The morality of rural France

Paul Vallely's Notebook

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''Why should I do anything?" As first lines go, it seemed a pretty good one. Especially for a book to take on holiday. In the past when I have taken vacations in France, I have been more ambitious. Too ambitious, if I am honest. For years, I have doughtily taken Part One of
A la recherche du temps perdu. It has not been a great success. Not only have I never needed to go out and buy the second of the countless volumes of Proust's oeuvre but, I have to confess, I have never got beyond page 85. Indeed, I have got as far as page 85 on three separate occasions but have always encountered something there which I can only describe as reader's block. "Why should I do anything?" was a holiday sentiment I found I could live with more easily.

''Why should I do anything?" As first lines go, it seemed a pretty good one. Especially for a book to take on holiday. In the past when I have taken vacations in France, I have been more ambitious. Too ambitious, if I am honest. For years, I have doughtily taken Part One of A la recherche du temps perdu. It has not been a great success. Not only have I never needed to go out and buy the second of the countless volumes of Proust's oeuvre but, I have to confess, I have never got beyond page 85. Indeed, I have got as far as page 85 on three separate occasions but have always encountered something there which I can only describe as reader's block. "Why should I do anything?" was a holiday sentiment I found I could live with more easily.

The book which began thus was a slim essay by Professor Bernard Williams entitled Morality: An Introduction to Ethics, which I had found in a second-hand bookshop. It might sound a bit brain-stretching for holiday reading, but it was to prove mightily appropriate. Best of all, it only had 112 pages. So even sun-stupefied and post-prandially bedazzled, the haul past page 85 would not be a long one.

In the event, the post-prandial periods did not prove over-lengthy. We were staying with friends somewhere between Bordeaux and Bergerac, a gentle rural area in which one meal followed swiftly on its predecessor. This was the terrain in which Charente meets Périgord and Quercy, and that meant oysters and whelks, pineau and cognac crowding the market stalls alongside dew-speckled ceps and morels, magrets and confits of duck, waxy Sarlat potatoes, walnuts (in shells, in heady oils and puréed in rich cakes), great fat prunes, buttery apple cakes, the black wines of Cahors and the heavy white moelleux of Saussignac.

Not that any of this crowded out the moral philosophy. Professor Williams took as his starting point the idea of a person entirely without morality and was soon deep into the tangle of subjectivism - the notion that moral judgements are nothing more than a matter of opinion. According to this line of thinking, moral codes can legitimately vary from one society to another. None are objectively superior.

Monsieur Yvon at La Ferme de Biorne in the rolling landscape of Lunas (at least it was undulating gently on the way back from our five-hour meal there) was having none of this. He had just served us a languorous lunch made up almost entirely of produce from his own farm, and to judge by the fare, there was not much on his land but ducks. The aperitif had been accompanied by a pâté and rillettes of duck, followed by a salad of gésiers (duck gizzards), a soup, a rich stuffed neck of goose, a choice of confit or magret, before a local goat's cheese and home-made gâteau de noix. But his piÿce de résistance was his foie gras, the richest and creamiest of pâtés made entirely from duck liver. It is, indeed, the pride of the region.

Yet not everyone is as keen, particularly since to ensure the fattest and tastiest livers, the farmers of the region, or more usually their wives, force-feed the ducks and geese for the last three weeks of their lives by stuffing a funnel down their throats and pouring in corn which, when digested, forces the liver to grow considerably in size.

The French call the practice le gavage and are so proud of it they sell you postcards of ancient dames with outstretched goose neck in one hand and funnel in the other. The old maxim de gustibus non disputandum (you can't argue about taste) is of no help here, Prof Williams tells us, since it is a principle of etiquette rather than morality. The same applies to the idea of doing in Rome as Romans do. Subjectivists might well disagree, since their moral relativism insists that any society can sanction anything and it's not for other cultures to object.

