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

A Very English Pudding

The other day, we had French friends to dinner.  They bravely agreed to curry.  I thought I ought to check beforehand: the French – round here anyway – are curiously resistant to the fiery charms of the chilli plant, and hot spices generally.  They shouldn’t have worried, and neither should we.  They cleaned their plates and came back for more.

Having assaulted their palates with unfamiliar flavours, I wanted to make something rich and soothing to round off the meal.  And I remembered that, back in England, my friend Barbara had recently treated us to lemon posset.  It’s been around a few centuries, and was by no means a new recipe when Samuel Pepys had it for supper back in the 17th century.

At once palate-cleansing and luxurious, it’s so simple to make.  And when your guests ask for the recipe, you know you’ve struck gold.  Here it is:

Lemon Posset

Serves 4

500 – 600 ml. double or whipping cream (crème fleurette).  The quantities aren’t crucial.  Use a couple of pots of what’s available.

Up to150g. caster sugar
Juice of 3-4 medium lemons

Pour cream and sugar into a small saucepan. Slowly bring to the boil, stirring constantly to dissolve the sugar. Once boiling cook for a further three minutes, still stirring constantly.

Remove from the heat and pour in half the lemon juice whilst stirring the mixture thoroughly. It should start to thicken instantly. Taste the mixture and if its not quite tart enough for your tastes then put a little more juice in. It should be tangy but still very rich.

Allow the posset to cool for approximately five minutes and then pour into 4 glasses, coffee cups, or any small, pretty containers. The posset will start to visibly thicken as it hits the cool glass or porcelain. Cover and chill in the fridge for at least 3 hours. The posset should be quite firmly set.

Serve with lemon shortbread or other biscuits of your choice, or a fruit coulis.

A Hummingbird Hawkmoth Calls

This morning, we were busy in the courtyard. The final tomatoes needed harvesting, and the woodstore needed to be tidied and sorted for that all-important wood delivery before the cold weather sets in.

How can you concentrate though, when something as beautiful, as busy, and as graceful spends the morning hovering over your sage plants?

My camera wasn’t up to the job of recording those wings in constant fevered motion, so this image comes to you thanks to the BBC


Tell most Ariegeois that you’re going to Andorra, and they’ll assume you’re popping over to stock up on hooch, cigarettes, cosmetics and cleaning products, then fill the car with as much petrol or diesel as it’ll hold.

The Principat de les Valles de Andorra is a little historical oddity.  It’s a Catalan speaking independent country, only 468 square km., slap in the midst of the Pyrénées between France and Spain.  It was, since 1278, co-ruled by the President of France (as the Count of Foix is no more) and the Bishop of La Seu d’Urgell in Cataluña.  In odd numbered years, France receives tribute money, and in even-numbered years, the Spanish bishop calls in 900 pesetas (or the euro equivalent, I suppose), 12 chickens, 6 hams and 12 cheeses. 1n 1993, the Andorrans voted for democracy and a constitution- but those tributes still get paid.

What makes Andorra popular, here in the Ariège as elsewhere in France, is its lack of taxes.  Petrol therefore costs something like 40 cents a litre less than in neighbouring France, and you can buy 3 new car tyres for the cost of two here.  And so on.  So Andorra’s border towns are nothing more than huge unpleasant shopping malls, blighting the slopes of the wilderness Pyrénées on which they’re situated.  The capital city, Andorra le Velle, and the surrounding towns which have become its suburbs, are given over to little other than retail therapy.

In other words, not really our cup of tea.

Andorra, though, offers so much more.  Zig-zag up the narrow mountain roads only a few kilometres away from the capital, and you’ll be alone amongst grand peaks, dense forest and craggy paths.  Apparently, the further you travel from the capital, the wilder and more spectacular the scenery becomes.  Tiny villages remain undefended by castles: the circumstances of its past government meant castles were forbidden.  But charming Romanesque churches, often with original frescoes, are common throughout the country.

Henri and Brigitte invited his cousin and wife and us, to join them on a mid-week break at an Andorran hotel they’d chanced upon a few months ago.  Henri doesn’t do bargain basement, so we were surprised when he told us that full board at this 3 star hotel was 51 euros each.

Hostal La Font is in a tiny village, Os de Civis, clinging to the mountain side not, as it turned out, in Andorra at all.  It’s in Spain.  But it might as well not be.  The one road serving the community connects the village to Andorra la Velle and to nowhere whatsoever in Spain.  Out of season, 20 people live there.

It was busy when we checked in to the hotel though, just in time for lunch.  Vegetarians need not apply.  Before the meal, tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, dried sausage, olives all appeared on the table.  Then a hearty meatball-cabbage-chickpea-potato soup arrived.  Then a selection of salads and charcuterie.  Full yet?  I hope not.  There’s grilled lamb and 3 different sorts of grilled sausage with baked potato, and a large choice of puddings to come.  The secret of course is to help yourself to tiny portions of everything offered: that’s what I did anyway, because I knew there would be a 3 course meal in the evening, and Henri has a way of making sure that nobody does their own thing by skipping dinner – or even a course.

Anyway, after lunch, we all chose to stride forth into the mountains.  Henri’s cousin, Jean-Claude, has been a lifelong farmer, and made a great walking companion.  We learnt from him the grasses that any discerning sheep chooses, given half a chance.  He showed us how the local cows, a Swiss grey breed, have narrow agile hooves and legs to enable them to cope with climbing up and down the steep slopes of their summer pasture.  And he told us tales of transhumance: the days in spring and autumn when cows and sheep are taken up to high pastures for the summer, and down again in winter: for his sheep, each journey took three days.

Later, we explored the village.  Just as well the streets are equipped with handrails.  Steepest village I’ve met.  The dark local stone is the picturesque material both houses and streets are built from.  It might look pretty in the September sun, but life looks tough here, and I’m not surprised the village all but closes once the tourists go.

We’ll be back.  A walking week or so in these wild and empty mountains is a must, and hotels are affordable.  Anyway, the car needed 2 new tyres, and the money we saved by buying in Andorra all but paid for the holiday.

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