Saturday is the feu de la St Jean, a pagan festival, which like various ancient rites, has been appropriated by Christianity, in this case by using the cunning theological strategy of adding the St Jean bit to the end, in the hope that that will do the trick. It is in fact a fire ritual, which marks the Summer Solstice, which in reality was last week. No matter. One of the best things about it is that we don’t have to spend all night having to listen to hippies banging drums a la Stonehenge.
Like most events in the region, it is really an excuse to do some serious drinking. The tipple of choice here is pastis. It really is poky old stuff. We maybe drink three or four per year; more than one before dinner and you risk waking up dressed as one half of a pantomime horse and covered in tattoos. People round here drink them by the dozen. Several have died since we moved here.
The evening starts at the bar, of course, where you order your meal, normally merguez*frites, and in our case, a bottle of wine. People circulate the tables set up in a field and chat and drink, and drink. When night falls and the atmosphere has become relaxed and emotional, a large pile of wooden pallets is set on fire. As soon as possible everyone starts to jump the flames. It really is quite remarkable how fields full of drunks, all across the region, manage to escape self-immolation year in year out.
The consumption of alcohol here is astonishing. A popular event is the apero, a ridiculous euphemism for inviting some friends over to get drunk. The French like to drink whisky as an aperitif, a bit weird in itself, but their choice of whisky is weirder still. They sometimes produce bottles with names such as ‘Sir Pitterson’ or ‘Hamsted.’ An occasional small single malt can be pleasant, but this is neither occasional nor a single malt, nor pleasant. Some bottles actually say: ‘Spirit de whisky,’ a sort of ‘fool’s whisky.’
France has a justly deserved international reputation as a producer of quality food and drink. It seems all the more strange that it also seems to be the dumping ground for alcoholic beverages which few other countries would approach with a barge-pole. The Irish are always amused by the so-called ‘Traditional Irish Ales,’ so common here, but unknown back in Ireland. ‘Adelscot’ is a sinister mix of whisky and beer in a can. Gin and Coke is also quite popular.
The reason it seems shocking, I suppose, is that in their role of arbiters of good taste in things both visual and culinary, we don’t expect to see French people being taken in by such inferior products. We kind of assume that in a country which produces Cognac, Chateau Pétrus and Romanée-Conti that everyone has gourmet tastes. We tend to forget that KFC and the burger people are as popular here as anywhere else. No Burberry baseball hats though. The equivalent here is Louis Vuitton.
*North African, mildly spiced, lamb sausages. An originally Islamic dish for a pagan event.