Today has been really good fun. Singing morning and afternoon with four other choirs in a Choral Festival – performing to each other and with each other. And of course after a hard morning’s singing, there’s only one way to spend the hours between 12.00 and 2.00, especially when you have 200 people all gathered together intent on having fun. A big community meal, which the town, appreciative of our singing, treated us all to.
We were in Mazères, which is on the third day of its Foire au Gras, a celebration of the pleasures of those meats that are so appreciated down here – pork, goose and duck. So forget the vegetarian option. We ate garbure, a deeply meaty vegetable broth, followed by a richly pungent stew with every duck’s leg in the Ariège apparently popped into the pot, and the most delicious plain boiled potatoes I have ever eaten. Perhaps because they weren’t really plain boiled, but cooked in a light flavoursome stock. Kir and red wine a volonté. And a great deal of singing and laughter as everyone gave their attention to the accordion player who seems to be at every event we’ve been to. Men and women scuttled up and down the rows of diners, carrying scalding heavy pots, more bread, more wine. It was no surprise to anyone that we began our afternoon session at 3.00, rather than the scheduled 2.30.
Somehow, however, we all heaved ourselves up from the tables and ambled back to the church, the scene of the concerts. And there we stayed, singing or listening till 6.00 p.m. Some hardy souls stayed on for yet more partying, sharing the ‘pot d’amitié’, but our little group called it a day, and came home, watching the last of the sunset over the Pyrenees as we drove back towards Laroque.
Yesterday, the day here in Laroque started with the threat of snow, finally realised this morning. But with our Rando group, we set off for the brighter if bracing Corbières.
The Corbières are of course well known for wine production. As our mini-bus reached the area, we saw no cows, sheep, donkeys…or any animals at all. What we did see was acre after acre of vineyards, along the narrow plains, scrambling up the hillsides, with each Domaine favouring a different style of pruning, from the wild and wiry abundance of tendrils clearly being left alone till the spring, to almost knobbly stumps sticking bare out of the ground, scalped of any living shoot.
Walking here is so very different from the Ariège. The scrubby garrigue, so reminiscent of Spain, is covered in tough herbs such as rosemary and thyme, tiny wiry green oak trees with richly burnished brown acorns, and olive trees. The soil is sandy, shot through with red ferruginous deposits. There were views of the sea, of distant castles, and of the monastery we’d come to see, Fontfroide. We loved it as a change, but this scenery simply seemed lacking in the variety that our own patch offers – map reading was a nightmare, so we’ll stick with it as a holiday destination, we think. Still, our trek was invigorating in the bright winter sunshine, and it was a good way to spend the morning before an afternoon devoted to cultural matters.
The Abbey of Fontfroide was founded as a Benedictine abbey in 1093 and affiliated with the Cistercians in 1145. It began its history then, as a Romanesque gem, though it was added to in Gothic, Romanesque and elegant 17th and 18th times. It’s been privately owned since it ceased to be a monastery in 1901, and in this last century, accomplished craftspeople have continued to restore and add to it. Quite simply, it is an architectural gem.
Right from its early days, the monastery flourished and soon became a centre of orthodoxy. The murder in 1208 of Pierre de Castelnau, a Fontfroide monk and legate to Pope Innocent III, led to the Albigensian Crusade, which is such a living part of our history over here, at nearby Montségur. After peace was restored, construction on Fontfroide Abbey continued. The influence of the abbey soon dominatedthe entire region, all the way to Catalonia, and a daughter monastery was founded in Poblet. After the Black Death, the monastery had a chequered history, but it always escaped physical damage, and was often added to and improved with taste and elegance. Nowadays, it’s almost unique among Cistercian abbeys in being in such wonderful condition.
The Abbey of Fontfroide is an excellent example of the kind of monastic town prescribed by Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, in which the buildings and surrounding gardens and land contain everything necessary for simple living. The monks devoted themselves to hard work and worship, and had no contact with the lay people who worked there too, physically separated from the monastic community. This is only apparent now whenpointed out, but despite the Abbey now being in private hands, many ecclesiastical references remain, especially in the cloisters and church. If you ever have the opportunity, do visit this very special place.
The church at Laroque d’Olmes has a very fine organ. It’s an instrument with an illustrious history. Built in the 18th century, it was moved from its original home in the Chapel Royal at Versailles in 1989. For the last 4 years, it has been the subject of a Battle Royal.
