Espezel, Potatoes and the Plateau de Sault

Waiting for horses to enter the ring. The fair at Espezel gets under way

If you live round here, you’ll know about the Plateau de Sault.  It’s where the potatoes come from.

Plateau de Sault potatoes. Plenty more where they came from.

They’re very proud of their potatoes.  They’re also proud of their country fair, la Foire Départementale de l’Elevage, held at Espezel.  Though this fair, held in October each year, is less about potatoes, and more about animals, as the name suggests.

A show tail for a show horse

Working horses, bulls with a reputation, Jack-of-all-trades Tarascon sheep, sheepdogs, pigs, rabbits and chickens were all there, together with state of the art tractors and farm machinery.

We could have bought this fellow: but we couldn’t raise the money

There were food stalls, clothing stalls, catch-penny stalls: plenty to keep us busy. Gill and David, our guests from England, who are County Fair Connoisseurs and stalwarts of shows all over Yorkshire, spent their time eyeing up horses – particularly the heavy, working Castillon horses, while we enjoyed the working sheepdogs.

The Australian sheep dog rounds up his sheep

As in England, most sheepdogs are border collies, but some are Australian sheepdogs, crossed with dingos.  They might look fierce – the sheep certainly think so – but they’re gentle and tractable, and do the business.

Oh, and on the way there, we had a piece of luck.  We got held up, and it was a traffic jam we really didn’t mind.  On the road to L’Aiguillon, a slow moving car with a sign reading ‘Transhumance’ flagged us down. Dozens of cows were being brought down to their lowland home from their summer pasture, and a score of cowherds and hangers on accompanied them on their long walk from Comus on the Plateau de Sault, to Mirepoix.  That’s a 50 km. journey, but they probably didn’t walk it all.  They’d have hitched a lift in a cattle transporter for at least part of the way, more than likely.  We however, saw the picturesque procession, and it began our day on a suitably bucolic note.

Cows plodding off to their winter quarters

In which we visit Rievaulx Abbey and Hay-on-Wye, UK, without leaving France

Slightly iffy weather on Saturday made us decide to take the car out (petrol’s back!) to explore with our guests the Montagne Noir area, north of Carcassonne.  We’d decided to visit Villelongue, a Cistercian abbey there.

Back in the 11th and 12th centuries, the Cistercians spread wide over Europe.  Following the simple life of hard work and austerity promoted by the Rule of Saint Benedict, their architecture was also simple and distinctive, avoiding superfluous ornamentation.  We’ve got two Cistercian abbeys in Yorkshire, Fountains and Rievaulx, and what they have in common with Villelongue is their ruined condition. But the Yorkshire abbeys are National Treasures, and beautifully managed.  Villelongue’s in private ownership, and more quirkily run.  It has, for instance, an important collection of pumpkins, though we’d missed their big day of celebration last month.  After enjoying the peaceful cloisters, the remnants of the abbey, we spent our time inspecting the slightly zany management of the monastic gardens, all ancient bicycles, parakeets, and blue chairs with pumpkins perched on them.

Then we went to Montolieu.  That’s France’s answer to Hay-on-Wye.  Both towns are in their own versions of the Black Mountains, and both have made their mark by appealing to book lovers.  Books old and new, collections of magazines and dog-eared collectable posters appear in traditional shop fronts, down narrow side streets where bookshops have been made from tiny front rooms, and ancient staircases lead you to low-beamed attics stuffed with more books and papers.  We had fun poking around, but didn’t buy.

We’ll be back to explore again, but half the party was nursing the first colds of the season, and anyway, there are only so many pumpkins and second-hand books you can take in one day.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

On n’est pas sorti de l’Auberge…..

Or – It  Ain’t Over Till The Fat Lady Sings

I was worried in my last blog that because of the continuing French days of action and strikes, Tom, Sarah, Brian and Sue wouldn’t make it over here.  I was right to worry, but they HAVE made it.  Here’s how.

In the days before their arrival, we all check Easyjet’s site, compulsively.  By the night before, it’s saying that their flight, alone of Easyjet flights to Toulouse, will depart.

BUT Ryanair cancels almost all French flights for the Thursday, which doesn’t lead to peace of mind.


Tom & Co. get up at 3.00 a.m. and go to airport for a 6.30 flight.  Thomas texts me,

5.59 BST: Still looking promising. Flight still on time.  They checked our bags in.  Fingers crossed.

In Laroque we listen to the French news and learn that this day of action is intended to disrupt mainly transport, and two thirds of all flights will not take place

At Gatwick, they all board as planned. They taxi off.  Over in France, we read on the website that they’ve taxied off, and so we depart for Toulouse.

Half way to Toulouse, this series of texts from Thomas:

7.59 BST: Still being held on plane at Gatwick.

8.09 BST: Just been told we expect to take off in 45 minutes

8.39 BST: We’re off.  Probably.

An unusually deserted airport: Toulouse Blagnac yesterday

And so they are.  By 11.35 French time, they’re with us.  We are out of the auberge, and this particular lady, though not fat, is quite prepared to sing.

As I read this back, I see that this frazzled journey was only delayed by some two hours.  But the nail biting, the anxiety in the preceding days (To cancel?  To postpone? To bash on and risk its all not happening) has been….stressful.

Cancelled flights

On the day before, Wednesday, I was talking to an extremely militant French friend who goes on every available demo, waving placards and generally making his presence felt. ‘Nous ne voulons pas emmerder les gens’, he explained. ‘On veut seulement ravager l’économie’ (‘We don’t want to b***** people about, we just want to destroy the economy’).  He seems not to have succeeded in his first objective, but to be doing fairly well on the second

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