I gather that the last thing anyone in England needs right now is someone chirruping about how beautiful the snow is. Well, here in the foothills of the Pyrénées, we’ve been almost alone in France in being a snow-free zone. But please note: ‘the foothills’. The mountain tops have been covered for some weeks, and over the last week, the snow levels have crept down..and down…and ever nearer. And it’s quite simply beautiful.
Yesterday we went walking in the Lauragais. That’s a gentle, verdant region north of here on the edge of la Montagne Noir. Perhaps the most wonderful thing about the walk we had here, through sandy woodland paths, crunchy with fallen leaves, were the views across to the Pyrénées: mile after mile of distant peaks blanketed in blue-white snow beneath a bluer sky. If only my camera began to do justice to this impressive sight.
Healthily exercised, we came down to the village of Saint Papoul, and looked round the Benedictine Abbey of the same name. I found myself lingering in the 14th century cloisters and in the abbey itself, inspecting the misericords, the small decorated wooden shelves hidden under the seats to provide a bit of support for the poor monks as they stood for long hours during their religious devotions.
Perhaps the most enjoyable bit of our visit was a chance to look at the special exhibition devoted to le Maître de Cabestany, a Romanesque sculptor who seems to have left his mark on many of the pilgrimage churches on the route from Rome to Compostella.
His figures, despite their realism, their chunky hands and elongated eyes, seem to have a slightly supernatural feel to them and they were fun to explore and enjoy.
It was cold though. Snow threatened, but didn’t fall in the end. We decided against a mooch round the village: probably something to do in the future, and scurried back home to toast our toes and fingers
People who know me here are no strangers to the fact that we tend to avoid the English in France. Not because we don’t like them (Some of our best friends are…. etc. etc), but because it seems to be a bit daft to seek them out here when there are some hundred and fifty thousand French living right here in the Ariège whom we’d maybe find it interesting to meet. Our social calendar already seems entertainingly full with the ones we do know.
So perhaps it’s rather odd that my favourite radio presenter here is an Englishman, Alex Taylor. He co-presents the breakfast spot on France Musique, together with Emilie Munera. Despite the fact that he speaks excellent colloquial French, he’s got a recognisably British accent that cheers me up and brings me closer to England as I listen in on my way to the gym, or doing some early morning jobs round the kitchen. His is a good programme too. A well as an astonishing variety of music – not simply the classical repertoire – the pair look at current and musical news, and at what’s in the world’s press that day. Is it my imagination, or are British papers more fully represented than others in this spot? And I really enjoy the 5 minute Mot du Jour by Pierre Charvet when various musical terms are explored and defined. What, for example, is the difference between ‘symphony’ and ‘philharmonic’ ? What is ‘noise’? Thoughts on aspects of African music….and so on.
And in case you’re wondering at our relatively high-brow choice of radio station….here in the sticks we can only receive three. France Inter, whose relentless talk drives us both nuts in the morning; France Culture, which is interesting but hard going if you’re not prepared to listen attentively; and…France Musique. No contest.
Nobody could call our nearest town, Lavelanet, a hub of multi-culturalism. But neither is it an Ariegeois ghetto. Of course, as in most French towns, there’s a big Maghrébin presence: inhabitants of the former French colonies of Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria. There are significant numbers of people of Spanish origin: their families probably came over in the Spanish Civil War. Dunno how so many Portuguese got here, but in addition there are Swiss, Belgians, Roumanians, Brazilians, Vietnamese, Chinese, Argentinians, Australians, Germans, Dutch…..ooh, and a few English of course.
Recently, I got to know two local women, Sylvia and Noëlle. Some time ago they, together with another friend Nadia, had come up with the idea of bringing together women from some of these countries to share their cultural heritage, particularly through the medium of cooking. The idea got bigger. Over the last 18 months or so, they’ve developed themselves as an official voluntary group, ‘Association “Découverte Terres Lointaines”‘. They and their ‘benevoles’ (volunteers) have animated cookery workshops in schools, old people’s homes, youth clubs, centres for people with various disabilities. They’ve raised money for these activities by selling foods from all over the world, which they’ve prepared, at local festivals. But why stop at recipes? We all have a culture to share – children’s stories to tell, songs to sing, our daily lives ‘back home’ to compare, and all this too is included in the mix. Recently, I’ve joined in some of their activities.
