When you live by the seaside, a sweltering August day tends to belong to other people. You can’t get on the beach for them, nor in the shops or the cafés. So last weekend I decided to turn my back on the crowds, hunt out a favourite old film and bake something delicious instead. The film was Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot: a sweet, achingly vintage movie in which the staff and guests of a beach hotel are amused - or not - by the absurd antics of Jacques Tati’s anti-hero. In keeping with the film’s origin, I rooted out a recipe for Prune & Armagnac Pudding with French Custard Ice Cream, and then adapted it to the contents of my food cupboard, rather than battling it out with the bucket-and-spaders at the local Tesco Express.
As the curlicue credits twitched over a rolling sea, and I set my fan oven at 160 degrees and put 12 dried pitted prunes into a saucepan. I stopped to watch the film’s wonderful opening scene in which a large group of expectant train passengers run from platform to platform, torn between the tannoyed advice and their own instincts whenever a locomotive pulls in. There are tennis rackets, bicycles, piped leather suitcases, and everyone’s in a hat. It’s 1953 and this is Tati’s world.
Lacking 80ml Armagnac, I added some Sainsbury’s own brand ‘French Brandy’, brought the prunes to a simmer, then turned off the heat. To prevent a scrambled egg effect I let them cool for a while - right up to the part where M. Hulot first interrupts the genteel atmosphere of the hotel lounge. I was confused to see that that the interiors were not painted in the pea and bottle greens that I remembered. Then I realised that the film was in fact shot in black and white. I felt a similar jolt, for the opposite reason, when as a teenager I experienced Dorothy’s Technicolor entry into Munchkinland: the black and white TV on which I’d seen The Wizard Of Oz as a child hadn’t marked the transformation.
In the absence of 10 thick slices of brioche and 250ml single cream, I soaked some old bread in soya cream for five minutes. Then I washed my hands to attack the lumpy bits in the bowl, using my mum’s blending method: grab some of the mix in both fists and then squelch it out between your clenched fingers until everything is smooth. I was always eager to describe this gratifying process to my school friends’ hapless mothers whose own bread puddings featured shark-like crusts poking out of the surface, but they seldom appreciated the tip.
Back at the breezy beach (kites and stripey windbreaks tell us this), the women wear belted summer dresses and the men, two-tone shoes. I want to be there, among the deckchairs and beach balls, the clear water and a glacé stall selling what looks like molten nougat. I had to substitute demerara for the recipe’s 110g dark brown sugar, and Flora Light for 60g butter, but was in luck with the 2 lightly-beaten large eggs.
And all the time, the film’s echoey, distant sounds of children playing and people calling above the background sibilance of water. I used to think this indicated Tati’s sound recordist had special skills, but then I read that most of the audio is foleyed, so its characteristic hollow-but-dense acoustic was in fact a studio creation. Time to mix all the ingredients gently and pour into a greased dish. I only had a large metal loaf tin but as it happens to be Le Creuset, I was fairly convinced that the pudding would slide out obediently.
Les Vacances is a film in which nothing much happens, giving room for so much more to happen at the edges. A waiter cutting slices of meat to a thickness which mirrors each guest’s physique, or a family left mid-pose for a group photo while the photographer takes a phonecall are beautifully-observed support scenes for Tati’s central slapstick. They show me a place where everything is more tender and dotty than the facey English seaside outside my door. I suddenly realised I should have shucked the seeds from one vanilla pod so I quickly trickled a teaspoon of vanilla extract over the raw mix and gave it a second swirl.
Next, I put the dish in the oven, middle shelf, for 30 minutes and checked for ice cream ingredients. There were not enough eggs to make a proper custard, and besides, didn’t I give my ice cream maker to the charity shop last year? So I emptied the contents of a large carton of Bird’s into a plastic lidded container and put it on Fast Freeze. If Delia Smith can base an entire recipe book on this kind of contingency, it’s not really cheating. And it gives me a full half-hour with a cup of tea and Tati’s nonsense.
I love the opposing speeds in the film, in which the small town and its visitors carry on in a mostly slow, unwinding manner that in turn showcases the eventfulness of Hulot’s holiday. While he fusses around a kayak and a paint pot on the beach, fishermen haul nets and a young couple play a 78 of the dreamy theme tune on a portable gramophone. They’re passing the time doing normal things while he is being…abnormal. This is clearly the man you need to take on vacation, if you want to have fun. The principle is one of the main reasons I chose a comedian for a partner.
The air is filled with a soft French jazz score, lapping waves and birdsong. There are kids with their cheeks falling out of their trunks walking around alone, invulnerable. Evenings are for cards, pipes, cocktails and fancy dress. It’s innocent and unrushed and perfectly ripe for a clown to disrupt. I tested the pudding with a skewer and found it soft but not wet, baked but not crusted. A sprinkle of brown sugar and I’m ready with a large serving spoon to suction out a portion out like a welly from mud. Curl some iced custard on top and - the result? Well, not bad - if there were a war on. Downgrade too many ingredients and you get something akin to rationing so if you prefer something délicieux, stick with the original list.
And if you want to be transported for a while to a kindly, enchanting Europe, a Europe that millions of British people believed, just sixty-odd years later, to be so overbearing and greedy that we could no longer share ideals, watch Les Vacances. Those little actors with bared bums are probably still alive now, elderly French citizens who don’t mind their culture and manners being lampooned because they remain confident of their nation’s intrinsic value. If we Brits all felt the same self-belief rather than self-centredness, I doubt we’d have ended up in this mess.