, an anglicised French woman (who understood that our celebration carried no threat to the Republic) and an American friend, who brought his beautiful Hasselblad camera and captured portraits of couples on our back balcony. Because our German friends always arrive late, there was time to warn the others not to mention Lidl. We even poured the fruit juice out of sight lest they spot a telltale trademark. Being both German and fiercely principled, they could be scandalised to discover that the comestibles had come largely from their least-favourite supermarket. And because they always do everything with such style in their big manorial house, I would have felt as chastened as a child caught dipping his finger into the sugar bowl should a casual remark have given the game away. Komm, Achim, wir mussen nach Hausen gehen. Oh, Shame and scandal in the fam-i-ly.

But it never came to pass. Achim and Martina also revere Easter and even like to mark Good Friday, as we do in the UK. It’s too easy to overlook it in France, because work goes on like any other day. My wife likes to rib me every year that I fail to furnish her with hot-cross buns. This year being no exception, I made instead traditional Good Friday curries, which we ate in front of an episode of Breaking Bad that hooked us once and for all on a drama centred on cancer and crystal meth. It proved that our stomachs are not yet too weak for such adult themes.

The crystal meth theme continued into Easter Saturday, because we watched Winter’s Bone, a film that focused on a meth-cooking community of largely terrifying rednecks. It suggested to both of us that Missouri could be as bad a tourist destination as the Congo. Even though Tilley likes Jennifer Lawrence, we took a parental position: she doesn’t need to know yet at her time of life just what a scary place the world can be outside the Lot. Delete the sucker!

It was a brutal way to conclude an Easter Saturday remarkable for its gregariousness. First, a lunchtime party to celebrate a friend’s 65th birthday. There I met a man from Norn Iron, who used to work for the Health & Safety Executive. He remembers carrying out official visits at the factory where my father worked (or, knowing my father as I do, ‘shirked’). His daughter boarded at the school where I learnt to decline amo, amas, amat and repeat French phrases (without an American accent) in what I imagine must have been one of the first language labs in the province. Ou se trouve la boulangerie? La boulangerie est en face de l’église.

Few things animate me quite like the sound of a friendly Ulster accent. John is well over 60, but still maintains the foul mouth of a teenage schoolboy. There is something so sweet and musical about the way an Irishman swears; I could listen for hours without feeling either threatened or the slightest bit shocked.

Debs joined me after her busy Saturday morning schedule of repairing damaged psyches, and we went on to Bilhac, where Bret and Laurence had lit their bread oven, so friends could bring’n’bake their bread and pizzas and apple tarts. While Laurence surveyed the wondrous flames deep within the domed oven, our crazy host entertained us by shaving his hair with my old Wahl hair-clippers. Open-mouthed, we watched him cut a great swathe right through the middle of his locks in the way that the men from ERDF fell any undergrowth that threatens their power lines. It’ll grow again, he reassured us.

Bret cuts a swathe through his hair
And now Easter’s almost over for another year. There is at least a Bank Holiday Monday to look forward to. Our jazz brunch was a great success and I think it’s likely to become a tradition. Next year, I’d like everyone to go away with a chocolate egg. For those of you who want to try it at home, it would work equally well with flamenco or bossa nova. Just don’t mention Lidl.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

A Whisper In The Wind Tree

You are sensitive from your electricity bill, your water bill, making a diagnosis about your consumption?

Aren’t we all? That was one reason why I was happy to accept my friend Jill’s invitation to appear as some kind of ‘special guest star’ at the environment show that her students put on at the Brive Chamber of Commerce. I just had to reassure myself that Alf’s young friend, Holly, would be all right in the back of the Berlingo if I left the dogs alone for an hour or so while I did my business. Nick told me that she’d be fine, even though Sophie revealed on Thursday evening, when she came to pick up their frisky dog, that they had no concrete evidence to support such a theory.

The show was the highlight of the week gone by. I don’t think I’ve ever been billed as a ‘special guest star’ before. It carries certain responsibilities. What do special guest stars wear, for instance, to address a group of ‘young people’? I plumped for a pair of my nephew’s hand-me-down designer jeans and a jumper from the Devred sale. That way, I might just disguise the fact that I was almost three times the age of most of the would-be entrepreneurs. As a special guest star, I reasoned, you need to exude gravitas without necessarily stepping over a fuddy-duddy borderline.

