This is the time of year when France begins to limber up for the Tour de France, which happens this year between the 3rd and 25th July. In truth, cycling never really goes away in France. Out driving the car, one of the occupational hazards is overtaking largish groups of keenies togged up in bright Lycra cycling gear, with bikes that in some cases have cost more than a decent second hand family car.
I’d forgotten that this weekend is the Ronde de l’Isard. This is a 4-day cycling event held here in the Ariège that began in the late 1970’s as a bit of a competition between local clubs. It’s since grown to have entrants from nearly as wide a range of countries as the Tour de France itself.
So, this morning I was strolling along to the baker’s – rather late – it was almost noon. Suddenly, I could hear hooting, sirens, tannoyed announcements, and a fleet of vehicles led by smartly polished blue gendarmerie motorcycles advanced down the street towards me. Ronde de l’Isard, Advance Guard. As with the Tour de France, they had gifts, and as I was the only person on my side of the street, they made sure I got the lot: a spotted baseball cap, a key ring, and a leaflet from Tourist Information.
And that as it, for half an hour. At precisely 12.33, as advertised, the riders themselves tore into view. The whole of the rest of the Ariège gendarmerie were there on their motorbikes, advance vehicles of various kinds, and then – whoosh! – the cyclists, a l-o-n-g streak of them, flashed past: to be followed by support teams carrying spare bikes, ambulances, press.
Today they only had 149.1 km to do. Just now, the thermometer at the back is reading 37 degrees. Still, yesterday, just as hot, the distance was 175.5 km. The winner for the day managed it in 3 hours 55.9 seconds. Count me out
When we first understood that Laroque is twinned with Melgven in Brittany, we were nonplussed. Surely twinning arrangements are with England, Germany, Spain – or anywhere abroad. What’s the point in twinning with a town in your own country?
Well, quite a lot as it turns out. As part of the twinning arrangements, citizens from Melgven come for a long weekend here in Laroque , while Laroquais have the chance of a few days’ stay there in May. This year, we signed up for the 10 hour mini-bus trip to Finistère
Straight away, we began to see the differences. As we arrived, we were welcomed to enjoy poking round their fundraising ‘Troc et puces’ fair in the Sports hall. The Bretons are a Celtic race, and it shows in their physical appearance. Meanwhile, down here, there’s a long tradition of Spanish immigration, most recently in the Spanish Civil War, and the Second World War, so many locals here are olive-skinned and not very tall. A tannoyed announcement for M. Garcia and M. Sanchez to report to the desk in a public hall somewhere near here would have nearly half the room scurrying to reception.
And then there’s the food. Brittany, like Britain, favours butter, and unlike the rest of France, the salted variety. Out to a meal on Saturday, the lunchtime bread came with pats of butter, something that never happens down south. In the Ariège, cooking’s done in duck fat, and more recently, olive oil. No part of Finistère is very far from the sea, so fish and seafood are an important part of the diet. Down here, duck in all forms is king. But pork, lamb, game, beef are all welcome on the dinner plate. If it moves, eat it.
When we looked round a market in Concarneau on Saturday, we were struck that there was little charcuterie or cheese on sale, and what there was came from elsewhere. It seems as if every other stall in our local Ariègois markets is one selling cheese and charcuterie, much of it from just a few miles away.
Brittany – cider and beer. Southern France – wine. As part of our welcome apéro, we were served kir made with cassis and cider. After sipping it suspiciously, we accepted refills with enthusiasm.
So…what were the highlights?
The welcome. Of course. Some Laroquais have been going on these exchanges for several years, and the warmth of the relationships forged is clear to see.
A change of scene: the countryside. Our host, Albert, took us on several walks, and we were struck with how very British this part of Brittany looks: softly rolling hillsides, woodland and meadows. We traded orchid spotting in the Ariège for enjoying the swathes of bluebell glades in the woods.
A change of scene: the town. We exchanged the shallow-roofed, unpainted or pastel coloured houses of the south for the tall white narrow pitched roofs of Brittany. Down here, we’re used to our towns and villages being shabby. Brittany’s are clean, sparklingly so, with flower boxes, neat gardens, and a general air of pride in the community. And then there are the churches. No clochers-murs in Brittany, but rather complicated steeples instead.