Monsieur Yvon and his compatriots have the clincher on this. During the war, when the Nazis invaded, one of the few new laws they introduced was the banning of gavage on the grounds that it was cruel. Another, of course, was provision for the area's Jews to be rounded up and transported to Auschwitz for extermination. Moral philosophy, of course, has an answer to that grotesque juxtaposition, but corrections in logic seemed to lack the force of such a rhetorical flourish. I deferred and - as the farmer launched forth about Britain's need to choose between the European Union and the United States - bought a jar of canard à l'orange to take home.

Next on the agenda was spitting. Our friends wanted to take us to the local château for a wine-tasting. I was undaunted, having considerable experience of the consumption of what Keats called "the blushful Hippocrene" and having heard on the telly all the jargon about gooseberries, weight and flinty terroir. But I had reckoned without the spitting. "Madame will make you taste everything. She always does," said my friend. "Fortunately she has a huge spittoon so you don't have to swallow."

At first I hid behind the customary macho English protestations about "what a waste of good wine". My friend was unimpressed. "You'll get hopelessly drunk. You won't be in a fit state to taste the sweet wines which come at the end - and they are the best. You have to spit."

I took a bottle of water out into the garden and began to practice. Spitting was something I tended to opt out of at school (like seeing how far you could pee up the lavatory wall). I hadn't been very good at either. "See if you can hit that daisy," my friend said helpfully.

I stuck out my chin. I pursed my lips. I curled my tongue. Eventually I succeeded, but only after doing the gardener out of the job of watering the rest of the lawn. The trouble was that my splendid gouts of tongue-curled liquid issued forth in firm projectiles - but only for a few feet before petering out into a spluttering shower. Success could only be guaranteed if I knelt a few feet above the hapless flower. What was Madame going to make of a wine-taster who not only finished on his knees but started on them? I decided to swallow.

The kneeling might have been penitential, of course. I had reached the point in my holiday reading when Professor Williams tackled utilitarianism, a philosophy he rejects as less logical (and somehow more vulgar) than one predicated on a belief in the transcendent. He was talking religion. The French are big on that, in their peculiar way. In the château at Beynac we saw a medieval fresco of the Last Supper which is the only one I have ever come across with a maître d' helping the Christ figure to some local delicacy. Their idiosyncratic view continues into the present. On Whit Sunday we set out for the local church in Montfaucon, only to find that the doors were firmly shut.

The next day, we found the same thing true of every supermarket in the region, even those which proclaimed they were open Sunday and all jours fériés. "It is Pentecost," the women in the garage eventually told me. "It's a religious festival. Don't you have it in England?"

Indeed we did, I told her, only back home the churches remain open on the Sunday and so do the shops the day after. She looked at me with pity. The English, it seems, have no understanding of the true meaning of transcendence.

Gérard Pringent has. He is the cordon bleu chef responsible for what locals regard as the epiphany of potato dishes - pommes de terre à la sarladaise - golden slices of the king of vegetables sautéed in duck fat with garlic and parsley. His restaurant is in Montpazier, one of the 300 fortified square-grid planned towns known as bastides which were built by the French and the English throughout the Hundred Years War. (One of them, Moliÿres, a plaque on the church claimed, was in 1310 the site of the last legal duel fought on English soil, as it then was).

Throughout the war, the bastides routinely raided one another but none with such exquisite pointedness as the townsfolk of Montpazier who decided to launch a raid on their neighbours in Villefranche on the very night that the belligerents of Villefranche decided to do the same thing to Montpazier. Each took different routes and were delighted to arrive and find the place undefended. They looted uproariously, and then returned home with their booty - only to find their own houses thoroughly ransacked.

Next day, the elders of each town got together and agreed that everything that had been stolen should be returned. When it comes to the crunch, it seems, people prefer what we have to what we crave.

I looked away from Montpazier's medieval cloistered square and down to my holiday paperback, whose pages were by now stained yellow with spilled white wine. The point of morality is not to mirror the world, I read, but to change it.

Perhaps it was time to go home.

>p.vallely@independent.co.uk

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