In preparing my bullet points for a five-minute speech (in English, please) I figured that my only claim to fame was that I lived in a straw bale house. So I gave them a potted history of our French experience and the reasons for choosing to build in straw. Despite my efforts to enunciate my words as clearly as Joyce Grenfell might have done, the young faces looked blank. I think you’ll have to translate ‘straw bales’, Jill whispered urgently. After that, it went swimmingly.

The second phase of my guest stardom was more onerous. It was to wander around the two classrooms in which the groups of young business people exhibited their wares and services and chat to them – in English – about their USPs. Hello there. Tell me about your unique selling point… I eschewed the hands-behind-back stance, customarily adopted by the Dukee Enbrough or his son, the Prince of Wales, in favour of the ingenuous Englishman abroad approach. I rubbed organic cream onto the back of my hand, sipped organic orange juice, nibbled organic chocolate, discussed the efficiency of solar panels, debated the efficacy of wind energy, empathised about the Amazon and took the brochures on offer for future reference. 

From repeated viewings of Marlon Brando, Rod Steiger and Lee J. Cobb in On The Waterfront, I’ve picked up some rudimentary method-acting techniques. They served me well in my walkabout. One group, ‘trading’ under the name of Green Pool (A bathing in open air), were so convinced by my suspension of disbelief that they felt it necessary to point out that it was all fiction rather than fact.

During my inquisition, I was struck by the number of businesses with London addresses, even in one case ‘The French District’: testimony to the difficulty of setting up a going concern in their native land and to a remarkably mature commercial pragmatism. Gaïa & Co. even had an address in Kensington High Street, from which they intended to sell organic food, wickedly good. In their store, apparently, you can buy vegetable seeds and plant your own crops. Their delightful spokeswoman outlined a concept of a palatial backroom fitted out with sofas, on which the clientele could sample their wares. I didn’t wish to temper their enthusiasm by quizzing them about central London rents.

I was also struck by just how charming and personable were the majority of these ‘young adults’. Not at all your disaffected yoof, I guess they were a year or two older than my own daughter and I would have been happy enough to have fathered even the boys.

It’s beholden, I think, on all special guest stars to share eye contact evenly between the more and the less confident. Generally, I scored well enough on this point, but almost lost it at the stand where three girls were offering environmental diagnoses. So transfixed was I by the radiance of one diagnostician in particular that my gaze wouldn’t waver. She reminded me of a fresh-faced Kate Moss type. Had I been 30 years younger and not quite so happily married, I might have come over all unnecessary. However… I slipped away without disgracing myself and found the dogs content in the car.

Spring sprung briefly on Friday, and Jill took our friend Dan and me to lunch in Brive to thank us for our benevolent support. Two trips to the big town in one week! What a whirl, what a whirl! Dan had given a talk on graphic design, so I showed him the brochures I had collected, as we sat outside in the mild sunshine waiting for our three-coursed tout compris.

Jill revealed that they weren’t generally an easy bunch to enthuse. However, they had really knuckled down to the topic of the environment. It was enough to give you hope for the future and one has to wish that there will be some environment left once they come of economic age. We discussed their aptitude for English, which was after all the object of the whole exercise. At this point, I read out a few of the most endearing howlers from their brochures. We laughed, but also agreed how difficult it is to write in a foreign language. How much laughter our own efforts must have afforded throughout the years.

The group pushing domestic wind turbines provided my favourite stanzas. Clearly they had taken something rather technical from the internet and attempted a literal translation. And mast without shrouds, the Skystream also fits discreetly than a lamppost. And as she works with little rev/min, the Skystream is hardly louder than a whisper in the wind tree.
Enough already, I am seduced. Debs and I will start saving for a Skystream. If the mayor of the commune gives us his blessing, visitors to the house might one day look upon our turbine and marvel at its fine blades to the characteristic shape and elegant form. My, I hope they’ll say, it’s hardly louder than a whisper in the wind tree.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Weak Endings

It was a nice week. I use the word deliberately, despite the advice of our English teacher in Primary 7, Downey House, Belfast. She would set us an exercise whereby you had to come up with adjectives that were more precise and more descriptive than ‘nice’. I was quite good at it and for many years after I would follow her prescription religiously. Until I reached an age when I realised that there are occasions when no other word will suffice.

