Dead Mice and Canapes
'We're thinking about having a little lunch party on Sunday. Can you do canapés for between 20 and 40?' Asked the expat documentary maker who speaks four languages, including French and Russian and lives in the village here in the Var.
I arrived in Provence five months ago desperate for any paid work. I said yes. My previous job, managing a sculpture business in Scotland, included hosting parties for potential clients. Laying on food for 40 I can do. But not canapés. Fiddly little beggars they are: in place of a meal, you need 10 - 14 per person. This is a conservative estimate. Given the two hour duration of this lunch party, 300 individual pieces would be needed. I tried to talk her out of it, suggesting instead a proper lunch, but her heart was set. My four day crash course in canapé making began. A friend rushed over with a Dorling Kindersley book devoted to the subject while I frantically searched the internet for advice and recipes.
But this wasn't the only paid job of the moment. Two weeks before, I'd been given the job of cleaning the house I planned to rent long term. A former cabanon which stands alone on a lovely hillside, it has been neglected for decades by its wealthy owners and is falling apart. The shutters - painted Glasgow Rangers blue - are rotten and the paint splattered concrete-tiled terrace with municipal lighting is an eyesore. Broken sun loungers and shutters had been thrown over the wall into scrub. Tiny shreds of blue plastic from an old tarpaulin littered the garden and were stuck high in the branches of nearby cypress trees. At the side of the property was a raised plunge pool. When I first saw it, it was half full of stagnant rainwater, the surface green with algae. A month later, at the start of the cleaning job, the level had dropped and the surface was garnished with a pair of decomposing mice.
I'm not scared of live mice but for some reason I'm terrified of dead ones. This was a test of self-reliance, so with no net to be found, I put on wellies, and, clutching a mop bucket, lowered myself down the shaky pool ladder into 10" of water. Scooping at the mice as they sank and floated to the surface in the current caused by the bucket was revolting, nauseating in fact, but after ten minutes I emerged triumphant with the last corpse, ready to tackle the interior.
Inside was damp and musty. The cupboard under the sink in the kitchen smelt of urine and drains. The bath emptied first into the shower tray, then onto the hall floor via the overflow of the hot water tank and finally exited the house by the front door..
Rather than pay a tradesman, the owner, a scientist, decided to replace the shutters himself and was in the process of making them from a cedar tree which came down in Shropshire. The shutters he made were course, squint and don't fit the clips on the outside walls designed to keep them open. The interiors were closed not by traditional hook handles but by great Soviet style steel bars. The smell of cedar, so lovely in small quantities, was overpowering. I panicked. The property reminded me of the house Annette Bening's character in American Beauty tries unsuccessfully to sell and which precipitates her nervous breakdown. Then I thought of the landscape which merged with the three acres of wild hillside garden, the woods and vineyards below the terrace, the open fire, and the spare room which would accommodate my daughters. I thought of the cheap rent.
I scrubbed and cleaned for 5 hours a day until, despite the marigolds, my hands became rough, cracked and sore. The Betamax machine and videos, ancient Kenwood Chef, rusty toaster, prints from the walls and Jean Plaidy paperbacks were consigned to the garage. I took down eight sets of curtains, washed, mended and ironed them. I found a small writing desk and took it upstairs to the spare room. Inside a drawer was some beautiful headed notepaper. Immediately I sat down and wrote a letter to a friend in England. The sun came out and I opened the French windows onto the terrace. The house smelt clean - of the outdoors. Birds sang. A strange thing happened: I fell in love the place.
With four days to go until the lunch party, I was exhausted. I couldn't think straight, felt faint and my head hurt. Nothing for it but to soldier on. I fussed for hours over books and websites. A menu was decided, discussed and approved. Shopping and as much preparation as possible was done the day before. The morning of the event I got up at six and made two enormous strawberry sponges. For six and a half hours I slogged but was running out of time. I'd underestimated how long it would take to make so many tiny morsels. The salmon for the mini sandwiches was perfectly poached in tarragon, dill, stock and wine, the mini manchego, chorizo and green chilli pizzas were ready to go in the oven and seventy prawns were marinating alongside seventy pieces of mango in lime juice, chilli, ginger and coriander. The smoked salmon filling was prepared and ready, but the mini baked potatoes were not. Crudities needed chopping. I needed another hour but guests were arriving. The cavalry appeared in the form of a six foot Australian friend. She chopped while I threw canapés together and onto plates.
Half an hour later it was done. The food was a success. Like a wraith I mingled as best I could.
'Happy?' I asked the hostess. 'Very, but let's do a proper lunch next time.'