All the stuff you never knew you needed to know about life in rural France.....and all the stuff the books and magazines won't tell you.

Thursday, 16 April 2009

Black puddings and black cassocks

I have just had a Proustian moment. It was not a madeleine dipped in lime tisane....what a revolting combination...but a black pudding from a new butcher..well, a butcher new to me. It was disgusting...gobbets of fat, skin like a black bin bag and no noticeable flavour. It was not cheap. The neighbour's dogs are going to find themselves with something different for lunch today when they make their usual appearance. If their restaurants had customers as loyal as these, celebrity chefs would have no trouble with their banks! However, disgusting though it was, it led to thoughts of happier experiences.

Black pudding used to figure on the breakfast menu of the little caffs in London which I used to frequent when I was first working, all those years ago. Succulent and sizzling from the pan, its' earthy flavour lifted the breakfast out of the ordinary....mark you, the owners of those little caffs knew how to keep customers plates, freshly cooked food and fast service. These days, the London business rates have pushed them out of the prime spots and probably out of business altogether to be replaced by miserable dens where waiters with attitude attempt to make you regret ever contributing to their wages.

French black pudding was different....not hard tubes like the U.K. version, but soft and squishy in the raw state and sometimes with additions, like chestnuts, onions or hot peppers. I had the choice of brand name puddings or the butcher's own...and all were different. I learned another way to cook them, too, spread on bread and toasted under the grill. The hunt for the best black pudding was on!

If buying from the supermarket charcuterie counter I discovered that it was safe to buy them when they were on special offer as the turnover was rapid and the product was super fresh...otherwise, forget it. If buying brand names from the ready use counter, then most were uninteresting, but a new name was worth a try. For a long time I had super black pudding with chestnuts from one of the discount supermarkets, Leader Price, until something went wrong with their supplier's mixing machine and I got alternate mouthfuls of chestnut and pudding but rarely the two together.

Butchers were another matter. Here it was a case of trying them all to see whose seasonings and assembly I liked, and there was plenty of variety. One stall on the weekly market in the nearest big town had a mealy variety like a cross with an Irish oatmeal pudding and managed to keep a consistent recipe...with most butchers, greed would creep in and what started out like a top class pudding...or should I call it a boudin? I never know what is the approved standard for writing about something in another language...would gradually acquire gristle and fat and I would have to look for another supplier. With good butchers, on black pudding day, the queue would be out of the shop, and the absence of queue was an indication that the dirty deeds were going on in the preparation area.

It was difficult, living in the country miles from anywhere, to fit black pudding day into the general round of shopping and necessary visits to offices to sort out yet another fine administrative mess....and what finally finished my black pudding mania was when one butcher, the best, let me down spectacularly by getting religion.
His black pudding day was Sunday, wonderfully timed to attract the most custom to his shop across the square from the church in a far village where I had friends. A group would meet up there for lunch from time to time, all with a previous appointment with the butcher, and Madeleine would harbour all our carefully named parcels in her 'fridge until we went home in the evening.
His black puddings were the best I had ever lumps of fat, no gristle, plenty of soft meat in the mixture and a distinct seasoning. Monday lunch took on a whole new more wondering whether the cold joint from Sunday would go round...the only problem now being whether the baker's bread could live up to the butcher's pudding!

France is officially a country of separation of state and religion. This means that the church pays the priests and the state pays for the upkeep of the churches and presbyteries. In some areas, anticlerical feeling was strong until a few years ago and some villages would have distinct parties...the better off and the 'deserving poor' being seen at mass, playing in the church band and attending the church amateur dramatic society, the others ostentatiously patronising the bar at the hour of mass, playing in the non church band and attending the non church amateur dramatic society. In my village, where this distinction still lived, the church ADS would be performing improving moral tales and the non church ADS Feydeau farces, all swinging doors, trousers and suggestions of immoral living. State subsidy for experimental theatre had not then hit the backwoods of France, so we still had stuff we could understand played by amateurs rather than pretentious rubbish played by conmen masquerading as actors and paid for from our taxes.
This was also a village where the one public lavatory fit for use by both sexes was placed...Clochemerle to the church and, in a crowning act of republicanism, was firmly shut on Sundays.

It was to this village that the bishop sent his troublesome priest. Well, to this village and the four surrounding it, vocations being in short supply of recent years.

This young man had firm views on returning the godless to God...the church should once again be the centre of the village and, moreover, the worship should be traditional. In Latin. This was probably why the bishop had sent him out into the wilds, a bit like Don Camillo but for different reasons. He did indeed shake the place up. The older people liked the return of the mass in Latin and the return of ritual, even if Marie-Yvonne, entering the church on Good Friday and discovering the young priest outstretched on the floor in the crucifixion position, did run to call the doctor. He found that English chapels were closing and selling their organs, so raised funds to buy and install them in his churches and started classes in organ music for young people to try to revive a musical tradition. His churches began to fill as people from a wide radius heard of the brand of catholicism he offered, and he was to be seen everywhere, a tall young man in a black cassock on a one man evangelistic mission.

Unfortunately, his zeal took him to the butcher's shop. As far as he was concerned, the only place that should be open on Sunday was the church. The butcher capitulated, and that was the end of my Sunday black pudding hunt. It was miles away, his black pudding day was never regular, and as the anticlerical took their custom elsewhere in disgust his trade fell off.

Yesterday, for the first time for months, I was tempted by an unknown black pudding but, as I have recounted, it was inedible. To quote a quote of a quote
'Thou hast conquered, pale Galilean.'

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