October 19, 2015

Garden Party

Garden party

We had snow the other day. In October. Everyone was caught off-guard, and everyone was, well, a little annoyed by it. So, let's go back to a fond memory of the end of summer.

The invite said that it was going to be a casual gathering for our friend's 50th birthday party. Our children, ages 2.5 and nearly 5, were "la bienvenue" and the host's daughter might even pitch in to help out with the kids. A Sunday afternoon garden party sounded like a nice way to end the summer, so we were all-in. I had the kids practicing their "bonjours" and their bisous to get ready for seeing all the grown-ups and I put on shorts, my hiking shoes, and a short-sleeved button-down shirt. With temperatures expected to pass 90, I was ready to be casual. 

Arriving at the house at 12:30, the hostess and her daughter greeted us in snugly fitting black dresses. The teenage son was wearing a necktie. Most everyone seemed to be in pants, dresses, jewelry, and I spotted several shirts tucked in. Uh-oh, maybe I was taking this casual thing a little too, well, casually.

Not Larry David

We quickly realized that we knew a majority of the people there, and my self-consciousness faded before the first wine appeared. Once the 40 guests had all arrived, the host deemed it time to begin the festivities and the party began in earnest. 
Accompanied by a glass of Champagne, the caterers began bringing out local treats for our enjoyment: charcuterie on buttered bread; snails in puff pastry, bathed in green garlicky butter; beef carpaccio; frog legs in a creamy sauce; hot foie gras with local pain d'épice; oysters en gelée; cold melon soup spiked with local ratafia (whoops...I gave that one to the boys); cherry tomatoes caramelized with sesame seeds; hard boiled quail's eggs in red gélatine; gougères, the local puffed pastry with cheese; crab salad and avocado mousse; smoked salmon; and, naturally, a chef cooking lobster, scallops, and prawns à la plancha. 

After the Champagne, a Chablis premier cru appeared, followed in due course by a Meursault premier cru from 2009, a great year in Burgundy. Guests mingled under the tent or in the shade of one of the many trees. Smiles were ubiquitous and conversation flowed with ease. The children were hoovering frogs, duck liver, scallops, and pâté with glee. It's not because they are adventurous or smart; it's because life here demands gastronomic flexibility. I have never been asked if I have any culinary preferences, allergies, or restrictions in this country. Imagine inviting a bunch of Americans over and serving liver or rabbit or wild boar or homemade venison terrine or sausage made with animal brains without previewing it! It happens here all the time.

Seafood à la plancha...merci chef

Around 3:00 or so, we were signaled to pass à table, where a Santenay Premier cru red awaited us. Forty people perched on wooden benches and plastic chairs, awaiting a main course of veal simmered with baby vegetables of the season. Served family-style in black casseroles, the dish was rich and hearty, and more than one guest commented that, after everything that we had enjoyed before, the level of hunger was not quite up to the caloric intake required to finish one's plate. Nevertheless, we soldiered on, the boys sweating and refusing to nap and generally beginning to remind us that even "casual" birthday parties can be difficult for little children.

THAT piece, please

After cheese, as the host gathered around his birthday cakes, our oldest got himself a front-row seat, eager to taste a little something sweet to end his day. As he scarfed down a large portion of dessert, we decided it was about time to go home, happy and full, and only a little envious of the people in attendance who had come without children. We certainly had a new appreciation for the potential of the birthday party in Burgundy, France. Once again, this country proved herself to be at her finest when her people gathered around the altar of the table to eat and converse together.

Digestifs, bien sûr

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