Camino de Santiago - Brian's Update No 10

In which Brian enjoys the best of French rural cuisine and recalls "The Bullet" Smith

Days 54 to 57

17 May to 19 May

18th May

I had a most enjoyable evening yesterday, for most of the day, I had travelled through pine forests and eventually reached my destination to be greeted by my hosts, Andre & Josiane Courdent; isn't Josiane a lovely name! They were a lovely couple; before I even got to my room, I was sat down on the veranda and given a very welcome cold beer.

They live in the forest, the house was not easy found, the last bit of the journey was over a grassy loanan, but I think they have a car. They were giving me my dinner, great, André has a little English and we nearly understood each other, but the welcome was warm and sincere. Dinner would be at 8.00, I arrived down just about the appointed time, table nicely set, 3 places, I sat facing the pair of them, bottle of St Emilion, Haute Medoc opened on the table, a full glass was poured for me as I sat down.

I could see we were going to have soup, and in it came in a tureen, which was offered to me, Josiane sat, I indicated that she should help herself first, 'Non' - for me, grand. It was a thick soup, whitish in colour, I presume it had been liquidised, had greens through it, which I thought must be chives, that sort of leaf, but no, it actually tasted like celery. The soup had a potato base, what else I don't know, but it was delicious, plenty of bread to go with it, a pepper mill on the table, I didn't see any salt, but there was enough in the cooking. Josiane cleared the dishes, André plied the wine, and I sat back and enjoyed it all.

I learned they both had been married before, each with three children to previous marriages, in Andres case now into his 3rd.marriage, he is 10 years my senior but does not look it, Josiane is one year older than I am and has five grandchildren, one as old as 20. I find out that it is Josiane who selects the wines they drink, they go off each September to buy their annual supply, and if she selected the wine we were drinking, she knows what she is about. Andre says it is only a cheap wine but I was enjoying it.

Next course, rabbit, you know the way you might get the leg and breast of a chicken, well this was the same, only it was rabbit, that cut that gives you the hind leg, a very, very ample portion. It is presented on a large serving plate, such as we might use to put a turkey on, again I am offered first choice, three portions of rabbit, a brownish light sauce, which proved to be delicious and wild mushrooms. Picked by madam herself, André proudly tells me, from the forest with which we are surrounded. I thought I might go on a trip; these were mushrooms that I had never seen before, but listen I'd try anything, so I take a liberal portion. There was also a dish of large pasta; again, I help myself.

Ah rabbit, wild mushrooms, this light gravy or sauce, pasta, and bread to sop up the gravy, the pepper mill, everything superb, and by this time the second bottle was on the table, and André never missed my glass, it was kept well topped up. I noticed madam could take her wine as well, and why not, hadn't she chosen it. The dishes are again cleared, André helps this time. Then in comes a huge dish of fresh fruit salad, my favourite, I don't like cake type stuff; give me fruit salad every time. Again, I am first; I take and enjoy a very liberal portion. I know it will never be used tonight, might I have some for breakfast? Certainment. Great stuff!

The atlas is produced, I show where I am from, my journey through Ireland, they know Cherbourg of course and so the evening goes on. Would I like an egg with my breakfast? I had already seen the hens scratching about earlier, together with a drake and three goslings, they were in a compound, covered by gauze netting and there were also a few pigeons on the netting and inside the compound. The fowl seemed to get on together. I had been thinking of fresh free-range eggs whenever I saw this compound, and of course, I was delighted to say I'd love an egg. Josiane smiled in delight. I bade them both "Bon Nuit", shook Andre's hand gave Josiane a kiss on both cheeks and retired. I had thoroughly enjoyed my evening.

I never finished yesterday's journal - it is very tiresome without the keyboard. I came down to breakfast to be greeted by both André and Josiane, had a hearty breakfast, last night's fruit salad, loads of bread, butter and Madame's own marmalade or apricot jam, steaming hot coffee. Madame makes the comfitures, collects and cooks the mushrooms, feeds the fowl, collects the eggs, I wouldn't be surprised if she catches the rabbits! Quite a lady and André makes sure - you know it.

I am saying my goodbyes, expressing my thanks for a wonderful evening, André produces either a prayer book, or a very small bible, opens it and points to a passage, smiling, I see Patrice or Patrick and I nod appreciatively, he then takes out a memento of his first holy communion, and gives it to me! I will record what is on the back only 'SOUVENIR DE MA COMMUNION SOLENNELLE FAITE EN L'EGLISE SAINT VINCENT DE PAUL LILLE LE 5 JUIN 1938, ANDRES-GEORGES COURDENT. IMP AU LA LILLE".

I am amazed; I can't believe that he is giving such a precious gift to me. This is 67 years old, he had his First Holy Communion a year, almost 16 months, after I was born and he is giving me this memento! We are going to take photos, I leave it on the table, perhaps he only meant to show it to me.

Photos taken, I gather up mes affaires, Josiane says something to André, he nods and she lifts the precious memento and gives it to me! I put it into a note book I carry with instructions for the xda11, beside Alice's photograph, that's always the first thing out of the belly bag.

I shake hands and kiss Josiane on both cheeks, turn to shake with André but he brushes my hand aside, he is going to walk with me! Marvellous, we set out along the forest path, he is taking me a route to avoid the village, through the forest; I could never have found it on my own. He leads setting a very brisk pace, we are walking almost side by side, I am slightly behind.

