In the dying heat of the late afternoon and still surrounded by the sweet smelling pine trees we cycled into the small town of Pissos where we found a small supermarket. Inside the bright lights, layout and well-stocked shelves were more similar to a British shop then any we had encountered up to now. We bought the staple fare of pasta, a jar of tomato sauce, a tin of tuna, but also, unusually, a carton of six bottles of beer as the campsite was too far from the town for a brief visit to a bar and enjoying a beer in the warm, sandy forest seemed an attractive prospect to wind down after a hot day in the saddle.
However on leaving the supermarket we could see a couple of musicians tuning up at a bar on the opposite side of the road. Under the shade of some small but full-crowned broadleaf trees they were testing microphones, an accordion and a guitar. In front of their set a number of long trestle tables and benches had been arranged. There was music here tonight, now the only question was – were we invited?
Addressing the accordion player in my execrable French we soon realised his limited English was a more comprehensible medium. I established fairly quickly that it was an open affair (although we were later to discover we had somewhat gatecrashed a club) and that for ten euros a meal and the entertainment were provided. With smiles and nods all round we departed to the campsite, intent on freshening up before returning for a night of carousing with the locals.
Slightly after eight we chained our bikes, as always looking spindly and naked when shorn of their panniers and associated travelling equipment, to the supermarket railings before crossing the road to join an assembling group of people who evidently all knew each other well. Stranded on one of the large trestle tables and slowly sipping at a beer with no food or music yet apparent there was a nagging doubt as to whether we were really going to enjoy this but when the music started the atmosphere lightened, possibly partly because we were no longer the centre of attention. It had been a mute, sideways glanced and entirely neutral attention but the feeling of eyes boring into the back of your head was not the most comfortable. The two troubadours went under the name of ‘Sans Additif’ and were quickly adept at instilling life into the crowd. By the time they stopped their set upon the arrival of large steel dishes and trays of food the mood was distinctly buoyant. When they had been served their food from the makeshift kitchen they espied these two faintly forlorn Englishmen sitting alone at their table and came to join us. We also went to collect our evening meal and found it was traditional Gascon fare, a salted cod fish stew, salad, assorted cuts of melon, a rhubarb and apple tart and a selection of cheeses. For ten euros we’d got a very good deal.
Back at the table introductions were made and we were soon telling Nico and Laurent what we were doing in Pissos while they explained how they had come down from Bordeaux, some fifty miles north, to perform here. Nico asked us what we’d drink and swiftly delivered a bottle of red Bordeaux to the table. It was the first of many drinks we were destined not to pay for the rest of the evening. We talked and laughed our way through the meal and as we nibbled at the last pieces of cheese I heard a voice say,
‘Ici sont les Anglais.’
Standing beside me was a beaming man who had earlier doled out my portion of fish stew. I assumed this must be the mayor, but I soon found out he was the ‘chef’ of the club. It turned out that this building wasn’t a regular bar at all, but the club house of what may be described as a social or friendly club. I faintly wondered about our membership status but he was very pleased to see us and before long the once deserted table was full of people interested to know why two Englishmen (on bicycles) were in town. It didn’t seem long before the conversation, spoken in a mixture of bad English and bad French turned to the European constitution and for me to be able roll out my favourite bon mot of the trip,
‘Pour moi, le non c’est bon.’
This provoked a great deal of amusement and it was explained to me that in France the vote on the constitution had been split between country and city, with the country against. The chef told me that in this area the vote had been 60% – 65% no. They were all happy I was against but I was glad my French wasn’t good enough to go into further political discussion, I’m sure we’d have discovered our reasons for disliking the constitution would have been entirely different. However the chef was happy to toast our unanimity in armagnac, the spirit brewed in the des Landes region and returned to our table clutching a bottle and small glasses. He asked what we knew about drinking armagnac, which was nothing so he then gave us a lesson in appreciation of the spirit. He pointed out that this was a three-star spirit, not bad but certainly not the best. He then poured four small measures, one each for me, Olly, himself and another Frenchman keen to share the secrets of the local brandy with us.
‘First,’ he said, swirling the spirit gently and inhaling the scent of the brandy as deeply as the small glass would allow, ‘you smell the brandy, don’t drink, don’t drink…’
It was a powerful brew, a sweet bouquet of grape mixed with the strong reek of alcohol. Unlike a full-bodied red Bordeaux or a golden Gewurztraminer where the bouquet would release an anticipatory relish I couldn’t describe it as inviting. This was tangibly a drink to be treated with respect and maybe caution. Under the strings of tree-borne electric lighting we warmed the spirit with the palms of our hands and as we gently swirled the golden liquid it glistened dully in the bottom of our glasses. Finally, having appreciated its colour and character, due to the aging process in oak barrels apparently, we were allowed to taste the armagnac and for a non-spirit drinker like myself it was wincingly strong, burning down the back of the throat and nestling warmly in the stomach. The chef went on to describe perfect enjoyment of the drink.
‘La biere is for thirst, le pastis is l’aperitif, du vin for the meal and l’armagnac is le digestif,’ smiling broadly and with expansive Gallic gestures he continued on his theme. ‘You need l’armagnac, a good cigar and… no women’. Ah the heady feeling of a culture with no political correctness. It was friendly, fantastic and oh so French..