The dark gray clouds that have been looming over the horizon are slowly filling the sky, getting closer by the minute, and it is time to seek shelter. We reach the Gastronomy Hall just before the deluge. While the rain and hail pelt the huge canvas tent, we are invited to taste free samples of Foie Gras from the Perigord, duck pate from a Normandy farm, chatterlings from Vire and cookies from Carteret. Wine makers from Bordeaux and Sancerre offer us a glass of wine, but we decline the glass of Champagne, we have not had lunch yet. After waiting a few more minutes with a larger and larger crowd, soaking wet but cheerful, the rain slows to a drizzle and we dare head out for lunch, as thousands of other people are doing, and have been doing for hundreds of years at the Fair of Lessay.
The Fair of the Sainte-Croix is said to be a thousand years old. While this is probably not absolutely true, documents from the early twelfth century describe the rights of the Abbot of Lessay to levy a tax on the receipts of the fair: Its origin may then be at least as old as the abbey itself, going back to 1084. It always takes place the second weekend of September, and attracts larger and larger crowds every year. But its character, rustic and traditional, probably has changed very little over the centuries.
We had arrived early enough to avoid much of the traffic and we managed to drive all the way to the edge of the fairgrounds. We left the car next to the crane exhibit, their long arms extended toward the cloudy sky.
We started to walk through the bulldozers, the earthscrapers and the tractors, along alleys lined with stands where merchants peddle all kinds of things, sailing sweaters, leather jackets, curtains, miracle pills, wooden massagers, pottery, knives, pots and pans. In the middle of the alley, hawkers were trying to entice us to buy candy or cheap jewelry, leather wallets or wildflower honey.
Small groups of people walk around from stand to stand, looking at the goods, trying on boots here, tasting a glass of wine there. A crowd has gathered around a blanket merchant, who manages to keep everybody hooked with dubious jokes, a lively sales pitch, and promises of incredible deals. After wandering around for a while, we stumbled in a long street filled with smoke. First we sampled a slice of country bread, fresh from the oven, dense and chewy, a piece of Camembert cheese, and another piece of soft cheese, from Coutances, unctuously creamy, offered by a local cheese company.
Through the thickening smoke, we watched the Rotisseurs set up their shop: Under a small awning, with a small hand-made sign hanging from the canvas, are installed a counter with the cash register, and a wooden carving table. Behind stands a tall sheet of blackened iron, may be six feet by eight, a wood fire burning in a pit at the bottom, and 5 or 6 spits, one above the other.
The "Tournous", the men in their blue and white checkered shirts covered with long white aprons tied with a single strap over the shoulder, were loading the spits with large pieces of lamb. Other butchers were lining up the sausages and the pork shops on flat grills over charcoal fires. In between these shops, bakers display their baguettes, their country breads and pastries, while other vendors prepare large deep-fryers for the French fries or prepare their sandwiches. Across the way, huge tents have been set up, long rows of farm tables and wooden benches awaiting the lunch crowds.
Further on, we finally found an information booth, next to the makeshift studio of the local radio station that continuously broadcast news, music and silly games over loudspeakers all over the fairgrounds. Armed with a map of the fair's 100 acres, we located the farm animal market. We crossed the used cars lot, then the amusement park, where the merry-go-rounds were still shutdown after a long night of fun and play, and walked along more alleys where merchants are displaying their wares. A bearded young man, with tattoos on both arms and a black leather jacket, is selling lacy ladies underwear. At a stand full of maritime jpgts, we bought a model wooden trawler. On the way, we passed tablecloths, linen, lace curtains, rubber boots, music tapes, motorcycles, oriental rugs, dining room chairs and washing machines.
The cattle market is taking place in a huge open field. The ground is black with mud, with only the largest puddles covered with straw. Along metal railings, and between the farmers' trucks and vans, sheep huddle together in small groups, a few donkeys stare straight-ahead, absolutely still.
In the next rows, Charolais calves were all lined up, side by side. Farmers stood behind them, by twos and threes, in their rubber boots, their woolen cap firmly over their eyes, a yellow corn-paper cigarette between their lips,
and a stick in their hands, which they used from time to time to prod the animals.
They discuss quietly, with few gestures. Once in a while, a checkbook is drawn from a vest pocket, a check changes hands and a handshake concludes the deal.
The buyer unties the animal he just purchased, drags it to his truck, and comes back to renew the conversation with his fellow farmers. In the middle of these serious transactions, a few city people walk round, trying to avoid the mud. They wear sneakers and blue windbreakers, and they timidly pet the animals while holding tight their children's hands.
The sun is now actually trying to pierce through the clouds as we find our way back to the alley of the Rotisseurs, and navigate through the crowd and the smoke.
At all the stands, the lines are long, and we stop by one, at random, that advertises salt-marsh lamb. In the thick smoke that scratches our throats and makes our eyes cry, we tried to figure out how the whole thing works and what to buy. In front of us, customers ask for a whole leg, or a whole shoulder, but also for a few chops. Our turn finally comes, and we order a few lamb chops. The butcher pulls from the fire a large slab of meat, cuts it up, sprinkles the whole thing generously with coarse salt, wraps it up, and hands it to the cashier.
Our eyes in tear, we rush to the closest tent across the way. Each row of tables is like a wave of humanity, the chatter of voices rising above the clacking of the wind in the canvas. Huge chunks of lamb, long ham or sausage sandwiches, piles of French fries, bottles of wine and sparkling cider grace every table. A blue haze hangs over the whole scene, smoke from the pits outside and the cigarettes inside, steam from the wet clothes on everybody's back.
We find an empty table, order a bowl of cider from a hurried waitress, and attack our lamb chops with bare fingers. They are cooked rare, juicy, the meat comes off the bone without effort, they have a nice, smoky, woody taste, simply delicious. The cider is fruity, hard, dry. Soon a family joins us, father, mother and two girls, and they spread their lunch next to us, sandwiches, French fries and cans of sodas. We keep chewing on our chops and finish the last drop of cider.
We follow the long arms of the cranes back to our car and leave the fair.
Our clothes still smell of smoke.