Thursday, 1 September 2016

Eating Ukrainian, in a junkyard, in Southern France.

Pyrenees-Orientales
As someone who gained a lofty 'F' in GCSE French, it always fills me with trepidation whenever I have to resort to using my numb Gallic tongue. I can normally get in a decent sentence first. 'May I have a beer, please.' 'Do you have a table for six people, please?' 'Excuse me, but where is the library/disco? Please.' But then I am usually left dumbstruck by the quickfire response and with one eyelid batting, often try to work out exactly what has been communicated back to me. The French don't give simple answers you see. They like to litter them with extra dialogue, physical gestures and pepper the air with 'N'est pas!' and 'Mon dieu!' Which might be down to my initial, fluffed inquiry, who knows?

Worse still, when the words disappear out of view, I have a tendency to resort to using English, in a very bad French accent. I did this a lot when we were on holiday in the Pyrenees-Orientales just recently. Think Inspector Clouseau, Gerard Depardieu and Maurice Chevalier, all rolled into one. A caricature of French-ness so extreme, it's any wonder why I don't just simply launch into a full on nasal - 'Haw-hee-haw-hee-haw.' And be done with it. Actually I do know why. I'd end up with a black eye and even looser teeth.

When abroad, it is with great relief whenever someone does finally give me that pitying look, and says 'We can talk in English, if you like?' Although it is a bit weird when the person in question has rather a thick Russian accent. I wasn't expecting that when I first spoke to Lucy, who ran a hotel down in the village. There were plenty more surprises to come but in the first instance, we were just glad to find a place to eat that was local. Well, relatively local. We were staying a couple of miles away, up a mountain and I could have probably lived on barbecues and wine for the entire holiday, all within the privacy of our secluded gite. But seeing as my family, parents included, were tiring of watching me cook in Speedos and flip flops; like I said, it was a good find.

So after a quick leapfrog through several language barriers and with the promise of simple sounding fare and wine from just down the road, we booked ourselves a table for the next night. Lucy also said that she would put us in the courtyard of the ancient winery that was attached to hotel. It all sounded very romantic. My Dad, ever mindful after hearing about the beautiful, neighbourhood vin pays d'oc, also inquired if there was a taxi service we could use. To which the pixie-like Lucy replied - 'Oh, my husband Slava can collect you. He is a very safe driver. He once drove across Russia in two weeks, with no sleep. Just text us your address.' And so the adventure began.

Despite living in the village for a couple of years, by all accounts Slava had never been up the mountain before. I say mountain, it was more of a hill really. But with really, really steep drops. Anyway, as such, Slava was slightly late and arrived in a cloud of dust. Stepping out of the door of his car and through that very cloud, Slava was quite a resplendent chap; dressed in Hawaiian shirt, combat shorts and socks and leather sandals. I mean his socks were very thick. I just could not get over how thick his socks were. His glasses were quite thick too.

In the manner of Star Trek's Chekov, he bellowed - 'Hello, I am Slava! I am so sorry I am late. We have unexpected guests arriving at the hotel and I don't know what I am doing. I mean, I don't know where I am going.'

I shook his hand and looked at my wife to reassure her that this would all be perfectly safe, as we bundled our precious children into the back. The look she gave me suggested that she wasn't quite convinced but we were on holiday. 'Let's live a little,' I suggested, with my bright and widening eyes.

'Am I driving too fast?'

'Ha. Nooo. This is fine,' I replied as we hurtled down the hill, staring down at the black abyss beside me.

'I once drove across Russia in two weeks you know. With no sleep. I average 150km an hour. I also like to climb mountain, with no ropes.'

'That's brilliant. Maybe you could slow down, just a bit Slava?. I think my parents are trying to keep up?'

'Yes, we must not forget your parents, because they are eating with you. I hope you enjoy tonight but we are very busy. I don't know when you will be eating. But it will be soon.'

Thankfully, we made it down to the village safe and sound and after a short wait for my parents, we were ushered into that romantic courtyard. Which in some ways resembled a dump, a mechanics workshop, complete with motorbike and an antique emporium; full of curios, broken statues and random baskets hanging from the crumbling walls. The most impressive sight was a huge, dilapidated wine barrel in the corner, that in it's prime, would have easy held over a thousand litres of wine.

This is what Slava told us by the way, before finishing with - 'Even empty, it is heavy and if it fell on you, it will crush you. But it is quite safe in here. Sit and I will bring you drinks.'

So we all sat, at our plastic table and looked at the surroundings, all feeling slightly giddy and hysterical. What followed was a sort of tempo for the entire night. From a distance, you would hear a mad scrambling over pebbles and then as Slava entered the courtyard, his pace would drop. Attentively too-ing and fro-ing, he would bring wine, soft drinks, water, bread, candles, mats, cutlery, blankets; all in quiet, gentle servitude. Then as soon as he was back out the door, you'd hear him sprint from one place to the other. Like a cross between Fred Sirieix and Usain Bolt.