It’s got a bit more formalized now. There’s a bit of a special focus now on a particular country in any one year. This year it was Quebec (OK, it’s a province, not a country. But it DOES have a very distinctive voice within Canada), and next year it’ll be Algeria.
Last week was a first though. We were invited to provide an International Buffet at a multi-services training day being laid on by the Mairie. At various points in the days leading up to it, we got together in the kitchen of the Family Centre (CAF), and helped each other cook.
Nadia showed us how to prepare Algerian grivvech: thinly rolled dough cut into strips and wound into jumbled little nests before being deep fried and doused in honey and sesame seeds. There were Quebecois dishes, guacamole topped toasts, and treats from around the world.
Best of all was the unlikely sounding tomato and banana soup from Brazil. Do try it: recipe below.
What could I contribute as an English finger-food? I thought long about this, and came up with Scotch eggs (thanks, Kalba, again). You need to know that here in France, sticky tape, as in England, is known by a trade name. Not ‘Sellotape’, but ‘Scotch’. So Sylvia’s eyes darkened in puzzlement when I suggested these Scotch eggs. ‘Sellotape eggs? What on earth….?’
And what fun it all was. I can and do open recipe books to try out dishes from any and every continent. But it’s not half so exciting as working with women from Algeria, Brazil, Roumania, wherever, as they talk you through the techniques they’ve known for years and years, and stand over you and make you practice and redo things till you jolly well get it right.
Anyway, here are my photos of the preparations for a successful lunch. We could have taken any number of repeat bookings, but for the time being, the organisation will maintain its ‘benevole’ status, and not venture into the hard realities of developing a business.
Brazilian Tomato and banana soup
I tbspn rapeseed oil
Large bottle of passata
5 ripe bananas
1.5 l. bouillon
Small carton cream
3 tsp. curry powder
1 tsp. cayenne
Gently cook the onion in the oil. Meanwhile, remove the black central thread which you may never previously have noticed and any seeds from within the peeled bananas, and mash thoroughly. Add the passata to the onion, together with the spices and cook gently . Add the mashed banana and continue cooking. Add cream, reheat gently, and serve
….as you can see. And it all had to be moved today, off the street, through the house, and into the woodstore. Using a calculation from an American site, it seems we have probably moved in excess of 10,000 lb. of weathered oak. ‘We’ being me, Malcolm-the-convalescent, and our lovely friend Martine, who dropped in to say ‘hello’, saw what we were doing, and rushed straight home to change into grot gear and come back to help.
But we’re happy. 2 ‘piles’ of oak- 8 cubic metres – should keep us cosy through all of this winter, and the next one too. And in case you’re wondering, this wood came courtesy of a farmer in Ventenac, about 8 miles from here, via le bon coin. So we peasants DID need the internet, after all
Three minutes after publishing my last posting, a message popped into my in-box. It was Kalba. Had I thought of looking on Le Bon Coin, the site where everybody looks for anything from a second-hand T shirt to a pre-loved car? Well, no, I hadn’t, but we were soon ploughing through and responding to all the wood-for-burning adverts we could find.
By the next morning, there were a dozen suggestions in my email account, and as comments on the blog. Even Bloggerboy, all the way from Germany, was on the case.
So how could we peasants have done without our computer? Quite well, as it turned out.
A phone call from a friend led to our calling his brother, who passed us on to somebody else who…..has wood. Lots of it. Well weathered chestnut, oak, beech. We ordered some. It’s coming on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, another friend called HER friend who rang us with another lead. This lead was the mayor of a tiny commune near here, and, intrigued by our plight, he came straight round. He hasn’t really got any more wood to spare, but he promised to go home and scout round, and bring us something, anything, to ‘put us on’.
