This year the weather has been less predictable than in previous years. June and July saw a mixture of temperatures but it was dry so the corn ripened, the rain obligingly fell after five in the evening and irrigated throughout the evening, thus ensuring fat ears of corn and clean, juicy stalks for the cattle. Rain, in manageable quantities, is greeted with pleasure by farmer and gardener alike. Everyone that is except the organisers of the ‘fete locales’ whose programmes of ninety decibel rock music held in the open air were somewhat dampened.
Our own, held in early May was a soggy affair.
Spirits however weren’t dampened , so as usual the thump, thump thump of Le Rock (as only the French can do it) continued unabated until three in the morning. I am continually amazed that the street looks so untouched in the morning. Only a odd plastic cup perched on a window sill gives any indication that anything took place the night before.
But August in the French Pyrenees brings about a sea- change. In the weather, and the mood. Like a switch being thrown the mornings have an almost autumnal note to them…..Cool (verging on the chilly when you open the shutters in a thin nightie) and mellowly sunny in contrast to the brash brightness of July mornings. And there’s a calmer feel to the countryside. The endless churn of combine harvesters, the clatter of tractor and trailers as the harvest is gathered in is replaced by a gentler, less urgent pace.
Time, then, to celebrate. And what better way than with a ‘battage’? Something that in the UK might be referred to as a steam rally.
From eight a.m onwards, the ancient machinery begins to arrive, under its own power, or less frighteningly, on the back of a low loader. By ten o’clock a small hole is being made in the ozone layer as the engines begin to steam up for a day of undiluted nostalgia. The kitchens are steaming up too. Vast cauldrons of ‘boullion de poulet’ and mounjetade are adding their own aroma to the mixture of steam, oil and burning wood.
An enormous barn is the venue for the ‘repas de midi’(4 courses, aperitif, wine and digestif for the bargain price of 12 euros). The barn can easily accommodate thirty trestle tables, and the tables are laid for thirty people. Thirty times thirty? It doesn’t bear thinking about. There should be an air of panic, but no, apart from a dog resembling a hearth rug which has made a bolt for freedom from the back of a pickup and is chasing Madame Louge’s in- season spaniel everything seems to be under control.
People begin to drift in. Those who like a quiet wander, and a nostalgic wallow with plenty of time and space to take in the great Ruston steam engine, the seed drills, the ploughs, the threshing machines, which are silent now but at three o’clock…give or take an hour or two…… they will be chattering and rattling in a cloud of chaff, straw and dust. Accompanied by chattering and coughing from the spectators.
The gentle peace of the ‘chaum’ or stubble field is about to be shattered by the arrival of the ‘bandas….. this year, a group of young players from the Gers. Their enthusiasm knows no bounds as they hurl themselves in at the deep end with a frantic medley of Abba hits. The ‘ole boys in their black ‘pancake’ berets have to shout to make themselves heard.
Looking forward to a peaceful Sunday?…..no chance!
By twelve noon a long queue has begun to form outside M.Puzol’s barn, like souls awaiting admission for Heaven at the Pearly Gates. Despite the fact that no-one will be admitted before 12.30 it’s all very good humoured, with plenty of banter and an overkill of kissing.
At 12.45 the doors are flung open, not by St Peter, but the burly form of Bernard the butcher, now re-incarnated as ‘Security’. Those with the foresight to reserve ahead are wearing the smug expressions of the ‘haves and have nots’. They are already seated at their tables while the rest of us ‘Johnny-Come-Latelys have to mill about like anxious chickens trying to find seats next to each other. I resolve to be more organised next year.
An army of helpers in their red Basque berets descend on the tables with bottles of sweet ‘Muscat de Rivesalt’, the favourite aperitif of the South West and all points east. Those in the know give the bottle a nudge with the rim of their glass and are rewarded with a bigger measure. We’re frightfully British so we wouldn’t dream of doing anything other than murmur ‘merci beaucoup’ as we are poured half a small glass. Jean-Luc, our friendly neighbourhood plumber, notices the measly measure of My Significant Other and demands a top-up for him.
My own need has been lost in the general mayhem. Oh well, I’ll make up for it later.
The bandas troop in rarin’ to go. It’s ear drum-bursting time again. The volunteer waiters duck and dive between them with bottles and plates. They’ve obviously taken a crash course in avoiding trombone slide injury. The ‘aperos’ are drained to the dregs and the bottles refilled with wine. There are bottles of mineral water too, of course, but in a ratio of six to one…..in favour of the wine. There’s a choice…Red or rose. I opt for the rose….it’s a hot afternoon and there’s a long way to go before we reach the coffee stage. My neighbour takes a slurp of his red and pulls a face.
‘Pas bien?’ I enquire. Surely not!
‘Espagnol’ he replies in some disgust. What a crime! I quite like it but decide that discretion will be the better part of valour.
Soup trolleys appear to huge applause and the battle commences.
There is too much for everyone even though the grannies and granddads have pulled above their weight in trying to sop up every last drop. More bread would seem to be required, and lo, more appears; chunks cut from loaves the size of car tyres. It’s all vaguely reminiscent of the ‘Feeding of the Five Thousand’. Seeing the rate at which the wine’s disappearing some-one capable of turning water into wine might be needed soon, as well.
The band play enthusiastically between courses, but by the time we have reached the entrée it’s all getting a bit out of hand. But the waiters are still smiling and their dodging techniques are improving rapidly.
Outside the temperature is rising and the afternoon crowd are beginning to drift in. The threshing machines are cranked up and the ‘working’ part of the day is taking off. But in the barn we’ve still got two more courses to go, and the diners are getting cranked (and tanked) up as well. The entrance of the band for yet another ‘recital’ heralds the moment for ‘table dancing.’ Not the London night club variety I hasten to add but one or two of the younger ladies could probably audition for a job. I vaguely worry that the table will collapse but after three glasses of this ‘criminal’ Spanish wine I am becoming quite unconcerned.
With everyone happily sipping coffee and high octane brandy the waiters decide to celebrate the end of their labours with a boisterous display of high spirits. Half a dozen of them lie on their backs while the rest take it in turns to launch themselves over them and are passed hand to hand. Halfway across they are rocked backwards and forwards like a human rocking horse. All goes well until some joker (it looks like Tibaud Leger but all the boys look the same lying flat on the floor) decides to grab the trousers of one of the flyers The underpants come off simultaneously. Whoops!..…it’s inevitable I suppose…..the day’s stress has to be released somehow and a bit of ‘deshabille’ is as good a stress-buster as any. The previously respectable matrons on my table can’t get enough of it……it sounds as if several dozen parrots have been released and are all screeching together. It’s probably a long time since they’ve seen young, male buttocks unfettered. In an effort to recover his dignity the young ‘flyer’ leaps up and the grannies are treated to a front view. Mass hysteria seems about to break out.
We decide it’s time to go home. We haven’t the stamina of these sturdy Pyreneans. As we leave order has been restored, the young man has retrieved his trousers, and the tables are being cleared in readiness for the evening session. Another (thankfully smaller) ‘repas’ is to be laid out and the ‘bal musette’ will kick off at 22.00 …or there abouts. And the popular, ‘encroyable’ Nadua who are hot from the Zenith in Toulouse will relieve the hyper-active bandsmen who are still belting out ‘Guatanamera’ at full throttle. The battage is winding down for another year, leaving us with vivid memories of yet another date in the mountain calendar ticked off, and the grannies dreaming of the next one and another glimpse of a well toned ‘derrier’.
This article first appeared in www.lettersfromfrance.com