You’ll know that France is a proudly laïque (secular) nation. In the UK, most of us perhaps became aware of this through the foulard controversy, when Muslim schoolchildren were no longer allowed to wear headscarves or other symbols of their faith in school. It was easy for the British to interpret this as racism, but in fact Christian symbols such as crosses are equally frowned on unless very discreet. Religious studies are not taught in school, and the very idea of a Christian school assembly seems completely bizarre to the French – as it increasingly does in the UK too of course. Because of this laïcité, church buildings and furnishings are the property of the community in which they are situated, and that community pays for much of their upkeep.
Over the years then, communities such as Laroque have had the responsibility for buildings that may be in poor shape, even to the extent of being a public danger (towers in danger of subsidence – that sort of thing). In addition, Laroque, keen at the time to see such a prestigious organ installed in its midst, has over the years, together with other public bodies, made available 74% of the monies need for its upkeep.
The council in Laroque didn’t want the organ simply for the regular congregation, or even for the draw that it represented to renowned organists, keen to accept concert engagements enabling them to play on such a prestigious instrument. Small as the town is (2000+ inhabitants), it has a School of Music, with the usual range of after-school classes, bands and orchestras. With such an organ as this, what a chance to give a new generation of young people the opportunity to learn to play this very special instrument!
They made the decision that the School of Music should appoint a well-qualified teacher of the instrument. A protocol (2003) and a convention (2006) was worked out between the École de Musique and the curé, allowing access for up to 20 hours per week to the teacher and pupils; a highly qualified young musician was offered the post, and accepted.
Since then, it’s all gone wrong. Quite simply, the curé refuses them admittance to the church: no reason given. He HAS offered very limited access from time to time, but at periods that are quite simply impossible for either the teacher or her students. So she now teaches the basics on – a synthesiser. He no longer permits the free concerts staged in the church at Christmas and on St. Cecilia’s day (patron saint of music). Parents, pupils, town councillors and many parishioners and citizens are enraged by this turn of events, but nothing so far has persuaded the curé to change his stance. Nor has the Mayor demonstrated any leadership over this issue.
The magnificent organ has its Society of Friends, who organise regular concerts with prestigious musicians. These draw audiences from far afield. There’s one of these concerts on Sunday. And this time, there’ll be a protest to go with it: letters to the musicians themselves, asking for support, and leaflets to the audience – general awareness raising. We’ve all been writing letters to the Bishop, to the press – anyone with possible influence. A State Mediator’s been requested.
And today, the lead story in our local paper tells how the Mayor and the curé plan to work together to solve the problem. Nobody much believes it. Quite simply, the commune’s entitled to keys to the church, and the curé’s not letting them out of his hands. The Mayor’s within his rights to demand those keys, and use them to let the musicians in. If he’d done this in the first place, Laroque’s young would-be organists wouldn’t still be practising on a synthesiser, and the École de Musique would still be giving regular – free – concerts in the church
I suspect you can identify with one of the following:
1. You’ve bought, written and probably sent your cards, the presents are organised, and wrapped and sent if they need posting. Wrapping paper’s sorted, the food for the holiday’s under control
2. You’re in panic mode because you’ve only done some, or worse, none of the above.
Mirepoix market, Monday December 7th. I met an acquaintance, a young French guy. I explained that I’d come, although it’s a market I don’t usually visit, to do some Christmas shopping, but I wasn’t being very lucky. ‘Ooh, it’s a bit early yet’, he said. ‘Don’t you think? I expect there’ll be more stuff next week.’
And he could be right. The street decorations might be switched on in the evening too. Just.
It does seem a better way. I really appreciate visiting shops that not only fail to play Jingle-Bells-Dreaming-of-a-White-Christmas on a never-ending loop, but get through the day with no musak at all. Energised by the lack of pre-Christmas stress, I’m actually looking forward to the festival.
Deep in the forest, somewhere near here, vanloads of dastardly Italians are despoiling the woodland floor of every single mushroom. Some hours later, they’ve driven back across the border to sell their countless kilos of plunder on some Italian market stall.
