The Long Lunchtime of the Soul – a Gourmet Christmas Story
From the beatific to the bouncy, Des samples the delights of Christmas Day around Poitiers in France.
How wonderfully eccentric. In France, the land of the holy lunchtime, where eating lengthily and well is a sacred duty, where commerce grinds to a halt for several hours a day to indulge the privileges of pleasure, here they shut up shop at lunchtime not to eat, but to pray. For today is Christmas Day.
This is the monastery at Ligugé Abbey, near Poitiers. My wife and I have driven here from pretty Poitiers, down the pretty valley of the river Clain, to sample the pretty delights of Poitou profond, darkest rural Poitou, the countryside around Poitiers. As with any attraction, our first stop in the abbey is the shop (of course!), but our timing is poor. We’ve barely had time to pick up an enamel fridge magnet, made here by the Benedictine monks (who are famous for their skill in enamelling), and some shortbread, made by another monastery, when the young monk manning the till, Frère Aloïs, announces he’s closing up.
However he will, he says, in the few moments before mass, briefly let us into the monastery’s private garden. It comes as a surprise to me, knowing no monks, and imagining them to be serious and stiff, to find that our guide is both easy-going and quick to laugh. Frère Aloïs tells us that Ligugé is the oldest monastery in the West, and was founded by Saint Martin over 1600 Christmases ago. Saint Martin, you may remember, was the Roman soldier who used his sword to cut his cloak in half, to share it with a beggar.
At this moment a train swooshes through the garden on an elevated track. Modernity, it seems, has repaid St Martin’s compliment by cutting his garden in half. As the bell for mass clangs again, Frère Aloïs says he really has to go, and invites us to the service. It’ll be a short service, he promises, with Gregorian chants. How could we refuse?
The church, unlike the abbey’s history, is modern, elegantly and sparely so, even surprisingly so, given how awful modern churches can be. Light pours in from high windows set in the circular wall behind the altar. The air is Christmas cold in here. Some dozen visitors, many alone, sit in their woolly and quilted Christmas wrappings. The stillness is startling. Who would have thought such quiet were possible in this world, these days? Nothing stirs.
Slowly the monks, in their black, hooded gowns, appear from their various duties, and stride or shuffle to their seats. They range in age, from young and strong, to old and stooped. All are thin. About 15 have gathered when they begin to sing. The acoustics in the church are terrible, but they serve the singing well, giving the voices a humming bass of echoes, a reverb to die for. It was clear they were singing in French, but, although my French is quite good, I understood not a word.
There were no speaking parts in the service at all, only the give and take of intoned call and response, the repetition and re-repetition of note and phrase, until a trance of sound settled on us. It seemed utterly consonant with the silence that had preceded it. I sensed I felt the drip, drip, drip of days, of prayer following prayer, mass mass, season season, year year, century century. And I’m not religious at all.
Suddenly it was over. Despite it being the deepest depths of winter, I felt invigorated as if by a spring morning, refreshed as if by icy water on a phew-what-a-scorcher summer’s day. And also hungry, as almost everything was shut for Noël, and we’d gone without breakfast. We drove on, and still found nowhere, not even an inn with no room, where we could eat (or manger, as the locals say – hang on, doesn’t a manger have something to do with this day?)
So, parked on a terrace by a shut château, high above the freezing water meadows of the Clain, we dug out a Marks and Spencers sandwich we’d bought days before, emergency rations in case we got frozen into a snowdrift on our way to Eurostar. We unpeeled it with anticipation. It was mouldy. Out the window it went, to feed the chilly wildlife of the Poitou. Luckily, the monastic shortbread turned out to be excellent, and despite being no fan of biscuits, I crunched through many a piece with gusto. Rarely has Christmas lunch tasted so good.
I Have Scoped the Future, and it Involves More Food than the Past
Dinner, on the other hand, was not going to be a problem, despite the closing of almost every shop, cafe, pub, bar, bistro, brasserie and resto in the land, because our next stop was Futuroscope, a modernistic theme park on the other side of Poitiers, which was open all day, even on Christmas Day.
Never before have we been able to park so close to a theme park entrance, never before not queued for tickets. There must have been only a few hundred die-hards like us braving the spotting rain and freezing breeze inside the park, not the thousands of visitors it was built for.