The wine was indeed good but the arrival of food was very slow. Our courtyard soon became enveloped in darkness and my son started to do that juddery, commuter head jerk at the table, drifting in and out of sleep. Then suddenly, lights came on and bats flew over our heads, which brought everyone to abrupt attention. In the corner, stood Slava, by a switch, grinning:

'I have installed floodlights! And soon, we will do more to this place. But now, Lucy and I will bring your meal.'

Flustered, Lucy came in with plates, decrying that the everything was just so frantic, what with extra guests and all, and that she was so sorry to keep us waiting. At one point, I was worried that she was going to start crying.

To start then, we had a simple salad of ham, blue cheese, tomatoes, leaves and seeds. A great combination that was demolished in seconds, as we were all very hungry by that point. The tomatoes in particular were gorgeously ripe and bursting. Sunshine makes such a difference with this fruit and I could whinge about the fact that we never seem to get the same quality in the UK, as opposed to what you get on the continent. But I won't. Although I think I just have.

Another short spell of inactivity beckoned but then hark, the sound of speedy leather and wool came trip-trapping over and our hosts began to place bowls of steaming hot mushroom soup before us. The smell actually reached us before they did, a heady combination of garlic and earthy fungus, which really got the saliva glands going. Topped with raw mushroom, dill and olive oil, it was probably the most intense bowl of mushroom soup that I ever tasted. It was beautiful. My Mum announced that she normally blanches at the stuff but had to admit this was very good indeed. Again, the sound of metal scrapping at china announced that we had all been still quite hungry. But that soup soon quelled the pangs and the boy was now wide awake.

Flamboyantly, Slava then came bounding into the yard and said - 'Now is the time to light the flame!' And proceeded to open the rusty lid of what I thought, was a defunct gas barbecue, that had been lying listless against the wall. It burst into life, all orange and blue and as it did so, Slava turned to face us and merely raised his eyebrows with glee.

Lucy then came in with a huge platter, with unidentifiable lumps of what I presumed to be meat and she slapped them down nonchalantly on the grill, all one by one.

She then turned and whispered to us, mysteriously -'I must collect the flowers in the dark. I should have done this much, much earlier, but I was oh so...busy.'  And off she skipped into the night, resembling Bjork more and more by the second.

We were left for quite a while then, apart from a quick burst from Slava to bring us more to drink and for Lucy to turn the lumps over with her fish slice.

'What was on the grill?' we all asked ourselves. Beef? Pork? Veal? I was sure it was veal because veal is more typically eaten in France, I slurred sagely to the table.

It was chicken. Chicken breast with potatoes, dressed with more dill and those flowers that Lucy found magically, using her pixie night vision, guided by the fairies. And whilst at first, the notion of chicken left everyone deflated at the table, with a sort of 'Oh, is that all?' it was the most amazingly succulent piece of chicken. It was seasoned heavily but it was extremely juicy and tender and Lucy seemed to have paid it no thought when cooking it. I don't know how she did it really. And the potatoes, oh the potatoes, they had so much flavour. Waxy yet buttery at the same time. Why we can't get potatoes like that in the UK is beyond me but I will shut up about that for now.

Desserts came a lot quicker. Fruit sundaes for the children and lemon sorbet for the adults. Lemon sorbet drizzled with vodka.

'Wow Slava, that vodka was nice on the sorbet. Tasted a bit a like Polish Żubrówka.'

''Nyet. Only Russian vodka is proper vodka,' Slava replied, sternly. 'Same man who first make vodka invented the periodic table. He was a great man.'

To which I had to uncomfortably acquiesce because what did I know.

The mood soon lightened quickly though and before long, Slava and Lucy were sitting with us, more relaxed and smoking and chatting, making me wonder whether we were the only people they were cooking for.

'No, I've cooked for 30 people tonight. Always the same. People, they drop in, ask for room, ask for food, we are just starting out, we cannot say no.'

As more dessert wine was poured (for us, not Slava, he was driving, phew) we found out some more about them. Lucy was actually from the Ukraine and the continuing troubles over there had forced them to move away, to start up a business in a country where they barely understood the language or even knew how to run a hotel. But their plans were big. The courtyard would be smartened up in due course. The wide lids of the wine barrels would be turned into tables. A proper kitchen will be built. They will get help at some point. 

'It vill happen,' said Slava, confidently.

Their entrepreneurial spirit was very inspiring and all in all, despite all the waiting, we had a great and supremely quirky time at Relais de Laval and if by some peculiar crook, you ever find yourself in that region, you should try some of their wacky yet endearingly warm hospitality.

For the four courses, a seemingly unlimited amount of wine and for picking us up and returning us back home, they charged us 25 euros a head and half that for the children. Which was a faintly ridiculous price but we tipped generously and returned for one more night of fun, where the menu was similar bar for a spectacular borscht. Coming from seriously frosty climes, obviously the Ukrainians (and Russians) do know a thing or two about soup.

On that note, when Slava dropped my Dad and I off for the last time (he always took my wife, Mum and children up first, so that we could ..ahem, indulge one more drink) I cheekily asked him about his sartorial proclivity for wearing very thick socks with his sandals.

To which he replied - 'Daniel. We are up in the mountains. It gets cold up here.'

It was a stupid question really.











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