Stretched between the pear trees lining the avenue, the nets were alive with birds.
Dinner at the chateau is an experience worth braving the frightful rigour of the cross channel ferry for and having lunched on an evil tasting ‘croque monsieur’ with Margaux, my only hope of salvation lay in the legendary hospitality of the Marquis Daniel ‘Dangerous’ de Lyon.
Maurice paused to catch his breath, a rheumy wheeze rattling his chest before he carefully plucked the exhausted buntings from the net and dropped them into a canvas bag, slung around his sloping shoulders.
Pointing the nose of the Bentley into the drive, the magnificent roar of the four mighty cylinders reverberates through the early evening sunshine. Picking up speed, the unfortunate incident with the Citroen 2CV is pushed to the back of my mind, if not that of the gendarme who with excruciating attention to the ravings of the excitable occupants issued me with a stern warning to report to ‘Le Gendarmerie’ in the morning. Margaux is studiously ignoring my attempts at humour, raising a sardonic eyebrow and promising dire consequences with her continued silence.
Maurice reached into the bag and retrieved a single bird. His gnarled hand enveloped the tiny creature and he stroked it reflectively with a grimy thumb before opening his clasp knife and applying the point with surgical precision, removed the bunting’s eyes. Tiny crimson tears wiped carefully away, the head tenderly stroked before the bird was deposited into its cage with a large bowl of millet.
A hand of whist and a quite magnificent glass of Amontillado from the Marquis’ capacious cellar keeps starvation precariously at bay, Margaux shooting me a blood curdling look as I surreptitiously replenish my glass, while depositing the crumbs of a ferociously unpleasant oatmeal biscuit into the nearest plant pot. I ruefully reflect that the Marquis is as famous for his miniscule portions as he is for the magnificence of his cellar and resolve to supplement this meagre ration with furtive visits to the decanter on the rare occasion that Margaux’s eagle eye might be diverted.
For several days, Maurice replenished the corn, talking to the birds, stroking them as they fluttered sightlessly around the cage. Gradually the fowl grew fat and the fatter they grew, the happier Maurice became. By the fourteenth day he was ecstatic, whistling a tuneless version of Le Marseillaise between discoloured and broken teeth. He filled a jug with Armagnac, and after helping himself to a generous sample, immersed the birds, one at a time, holding them under the surface until they stopped struggling and lay soaking in the rich and aromatic vintage. Placing a cover on the jug, he sauntered contentedly to the door and spying Anne-Marie, the kitchen maid in the herb garden, chuckled grimly to himself, moving with painful deliberation towards the box hedge enclosure.
In the kitchens, Slaughter manoeuvred his considerable bulk past the empty birdcage to the range where he bent with great difficulty, wheezing and cursing, and retrieved the row of buntings, roasted in their own fat for precisely seven and one half minutes from the depths of the roaring ovens. Arranging them carefully in a row, sweat pouring from his forehead, each two ounce bird precariously upright, Slaughter poured the smoking fat from the dish carefully over their tiny blackened heads.
Sitting around the table in the dining hall, the ancestors gazing approvingly from the walls, a spoon rapped on the table for attention. La Marchionesse delivers a prayer, my impatient belly rumbling in eager and increasingly urgent anticipation. A silver bell is rung, twice, the almost inaudible tinkle carrying down the stone flagged corridors to the kitchens. My appetites surge at the prospect of imminent and memorable satisfaction. The dish is brought to the table, the pale yellow fat sizzling and spitting.
The napkins are unfolded and with great care placed over our heads, for each guest, forming a tent over the bowl. Within the dark confines of this makeshift cathedral, a communion is in progress. The bird is picked up and placed whole, into the mouth, only the beak protruding. The jaws begin to slowly grind, the beak deposited into the bowl, the skull, brains, meat and intestines slowly masticated into a salty, savoury paste, tiny pockets of spirit releasing their exotic fumes into my flaring nostrils. I munch for several minutes, my heavy jaws smashing the bones, I am in direct communication with God. As the delicate, incomparable flavour of the fat floods my senses, my eyes fill with tears for the love of creation and the infinite invention of the master chef.
Stretched between the pear trees lining the avenue, the nets are alive with birds, the ortolans are tired now and Maurice spits a shred of tobacco from between his teeth, rises stiffly to his feet and shuffles forwards.