Queuing for 60 long minutes for a ride in a theme park, to be violently bounced about for a mere 60 seconds, normally puts my nose mightily out of joint. But not here, not on Christmas Day. Here we queued mere minutes to be bounced about for several minutes. I was still out of joint afterwards, but this time it was my body, not my nose. That’s because it’s been a long time since I was a kid. On the other hand, children coming off the rides beamed, their eyes bright with excitement.
Compared to an American, or even a British, theme park, Futuroscope is surprisingly adult, even intellectual. You can spend your entire time here moving from IMAX to 3D to giant screen and back again, watching stunning and serious stuff. Some attractions seem particularly worthy by Anglo-Saxon standards, and yet we felt no sense of being patronized, an effect almost any ride in a typical US park can achieve without even trying.
A heroic tale of a pioneer of early flight might tempt you, or at least your little boys. Perhaps the threatened wildlife of the bayous of Louisiana is your thing. Van Gogh on a screen umpty metres high was certainly an experience – never before have I been unable to see the painting for the brushstrokes, many of which seemed themselves to be many metres long. However I felt a TV would have sufficed.
An IMAX trip through skies and over water had a screen under your seat and shoes as well. I felt this added nothing, while flying with migrating birds, as if you were one of them, stunning though it was at first, soon palled, and began to stun me in another way. Where the image trickery and gigantery really paid off was in a 3D IMAX of undersea critters. This was real “you’re there” 3D, as jellyfish brushed our faces, or monsters of the deep lunged towards us. I found myself reaching up to clutch at darting fishes. The soundtrack was jokey-cutesy, but who cared when the visuals were so captivating?
The Future, Food, Arrives
But none of this mattered. The lure of attractions and distractions was not why we were here. Well, not entirely. We were here to eat on the otherwise relentlessly “fermé pour les fêtes de Noël” Christmas Day. Because, unusually for a theme park, Futuroscope has a reputation for fine dining in a range of restaurants, including one (Le Cristal) which serves “future food”, i.e. Heston-Blumenthal-Fat-Duck-style “molecular” gourmet fantasies. That’s of course on top of a scattering of fast-fooderies. Even these can feed you well – I really enjoyed a micro-waved Tartiflette au Reblochon which we ordered when we arrived (first things first, after all).
Sadly, some of the better eateries were closed. Outside the darkened Le Cristal restaurant (open only from April to August) empty tables still sat on its waterfront terrace. Even though a chill wind rumpled the dark surface of the lake, I sighed wistfully, imagining warm summer evenings.
As we checked out the various restaurants that were in fact open, the piped Christmas music followed us everywhere, as it had all afternoon. The need to escape hearing a funky “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”, with its “happy golden days of yore”, for the umpteenth time, was almost as urgent as the need to dine. Finally we chose KaDéliceScope (a play on words – délice means something like delicious delights, scope comes from Futuroscope, and the place serves a kaleidoscope of food from around the world – well, it works better in French).
We entered, our cold cheeks burning at the assault of indoor warmth, and found the place packed. We paid a fixed price (20 euros each) for the hot and cold buffet, and I was pleasantly surprised when I saw the food on the counters, and the chefs at work behind them. It all looked very good. I fully indulged my plate (and palate) with a kaleidoscope of all the best roasts and vegetables on offer. It was indeed all very good.
Better still, and unthinkable in the UK or US, the 20 euros price included a half-litre carafe of wine. Soon my glowing cheeks were burning with a new fire, not that of heat on ice, but the wonderful warmth of a couple of glasses of a chilled Gamay from the Haut Poitou. Suddenly the Scrooge in me, my inner Grinch, relaxed, and I felt I understood what this “happy golden days of yore” malarkey was going on about. Satisfaction complete!
Futuroscope ends with a night-time spectacular, a show of music, lasers and animation projected on to the spray of massed fountains on a lake. It tells the pseudo-mystical story of the mythical “Blue Note”, a kind of lost chord. After much blasting of sound, and fooling around with cartoonery, primarily aimed at children, but extremely well executed nevertheless, the show concludes that there is no such sound, that the Note Bleu exists only in your heart. Aaaaah! Or, if your inner Scrooge is feeling a bit grinchy, “Yurrrgh!”
Christmas day in the Poitou, from the 1600 years long stillness of Ligugé, to the blaring novelties of the future, from monastic biscuits at lunch, to dinner in a theme park – eccentric, but how wonderful!
Photographs of Ligugé Abbey and Futuroscope are reproduced by kind permission of Ligugé Abbey and Futuroscope respectively. Press photos of Futuroscope courtesy of Futuroscope.