Image via WikipediaI am making Alice's bean soup. It is a useful, tasty soup and keeps alive the memory of the fun we had together, Alice, Edith and I.
I met them when I was living in my first house in France. I spent a lot of time in the garden, trying to make it into one, and often saw a little 2CV passing the gate very slowly as two heads swivelled towards me. The car would proceed to the house round the corner and return some hours' later, the heads again in motion. I met the owners of the swivelling heads one day on the road up from the village where I had been doing some shopping....the Deuch stopped, two elderly ladies emerged, shook hands and levered me into the back seat, depositing me, not at my house, but at the one round the corner. Alice and Edith were out for the afternoon and I was the cabaret. They had coffee in a thermos, a packet of sweet biscuits and, suspiciously, an extra cup.
They had, explained Edith, been planning to invite me round, and now seemed a good moment. We were seated on the garden wall and after a while, once names, ages, family details etc had been exchanged, I asked why we were outside with a thermos while the house no doubt boasted water heating equipment, tables and chairs.
Ah. The house belonged to Edith, but a couple of years earlier her son had persuaded her to move to the village and she had let the house to a young couple. She had retained use of the garden where she grew her veg and flowers. Her son had retained use of the barn for making and storing wine from the grapes from the plot behind the house. This was my first introduction to the French habit of never quite letting go. Clearly, the young couple had accepted these terms quite readily....they both worked, so the garden was probably of no interest. At that time, only the older people did veg gardens...the younger element liked lawns and plants bought from the plant catalogues....every modern bungalow had its' flowering hedge from Jacques Briant and its' bulbs from Willemse. I explained that I wasn't so sure I would like to come back from work and find my landlady having a cuppa on the garden wall, but then I'm not French.
Oh. Well, did I know that my house had once been part of the chateau estate? And that the chateau owners, three sisters, would come marching into the house to see what the tenants had within without so much as a by your leave. And that they would take what they wanted from the garden. Didn't have a penny to bless themselves with...known as the 'six fesses'.
Translation literal, six buttocks. Translation colloquial, three bare arses.
How long ago was this? Thinking, inter war, perhaps?
Until that new chap bought the chateau when one of the sisters died...a couple of years ago. He got rid of the old tenant and put the house up for sale.
I later learnt from the chap who had bought the chateau that the remnants of the ex owners still tried to invade his premises and that it had taken a long campaign to deter them finally. However, as he admitted, there were by that time only two bare arses to deal with.
The afternoon on the garden wall was the start of a long friendship. They would come to my house, we would have coffee and they would inspect my garden. The cougettes were the first cause of concern.
You're picking them too small.
They were the Elizabeth David approved size and I looked astonished. Wasn't this the difference between the coarse habits of the northlands with their swollen vegetable marrows and the delicacy of French cookery?
No, it was not. The ladies liked them the size of the bloated gherkins which used to leer from jars in fish and chip shops when I was young. Size, I was going to learn, matters in rural France. In order to relieve me of my glut they sent round Martine, the baker's delivery van driver, who, once gherkin size had been reached, took the crop and, to my horror, bottled them! How in blazes could anyone bring themselves to eat a bottled courgette? Worse, she kept coming...I had visions of her store room, with shelves full of things resembling specimen jars containing endless soggy vegetables. Mad scientist stuff.
The green beans came in for the same criticism.
There's nothing on them.
That was the idea. M. Untel, seed representative extraordinaire, had patiently guided me through three bottles of wine and the vegetable catalogue in order to find a variety that was particularly good but must be eaten young...Triomphe de Farcy. I explained and was greeted with hoots of scorn.
Typical man! All right thinking about the flavour...but you want a bit of bulk to make things go round.
An end of row I had missed was leapt upon and proclaimed to be just how it should....the beans were beginning to form, there was a string forming, and they looked a bit knobbly.
That's what you want...like that!
Alice explained that they were good for soup. Chop off the worst bits of the beans, sweat off some potato and onion, throw in the beans and a few tomatoes and stew it all down. Blend it, seive it and there you had a solid soup to keep the family quiet. I made it for years according to her recipe and then one day decided to pick it up with some ground cumin. I have made it with cumin ever since, but it is still Alice's soup.
My conceptions of French food were fast flying through the window and it wasn't the only lesson I was to learn from my friends.
The house needed renovating, and I was telling them what I wanted to do.
Alice shook her head.
You don't want to do anything of the sort. If you start tarting it up, someone - with a significant nod of the head in the direction of the ex-tenant's house down the road - will denounce you!
I must have looked particularly blank. Denunciation was something I thought was a phenomenon of the wartime occupation, and the Germans had been gone some forty years. She explained.
He will tell the tax office that you are spending money on the house and they will investigate you. Freeze your bank account. Make your life hell for years. No one spends money on the outside of their houses.
Well, that accounted for the uniform colour of the shutters in the area....faded blue grey or dog turd brown, depending on the source of army or railway surplus paint available. I had wondered about local taste.......
Again, the chap with the chateau confirmed Alice's warning. Merely by buying the chateau he had aroused suspicion, especially since he had gone bust a few years' back and everything was now in his wife's name. He was still undergoing investigation, three years' later and it went on for some time after that.
Legend after legend was exploded by these two ladies...the occupation, the Resistance, food, wine, the artisan francais....I began to wonder what I had come to, but they provided the first wake up call to stop dreaming and drifting and to learn about the society into which I had thrust myself.
The way of life they had followed was fast dying out. No one now used the pond up the road to do their washing....no sharp eyes would detect that a woman was pregnant because she was not washing out bloody clouts. No one now walked their cows from end to end of the commune along the verges to get good grazing. No one now caught bovine tuberculosis and became crippled as Edith's son had done. Only Papy up the road still cooked in a cauldron over the fire. Life was better, they agreed...no nostalgia for them.
No book could have been a better preparation for getting to grips with the mindset of France and no book could have made me laugh so much while I was learning.
But I will never bottle a courgette. There are limits.