French village fete is a moment to savor

After several salt baths, the snails still were not dead. Plump and apparently unfazed, some had even made a break for it, latching on in crevices between the kitchen cabinets, along the sides of the bucket that held them and on the floor.

Dinner might have to be late.

Eric Causse was preparing a meal of fresh escargot for the village women. It was the third day of the annual fete locale, or traditional village fair, for this medieval hamlet in southwestern France, and the women deserved a treat.

Dealing with the escargots may have been labor-intensive, but it was nothing compared with the women's efforts: They were busy preparing a sit-down cassoulet feast for 400 people.

The women -- and perhaps even a few men -- were sorting through hundreds of bags of white beans, setting aside any with blemishes, and cutting up a mountain of vegetables. In a few days, they'd throw it all, along with lashings of meat, into huge pots over an open flame on the hillside overlooking the valley, and the village cassoulet would be born.

Almost all the villages in the area make a cassoulet meal for their own summertime fete, and each is fiercely proud of its version. Residents fete-hop, tasting, and critically comparing the tenderness of the large, white beans and the meaty flavor of the cassoulet broth, until many acknowledge that they're ready for a change of menu.

I stumbled upon Luquet's fete last month after spotting a sign propped on the side of the road that announced the coming event in scrawled, fluorescent green on a sheet of black plastic.

Luquet is so small that I accidentally drove through it on the first go. I hadn't noticed the cluster of houses to my left, up a short road. On turning back, I found an open space that I realized was the main square, cupped by houses built of stone with pocket vegetable gardens.

A bar hut, plastic tables and a string of colored lights were set up for the occasion. A disco stage was in the making, and teams of petanque players concentrated on a heated, hours-long competition. (It would be an understatement to call this bowling game popular in southwestern France.)

After staking out a plastic chair and table, I was offered grilled Toulouse sausage with spicy mustard and beer.

The villagers and their mayor took up chairs beside me, pipes and cigarettes were lighted, more beers were poured, and I was immediately welcomed with stories about this place, and the day's festivities.

Tourists aren't exactly common in this village, rimmed by the jagged outline of the Pyrenees on the horizon, its ripples of steep hills spotted with top-heavy sunflowers and large bundles of rolled hay.

Here my Michelin map of France was all but obsolete. It made no mention of Luquet, a place where traditions like the fete are taken seriously, or of the roads leading to it.

The three-to-four-day event in Luquet (if one includes the goings-on in the larger nearby village of Saint Christaud, the festivities end up lasting more than a week) have been celebrated since "forever," I'm told, though slightly differing in form over time, and such celebrations are the main activity for reveling villagers throughout the summer and September.

A good fete, which is an adaptation of the medieval village patron saint holiday, involves a lengthy petanque competition; dancing and music till dawn; boozing for the same period of time; grilled Toulouse sausage and the cassoulet-centered meal itself, which starts off with cantaloupe halves filled with red wine; gossip about which village had the best cassoulet; talks on cassoulet cooking techniques; over-the-shoulder glances to check which village mayors showed up and which chose to snub the affair. Flirting with the boys and girls from the village across the river is a must. And if all goes well, the night will end in a fistfight.

But perhaps most important, the fete is a precious remnant of an older way of life.

The goal of the local fete has much to do with "re-creating that old social fabric, and coming together, something that doesn't exist in places like Toulouse or Paris," said Pierre Ferrage, Saint Christaud's recently elected mayor.

The soft-spoken 59-year-old talked as he drank the only beer he allowed himself on the first day of the fete. He came from a family of farmers; his mother and grandmother "were born here," he said, pointing to the farmhouse across the road. But now he tills his small ancestral plot only out of nostalgia.

"We need to do this [the fair], because our world, my world as I knew it, has completely changed," he said.

When he was young, patois, a local dialect that has a Spanish-sounding twang to it, was still spoken at the breakfast table. Every family grew and harvested or killed its food, raised on modest patches of farmland. Livestock roamed the streets, and villagers depended on one another, rather than on machines, to harvest and work the fields.

Farmers shared large meals with neighbors and friends to thank them after they had helped with a day of picking or tilling the soil.

These customs, born out of economic necessity, created deep social bonds. Though classic rivalries were also a part of daily life (one man spoke to his neighbor only over the steel barrel of his shotgun), villagers were accustomed to a sense of togetherness and belonging.

About 30 years ago, those older bonds had begun to fade in Luquet and Saint Christaud, Ferrage said.

Industrialized farming eventually made the small vegetable and grain farms no longer viable, just as in much of rural France. Young people left for the cities; houses were abandoned, and certain traditions along with them.

"We're losing more and more of our old values," Ferrage said. "So the meaning of the village fair has changed."

Today the fair meets the needs of France's modern villager, who often has only a rough knowledge of farming and typically commutes to the nearest town for work.

"The fair is the mark of something that's missing in the big cities, where people don't know each other. They don't have anything like it there," said Claudie Villerous, a Saint Christaud resident and writer.

"Here they like the idea that you can talk to people you don't know, who are sitting next to you," she said.

That was clearly the mood at Saint Christaud's feast, where one could find young teens dressed in black, their hair dyed red and their ears generously pierced, sitting with their families next to older farmers and elderly couples, filling one another's wine glasses and chatting.

Men shouted to each other across white-draped picnic tables.

"Don't I know you from somewhere?" one bulky rugby player asked a girl sitting at another table. She didn't think so, she said, with a smile.

Around a nearby open fire, heavy-shouldered men laid out endless strings of sausage on a massive grill. They tasted the raw, spicy meat, and insisted I do the same.

As the meal was served, a traditional band struck up a tune. A white-bearded horn player strolled through the crowd while couples danced.

After eating their first helping of cassoulet, many stood on their picnic benches and danced and sang, swaying their arms high. People kept on swaying while seated, and during an ice cream dessert.

A few days earlier, Causse had explained the pull of Luquet, where he has lived since 2001. "This place becomes part of you."

The sturdy, middle-aged former lead singer for a punk rock band is a self-described "neo-ruralman," one of the city dwellers and townsfolk who began moving into abandoned and empty homes 10 to 15 years ago in the southwestern region, and throughout rural France, partly because of family and childhood roots there.

Causse, who produces and sells honey and does a little music management on the side, is devoted to his new home.

"I have 40 friends on the Internet. But who gives a damn? The day of my burial, you think they'll be there? Are they here eating sausages with us now?" he said, waving his arms as he spoke. "We're trying to maintain our way of life here."

As he prepared the pot of herbs for the soon-to-be-boiled escargots, he called his mother in Tarn, the neighboring region to the east, for help with the recipe.

That's when I noticed that a large part of that night's dinner had escaped. The lid on the bucket hadn't been closed all the way.

We pulled the snails out of their hiding places, with a soft, sucking sound, and they curled up in protest.

They too had quickly settled into the place.

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Lauter is a special correspondent.

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More photographs of the village fetes in southwestern France are available online.

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