This tale is a variation of the Great Doryphore Scandal. Elsewhere in France, doryphores are Colorado beetles. Here in the Ariège, Doryphores are Toulousains, who used to leave the city at dead of night to strip our fields and woodlands of anything edible, returning home before dawn to stock their own larders – or their market places.
It was our friend and near neighbour M. Baby who told me the tale of those Italians. We have a great deal of affection and respect for M. and Mme Baby: they’re an elderly couple, very old school, and we’ll never be other than ‘Monsieur’ and ‘Madame’ to them, but they’ve always been very kind to us. Yesterday he reminisced about the secret field where, every year, he used to pick quantities of ceps. He shook his head regretfully. ‘But I’m too old now. I can’t get there any more’. Was he going to tell me, his good neighbour, where to find them? Not a chance. His secret will go with him to his grave.
It’s all part of the great Mushroom Mystique here in France. At this time of year, mushrooms are a hot topic. The weather’s too dry, too wet, too hot, too cold…. It’s a poor year. But someone’s always found some somewhere. And they won’t tell you where. ’Ooh, over near Campredon somewhere’ is as good as it gets.
Notices appear in the papers forbidding the collection of more than 2 kilos on any one day (2 kilos? I’d be glad of a small basketful). Landowners have permanent notices forbidding the gathering of mushrooms on their land.
Until now, we’ve had to be content with collecting a few field mushrooms from a rough field just outside Laroque. Yesterday morning though, Henri arrived. ‘Get Malcolm. He’s got to come now. We’re going mushrooming.’ Malcolm was painting the study – he’d just got stuck in really. But invitations like this don’t come twice, so he changed into boots and trousers that were even grottier than those he wears for painting, and off they went, baskets and mushroom knives in hand.
They returned, nearly 2 hours later, with a large bag of delicate ‘gris’, so fragile that they crumbled delicately as I excitedly unpacked them. So many! Thank goodness I remembered Kalba’s posting on her wonderful blog Slow Living in the French Pyrénées . She’d had a mushroom glut too, and wrote about duxelle, made by cooking down slowly a mixture of chopped mushrooms, shallots and herbs until there’s a small amount of a sort of paste that is quite simply, essence of mushroom. Slow cooking, but worth it.
And Henri was prepared to share with Malcolm where he’d found those mushrooms? We MUST have arrived.
I’m not a big fan of Christmas, but ever since I was a very small girl, I’ve loved cooking for Christmas – cakes, puddings and mincemeat: those things that have to be done well ahead, and squirreled away in some cool dark spot to mature and develop complex sweet rich flavours.
First there’s the shopping and preparation. All the vine fruits in their cellophane packages; bright crystallised cherries; whole candied peel with crunchy sugary crusts; packets of ivory coloured almonds, and smaller quantities of other fruits to add interest – warming crystallised ginger, emerald green angelica, pale rounds of candied pineapple. Spices too – whole nutmegs and cloves, powdered cinnamon, allspice, mace and mixed spice. Fresh butter, lemons, eggs and flour. Make sure that there’s enough dark and light muscovado sugar in the house. Line the cake tins and grease the pudding basins. Hunt out clean jars for mincemeat.
This year, I’ve rediscovered the pleasure in all this Christmas cooking by seeing it through the eyes of those French friends who’ve come and shared the job of making all these Christmas treats.
Sitting round the kitchen table with our pinnies on, we discussed the less familiar ingredients. Suet, muscovado sugar, treacle aren’t unknown here, but they’re not on every kitchen shelf. Cakes and puddings that need to be made well ahead, and fed with spoonsful of brandy in the weeks before Christmas – now that’s very different. I made my friends weigh everything out in pounds and ounces too – well, it’s what I do, and here are the pictures of how we all got on.
Sadly, they weren’t any longer in the house when the cakes, cooking at low temperatures over several hours, started to give off their warming Christmassy aromas. Which is a pity, because it’s the best bit of all.
This is one of the mincemeats we made. It’s one my mother taught me, and our favourite, with its bright lemon flavour.
6 large lemons
450g (1 lb.) sultanas
¼ pint brandy
225 g (8 oz.) mixed crystallised fruits – I always use crystallised lemons and oranges, perhaps limes too (all bought in large pieces and hand cut), and often cherries, ginger, pineapple, angelica – but it’s up to you.
