France: Closed for Business

‘What a mess.  Half of the population who’ve got jobs are on strike.  The other half can’t get to work because there’s no petrol, or the trains are on strike.  And meanwhile, the numbers on the dole are growing.  And it’s half term, and nobody can take their kids out because there’s no fuel.  Welcome to France.’  That was the baker’s wife on Friday morning.

France, like most of Europe, is in the throes of passing legislation to raise the retirement age to cope with the pensions crisis. And the French don’t like it.  More than that, they really don’t like Sarkozy.  What better time to express their dissatisfaction by going on strike!  Since September, there have been General Strikes at least once a week, with marches, demonstrations and protests.  For more than two weeks, the petrol refineries have been blockaded, and fuel is running out.  Apparently some 70% of the population, even right-voting electors, support the protests.  Not round here though.

This part of the world is traditionally left-leaning, and I’ve met nobody who’s prepared to admit to having helped vote Sarkozy into power. But they’re not happy with the present state of affairs.  The baker’s wife is not alone. There’s discontent at the number of days the children have missed at school, and at the intimidation  by some of the striking students.  Rubbish isn’t being collected.  Prices are rising.

The rubbish piles up in Laroque

Some of the protests have their funny side.  In the Dordogne, electricians have cut the electricity supply at town halls where the mayor supports President Sarkozy’s party, the UMP.  Others seem to be turning a bit nasty.  In a school in the Centre region, students and teachers who support the strike have smeared every available exterior surface with mayonnaise and ketchup to make it difficult and unpleasant for teachers and students who want to enter the building to do so.

chrysanthemums on sale for Toussaint

Today on the radio, a hortculturalist explained her difficulties.  For weeks she’s been growing the chrysanthemum plants which are sold in vast numbers, this week only, in time for the traditional All Saints’ holiday, the day when people visit the graves of their relatives to lay flowers.  Petrol shortages mean the plants can’t be distributed, and unless things change very quickly, she’ll be left in debt, with a mountain of unsaleable plants.  Anyone who depends on logistics in any way, such as farmers and shopkeepers, is in a mess.

And as M. Fonquernie pointed out this morning, the senate voted to pass the legislation on Friday.  They won’t change their minds.  But laws like this take a while to enact.  Come the next election, two years away, the French get their chance to rid themselves of Sarkozy et al, and the newly elected government can repeal the legislation and pass its own.  If it chooses.

Meanwhile, I’m far from happy.  On Thursday, my son, his wife and her parents are due to fly out from England to stay with us.  Guess what?  Another general strike.  So….no air traffic control, no flights, no anything much.

Cook’s Corner

Back in England last week, I picked up the latest Waitrose magazine, always good for a few recipes.  And here’s something I found….

Sunken Apricot and Almond Cake

3 medium free-range eggs

180 g. caster sugar

200g. butternut squash, peeled and finely grated.

1 tsp. almond essence (I used a slonk of amaretto instead)

60g.white rice flour

200 g. ground almonds

2 tsp. mixed spice

2 tsp. baking powder

¼ tsp. salt

240g. canned apricot halves, drained, or if you’re lucky enough to have home bottled apricots, as I have, use those.

Icing sugar for dusting.

1. Preheat the oven to 180degrees C/gas mark 4

2. Lightly grease ten 8cm. x 5cm. deep loose-bottomed tart tins with oil.  I didn’t have enough, so I made just one 28cm. tart.

3. Whisk the eggs and sugar for 4 minutes till pale and fluffy.  Add the butternut squash and almond essence, and whisk briefly to combine.

4. Add the ground almonds, spice, baking powder and salt, mixing until well combined.

5. Pour the mixture into the tin(s) and either place 2 apricot halves in each, or arrange the apricots onto the top of the large tart.  Bake in the centre of the oven for 35 minutes, or till cooked.

6. Remove from the oven and gently ease the cake(s) away from the sides of the tin.  Allow to stand a few minutes before dusting with icing sugar.

Eat warm, cold, with or without cream, crème fraîche……

Do try it.  It might not be the cheapest cake in the world, but it’s certainly good, whether you choose to serve it as a pudding or a tea-time treat.

Well, we DID have it as a tea time treat, so by the time it came to the evening meal, we needed simpler fare.

I don’t know where I first heard this recipe, but I remembered it yesterday because we’d spent an hour or so sorting and shelling our haul of walnuts from all the trees nearby that are shedding nuts faster than anyone can gather them.

A Very Un-Italian Pesto

A handful of walnuts, crushed

A handful of parsley, finely chopped

A cob of parmesan, grated

A clove or so of garlic, crushed

A big glug of olive oil.