The seaside. Concarneau was at its sparkling best, with breezes tugging at the flags, clouds pluming across the sky, an early pre-season freshness to the narrow streets of the historic quarter. Their fishing museum there shows all too graphically just how very tough the life of the fisherman was – and is. But it’s a picturesque sight for the tourist
Sightseeing: Our first treat was to visit Locronan, a beautifully preserved granite built 16th & 17th century village, with a mighty central church, and a small chapel at the end of a charming walk.
Next was Trévarez, a chateau that might look Gothic, but is in fact a 19th and 20th century construction. Its brickwork gives it the name “château rose”. We spent more time in the gardens though. Apart from a formal area near the house itself, the garden is informal in the style we’re so used to from English stately homes, and glorious at the moment with azaleas and rhododendrons
Celtic music: Friday night was concert night: the chance to listen to an hour or two of traditional Breton music. Malcolm and I particularly enjoyed hearing those favourite Welsh hymns – Land of my Fathers, Cwm Rhondda in Breton– they sounded very different, but just as good
Story telling: Such a treat. Michel Sevellec enchants audiences in Finistère and beyond with his tales drawn from many traditions. On Saturday, as part of a local festival, we joined local children to hear his interpretation of Native American and other stories. Can’t wait for him to come to Laroque in a fortnight!
Crêpes:Everyone knows they make crêpes in Brittany. Lots of us have watched them being turned out on those special round hotplates. I always assumed it was easy-peasy. Until we went to eat crêpes at Albert’s mum’s house and she let me have a go. First, carefully pour the batter with your left hand while equally carefully drawing the batter round the plate with a special wooden spatula – not too fast & not too slow, not too thin & not too thick.
Then flip the delicate creation, so thin you could read a newspaper through it, over onto its other side to finish cooking. It was lucky there were hungry dogs to eat all my cast-offs. Lucky for us too perhaps: we’d still be eating them now. Malcolm and I thought 6 crêpes each ought to have been enough for anybody. Our hostess disagreed.
So….we discovered in Brittany an area very different from our own in languages, customs and appearance, and had a chance to be more than simply tourists. We now have new friends in Melgven but also in Laroque as a direct result of this weekend. A good experience.
Over at the BBC, they do things differently. The weather forecast, that is. It’s a big operation, the weather: 24 broadcasters– Daniel Corbett, Helen Willetts et al, and between them, they cover all the bulletins broadcast on BBC radio and television – even World service. On the radio, it’s the word picture you might expect, while on TV, the graphics are ever more sophisticated
Here in France, it’s different. Switch on France Inter for the weather forecast, and what you’ll get is the slightly southern, slightly nasal, but warm and measured tones of Joël Collado. Forecast after forecast. Day after day. Year after year He is allowed days off: he’s even allowed holidays sometimes, and when those occur, we’ll have Jacques Kessler or sometimes Jean-Michel Golynski. Just those three.
It’s quite comforting really. The French obviously think so. Watch a French film or television drama, and Collado’s reassuring, slightly soothing voice may well be murmuring in the background of those early establishing shots. The good old British forecast wouldn’t send out such a message of timeless normality, I don’t think. A young French social care assistant wrote what almost amounted to a declaration of love to Joël Collado on her blog Pause Café, (‘You’re my ray of sunshine, even when you’re forecasting rain and cold’). Facebook apparently has The Joël Collado and Jacques Kessler Appreciation Society – which I’ve not been able to read, as I think I am the next-to-last person in this web-aware world not to have a Facebook account. The last is Malcolm
Those three radio forecasters though, don’t present on TV. There are other teams for that job, depending on the station. We’re always amused that female presenters, who in this house go under the generic name Pixie-frou-frou, seem to have been hired specifically for the shortness of their skirts and the archness of their radiant smiles.
Then there are the papers, and the internet. Our local paper, La Dépêche du Midi, is famously wrong much of the time, and I gave up on the internet when the site I was reading assured me that at that very moment, it was snowing in Laroque d’Olmes. It wasn’t. It was sunny. I saw not one snowflake all that day. As in England, so in France, those who forecast the weather are only talked about when they are wrong
I’ve been quite interested in the run-up to the UK election. That may come as a surprise to those of you who know me as a not-very-party-political-animal, and as even more of a surprise to UK residents who seem to have been engulfed in non-stop election fever since early March.
For us, access to the election news has been via French radio and television. We don’t buy the papers very often, but I generally hear a couple of news bulletins a day from France Inter (roughly Radio 4 equivalent), and we often watch the main evening news on France 2 (BBC1-ish channel). So this scarcely constitutes an academic study of the British elections seen through French eyes.