Just after we’d concluded that all the calls and emails made to people we’d heard of courtesy of the computer had come to zero, this evening we had a message. A farmer near Ventenac who’d advertised on Le Bon Coin has stacks of well-weathered oak, and he wants to come round tomorrow lunchtime to see whether he can get his tractor and trailer down our street.
Yeah, yeah, I know we’ve already ordered some for Wednesday, but we peasants, you see, have to have something put by for when times are hard. Play our cards right, and we won’t need any more wood for another four years
Over the past months you may have sighed indulgently – or with irritation – as I’ve described our attempts to get to grips with our peasant lifestyle. I’ve smugly talked about our efforts to get a 52 weeks a year veg. patch going, about going equipped on every walk, prepared to carry loot home: a bagful of walnuts, chestnuts to roast, windfall apples and pears, a log or two for the fire. We enjoy what we do and it matters to us, but frankly, if we don’t get these things right….well, there’s always the market, or someone around who can sell us what we need.
Until now. Now we’re in crisis. We’ve no firewood for the wood-burning stove. Well, not much anyway. A friend’s cousin was supposed to supply us with our wood for the winter, and he did. But it won’t do for this winter, and probably not next either. We need wood that’s had all its natural moisture weathered out of it, leaving it dry and combustible. What we got was freshly-hewn logs. They sit in the grate and spit and sulk. We’ve been busily lugging them to the open first floor of our atelier, and stacking them where the air will get at them and dry them out.
So now, half way through November, we’re asking anyone who’ll listen where we can buy seasoned wood. And the answer is, we can’t, it’s too late. It’s all sold. Like real peasants, we face the prospect of a winter without our beloved wood-burning stove. Unlike those peasants, we do have a few radiators, but they don’t glow cheerily at us after a chilly day playing at being self-sufficient in the great outdoors.
And unlike those peasants, we’ve had another, peculiarly 21st century crisis. Our computer became terminally ill. Its death in the night seemed certain. We were distraught. How to keep in contact with friend in 3 continents? How to pay bills, organise our banking, buy tickets to England for Christmas? Hearing of our distress, friends and family phoned, diagnosed, offered treatments, and somewhere in among all this, a remedy appeared. It might turn out to be merely patching the wound, but it’s working so far. It’s reminded us though that we’re not quite the horny-handed sons-and-daughters-of-toil that we like to see ourselves as. We have some way to go before we achieve The Good Life
A friend brought us some mushrooms yesterday. I’m not going to tell you which friend. And I shan’t tell you where he found them either. He was ranging about in the woods, snaffling mushrooms. If the forest ranger or a landowner had caught him because he’d strayed onto private land, they could have fined him. 150 Euros. And the friend who was with him, another 150 euros. It’s a lot to pay for half a pound of mushrooms, but everyone does it.
Nobody however, wants to kill the goose that lays the golden egg, and most people, like our friend, pick carefully and respectfully so that mushrooms will still be growing there tomorrow, and the next day, and for as many years as there are people wanting to eat them.
The ones he brought us are lactaire delicieux – saffron milk caps. I know they exist in England, because Googling produces a score of recipes from the UK, but I’ve never seen them there.
In fact they’re native to this part of the world, both in France and Spain, and live in the acidic soil under Mediterranean pine trees. They’re yellowy orange, and exude orangey milk when broken or cooked. Roughly handled, they develop a scary green stain. But that doesn’t mean they’re poisonous. Anything but.
Here’s what he suggested we do with them.
You’ll need at least 2 or 3 large ones each. They’re often small though, so you may need more. Clean them by brushing them gently and lay them cap side down in a shallow buttered oven dish. Cover generously with knobs of butter and Roquefort cheese – 4 parts cheese to one part butter. Grill till the cheese is melted and the mushrooms cooked. Serve with lots of crusty bread to mop up the juices, and a green salad.
If he brings any more, or if we’re lucky enough to find some ourselves, I’ll be Googling again, because there are any number of simple ideas, just waiting to be tried and enjoyed.