Merci chien! Merci Henriette!

Mercadiol has always had dogs. When we first bought a house in the village more than 40 years ago, the two old farmers and who were then our neighbours Honoré Delmon, next door, and André Pramil just down the lane, both had dogs – large, intelligent, well-behaved farm dogs who protected the village, trotted obediently wherever their masters’ went, and ran wildly through fields and woods when they were set free to roam. Honore’s dogs, Dick and Titou, would sometimes disappear for a day or two – returning wet and muddy, exhausted from their forest wanderings, falling into a deep sleep at their master’s feet. Other times they sat on the back of a tractor or trailer, sniffing the air, happy to be part of whatever outing was underway. But if Honoré told them to guard our house they would sit on the front step (or wherever they’d been told to stay) until their shift ended. Then they would pad gently home for their dinner.

But there were canine visitors to the village, too: dogs on their own, checking out territory beyond their own patch, some no doubt strays or escapees from maltreatment. Mostly the village dogs were able to stop them causing trouble in the village. On one occasion, when our family was packing the car to return to London after a holiday in the village, we were caught out. On the table was a cold roast chicken, cooked the night before to be ready for our pre-departure lunch. As we said our farewells in the street, we became momentarily distracted. A large dog, a shaggy breed with brown coat and high pointy ears, ran through the open door, jumped onto the table and seized the chicken – and raced off with it in his mouth! ‘Voleur ‘we cried, more than a little dismayed, as the dog dashed past us.

By this time Honoré’s sister Henriette and her husband André, by then retired, returned to the village and her family home (pictured below, and there is a chapter about them in Stephanie Alexander’s Cooking and Travelling in South-West France). Ever-generous, Henriette was so shocked she immediately replaced our boring cold chicken with confit duck from a jar she’d prepared for the long winter. It was absolutely stunning!

After thanking her profusely, we ate our new delicious lunch and set off on the long drive trip to London. As we drove from the Mercadiol through leafy lanes, we spied the robber dog, walking through a field, slyly observing our departure, licking its lips and – I’m sure of it – smiling. We could only wave and yell, ‘Thanks, chien! You made sure we both had a really nice lunch!’



If a stray puppy, probably dumped, came whimpering into the village, Henriette made sure she found it a place in the community.


French fete kebab: a cautionary tale

A village fete, French summer in the mid-1980’s. It’s baking hot, I’m 9, and I’m starving. Mum is holding my hand and somehow juggling my baby brother on her hip, and we are looking for something – anything to eat.

Unfurling through the crush of sweaty adults and sticky children, the tantalizing smell of charcoal and bbqed meat reaches my tender nostrils. It smells like Australia, like home, and I’m sold.

“Mum” — I say. “Mum, that smells good. I want that”. We press through the crowd and find a small family group gathered around a roasting pit, carving thick slices of charred meat, juicy and brown, and pressing them into warm flat-breads.

Mum looks nervous. These guys are Romani, and through France as well as through the rest of Europe, unfortunately don’t have the best reputation, particularly in a market setting.

“Are you sure?”, she asks me. “Yes”. “Certain?” “Yes”. Mum shrugs and nods towards the matriarch of the group, who hands me a sweaty paper parcel, inside which is nestled the kebab.

Strangely enough, even though I know she is also hungry, she doesn’t buy herself one.

We walk away and find a quiet spot to sit and eat. As I unwrap the roll and take a big bite, something doesn’t seem entirely right. The texture of the meat is odd, and has a strong aroma. I take another bite, chewing thoughtfully.

“What do you think?” asks Mum. I’m a notoriously fussy eater, so this is a question I hear often. I pause, bite, chew and answer. “I dunno, maybe it tastes a bit funny.”

I don’t finish the kebab, discarded no doubt into a pile of empty soda cups and similar greasy paper napkins.

As we bounce along the dusty roads on our drive home, I’m asked again about the kebab. How did it taste? What did I think of it? Did I like it?

“Well,” says Mum, “you ought to know it was horse meat”. She turns around grinning.


– Alys