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Madame Morere Returns: Salmon With Capers, Pear Croustade and a Make-up Brush on the Side

by Jane Shortall

Continuing our adventure here in France, we upped sticks and moved from our village right out into the countryside, to a tiny hamlet of just five houses, total population fourteen people, four of whom are away at college in various parts of the country.

To the peace and tranquility of this place, I invited my dear friends Madame and Monsieur Morere from our old village of St Lizier to come for a leisurely lunch with us. Madame, in her usual straightforward fashion, accepted my invitation happily and because of the heat, requested a very light lunch. No heavy sauces please. This was excellent news for me, not being a great expert at classic French cooking, yet …

I planned the menu with great care. To begin, Irish smoked salmon flown in from Beshoffs in Dublin. This is not as extravagant as it sounds; we get it for ourselves anyway because it is, to us, the best in the world. With the salmon I intended to serve a well-chilled white wine. Then chicken breasts cooked in the oven with lemons, garlic and white wine. With this I planned to serve a green salad with a French mustard dressing and some light red wine. This is what I love about living here; the selection of wine is stunning. There are delightful, incredibly light, fruity reds, perfect for lunchtime drinking. A selection of our local cheeses next with perhaps a glass of something more robust if anyone wanted. To finish, the traditional dessert of the Ariège Pyrenees, a pear Croustade and a glass of Champagne.

It was meticulously gone over; nothing could possibly go wrong. It’s all a question of organisation.

So, the night before the lunch, I put the chicken pieces to marinate in lots of white wine, olive oil, tons of garlic and two sliced up lemons. It would be then only a matter of putting the dish into the oven late next morning, going to collect fresh bread and the Croustade, make up the salad, leave the cheeses out to room temperature, relax and enjoy the food and the company. It really was the simplest lunch.

I checked all the glasses, the water carafe, set out plates, cutlery, bread basket, blue and yellow napkins, bright yellow large salad bowl, small blue vinaigrette bowl. Everything was excellent. I do this the night before because lunch here begins at twelve noon sharp and people really do arrive bang on time. Sometimes if you are not up and at it early, it can seem like you are having an aperitif just after breakfast.

Just before going up to bed, I will never know exactly why I opened the oven door at almost one o’clock in the morning, but I’m so glad I did. It was full of white stuff, stuck to the door, stuck on the bottom, with more bits on the sides. Then I remembered that during the week Larry had begun to clean it using a strong oven cleaner, but said he needed more of the stuff to do it properly. And that was that. We had forgotten all about it. Such is the good life here that oven cleaning is not at the forefront of our minds.

The chicken dish would now have to be divided up, cooked on the hobs, using two big pans. I must admit that the hobs were not at their sparkling black best.

I rooted around, found the stuff for cleaning the ceramic hob and scrubbed until they positively shone. Then I hauled out our two big pans ready for morning, and gave them a scrub as well. I was really tired by then and finally hauled myself up the stairs and fell into bed, knowing I would look a perfect fright in the morning without sufficient sleep. Lucky I am so good at painting, face-wise at least. Vanity!

We have no alarm clock, so I instructed my brain to wake promptly at eight. My brain ignored me and I woke just after nine-thirty. I felt not bad at all; the sun was shining, all was right with the world and I had, after all, two and a half hours to go before they arrived. How simply wonderful to be able to wake up naturally, feel the heat of southern France in the bones, wander around a bit, get dressed and made up properly and welcome guests for a hassle free lunch?

I made some tea and did a final tidy up of the house, concentrating on the kitchen, as we were eating there. I did not bother too much with the rest of the house, where we had entertained others recently. This was a very simple French country kitchen lunch for four.

A last look at the table. I loved the colours. The French, over-the-top red organza tablemats looked splendid. Two coloured plates each, one on top of the other. Cutlery all fine — I love that sensible habit of using the same implements throughout. Three glasses each and a carafe for water. In the centre was the stunning hotplate with silk flowers under glass, one of many gifts from Madame herself. With the blue and yellow coloured breadbasket, napkin holder and salad bowl the table looked jolly indeed, but incredibly full. Thought for the hundredth time that we need a much bigger one. Oh well.

Went into my little office and quickly answered two e-mails while putting on make up. The morning was racing on now suddenly and there still seemed lots to do. Larry, as ever, the thought beginning to niggle at me now, was still in bed. Now why should that bother me? I didn’t really need any help; this was only a light lunch, after all.

