The sun tickled my nose the next morning. I looked at my watch. It wasn’t time for breakfast, but I could get myself together leisurely and think about my “problem”?
People have always told me that I follow my nose. But the car was full, the drive would be long. The battlelines between devil and angel were drawn, and, surprise, surprise, the nose aka the devil won. I decided not to warn anybody, just appear from nowhere. After all, he had no phone, and what did we do before all this instant communication? We were of course talking about visiting Antoine again.
As usual, when you are in the South, apart from choosing what to eat, the most difficult thing is choosing the route to drive. My pink lady doesn’t like motorways, so that wasn’t really the problem. Luckily, I have a SatNav and taking the scenic route is easy. BUT, you read the names, Rasteau, Gigondas, Vacqueyras, Beaumes de Venise – I just wanted to stop and try the wines. In Cavaillon, I wanted to feast on melons. However, I couldn’t. It was horribly cruel. Oh well, next time.
Dawdling was not an option, and the crisp morning sun accompanied me along my route as I sped through the delightful countryside. Home was slowly coming nearer towards me.
I zipped around Arles and the countryside changed dramatically. I was in the Parc Naturel Régional de Camargue. It was flat as a table, green, it seemed almost swampy, and the smell of salt became stronger the closer I got to Sainte Marie de la Mer.
I recognised the town again, it had only been a week since I had last been here, but it felt like an age. I was feeling excited but also a little apprehensive, would I be welcomed back?
I sped past the restaurant and parked the car under a tree, rummaged for my cassis present and slowly started to walk to the restaurant I had eaten in a few days ago. It was Patron who recognised me and opened his arms a gave me a bear hug and two kisses on the cheeks.
“You are a lucky woman”, he said, grinning across his whole face, “your lover err, Antoine, is here, but he has company…..”
“I leave him for a week, and what does he do…?” I replied, winking with my left eye…
“Men….” replied Patron, teasing me along.
While we were bantering, Patron gently led me to a table and Antoine’s eyes caught mine, and he said, “Mes petits, meet a crazy girl”.
I burst into laughter and replied, “I’m back, chéri!” “Where were you?” he asked. “Everybody missed you!” “Burgundy! Have you heard of it?” “Pah! Foreign country.”
By this time, the little group of young adults managed to overcome their confusion and asked, “Grand-père, what on earth is going on here!”
“Well, listen to this. Last week, this crazy girl came from nowhere, invited me for Apéro, then lunch and wanted to know everything about us Gypsies”.
“Oooooohhh” they said.
“You fed the right man”, one of them told me.
“And I am still hungry for more. I need dessert!” I replied.
“So are we,” they said. It would be great if you joined us.
I didn’t need a second invitation, and I had barely made myself comfortable when Patron placed a huge bowl of delicious black olives in front of us.
Lunch is Red Mullet, said Patron.
There was no choice, lump it or like it.
I liked it. Not that I had any choice. Patron put on his show:
“Fresh red mullet, it was still swimming yesterday, he started, his eyes closing as he started his theatrical introduction.
I prepared it on the “Plancha”. I chose the best oregano from the back garden, the olive oil from my friend down the road (!!), then black olives from the “hinterland”, I have a secret supplier (!!) red chillis from my garden (!!) and the fresh lemons from Menton. I personally drove the long distance and picked them up at the “Fête du Citron” there. (ooooh, I thought, my hero!!), tomatoes from Spain. Here he lost his rhythm. “Ours are not ready yet, and enfin, the best Rosemary from my sister-in-law’s garden. She is called Rosemarie. It is a true family festival you are going to eat, madame. A true festival of the senses.”
I almost got up and applauded and asked for an encore, so brilliant was his performance.
Patron majestically returned to his stove, just to make sure things were OK (his wife was cooking),
Antoine leaned over and said, “Hollywood doesn’t know what they are missing.” Two grandchildren said in unison, “Quel charmeur!!”
I agreed. “I hope his dessert presentation is as good, if not better.”
“It is world known,” said one of the grandchildren.
“Antoine, who are these handsome young men here?” I asked.
“My grandchildren.” he said, now having to admit that he was older than he wanted to be. “But I am happy that they are here for the week, to donate a little time for the old man, I am.”