75 g (2oz.) blanched almonds
800g (1 ½ lb.) golden caster sugar
225g (8oz.) suet
½ level tsp. each ground mace, cloves, nutmeg
Peel the lemons extremely thinly, so that you have the zest, rather than the pith.
Place the lemon peels in pan & cover with cold water, bring to boil.
Drain, re-cover with cold water, & repeat twice more.
Halve & squeeze juice from lemons.
Chop blanched lemon peel finely, and mix with the other finely chopped fruits.
Mix with sugar, suet, brandy.
And mince pies in our house always go down best when they’re made with the recipe my sister-in-law Fenella shared with me.
Pastry for mince pies
230 g (8 oz.) plain flour
40 g (1 ½ oz.) ground almonds
85 g. (3 oz.) icing sugar
170 g. (6 0z.) butter
1 medium egg yolk (you might need 2).
Sift the flour, almonds and icing sugar into a warmed bowl, and rub in the butter. Stir in the egg yolk and work gently to form a soft dough. Knead lightly, cover and chill for 30 minutes.
You’ll need 230 – 340 g (8 – 12 oz.) mincemeat to make this pastry into about 12 tarts. Bake at Gas mark 4, 180 degrees C. for 15 – 20 minutes
Well, I mentioned Patrimoine in my last blog. Yesterday we had Our Farming Heritage, an event organised by Pays d’art et d’histoire des Pyrénées Cathares. 20 or so of us turned up at a nearby village, Troye d’Ariège, to have a look round a traditionally run sheep farm.
The event was immediately hi-jacked by an unscheduled event – the birth of a lamb. Out in a field, a mother sheep heaved herself up, plonked herself down, then up again, baahing loudly, until suddenly, quite suddenly, there was the front half of a lamb hanging out of her. A bit more wriggling and fussing, and there was the lamb, out on the grass, while the mother flopped beside it. A few minutes later, both were standing again. No shelter, no farmer in attendance – no need to worry apparently. These sheep are Tarasconnais, ‘The 2 CV of the sheep world’ said the farmer: rough and ready sheep who can turn their hooves to anything – wool production, milk and meat production, surviving on their own: molly-coddling is not required. They even get on with delivering their lambs regularly all the year round, somehow producing between them a steady crop of young, without human intervention.
Over to the lambing sheds then, where the mothers, having delivered, come inside for a while with their lambs. The noise! Dozens of lambs constantly baahing in their high-pitched tones, while the mothers hit more melodious lower notes. Hopeless to try to follow all that the farmer, Marcel, was telling us.
Marcel runs his farm of 800 sheep by himself, helped only by an apprentice (who has to go to College in among, of course) and occasional visits from a retired farm hand.
He grows their feed – hay, beets & maize, keeps the animals fed and watered, dips them against insects monthly, de-parasites them every 3 months, regularly cuts 800 sets of hooves (he’s devised various metal narrow bus-shelter-style contraptions to make it easier to queue the animals up take their turns for these various procedures).
He’s not organic, but many of his practices are, and he certainly usually chooses, for example, organic treatments if his beasts fall ill, believing them to be better.
Every summer, about 400 of his sheep go off to the mountains with a shepherd, following the ancient tradition of transhumance. The old, the young and the weak remain behind.
As the sun went down, it got colder and colder. Time for the next part of the evening, an Apéritif dinatoire. What this meant was that everyone from the farm walk and most of the village inhabitants got together to choose and share plates of local sausage, hams, pâtés, cheeses, bread, wine, apple croustades and fruit, mainly sourced from no more than 10 miles away.
The atmosphere got merrier and merrier, and yet, come half past eight, the tables were cleared, and we all sat down for a lecture (this is Saturday evening we’re talking about…..).
Eric Fabre, a university lecturer specialising in the farming history of our area painted a picture of 19th century life in which most people farmed tiny patches of land: only the Church and a very few landowners had substantial holdings. People grew what they and their few animals needed, and the sheep they had were valued for the manure they produced, and secondly for their wool. The meat got eaten, of course, but it only became a marketable product following urbanisation, when town based workers no longer had land of their own. The farmers listening to all this were even more interested then we were, and question time was lively. But it was late and we were tired, and in the end, we were glad to go. 11 o’clock seems well past bedtime when you’ve had a day down on the farm.