It’s been quite a surprise to me that for the last couple of weeks, there’s usually been something about the British elections in every main bulletin. France 2 has had a series of mini-election specials every night. These have covered everything from SamCam versus Sarah Brown (Sarah Brown won on points, because they had a library photo of her talking to Carla Bruni-Sarkozy. In that particular encounter though, they clearly thought Carla B-S won on points), to the National Front in Barking, to Boris Johnson talking in sub-O Level French (but at least he did it. I’m old enough to have memories of Ted Heath’s sabotage of the French language back in the 1970’s). Nick Clegg has the French vote sewn up, on account of his fluent French (and Dutch, German and Spanish) – he’s had several interviews on pro-European matters in the French media
Yesterday’s report on France Inter’s lunch time news covered the fact that the polling stations are open from 7.00 a.m. – 10.00 p.m, to accommodate the fact that we vote on a Thursday, a working day, unlike most of the rest of Europe, which has Sunday as Polling Day. They incorrectly stated too that churches were among the buildings used as polling stations. Then they went on to explain our first-past-the-post voting system, which they rightly find bizarre.
And today, how much more bizarre it all seems. The first-past-the-post system seems even more unacceptable now that the Liberal Democrat share of the vote is so little behind that of the Labour Party. It’s impossible to spin it in a positive way to the French who ask about it. Like most Europeans, the French are more at ease with the idea of multi-party government, and perhaps bemused at the total impasse in which the leaders find themselves.
I thought I was going to see the election story out to the end on this blog. I’ve a feeling that could involve a very long wait, though. Here is the unfinished article
Back in the UK, I’ve noticed that in the media, topics, like buses, come in threes. For instance, I’d flick through an article in the second section of the Guardian: maybe about female circumcision, education-other-than-at-school, or some other equally right-on Guardian topic. Two or three days later, listening to say Women’s Hour on Radio 4, they’d be discussing exactly the same subject, with exactly the same slant. Then the following week, maybe on Channel 4, it would appear yet again.
And so it has been in the world of blogging. On April 24th, Kalba’s blog dropped into my in-box. I complained immediately. It was about asparagus, and I could have written it myself. Not all of it. I’ve never run a restaurant, and I’ve never lived in Norfolk. But like her, I do like green asparagus, the thinner the better: I don’t like the blanched, thick white spears favoured by the French and throughout most of mainland Europe.
Then on the 30th April, Bloggerboy, the writer of my other favourite blog, Welcome Visitor, pitched in with an account of the German love of asparagus. He even convinced me to have another go with the white stuff.
So now it’s my turn to write an asparagus blog. In Mirepoix market yesterday morning there were quite a few asparagus stalls, and I picked the one where I could buy thin and thick green spears, and white too. ‘I’m not too keen on the white spears’, I confided to the stall holder, ‘but I’m sure I must be wrong when you all seem to like them so. How do you like to cook them?’. If I’d expected to have my hand wrung in gratitude at my acknowledgement of his expertise: if I’d expected him to call over his wife to share her culinary tips, I would have been disappointed. What I got was a Gallic shrug. He was mystified by the stupidity of my question. ‘Well, you could use them in tarts, or omelettes. Whatever you like really’. I realised our conversation was at an end.
Luckily, there are recipe books, and there are other blogs. I’ve just tried a suggestion from another blog I enjoy, ‘Chocolate and Zucchini’, which is available in English and French. Asparagus and strawberry tart. A very odd idea indeed, but it works. In fact it was memorably good.
This is what we ate yesterday evening, from Denis Cotter’s wonderful vegetarian book, ‘Paradiso seasons’.
Gratin of Asparagus, Roasted Tomatoes and Gabriel Cheese with Chive and Mustard Cream.
Ingredients – for 2
4 -5 large tomatoes
Salt and pepper, to season
Drizzle of olive oil.
40g. fine breadcrumbs
40 g. Gabriel cheese, finely grated. I can’t get this, unsurprisingly, and maybe you can’t either. Settle for a hard, densely textured cheese.
1 sprig thyme
I tablespoon butter, melted
30 ml. vegetable stock
30 ml. white wine
150 ml. cream
Small bunch of chives, chopped
½ tsp. hot mustard
16 asparagus spears
Heat oven to 190 degrees. Cut tomatoes into 3-4 thick slices each. Place on oven trays lined with baking parchment, season and drizzle with olive oil. Roast until lightly browned and semi-dried – you may need to turn them once.