Combine the ingredients to a coarse paste, and add to a dish of pasta

Bedding down for Winter

October 16th.  Officially, chez Malcolm and Margaret, it’s the first day of Preparing-for-Winter.  It’s cold, for one thing.  Well, 10 degrees, anyway.

Today was the day when I planted spring bulbs in pots and topped them off with the sturdy little pansies I bought at the market yesterday.  Then I picked off the flowers, and stuck them in a vase, because I was brought up to do things that way.  The plants put their energy into establishing themselves in their new home, rather than into supporting the flowers that are already out.  That’s the theory, anyway.

And tonight was the night we lit the wood-burning stove for the first time this season.  Its cosy, cheery glow makes us look forward to those dark cold days to come – yes, really.

Then we finished off with a proper winter’s meal: aubergine parmigiana, and a cold-weather salad of leathery-leaved lettuce,  rocket and mâche, with a bottle of good red wine.

Who cares if summer’s gone, with all the compensations of those chilly short days to look forward to?

A Miller’s Tale

M. Moulin demonstrates his mill in action. The stream and water wheeel are beneath the floor

Readers in Europe probably noticed that European Heritage Days were held about three weeks ago. These usually give the chance for Buildings-With-A-Past which aren’t normally open to the public to dust themselves down, smarten themselves up, and take a bow.

Round here there was the labyrinth at Mirepoix Cathedral, three local Romanesque churches, a château at Belesta which is being restored, as a labour of love by the two who bought it.  And, and and….so much to see, so little publicity for some of them.

A chance conversation led us to a hamlet called Éspine, to see the ancient mill there.  It had been in the family of the current owner for generations – until current owner’s dad sold it.  This did not go down well.  Son managed eventually to buy it back again, and has restored it with love and real enthusiasm.

A flour sack from his collection

If he ever thought about having such a thing as a mission statement, it would without a doubt be ‘Passionate about Flour Mills’.  Monsieur – I don’t know his name – let’s call him M. Moulin, danced between mill race and flour sacks and ancient machinery and quirky collections of flour canisters, generating a hitherto unrealised ardour for milling among his many visitors.

3 grindstones. When they wear down, they have to be turned over and re-etched

You wouldn’t know it was a mill.  It looks like a stone house built over a stream.  The mill-wheel’s underneath, using the stream’s fast-flowing energy. M. Moulin showed us a map of all the mills existing at the time that Napoleon had a sort of mill-census taken.  There were thousands. One mill served the needs of about 300 people.  Villagers would come in several times a week to have small quantities of grain milled, so it was the hub of the community, the place to gossip and catch up while waiting for your flour.

His collection of flour canisters

Something odd though, something no scholar has been able to provide an explanation for.  South of a line drawn through France from Bordeaux to Lyon, the mills were the wheel-under-the-mill type.  North of this notional line, it was the mill-with-vertical-wheel-in-the-water, or the windmill-with-sail that we’re familiar with.  M. Moulin reckoned that this was because the southerners were superior engineers: their type is harder to make.  The twinkle in his eye told us he knew this might not always be true.

Early last century, 3 principal flour firms started to dominate the market.  They bought up the small mills and closed them, concentrating milling in large industrial settings.  Another strand of village life disappeared.  At least at Éspine, the building remains for us all to enjoy

The Answer Lies in the Soil. Or: My Sad Life

So my life has come to this.  A new plant-bed full of fresh earth, topped off with quantities of unctuous well-rotted manure, and I’m ecstatic.

Herb bed in waiting

That new bed for herbs that we’ve built in the courtyard has been a bit of a problem.  I couldn’t lay my hands on any top soil to fill it.  Then at last, I was in the right place at the right time.  Mireille’s neighbour offered her some. She didn’t want it, but I did, and yesterday, the laden car made two trips down from their out-of-the-way hamlet, la Couronne, stuffed with a dozen or more tubs of rich crumbly red earth.

Manure to gladden the heart

Did I put those tubs away once I’d emptied the soil out?  No. Our manure-providing donkeys are on strike at the moment (they ARE French after all), or rather people have been taking their produce faster than they can deliver.  But Jean-Claude, our new friend from the Andorra trip, has come to the rescue, and just after 8.30 this morning, there I was, shovelling the stuff into those over-worked tubs to pop in the car.

The garden’s sorted, manured, I’ve planted spring bulbs, re-organised the strawberry plants, generally slave-driven myself all morning long.  And do you know?  I’m happy as anything.  Could it have anything to do with the sun, I wonder?  Here we are, October 6th, and I’m in strappy top and shorts while the thermometer reads 23 degrees.