So it was indeed a ‘nice’ week. Nothing outstanding, just very pleasant: the nights were cold, but the sun shone brightly for several days at a stretch. My wife was on holiday and The Daughter was home, busy making a mess wherever she chose to work on the many projects she brought back with her. Myrtle the cat parked her considerable bulk at the foot of her bed all week, Alf had long leisurely walks and breakfasts lasted longer than the usual cursory ten minutes. Lummy! (as my maternal grandmother used to say), I even learned that my enigmatic best friend is still with us. All very nice.

But then everything seemed to end at once. Not with a whimper, but with a cumulative and muffled kind of bang. First, on Friday evening, we finished off Season 5 of Mad Men. We parents had been handling the box with itchy fingers for several weeks, waiting for the prodigal’s return. And in the fortnight available to Us3, we devoured all 13 episodes plus most of the special features. Now it’s no more and we’re all somewhat destitute.

The girls complained of a rather weak ending that finds Don Draper at a bar, nursing an omnipresent gin, as some ‘dolly bird’ in a floral dress chats him up. Perhaps it didn’t quite live up to the two preceding episodes, which saw Peggie leave the agency to be Chief Copy Editor for a competitor and one of the partners of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce… Well, I’d better not spoil it for anyone who hasn’t yet reached that point.

But then, it’s precisely that lack of incessant drama that I – and we – find so refreshing. It doesn’t rely for its effect on the kind of constant sociopathic mayhem that fed The Sopranos nor the intense neurotic mind-games of Homeland. Nothing of great import happens from one gin-soaked slogan-friendly episode to the next. Daily life at home and the office just turns leisurely and very stylishly around the ambitions of a cast of flawed characters. Personally, I think Don will simply down his drink, smile wistfully at the girl and move on to Series 6. And I shall welcome it back as an old friend once Sky finishes with it and we can invest in our next boxed set.  

Last night, alone together once more, me and the missus cosied up on the sofa to watch Charlie Kauffman’s Adaptation. Tilley hadn’t fancied something not a million miles from Shenectade New York, which put her forever off the kind of self-conscious Brechtian stuff that makes a drama out of the act of trying to create a drama. In this case, Nicolas Cage plays Charlie Kauffman (and an invented twin brother, Donald) as a screen-writer, struggling to subvert all the rules of plotting and character arcs, to adapt a book about orchids for the cinema-going public. It was very clever and very entertaining without too much actually happening, even if Chris Cooper, as the toothless botanist, meets his end in the guise of an alligator in the Florida swamps.

I’ve read articles recently on the the death of film amidst the rise and rise of the TV drama series. But this was precisely the kind of film that you could never prolong for six episodes or however long it takes to keep an audience sitting on the edge of its seat. And thank God for its structural derring-do. It worked well – and uniquely – as a film. I think my girl would have enjoyed it almost as much as we enjoyed earlier Rebecca Miller’s understated gem, The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, another film that could only really be a one-off film. Even less happened and it was even more riveting for it, mainly due to a perceptive script and brilliant performances from Alan Arkin, Robin Wright Penn and, unexpectedly, Keanu Reeves as a feckless overgrown manchild, who is a source of worry and disappointment to his doting mother.

Keanu and Robin drive off west at the end in search of whatever will be. Our daughter headed back for another purgatorial term in Paris early on Saturday afternoon with a heavy heart and an even heavier set of bags. As we drove to the station, we speculated on whether some kind and handsome young man on the train would help her down into the underground and up the other side. It wasn’t to be. She shared a compartment with a gaggle of girls on one of what SNCF laughingly and cynically term their ‘eco-trains’. The tickets cost less, In other words, because you sit squashed up in carriages that are really superannuated couchettes. There’s no heating and, unless you know where the switch is, no lighting. The windows are so dirty that we couldn’t even see The Kid to wave her off. We decided instead to walk away and thereby avoid any potential teenage embarrassment. It was an anti-climactic way to end a fortnight’s happy reunification.