“Nooooo, not old,” I said, “just well-preserved.” “Grand-père, is this young lady a state secret? Do we mention this to the family?”
“Pah,” said Antoine, “do as you wish! Let me tell you who these characters are: Alfonso, the oldest, then Leandro, then Damian and finally Bireli. The girls are at home.”
“How many are there?” I asked, a little surprised.
“Three,” said Antoine. It’s normal.
“What, having 7 grandchildren?”
“Non, that they stay at home. We preserve and protect them there.”
“How many children do you have?”
“Three. All boys!”
“I have heard about the weddings you celebrate. Quite a spectacle.”
At this point, Patron floated in carrying an enormous platter, piled high with red mullet.
“I heard you were in Burgundy. So, I asked Valentine to do your fish special. You must eat proper food again. Not the rubbish they serve there.
“I will make my comparison after lunch”, I said, “and see who serves the better …..”
“Madam, our food comes from the heart.” said Patron. “Alfonso entered the discussion, “mama cooks the best.” “And why? And what?”
“Ahh, the slow-cooked meats, especially the lamb. My favourite.” “Yes, but don’t forget the stuffed cabbage rolls” said Bireli.
“Non,” said Leandro, “have you forgotten the goulash she learned from her grandmother?”
“Ahhh,“ said all four.
Antoine said, “For me, it’s the chorba.”
“And that is what?” I asked.
“It’s a tasty soup, she has a special recipe. Gypsy food,” he replied. “I am the one with the sweet tooth,” said Damian. “Baklava is a must.” “I have to say, I have never really heard of Gypsy cuisine,” I said.
“Difficult,” said Antoine. “It’s a mélange of everywhere and everything, depending on where we live, where we come from and where we go to. We adapt, and we take the recipes as we pass through the countries. We mix, we match, we try, we eat. Simple.”
“Perhaps I need to explore this,” I said.
“Difficult,” said Antoine. “The easiest is to marry one of us.” Four fresh faces turned to me, smiling broadly. I could feel the blood rise on my face.
“So kind to think of me” I said, turning to Antoine.
“Pleasure,” he said, demurely.
It was time to steer away from this delicate and slightly embarrassing topic and focus on the task at hand.
“Bon apétit,” I said, “can you pass me some of the fish please?” It broke the ice, and we continued chatting about this and that. Damian asked, “So, Vicky, what is it you actually do?” “I’m a traiteur in Brida.”
“It’s near Perpignan,” I replied.
Leandro said, “When we go to Seville, we can stop and visit you.” “Of course, you can, and then I can cook for you.”
Antoine looked up….”What would you serve us?”
“A menu surprise,” I replied, winking with my eye.
“Sounds great,” said Leandro.
After Patron had served the espressos, it was time for me to say my goodbyes. But, again, with a slightly heavy heart.
“My friends, I still have a drive ahead of me; thanks for the warm welcome and friendship.”
Antoine said, “Vicky, this is not an adieu, it’s au revoir.”
“Is that a promise?” I replied.
“Mais oui,” five voices replied in unison.
At this moment, Patron came out with a doggy bag.
“For your journey”, you are looking a little too thin. You must eat. I have prepared something for you. But I forbid you to open it before you arrive home. It is your lunch tomorrow.”
“What is it?” I asked.
“ A surprise”, he replied, winking with his eye.
He leaned over to me and whispered into my ear, “I hear you are one of us, a traiteur. We must look out for each other. Times are difficult.”
I put my parcel on the table and gave him a big hug.
“Yes,” I replied, we do that. “You promise to come to Brida?”
Patron spat into his hand, rubbed his palms together and said, my word is my bond.
See you in winter.
“Venez,” said Antoine. “Let’s accompany this bizarre woman to her crazy car.”
“Crazy car?” I replied.
“Yes, my word is final,” said Antoine.
The four grandsons helped me with my food and stood by my Pink Lady.
“You drive this?” Bireli asked.
“She is a brave girl” said Alfonso.
“She is eccentric” echoed Antoine.
With that, I got into the car, started the engine, pressed the horn and drove down the street, stopped, opened the window and blew them all a kiss.