Michele Roberts holds a feast for unmarried friends

The feast of St Catherine, virgin martyr, will induce any spinster to marry

The end of November brings the feast of St Catherine, the virgin martyr who was broken on the wheel (hence the firework), miraculously revived, and then beheaded. This season marks the time for moving shrubs, taking heel cuttings. Every year, Yvette instructs me: "A la Sainte Catherine, toute plante prend racine." You can plant love, too, my gardener friend Lucie says: she is to get married for the first time at the age of 49. Doing it properly will involve not only the vin d'honneur after the ceremony, the big lunch and the soiree dansante: she must prepare to be awakened at five the following morning by all the wedding guests, who will stand around the bed and toast the newly-weds with a big loving cup of punch. Later, they will all troop back to the village hall for a reveillon of onion soup.

Sainte Catherine, in the Mayenne at least, is the patron saint of unmarried girls. Better a virgin for ever than broken on the wheel of marriage? Lucie changed her mind when the right man finally turned up. Perhaps her resistance was worn down by the annual fete prepared for unmarried women who have reached the dangerous age of 25. For these pitiable spinsters, a Catherinette is arranged; this is a relic, I think, of the old hiring and marriage fairs of the 19th century. Yvette was just off to one. When I had lunch with her and Eugene, she showed me the bonnet-cum-coronet, formed of coils of copper wire threaded with artificial yellow flowers, that she'd bought from the local florist who makes up batches of these haloes at this time of year. She would pin till receipts to it, she explained. You decorate the bonnet with symbols of the maiden's employment: Yvette's niece Sylvie works in the supermarket. Swallowing Yvette's delicious rabbit with mustard sauce, I dared to ask: will Sylvie enjoy the Catherinette? She might not, it's true, Eugene said.

On my way home via Paris I detoured to the rue de Seine. The market was all en fete, with visiting stallholders from other regions setting out their wares. The Auvergnat baker called to me to stop and try his flat brioche studded with fruit, his cake layered with hazelnut paste, his crusty wholemeal pain de campagne that was light and tasted of yeast and salt. The woman a cote offered me slivers of goat's cheese, morsels of saucisson aux myrtilles, foie gras de canard au sel. Next to her in turn, a man served tartiflette savoyarde: potatoes fried up with bacon, onions and Tome de Savoie. I bought beignets aux courgettes from a deli stall, macaroons flavoured variously with pistachio, almond, chocolate and coffee, a pot of green snail-stuffing.

Back in London, I held a feast for four female friends. None of us was married. One was a mistress, two were lesbians, two were currently celibate. We talked about being 50, about weathering well.