In the French language, a ‘Barnum’ is a marquee. I heard the word and then spelling it in my head, I realised that the name originates from the circus. My grandmother ran away from her circus family! PT Barnum was an American showman from the 18th and 19th century. These Barnums were plastic, not the two-masted canvas tents including the sight of sawdust, buffoonery of clowns. There were no trapeze artistes, smell of caged lions, ballerinas on horseback, sound of a thrilling circus orchestra, nor the comic laughter of the audience!
Our guests mingled in the confined area, meeting and greeting others, laughing, smiling and choosing a place to sit, whilst I calmly, so I thought, tried to prepare the different parts of the menu ready for construction and serving. All the time I was welcoming new arrivals and being showered with gifts. Meanwhile, Captain Sensible was ensuring that everyone had a drink in hand. Friends were helping in so many different ways. It was such a happy occasion.
Our timetable was delayed on account of the forecast being accurate. We had hoped that the sunny day of 11th July could be repeated but weather cannot be ordered and besides which, the plants needed to be watered. The rain and wind won the day. I was a poor host and had not arranged my ‘self’ to be free. Captain Sensible thought it was my control streak and of course to some extent this was true. We had asked for help but we had not involved anyone beforehand with the planning. I was modest and unprepared for the arrival of birthday gifts and another table had to be quickly prepared. Some packages had no gift tags, and consequently later I was not entirely sure who they were from!!! I have been thoroughly spoilt and was completely overwhelmed with the French generosity, kindness and apparent liking of me. This came somewhat as a surprise because in my working life there were few people fond of me. You can't be liked, yet alone loved, in Management!
How did the idea for a party suggest itself?
For a year I had been indicating that I would prefer to be a long way away from any surprise 60th birthday parties, preferably in another warm country, but it didn't work out like that, as we found ourselves committed to helping friends in the weeks before my birthday. Then it was discovered that one of these friends wanted to organise a surprise party at her own home - Captain Sensible had the foresight to warn me. HELP! He then had the notion that IF WE organised the event it would force us into having the kind of gathering that for some months/years we had intended to give for the people of our hameau. The ideas grew!!! We would invite the villagers, as well as the Dancing Group and of course the people we voluntarily teach English to, and our English friends and acquaintances. Like Topsy the numbers expanded! We were approaching over 100 including the partners and children of those we wished to invite. My birthday was on a Saturday and that weekend is a highlight in the French calendar as it is always just before the Fête Nationale for Bastille day and it is also a popular date for weddings, baptisms, brocantes and medieval fêtes. Sadly, some friends who I especially wanted to invite could not come, but it made our numbers more manageable and the event more affordable.
We wanted to provide a sit-down menu, not a buffet. We started to plan and so delivered the invitations. Our anxiety and panic levels increased! How were we going to cater for so many when our refrigerator, freezer and 'cave' storage facilities were minimal? How were we going to provide food and drinks when we did not wish to ask anyone to bring anything? How were we going to have a set menu – and not an 'à la carte menu' here?
I started to make bread in large quantities in my antique English pottery bread bowl. It was enormous fun. I made about 14 loaves weighing 500g of uncooked dough. More than we required. At about the same time, I bought pork on promotion and made terrines for the starter. On the first day of a Leclerc promotion I purchased 80 salmon slices and kept them frozen in Huguette's freezer. Unbeknown to me each slice could have been halved but on the day we served the generous sized portions for the main course. I bought premium apricots in three boxes at a discounted cost. We bought wine from the recommended 'cave' and beer from the supermarket when it was on offer.
People kept insisting they should bring food and eventually we acquiesced suggesting that people bring savoury or sweet tarts for the evening. This meant we would not worry about having insufficient food. Ha … in this house? You must be joking!!!! However, this also meant that I could not make a pastry dessert when I had already made a huge quantity of shortcrust pastry for tarts and put it in the freezer. The pastry would keep. Eventually, I decided that a compôte is refreshing after any meal. It could be made the day before, covered and chilled on ice to be kept in the bath. This was also where we kept the wines that we had purchased from the cave. It is fragile and will not keep in high temperatures unless it is chilled. We made ice and covered the wine flagons and bowls of apricot compôte with a silver insulation foil blanket that we use for camping. It worked a treat and it was all hygienic!
Before the day Captain Sensible used the event as an incentive to complete the tiling and tuffeau on the porch and various other jobs. There are still a few more things to titivate but it now looks so wonderful. He was in charge of mowing the lawn, strimming the garden, making everything neat and tidy, even erecting a 30m wind shield in the plum tree area. We kept saying we will be fine unless it rains or is too hot!! He was in charge of the logistics and mathematics for how many tables and chairs we needed as well as helping me with catering requirements, of which we were over-bought in wines, cheeses, bread and lettuce!! Catering is a fine art! Our menu for Village de Vaux Fête Conviviale:
I had made my own birthday cake and arranged the 60 candles in their holders in a kind of Sweetpea signature swirl. Someone, recognizing the non-spoken dialogue made me sit down and wait for the cake to be brought out with candles alight! I expressed surprise though I was also clearly stunned and very impressed by my cake alight!
I had to blow them out and wish ‘for a rabbit’ as once upon a time Alexander had said. I wished for more than rabbits but not for me.
I then cut the cake, just as I imagined it would have been like at a wedding. Someone came with serviettes, the portions were divided and served to the guests.
I love France and it’s culture. I love the lessons I have learned. I love some of the exceptional characters. The Swiss-Parisienne Huguette, helper of our integration, the petit Reine, the shy Muguette, the enthusiastic Martine, the theatrical vibrant, happy Chantal, notre voisin Jean-Louis un expert de champignons et sa soeur de Marseille, the very funny, strong, assertive, free, truly feminine women of the English group (Sandrine, Marilyne, Aurore, Valerie, Pierette, Francoise, Pascale, Isabel) , the talented famille de Laurie, the delightful Jeannine and the elegant Muriel, not forgetting the farmer brothers, Jean-Yves et Pascale who help us so much when a strong arm, logs and tractors are required.