Those Were The Days - Stories and Anecdotes from the Golden Age of Motor Racing
Those Were The Days - Stories and Anecdotes from the Golden Age of Motor Racing

Galling the French

Albi, in Southern-ish France. was always a favourite of the teams. The fast, easy flowing circuit didn't present much of a problem as far as the drivers and mechanics were concerned and the weather always seemed to be more or less perfect. There were some good, small but satisfying restaurants and a golf course that had either seen better days or was looking forward to them. I flew down in Graham Hill's Aztec with Bette, Bernie Ecclestone, actor Keith Smith and Robin Widdows. I'm not quite sure what Robin was there for, he hadn't got a drive at the time. We booked in at the Hostellerie de St. Antoine and sat around talking about the poor bloke that was about to be guillotined in Paris. Why we were talking about it or why the bloke was being violently decapitated I can't remember.

As far as the race went, everything was relatively smooth. It was virtually a PR job for the circuit owners who were trying to recall the old days when the likes of Fangio, Moss, Hawthorn and the rest were regular competitors. Carlos Reutemann put his Brabham on pole position ahead of Ronnie Peterson and spent the evening in an armchair in the hotel lounge staring at the opposite wall. Bette had heard of a restaurant she insisted was called Les Maricons. The wiser of us knew it was actually Les Marrons but we didn't let on. It gave us a chance to smirk when she claimed she was going to 'the maricons'.

The big excitement of the race was when Reutemann, leading, had a blow-out in one of the tyres and had to pit for a refit. He was furious and when he rejoined the race drove like a maniac. There was a book on which lap he would spin off. Almost unbelievably he made up a lap and finished just behind Emerson Fittipaldi in second place.

After the race everyone was knackered so we decided to stay in the hotel although it was the centre of attention from the after race crowd. There were a lot of young and eager girls waiting on the steps of the hotel - and they weren't looking for autographs.

There were about ten of us dining in the hotel restaurant. It was the usual hilarious affair that didn't seemed to faze the locals. In fact some of them attempted to join in the old barrack room songs. They had heard them all before and insisted on calling us Tommies. The time came for dessert. And time for me to make a trip to the kitchen. Predictably Graham ordered Crème Caramel. He always did and he always pulled the same stunt. When the pudding came he was in for a bit of a surprise. I had asked the chef to prepare a special dish for Graham. Instead of the usual small cup sized pudding I had got them to prepare a pudding basin size crème caramel. Graham didn't look at all surprised when the Chef appeared carrying his huge dessert. He primped away his moustache, took a deep breath and plunged his face into the gooey mess. It was all fairly disgusting. Graham was determined not to back down. Custard flew all over the table as with an operation that had all the delicacy of a suction pump hoovering up the last dregs of a cess pit, he snorted, slurped and gasped until he had managed to suck up or otherwise disperse three quarters of the goo before it defeated him. It was good enough to get a round of applause from the locals.

After that some of us didn't feel like going to bed. The prospect of a nightmare being drowned in cold custard seemed to be too realistic.

Bette decided to go to bed and Reutemann and his wife, Mimicha, fancied sitting in the lounge staring at the wall. So I joined Graham, Robin Widdows, Keith Smith and Tin Schenken on a stroll around town. Somehow we finished up in a bar that just happened to have an OAS reunion going on in an upstairs room. The bar was dimly lit and not particularly welcoming. Just a few bucolic Frenchman staring moodily into their absinthe. The sound coming from the party above seemed like more fun so we drifted out of the bar and up the stairs.

The party was well underway when we arrived at the door. Graham was recognised instantly and we were invited in. There were about fifty soldiers there, mostly drunk and maudlin. They kept making toasts to people we had never heard of and getting drunker by the minute. It seemed that they had been wronged and the people of Algiers robbed and betrayed when the French government had withdrawn the wonderfully hospitable and kind troops from the country. We had no axe to grind so we sante'd with the best of them. Robin was now brimming over with bonhomie and vin ordinaire. He seized a kepi from the back of a chair, stuck it on his head and did a good imitation of General de Gaulle as he strutted to the centre of the room. Dramatically he paused until only the creak of the floorboards could be heard as Graham, Keith, Tim and I tiptoed nervously towards the door.

Robin stood in the middle of the room, hands on hips while he waited until he had everyone's attention, then he flung his arms in the air and with a fair de Gaulle imitation said, "Mes infants, aprez mois - le deluge!" There was a deathly silence while Robin strutted around aping de Gaulle. The rest of us were at the door ready to take it on our toes. Instead of the thud of fists hitting tender flesh there were roars of laughter from the gathering. The OAS blokes crowded around us pressing drinks on us and saying all sort of things in French that were beyond our comprehension. It was time to leave before the mood changed.

Back on the street we found out that Robin was still risking our all. He had managed to purloin one of the military kepis and insisted in walking along the centre of the road singing 'Madamoiselle from Armentieres' in a very loud voice. We kept our distance. French rural cells and French rural Flicks are not the most amenable in the world.

It was a pretty sorry lot that shuffled aboard the Aztec the following morning. Bette was not amused.

CASSOULET DE ALBI

The trouble with the Cassoulet is there are so many ingredients and so many steps to producing something edible that the will to live dies when you read the recipe. That was until I came across a sort of abridged edition. This tastes practically the same as the real thing but takes only a small percentage of the cooking time.

Ingredients:

1 glass of white wine
2 tbsp Virgin olive oil
6 sausages (chorizo, Toulouse or salami)
4 chicken breasts
6 slices of streaky bacon, chopped
1 tbsp oil
tsp Chilli powder
1 leek, sliced longways
1 large onion, diced
2 carrots halved and split.
1 pt chicken stock
4 crushed garlic cloves
tbsp parsley, roughly chopped
2 tins butter beans, drained

WHAT TO DO

Get a deep frying pan. Squirt in the olive oil. Brown the sausages, bacon and chicken breasts. Cut into chunks. Remove and add the leeks, onion, carrots, chilli powder and garlic and fry gently for about ten minutes. Return the sausage, bacon and chicken breasts to the pan. Add the wine, stock and butter beans. Simmer for about 15 minutes. Make sure the sausage and chicken breasts are cooked before serving with the parsley sprinkled on top

You won't get my version of the Cassoulet past Toulouse Lautrec, who, incidentally was born in Albi, but he probably ate much worse in the Moulin Rouge in Paris anyway.

Posted 29/1/2009

Those Were The Days - Motor Racing Stories, Tales and Anecdotes from the Golden Age of Motor Racing