We got back in good time for the Ireland/Italy rugby match. The Italians beat the Irish for the first time in the Six Nations’ Championship. Despite my acquired Norn Irish roots, I was very pleased for the perennial underdogs. I was not so pleased later in the day, when the England team – like so many English sporting teams – flattered once more to deceive and frustrate. The Welsh team hammered the pretenders to the Grand Slam and exposed them as a callow bunch with much still to learn.

I never begrudge the Welsh their success at rugby. After all, rugby, singing and hating the English are three of the only things that they’re good at. Over the years, I’ve secretly revelled in a long line of twinkle toed red-shirted runners with the oval ball – everyone from Barry John and Phil Bennett to the pint-sized Shane Williams – but I do wish they wouldn’t beat us with quite so much passion and they wouldn’t gloat so over the results of their handiwork. I had hoped for a close-fought contest with a narrow but magnificent victory for the valiant men in white. It was all very anti-climactic.
Never mind, eh? That was the week, that was (it’s over, let it go). It was such a nice week, too, right up to the very last day. Appropriately enough, on the way back from Brive, a thick blanket of grey cloud coloured over the blue and smothered the sun. I suspect it’ll be back before too long.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Catch Her If You Can

Unaccustomed as I am to public speaking at a time when I am, for once, submerged in work – and work what’s more of a remunerative nature, with clients and expectations and tight deadlines – I must tell you nevertheless about something remarkable that happened on Friday evening.

My wife and I went out together. Yes, only the other evening we went to the refurbished theatre in Brive, something of course which we don’t very often do, but there I had an experience that I’d like to share with you. It was called… Sandra Nkaké and her band.

It was a last-minute thing. Everything depends on my weary wife’s reserves of energy. By the end of another busy week absorbing people’s troubles, she’s normally run out of the kind of stuff that must keep camels plodding across the hot sands of the desert. On Friday, though, buoyed by the thought of a samedi libéré and a whole week off at home, she was up for it. So I got on the blower and reserved a pair of tickets.

I confess, I’d never heard of Sandra Nkaké. She looked interesting, however, with her asymmetric Afro and the line-up of the band (bass, guitar, drums, keyboards and… flute) promised something a little different, so I folded down the edge of the page in the theatre prospectus. It remained folded down for months. In our customary fashion, we were non-committal right up to the eleventh hour. But the beauty of You Tube is that you can watch a sneak preview of what’s on offer. It looked good.

The theatre in Brive’s somnolent centre has been lovingly – and expensively – restored. The money, of course, no doubt came mainly from the exorbitant taxe foncière that Debs pays, but it has been put to better use in this case than it was, say, in creating the town’s network of fanciful roundabouts.

One thing, I suppose, about living in a place where culture comes in comparatively small doses, is that this type of event is often sold out. So there’s plenty of the ingredient that money can’t buy: atmosphere. The concert wasn’t completely sold out, which probably explains why my last-minute reservation secured the best seats either of us have ever had for a live musical event. Three rows back, dead centre. Reach out and touch…

A wonderful thing about France – another paradoxical aspect of national life, given the infamous Corrézian quarter of an hour, which dictates that meetings don’t start until the last person has leisurely taken up his or her seat 20 minutes or so after the scheduled starting time – is that even ‘rock’ concerts begin at the published time. This is much appreciated by a pair of veteran concert-goers at a time of life when they are less indulgent than they might have been as students of the whims of musicians with super-egos.

The band came on first in the now time-honoured fashion. Five young men in dark suits and ties who appeared far too young to have witnessed Kraftwerk in their pomp, but astute enough to have borrowed their look. Sandra then, in her tight black hip-hugging jacket with a green silk bow that kept coming undone, skipped on stage, leapt into the air and landed on a perfect, graceful and endearing curtsy that pre-figured a sense of theatre and an effortless ability to move with the loose-limbed fluidity of a ‘tiger on vaseline’.

