The only benefit of the strong wind, as far as I can see, is that it hits the dreaded mosquitoes – who seem to have arrived indecently early to feast on my delicious blood – of course. We also have tiger mosquitoes here, who don’t even have the decency to make noise before they settle in for their dinner. Quiet but irritating. I am charged with every possible deterrent our excellent pharmacy can supply, but I understand that a local remedy is a lemon cut in half with cloves. You are supposed to place it on the table when eating out; but I imagine placing one under each armpit, like a fifteenth-century lady carrying a bouquet to ward off the plague as I go about my gardening, smelling faintly of Deet and mulled wine. Maybe I should sprinkle my Easter bonnet with lemongrass this year?
This is not my first French Easter. When I was 13, I spent school holidays with a French family in Lot-et-Garonne. On Easter Sunday we went to Grandma’s lovely house and helped her cut the asparagus from the garden to start the feast. So far so normal. Then we were served, on its delicate blue and white plates, a whole roasted pigeon each, presented on sliced roasted potatoes, as if on a nest. There were special tiny spoons for removing the brains. I copied everyone else and ate like it was what we did almost daily in County Durham. It’s not a dish I’ve incorporated into my Easter traditions since.
This year, like many of my English and French neighbours, I will be queuing at the butcher’s (having checked, again, the opening hours) for a leg of lamb. Will I serve it with roast potatoes and all the usual English Sunday roast accompaniments, or with flageolet beans, French style? Or, as is often the case, create a hodgepodge of traditions and serve both? (My husband, being Irish, doesn’t quite believe a meal is a meal if some form of potato isn’t present, despite being an avid student of French food culture.) What I know is that the Tuesday market fills up with seasonal asparagus (green and white), artichokes (green and purple), and the earliest, sweetest and best Gariguette strawberries. It would be a shame not to drop them all into the meal one way or another.
I have searched, so far without success, for an Easter lamb pan in which to bake a cake. When I say unsuccessful I mean I found one but at £70 for something I would use once a year I could buy a whole gaggle of lamb cakes at our local bakery .
Whatever happens, there will be a party. In France – a nominally Catholic country, though in truth a vigorously secular country – many still mark Easter by going to church. If less than 5% of French people regularly attend mass, as in Great Britain, they are more likely to cross the threshold at Christmas and Easter. Most, however, will celebrate it as a family, which, in this part of France at least, is the only true religion. Newcomers like us mark special days with friends, who become like a kind of family, as we negotiate together the often complex challenges and vicissitudes of life in a country that is not our own.
I look forward to discovering new traditions and creating some myself. I have grown accustomed to my life being ruled by the bells of St Jean Baptiste, its spire visible from our bathroom window and its sound audible throughout the village. Time. The half hour. Time again, so soon. (Its bell, by the way, like many in the region, is protected from strong local winds by an elaborate metal bell.) It will be silent from Good Friday until Easter Sunday, when it will ring to celebrate the risen Christ, but for many – little people, at least – it means the arrival of chocolate. In France, Easter eggs are not delivered by a rabbit, but by bells. On Good Friday, according to legend, church bells fly off to Rome to be blessed by the Pope. When they return on Sunday, the flying bells scatter chocolate everywhere. The cry rises, the bells have passed and the egg hunt can begin.
And with that, I wish everyone a happy Easter! However and wherever you celebrate it.