I gather that he spent 26 years in the army, in Germany for quite a number of them, I presume in the army of occupation, after the 39-45 War. He served in Algeria and Vietnam, he was a Captain, he was in the Paratroop Regiment, the elite of any army. A blistering pace, but what a place to walk, definitely magic here, Josiane collected the wrong mushrooms!

Probably 1.5-2k later we are at the south side of the village, he indicates my road, I have chosen a quiet country road, avoided the main road, perhaps as much as 3k longer but a lovely road to walk. Andre now clasps my hand between his two huge hands and wishes me, "Bon Journey, Bon Camino!" I have been moved by the warmth of these peoples welcome and their good wishes for my journey.

Back to the pine forest, a rather uneventful day, long, long straight roads ahead, no sign of wild life, little bird song, I don't even see a hawk, but then I arrive at a very small village. If there are any shops they keep well hidden, the village is called Commensacq, a board advises that there is to be a village fete in about 2 days, Myles na Gopaleen 'A Fete worse than debt', springs to mind.

But no, this can't be - I spy in a garden, as I pass by and have to take a photograph - mirrors, and cds tied and hanging from trees!

The 'Bullet Smith', Mick, the man, of music, chat, craic, good humour, and mad for a sessuin. How many times have we gone down that lane at all hours of the night, as far as the lane went, into the bog, for a sessuin at the Bullet's?

Those of us that knew him were privileged. He was a remarkable man, there was no 'March Ditch' in his ideology - everyone was equal and welcome. He went with the Common's Hall Band to Scarva, he went with St. Kate's, wherever they would go, and he was welcome everywhere. He lived down a long lane off the Ballyholland Road which goes over to the cross roads, past the school. We used to go via the Mullavat Road, past the school and then turn down right. His nearest neighbour Eddie McAteer or Canny (or is it Conny?) McAteer - the McAteer's have more names than the Murphy's in Tullydonnell!

Mick used to fill the litre & 2 litre plastic mineral bottle half full of water, any mirrors that would hang, chimes, tinsel, you name it he had it, hanging from the trees around the front street of the house. Go down on a bright sunny day and observe the prisms, listen to the chimes, watch how the sun reflected off the mirrors, which moved in even the gentlest of breezes, truly a magical experience. Or see the same thing at night reflected in the headlights of a car, but always the tinkle and jingle of chimes. A constant movement and ever-changing sound.

Whenever we started going, I will refer to us as the Thursday night crowd, for that was the night we used meet in Newry Shamrocks, for a weekly sessuin of music and craic, Mick had no electric, no running water, no bed. He slept in a shake down beside the fire, which was always well stoked with either a huge tree trunk or a sleeper, which was advanced into the fire as it burnt. I assume the fire never went out.

But he had a television, a decent sized one to, there was only one station, the rest of us couldn't get it, it was Radio Telefis Vatican - a picture of the Pope permanently filled the screen. He also had a fridge, from which he produced cheese on the night of any soiree, no one to my knowledge ever eat it, but it was there for the taking.

Now it might have had a paraffin oil taste, for the light was from paraffin oil lamps and an odd drop might have been spilt, in the filling of the lamps. There were 3 sizable rooms in the house; the kitchen where the sessuin took place, off that there was the 'Music Room', filled with musical instruments, a harmonium, operated by pedals, a full set of drums, old fiddles, a broken banjo, but sure you never could tell, someone might fix it some day, so there it would stay. And a music stand! Of which he was very proud. It was an old squeezy mop, felt mop head removed, upturned on its handle, cleverly fixed into a base which kept it upright, and I think it could be adjusted for height, a most desirable stand for any symphony orchestra!

His taste in music was eclectic, catholic, all encompassing, he had at one stage in his lengthy career ran dances, and to the metropolis of Lehorn Ballroom of Romance, he had advertised that the Rolling Stones would make a guest appearance! And, they did!

At around midnight, Mick, after someone had pumped the Tilley, came in through the door, boys on one-side girls the other, leaving a clear middle and rolled 3 sizable stones up the floor. "There's your' Rolling Stones", says he.

Off the Music Room then, there was the 'Ballroom of Romance', a bare room, stone floor, you could dance away to your hearts content.

Mick had a soft spot for Princess Diana, and for Charles, there were photos or rather paper pullouts around the place, people on holidays used to send him cards, if you could you got one, of Princess Di. The toilet obviously, if you didn't wander off to somewhere in the garden, was on your right hand side as you came out the front door. It was lit by a Sacred Heart lamp, with a red globe, giving it a lovely soft glow. Immediately behind the toilet fixed to the wall was a full length picture of princess Diana, full size, the full of the wall, I can't talk for the women, but whenever we went to the toilet we were eyeball to eyeball with none less than Princess Di!

I must stress Mick's regard for Princess Diana was genuine and sincere.

You could only say the 'craic was mighty' in that place.

I walked on to my destination for the night a delightful Auberge in Sabres. Had a lovely meal and retired fairly early to a very welcome bed.

The food in the Auberge was as good as any I have had since I came to France. The owner is the chef and he ensures that everything is of a very high standard, his wife looks after the restaurant and front of house, there is a lot to be said for a 'hands on' family business.

Days 57 to 61   

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