Another surprising and paradoxical aspect of concert-going in France is the extent to which the audience is prepared to let their collective hair down. By the second number, they were clapping along in unison and a young contingent in the balcony were shrieking like kids at a Beatles concert. Every time it defies my outsider’s impression of a collective cork up the nation’s back passage. Perhaps it’s the removal of food from the equation. At parties, for example, you have to wait and hope till half past the dessert course for any exuberance to begin.

I know very little about Sandra herself, other than her Cameroonian origin, her ability to tie bows withouth breaking step, her asymetric Afro and a winning charm. I know equally little about her besuited band, other than the evident fact that they were as tight as a gnat’s chuff. Polite and gracious to a fault, Sandra introduced in colloquial French the songs she sang in perfect English about everyday life in some nameless big city. At times the music was contemporary enough for the ICA. At others, it was classic enough for a smoky jazz club in 1950s Greenwich Village. If it’s of any help, I’d describe her as a blend of Brooklyn’s Me’shell N’Degeocello, Malawi’s Malia and Benin’s Angelique Kidjo. I suspect, though, that she could dance the socks off all of them.

Transfixed and with a permanent grin of contentment, my attention was diverted only by a few young women in the front row who seemed intent on viewing the whole spectacle through the tiny screens of their phones and digital cameras. Were they hoping to be film directors, I wondered, or just keen to be the first to post some images on their Facebook page?

The crowd called her back for two encores. With their repertoire seemingly depleted, they fulfilled their obligations by breaking into an accapella number for an impromptu tour of the auditorium. It was a perfect way to end one of those concerts that you know will stay forever in your memory, all the more so for being so unexpected.

Another wonderful thing about starting on time was that it finished at a civilised hour. We were back home just in time for another nostalgic documentary on BBC4: the story of Mott the Hoople. My only gripe was that there was no anecdote to explain how a band from Hereford could come up with such a gloriously insane name. If anyone can shed light on the mystery, answers please on a postcard…

Debs phoned me from Brive the following morning. She and The Daughter had taken the train to town together. Guess who I’ve just seen walking up to the station? Sandra Nkaké and the band!
Had she…? No she hadn’t. So taken aback was she that she’d missed the chance to tell them how we’d both agreed that it was one of the best concerts ever witnessed. I like to think that I might have shaken her hand in such a situation and sprinkled stardust over her shoulders. As it is, all I can do is strongly recommend that you catch her if you can.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

How The Other Half Eats

We all know what the French, bless them, think of their food and their wine. In my time I’ve countered asides about the British and their baked beans with sly digs about the native 25-course Christmas Eve specials. I’m sure, though, that neither they nor I have ever spoken from personal experience. Now I can.

At the beginning of last week, a commission for an article took me down to Cahors, the capital of the Lot and the supposed gateway to the Midi. My theme was trufficulture and my presence coincided with the last days of the truffle season. As a horse’s doovers, I was cordially invited to attend some kind of tasting event at the Villa Cahors Malbec. I’m not quite sure what I imagined, as I stepped out with trepidation into the frigid evening air. All I knew for sure was that I might be some time.

Walking briskly through the deserted streets of after-hours Cahors, I arrived at the appointed hour. The place was already teeming with the bourgeoisie in their finery. My heart duly sank. I guess I must have pictured a kind of stand-up affair where you can sample a few exquisitely delicate canapés, sip a glass of dark brooding wine from the vicinity, exchange a few pleasantries, jot down a few notes and then slip out unnoticed.

I felt like a sardine that had just been plopped into a brightly lit tank of tropical fish. Where do you go? Where do you hide? The maître d’ took me to a table where there was a free chair. The introductiona all went straight in one ear and out of the other. Gradually, I pieced together their identities. Opposite, a man who manages a château and vignoble owned (I think) by the Prince of Denmark. To my left, his elegant wife, who runs chambres d’hôte for the well-heeled. To my right the vineyard’s analyste. His job, I learned, was to make the very most of the terroir. In other words, to grow the best vines and to produce the best wine possible given the available soil.