Drove to the nearby tiny village of Moulis for the bread; Monsieur has a health problem that is aggravated by too much salt, so I picked up some ‘sans sel’ bread also. Then dumped in the various recycling banks an amazing amount of stuff that had gathered in our hall; empty wine, Gin and Pastis bottles, plastic water bottles and so many newspapers and magazines. And I knew there was more upstairs.

Next I drove up to Castillion village to pick up the dessert, the Croustade. A sort of tart, made with layers and layers of soft buttery pastry and filled with fruit, it is delicious and it’s traditional here to end a meal with a warmed slice and a tall glass of Champagne.

Almost done now, lots of time left. I mentally went over everything one last time as I walked back to the car. Aperitifs with various stuffed olives, gherkins and tiny cheese flavoured biscuits. Then the smoked salmon with capers and lemon wedges. And the white wine to accompany the first course? Something wasn’t right. I had poured a full bottle of Muscadet over the chicken breasts late last night. As I hadn’t checked the small downstairs fridge and we did have people here a few days ago for a rather long dinner, I wasn’t positive we had an extra bottle of white.  

Flung my purchases into the car and legged it back to the incredibly well stocked village shop in the main street to buy a bottle of good white wine. Castillion is a pretty place; the snow capped Pyrenees rise up dramatically in the background. It’s like being in a postcard.

As I headed back to the car with the wine, I ran into Cedric, a new friend. We shook hands, talked for a minute, he looked first at the wine and then at his watch. I hastily explained about Madame possibly being en route at this very moment to my house for lunch.

Nothing more needed to be said. Cedric is a true Frenchman. The French understand lunch like no others. He urged me on quickly, quickly, wishing me Bon Apetit.

Home, I raced around doing last minute things. Arranging the salad, making the dressing but not adding it until the last minute. Searching for the big wooden salad servers; they seemed to have moved from their usual drawer. Taking the cheeses out of the fridge, putting them on their special platter, then loosely covering them again. Opening the red wine. Pouring more black pepper into the big grinder. Why is it always almost empty when people are coming? Why does a handful always fall onto the floor, and some roll under the cooker? Arranging the salmon slices onto plates and covering them up. Spooning the capers into a small glass dish; straining off the brine. Cutting up lemons into quarters to squeeze over.

Slicing the bread. Transferring the chicken, garlic cloves and lemon slices from the marinating dish into the two pans on the now-very-clean hob, pouring extra olive oil over the lot and covering with tinfoil because the lids of our big pans have inexplicably gone missing. Starting the cooking by putting them on a very low heat.

At five minutes to twelve I raced up the stairs to the third floor and quickly changed my clothes, adding huge dangling ear-rings and colourful ornaments to keep hair up, and ran back down the stairs, just in time to welcome Madame Morere, as she came up to our first floor kitchen.

She was shouting a greeting to me but looking straight ahead. I followed her gaze and realised that on the kitchen floor, nicely placed, just at her eye-level, was a huge empty Pastis bottle, an empty Gordon’s Gin bottle, some empty wine bottles and some small tonic bottles. I thought I had dumped everything earlier?

When I had dashed upstairs to change, thinking I had left the perfect scene; a pristine kitchen, a sparkling table all ready, the welcoming smell of cooking, wine, lemon and garlic wafting through the air, I thought Larry was showered and immaculately dressed, standing out in the garden having his aperitif, waiting to greet the guests. But no.

He had come back upstairs, looked around, gone outside, gathered up the empty bottles from our balcony where we had had the very long dinner party with friends a few nights earlier and I simply had not got around to tidying everything up. And he had brought the bottles, most helpfully, into the kitchen and left them, tastefully placed, at the top of the stairs, an extraordinary sight for a woman whose homes are the stuff of magazine articles.

But of course thanks to her endless good humour, her enthusiasm for food and especially her appreciation of the Irish smoked salmon, the lunch was, as it always is, a huge success. As ever, whenever people come together to share food, it all works out perfectly. We ate, drank and talked until four in the afternoon, when Madame suddenly looked at her watch, shrieked that she should be going, jumped up and we kissed each other goodbye until her next visit, the great woman having complimented me profusely on producing a superb lunch, yet again.

She also said I looked very good and relaxed; the country air must be agreeing with me.

I asked myself whether my attempt to re-introduce a few minutes of Meditation into my life now and again is actually working? Perhaps it is, but I must acknowledge the help of a shelf-load of products from some of the best cosmetic houses on the planet and also admit to being a long time, enthusiastic wielder of the make-up brush…

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