Could you call it a garden party? Or a big summer picnic? A backyard party? It's all of the above and at the same time none of the above. The term garden party makes me think of women dressed up and wearing hats, British-style. It wasn't that at all. Some people were dressed up and others were in shorts and tee-shirts.
And it didn't feel like a summer picnic because it was a sit-down meal at a table with real dishes and silverware and tablecloths. And it didn't have the feel of a backyard party, because it wasn't in the back yard but the front. And it was a little fancier than that.
Anyway, after standing around talking in small groups for the first 30 minutes or so and forming a kind of receiving line that new arrivals felt they need to pass through, shaking hands all around and even kissing some people on both cheeks, we were handed glasses of champagne. It was champagne, not a local bubbly. J.-M. was in charge of the wine service, but he had plenty of help when it came to passing glasses around.
There were some finger foods on a couple of tables under a big canvas rooftop — you couldn't call it a tent because it didn't have sides, just a roof. The first foods I saw were little canapé-type sandwiches filled with different spreads and salads and cheeses.
The way they do these things is to take a little flat loaf of country bread (pain de campagne) or whole wheat bread (pain complet) that has a soft crust and cut it into very thin slices. The boulangeries have slicing machines that make a neat job of it. The fillings are cut or spread on very thinly but are savory and bright tasting. When you eat a little sandwich, you aren't eating much bread, which could fill you up, and you are getting a tasty morsel. The bread is sturdy enough not to fall apart.
The most impressive thing about the way the canapés are served is that the form of the loaf is maintained. Between every other slice of bread there's some filling. I'm talking about slices no more than an eighth of an inch thick. You kind of peel off your little sandwich without disturbing the loaf. It's attractive and neat. (I wish I had a picture.)
There were also bowls of melon chunks with toothpicks, a big bowl of cherry tomatoes that somebody had grown in his garden and contributed to the party, and at least two dips made of pureed chickpeas. One dip was just chickpeas, herbs, and spices, and the other included pureed red bell pepper so it was pink. There were baskets of saltine-type crackers and hard breadsticks.
Serving dips here seems to be a new thing, and I couldn't help noticing people who were double-dipping with their breadsticks without even thinking about it. Otherwise, there were little spoons in the dips and people were spooning them onto crackers.
The champagne was flowing and then women, mainly A. and her daughter and sister, started bringing out trays of little quiches and pizzas that had been warmed in the oven. I imagine that these were bought from a charcutier-traiteur and not home-made. There were a couple of trays of little rolls of pain au lait stuffed with snails in garlic-parsley butter. Those were very delicious, I thought.
There were also little cups of tasting spreads and salads — I think in a restaurant you'd call them an amuse-bouche or amuse-gueule. A. makes them. One was, for example, a spoonful of guacomole in the bottom of a glass with a spoonful of cream or cottage cheese (fromage blanc) on top. Another was a little glass of cooked wheatberries with a shrimp on top. And so on, all better one than the next and very savory.
A. opened some presents at that point. I wish I had taken my camera for that, too, actually. Since she is now our mayor, somebody gave here a framed portrait of president Nicolas Sarkozy of the kind that is posted in every mairie in France (and there are about 35,000 of them). It was an 8" x 10" photo, not enormous. It came with a little tricolore flag on a stick which at one point A. put into her hair as a kind of hat. Very funny. Here's a link to Sarkozy's official portrait, if you want a chuckle.
Josette gave A. and J.-M. a couple of books in French about the American West, because our mayor and her husband are going on a bus-tour in October that will take them from LA to Las Vegas to Zion and Bryce Canyons, Monument Valley, the Grand Canyon, Death Valley, and on to San Francisco. It will be a whirlwind tour.
Soon more food was brought out. There were two huge bowls of rice-type salads, one made with quinoa and the other wheatberries or bulgur wheat, with tomatoes and other vegetables and herbs in them. There were a couple of beautiful vegetable terrines made with zucchini, carrots, and peas — A. made those, evidently. I imagine she and her sister and daughter made the salads and dips too. There was also a fish terrine that A. said had mackerel in it, but I think it also had a center made of either lobster or monkfish. It had that texture and taste. Maybe it was surimi — I don't know.
We all got plates and served ourselves, and then took our places at the table. J.-M. brought bottles of local wines to each table, one red and one white. Both wines came from the Girardière winery in Saint-Aignan, which is near the Beauval zoo. The red was a Côt (Malbec) and the white was a Sauvignon Blanc, the local AOC white grape. I know J.-M. particularly likes Côt wines because they are meatier (charnus) and more corsés than Gamay wines (which Walt and I like better, actually). Here's a link to the Domaine de la Girardière web site, in English.
Walt and I thought this was lunch: quinoa and bulgur salads, fish terrine, vegetable pâté, and so on. We loaded up our plates and enjoyed it. Then we were surprised to see more food come out. There were platters of plump poached (I think) chicken drumsticks on a bed of lettuce with tomatoes, and there were platters of thinly sliced roast beef. There must have been other vegetables and meats, but I can't remember what they might have been.
And then there was a big cheese platter, featuring many of Françoise and Frédéric Bouland's goat cheeses from the Ferme-Auberge de la Lionnière down the road from us. And there was of course dessert: a home-made tiramisu; pear, apple, and other fruit tarts; and chocolate cake. There was an enormous bowl of fresh raspberries that are grown on a farm over in Saint-Romain, on the other side of the river from Saint-Aignan.
By the time lunch was well under way, the sun had come out and was getting hot. At different moments, groups of people would get up and move their tables to a shadier spot in the yard, under a tree. Everyone would reassemble and continue eating and talking. Then another table would be moved the same way. We finally had to move ours too, because the sun was really beating down.
It was all very merry and before we knew it it was 5:30. We were talking with Josette and the couple who used to own and operate the Tête Noire hotel and restaurant in Saint-Aignan. Walt needed to go give the dog her afternoon walk. We thought the party was over. People were slowly leaving. Walt kissed Josette good-bye and went to look for A. to tell her thanks. He couldn't find her or J.-M., he said.
A few minutes later, I decided to go home too. After saying my au revoir to my tablemates, I went and managed to find A. I told her thanks and said what a good time we had had. "Oh, but you are staying for dinner with us all, aren't you?" she said. Oh my gosh, I thought, more food! We were worn out. I knew Walt was not going to want to come back and eat dinner.
I went on home and spent about an hour reading e-mail and news and blogs. Walt came back from the walk with Callie. We looked at each other and realized we really had no excuse not to go back over to the party for dinner. So we did, at about 7:00.