Given how charming everyone seemed, I surely had no right to feel quite so uncomfortable. But just watching the analyst at work when the first of many bottles of wine arrived underlined my total ignorance. So that’s it: swish the wine around like you’re spinning socks in a washer, thrust your nose deep into the glass, swish it around another time and then tip some into your mouth, swish it around internally and then swallow. Being of the sip-admire-and-swallow school, I realised the need either to keep a low profile or to make out that I was a total naïf. With nowhere much to hide, I opted for the latter option. After all, I was English. We can be excused all manner of improprieties, because we don’t know any better.

Once the menus were distributed… let the speeches commence! Not only was this clearly a long-distance sit-down affair, but there would be no choice. To take my plate up to the bar and ask if it would be possible just to make me an omelette à la truffe with some nice fresh vegetables, well… I could imagine the ensuing silence and the glances of horror. The two chefs who had created this menu for our delectation took the mic to announce what we were in for: the first a local chef and the second an old chum of his from Issoudun in the Berry, whose restaurant was based in the very house where Honoré de Balzac wrote one of his novels. The sommelier then introduced us to the next wine as an intense and complex vin de Cahors. My eyes glazed over. Being just a little peckish by now, I popped a canapé into my mouth – only to realise with a rush of embarrassment that it was a chi-chi butter pat, designed to be spread and not eaten. If anyone witnessed the faux pas, they were kind enough to stay schtum.

The first two and the last two of eight plats were fine for a faux vegetarian, but the four in between were Meat City. Since my vegetarianism represents a flag of domestic convenience and a stand against factory farming, I decided that tonight I would just go with the flow. Join in; take what the chefs offer without a word of protest. Two more men arrived at our table and the conversation took a turn for the machismo: from wine to the terroir to the chasse. Rather than stand up and sweep everything off the table to make clear my antipathy to hunting, I did what I normally do. I turned to the opposite sex, in the person of the elegant woman to my left, and engaged her in rather more interesting conversation for the rest of the evening.

After the crème de lentilles vertes du Berry aux truffes and the soft-poached egg à la purée de truffes, the first of the meat courses arrived: a saucisson de pieds de veau et foie gras de canard à la vinaigrette truffée. If I were going to make any kind of stand, this was surely the moment. Anything to do with veal or foie gras would normally find me astride my high horse. However… the thought of all those tedious explanations in the face of utter disbelief orientated me towards the coward’s option. Eat it.

Wash it down with another swish of another wine. In all, eight different wines were brought to our table. The label was shown off each time and the wine tested by someone other than me before being poured into glasses. I put my hand up in a futile gesture to suggest that I couldn’t drink too much because I had to walk back to the hotel. Nevertheless, it behoved me to taste each one lest I had to write about them in the article with any degree of conviction.

There were two desserts. I hadn’t realised that you could add truffle to a dessert, but then again I hadn’t known much about truffles. My sole experience was care of a small bottle of oil given to us by a friend. The first was a massepain d’Issoudun aux truffes: a marriage – according to its creator at the microphone once more – of vanilla, almonds and truffle. And then a crème cuite truffée, which was… simply extraordinary. So yea, I say unto the disbelievers, one can indeed add truffle to a dessert.

Resisting any temptation to shake the hand of each and every diner, each and every tropical fish in that very bright aquarium, I said my goodbyes to the immediate strangers who had been good enough to share their table with an ignoramus, joined the throng to take a quick photo or two of all those responsible for the evening’s entertainment, and slipped out into the night.

It was even colder than earlier and I walked back a little less steadily. It had been an ‘interesting’ experience: uncomfortable, but revelatory. At least I knew a little now about the flavour of truffles. It’s earthy and fungal, but neither immediately obvious nor overpowering. There’s a subtlety you can’t miss. A truffle stamps its character on everything it touches. Rich but not dominant, it is I suppose a little like the soil or terroir in which it matures. I wouldn’t, however, pay over a thousand euros a kilo for it.

In the early hours, I woke up to find that, to my horror, my head was spinning. Yes, I had tasted each wine out of obligation, but I honestly hadn’t felt that I had drunk that much. I suspect that it was also something to do with the opulence of the food. All that cream and all that butter (with hardly a fresh vegetable in sight).
I understand much more about truffles now. I also understand why the French suffer so from liver complaints.