deux: Things to do in Montoire when you're dead
Stu, who's a bit of a watercolour artist, presented Alf with a picture he'd done of one of a village nearby and Alf was so impressed that when we asked him where we should pitch our tents, he replied "Anywhere" -- which, as Alf usually runs his campsite to micrometre tolerances as an inscrutable Big Brother, was a great compliment.
We put up the tents -- the simple two-poles-and-some-bits-of-rope tent I'd borrowed from Stu, Ian's clever and complicated dome-shaped tent with bendy poles, and Stu and Jen's equally clever dome-shaped one. Jen immediately fell fast asleep in the tent, but Stu, Ian and I got the bikes off the cars and cycled off into Montoire to look for some lunch.
Stu wanted some fresh langoustines for lunch, so we also went to the town square to cruise the local market. The large and very jovial fishmonger, all of whose produce, Stu translated, had been in the Atlantic until the previous night, took delight in selling him a kilo of langoustines, and six oysters. Meanwhile I was quite literally sniffing around the cheesemonger's stall, where some small cylindrical soft cheeses looked quite exciting but tasted in fact very boring, another cheese tasted a bit like Emmental but was extremely expensive, and, at the back, I noticed some very dark orangey cheese with a little sign saying "18 mois". I didn't actually get any, though.
Ian did really well in the market: he found a sausagemaker's stall, staffed by a shifty-looking bloke in a fedora who explained his sausages at some length and got Ian to taste them all. "This one was the best," he said, waving a rigid-looking red and white sausage at us, "this one's saucisse sèche de montagne, and it's got whole peppercorns in. And I got a bit carried away," he continued, producing something else from his bag, "and bought this."
We looked. It was about the size and shape of a largish cobblestone, and was encrusted with thyme. "It's called a pavé," said Ian, "which is French for paving stone, or cobble. It's just like saucisse sèche, but you get a great big lump of it."
"Good Value!" exclaimed Stu. To celebrate the pavé, we decided to have a beer at a bar Stu and Ian knew in the next village, Lavardin. Off we cycled, soon seeing a pretty little hill with a ruined chateau perched on top.
"Photo call!" I said, lining up a shot over the fields. Stu just gave me an enigmatic smile.
I soon found out why. Only just around the corner (and past a sign saying Lavardin, Un des plus beaux villages de France) we got a much, much better view of the chateau, plus a little hillside village, the river Loir, and a wonderful old stone bridge over it. It was breathtakingly beautiful, more beautiful than I found it easy to cope with. We stopped at a riverside path marked Promenade des poêts.
"Now you see why we come to the same place every year," said Stu. "Now you see why your suggestion of going off and renting a gîte somewhere else never really got considered."
Had it been in England, I felt, the whole zone would have been horribly commercialised: there would, as Ian said, have been an ice-cream van. In France, though, they'd laid out a flowerbed.
We must have spent about twenty minutes there, building up a sense of wellbeing and calm -- a little of which was dissipated when we went over the bridge and just up the road to the bar and discovered it was closed. According to Stu and Ian it in fact had the same "We're temporarily closed" notice it had had the previous year.
But we'd seen a bar on Montoire town square, so we cycled back over the bridge and had some beers there instead, and watched the market traders scuttling away to have their lunches, and marriages honking around the square. It's the French way to honk your horn if you see a wedding, and then honk your horn at other people to tell them you've seen a wedding. As Montoire is big enough to have quite a stream of weddings of a summer Saturday, this meant continual recursive waves of honking were spreading through the whole town most of the day.
It was while we were cycling back to the campsite from Montoire centre that Ian performed The Hand Signal.
The Hand Signal was a very impressive piece of roadcraft. It managed to convey, in one simple gesture, that (a) we were British, (b) we'd just had a beer, (c) we hadn't slept for 36 hours, and (d) we wanted to turn left. So well did he get these essential facts across that seemingly every car in Montoire just stopped and let us get on with it.
Langoustine is one of those French words for which even Larousse Gastronomique doesn't offer an English translation, for the simple reason that the French are dimly aware that they are wasted on the average Briton and thus never export any. They're crustaceans (hard luck, all you orthodox Jews out there) intermediate in size between a king prawn and a lobster. You cook them for not very long at all, preferably starting when they're alive, then pull the abdomens off and get the meat out. You're then faced with something that looks like a prawn but is the size of your thumb and has a much more delicate taste than a prawn. All you need to do is dip it in some red wine vinegar you've finely chopped a shallot into, and it's perfect. Once you discover how tasty it is, though, it's worth getting some shellfish pliers and cracking open its claws -- there are some more tasty bits hidden in there, which presumably Nature had expected no-one ever to be able to get to.
The Vouvray went with the langoustines very well. It's not often you see Stu drinking white wine, but Vouvray with shellfish is one of the exceptions. For another, see later.
We'd got the oysters for Jen, but I had one to try, as I'd never eaten oyster before. Any animal cruelty zealots who were put off with the idea of boiling langoustines alive and cracking them open with pliers should stop reading now, for what we did to the oysters was even more barbaric. We didn't even cook them.
Having just described that meal as "lunch", it should be said that it was now about 4pm. We all then decided we needed some sleep, and had a snooze until we all got up thinking it was time for supper.
Supper was rather more modest than lunch: some French ham, a pack of cold cooked potatoes, and some broad beans specially imported by Stu from his own back garden in Cambridge. Only a couple of quaffy bottles of wine accompanied it: we were all glad to get to bed.