Mix the breadcrumbs with the thyme, the butter, and most of the cheese. Season.
Boil the stock and the wine until reduced by half. Add the cream and mustard, bring it back to the boil and simmer for 2 – 3 minutes until pouring consistency.
During this time, briefly cook the asparagus.
Heat a grill. On each plate, place 6 slices of tomato, lined up 3 x 2, and cover with 5 asparagus spears. Place a single line of tomatoes on top, then 3 more asparagus spears on top. Spoon a little mustard cream over the top, then finish with a generous sprinkling of the crumble. Cook under a hot grill for 2 – 3 minutes until the cream is bubbling, and the top is crisp and brown. Put remaining cream back on the stove, whisk in the rest of the cheese and chives, and pour round the finished gratins.
Alternatively (and this is more my style), arrange the ingredients in an oven dish instead of individual plates, and bake for 10 minutes until the cream is bubbling and the top is crisped and brown.
This too is a really tasty simple dish, well worth adding to the regular asparagus repertoire.
Um, have you noticed, I still haven’t got round to thinking about those wretched white spears?
1st May, 4.00 p.m. The washing machine’s just finished washing strappy tops and shorts, but I’m sitting here in front of a cosy log fire watching the rain scything it down in true British style. This time 2 days ago it was 37 in the shade, today it’s 11. What’s gone wrong?
As in England, I suppose the reason is that it’s a national holiday, and few people are at work. In fact it’s THE national holiday, la Fête du Travail. Only a few neighbourhood shops are open, and then only in the morning: no supermarkets, garages, big stores – no newspapers today either. But that doesn’t mean there’s no commercial activity. Oh no! Today’s the day when everyone offers one another a traditional token of friendship and esteem – a sprig or two of lily of the valley, prettily presented. In every village, every town, you’ll find people on street corners, outside the bakers’, at the cross roads, selling the flowers that they probably spent yesterday gathering and tying into pretty posies. Here in Laroque we had groups of children as entrepreneurs. A friend of mine went to Mirepoix to set out her stall, and she’s made 70 euros. It’s the one day of the year when anyone who wants to can sell on the streets without a licence – so long as they’re selling only lilies of the valley (muguets).
I must have asked a dozen people the origin of this tradition. Nobody knows. ‘It’s simply to offer bonheur’, they shrugged. But Léonce had a couple of stories to tell. We all know that lilies of the valley have a strong and lovely perfume. The nightingale smells them as they come into flower on the first of May, and this gives him the energy he needs to get into the woods and begin courting, nest building, and singing. And those bell shaped flowers? Well, they apparently surround the Heavenly Gates, where they come in handy by tinkling musically to announce the arrival of another soul from earth.
Shot on location in the Ariège by Jacques, Malcolm & Margaret.
A Lawrenson-Hamilton-Clift Production MMX
‘Curiously, I had no feelings of fear or apprehension, perhaps because of what our friends had told us about Jacques, the pilot, and his machine – it’s his pride and joy, and he takes great care of it.
There was a sharp feeling of exposure after take-off – we were not in a cabin, there was no protection from wind, we were just vulnerable beings in a powered shell under a giant wing – it reminded me of riding pillion on a motorbike, but this was in the air.
The various destinations came up quickly – not like travelling on the ground, even though our speed was only about 80-85 kph.
Over the mountain peaks, it was very cold – temperature had fallen from 13 or so on take-off to minus 1 over the snowfields and the flat white surfaces of isolated frozen lakes were still clearly to be seen. And suddenly, directly underneath, a herd of Pyrenean chamois, running and leaping, disturbed by the engine’s sudden sound in their snow-quiet world
A few minutes more and we were at 2600 metres, when the mountains seemed so empty and cold, even in the lovely morning sunlight. We could see long distances in the clear air at this altitude – 200 km away, we could see the Pic du Midi
The warmth after we left the mountains behind and lost altitude was welcome, and I could concentrate on the views of walks we had previously done, and which had sometimes seemed long and meandering, but were now clearly visible with their beginnings and ends.
Then back to the field and the short grass runway. As we flew over, I could see Margaret far below, waving. Then it was down, very smoothly, and a turn, and back to rest. What an experience! And how kind of my family to make this possible.’