A late passion flower, its petals open for one day only, keeps me company

P.S.  If you don’t know why ‘the answer lies in the soil’, you’re not a British child of the 50’s, and you may need to explore the link.

Walking for the Masses

Walking near Mirepoix. My camera does no justice at all to the Pyrénées
The FR banner

The French love walking – as in hiking.  The Fédération Française de la Randonnée Pédestre is an immensely popular organisation with all age groups, and with a somewhat younger image than the Ramblers’ Association.  The French walk alone, with friends, in groups such as ours, Les Rando del’Aubo, and …..on mega-rambles.

Early morning. Getting miles of tables ready for endless breakfasts

We first came upon the mega-ramble when our own group went along, a couple of years ago now, on a walk organised by the FF Randonnée Midi- Pyrénées group.  We and about 800 others.  It’s something of a military operation.  Breakfast is offered, refreshments along the route, which has to be signposted beforehand and cleared afterwards.  Photocopied maps are handed out, and when it’s all over, there are exhibits to mooch round, apéros to drink, trophies to award (the oldest walker, the person who’s travelled furthest to participate, that sort of thing).  There’s often a sit down meal on offer too, though not that day.

171 walkers wait to start off

Interesting, but walking with dozens – hundreds – of others isn’t really our thing. This means we quite often sit out the Sunday walk, because these occasions happen pretty often.

Today, I made an exception.  In France, basic health care is free, but most people chose to top up by insuring themselves with a Mutuelle, which covers all the bits the system doesn’t pay for.  To publicise themselves, and various health charities, the Mutuelles of the Ariège organised a walk near Mirepoix today, and they needed our help.

Post-walk snacks. Healthy, of course

Early this morning, under the covered market hall in Mirepoix we set up tables, prepared healthy breakfasts (breads, cheese, fruit juices, dried prunes) and registered walkers.  Some people waymarked the route, others acted as marshals, and lots of us got to walk as well. 171 walkers today.  Why would we be so public-spirited?  Perhaps this picture tells you why.

Sitting in the main square in the sunshine, enjoying the meal we were offered as a 'thank you' for our work earlier. We'd have done it anyway. A good day.

Something else though.  Sitting down with everyone after it was all over, I reflected how far we’ve come.  This week, Malcolm’s been in England, so apart from exchanging English/French conversation on Tuesday for an hour, and enjoying lunch with an English friend on Friday, I’ve spent the rest of my time walking or eating with friends, shopping, singing, going to the gym and all the rest, entirely in French (well, I’ve done some hard labour at home too.  But I only had myself to talk to).  Over two years ago, when we first sat down for a communal meal, we could see people’s eyes glaze with fear as they thought they were going to be stuck with that English couple.  Could we speak French?  Well, yes actually, but both easy chit-chat, and more serious discussion were difficult for us in a noisy group situation.  Today I was happy to be the only foreigner in the group: instead of fearing me, it was ‘Is that chair next to you free?  May I sit with you?’

The Silent Forest Beneath the Water

Yesterday we went walking, Léonce and I, to the lac de Montbel.  According to the weather forecast, this glorious, hot, blue-skied day was to be the last day of real summer: though the chilly early mornings and cool evenings tell us that already it’s early autumn.

It’s a tidy walk from Le Peyrat, where Léonce lives, over to the lake.  Gently undulating hills pass through farmland where the sunflowers have recently been harvested, and Gascon cattle languidly watched us as we walked by.

Past la Gastounette, we left the bright sunshine for the dappled shade of the forest, and took a path neither of us knew:  Because of the recent rain, we’d hoped for mushrooms, but no luck.  Instead, we cut through the trees, and found a beach.  Not any old beach, but one where the ancient stumps of trees, washed smooth like driftwood, emerged from the sand. This lake’s only existed for some 25 years.  It looks as if it’s always been part of the landscape, but the area was flooded to provide a reservoir serving mainly the Haute Garonne.  Now, besides providing water, it’s a playground for the area.  There’s a sailing club, kayaks, beaches for sunbathers and swimmers, and paths to explore.

For a few years though, it’s often been dry, very dry.  So our beach shouldn’t have been there at all.  We were walking among the remnants of a forest, cut down before the waters flooded in.  Waters lapping the edges of the sand left concentric patterns, and the lake-polished stumps lent an air of abandonment and mystery to our secret beach. We sat awhile on a couple of the less bottom-piercing stumps and let the quiet beauty and abandonment of the place take us over.  Then reality surfaced and we set off for home, discussing what we could cook for a quick meal before we went out once more, for a lung-exercising session at Choir