Yesterday, it was the last day of term at Clé des Chants, one of the choirs I belong to.  As usual, we finished the year with a shared meal.

In the course of the evening, I was chatting to Bernard and Pierrot, mildly teasing them that as usual, the women had cooked food to bring, while the men had brought the wine.  After they’d defended themselves with some vigour, they asked me about English food.

I always find this question quite difficult to respond to, now that we English are more likely to sit down to spaghetti Bolognese, a Chinese-style stir-fry, or a pungent curry, than steak and kidney pudding with two veg. followed by jam roly-poly and custard.  So I talked about the English love affair with curry, and said how we liked ’em spicy.

Bernard: ‘Oh, cooked with saffron – that sort of thing’

Me: ‘No – chillies, cumin, turmeric, ginger – that sort of thing’

Bernard: ‘In that case, I had a curry once, chilli con carne I think it was called.  Didn’t like it.’

Which is, in one way, surprising. The French colonial heritage means that the warm, rich flavours Morocco, Algeria & Tunisia – tagines and couscous are now a standard and much appreciated part of French cuisine.

Still, you couldn’t call these dishes mouth-burningly hot.  Any more than the curries served in this part of France are,  to the English palate. ‘Careful! It’s lethal’, you’ll be warned, as a tempting plate is set before you.  ‘Erm, thanks.  This is a jolly nice stew’ is not the correct response.

PS, and nothing to do with spices at all.  If the French have not embraced curries, they have fallen in love with ‘le crumble’, and whole recipe books are devoted to the subject.  We were delighted to pass a pâtisserie in Agen the other day, with lots on display. They were helpfully labelled ‘Grumble’.

Emily, Sophie and the Crapahut Experience

Sophie & Emily at Puivert

Emily (that’s our daughter, the 21 year old) and her friend Sophie have been to stay.  After all that cold, rain and gloom, they brought the sunshine with them, and a holiday mood.  They quite rightly wanted sightseeing, markets to mooch round, and sunbathing opportunities.  Most afternoons, we finished off with a swim at either Montbel or Puivert.

Emily starts off

Yesterday was their last day, and they wanted Action, with a capital A. We’d seen the publicity for something new: CRAPAHUT PARC AVENTURE – a sort of mile-high adventure playground in the forest at Fontestorbes, near Belesta.

It’s the sort of thing that makes you wonder why on earth you’d pay to be scared witless.  It involved serious safety harnesses, and a training session on clipping karabiners onto safety wires so you were secured at all times.

…and the journey begins

Malcolm and I watched from below.  Often, the two were so high up in the tree canopy we could barely see what they were up to.  Whizzing through the forest on zip wires seemed to be the pay-off for challenges such as rope bridges, swaying wooden fences with equally swaying footholds.  High up on the wooden security platform between each section, they had time to contemplate the scariness of the next challenge whilst unclipping and reclipping their karabiners.  Sadly, my camera battery gave out after they’d gone round the first of three sections – the ‘easiest’ one, so I can’t show you the scariest bits of all: such as swinging on a rope, Tarzan-like, to a large vertically strung net, which you have to climb along, crab-like, to reach the next point of safety.

A zip-wire experience

Or the longest zip wire of all, so much higher than the others, which sent them screaming through the trees, across a river, through more quite dense forest, before they disappeared from view.  They came back into view as they returned across the river via precarious rope bridges and swinging platforms

Emily walks the not-so-tight rope

It was fun and a challenge for them.  But it was fun for us too, the two wimps left below.  We wandered through the forest following their progress and astonished at their courage: being safe isn’t the same as feeling safe.

Watch out.  If you come to stay, we may send you there.  Malcolm and I will be watching from below again

Emily strides from tree to tree

A Chimney Falls

Martine won that medal of hers – see my last-but-one posting – for producing 6 children. Where would we be without that family?  She, Francis, and 3 of her children were responsible for getting rid of our garden sheds for us a couple of months ago.  Last week, Francis and yet another of her sons were responsible for demolishing the monstrously heavy & ugly asbestos chimney that emerged onto our roof terrace as the outlet for the now demolished central heating.  Malcolm sawed it up the next day: even the six pieces he made of it are horribly heavy. Now they’re safely wrapped up, and the whole thing’s at the tip.  Another job done.  Thanks, team!

Foraging: a Mushroom Hunt

Yesterday, members of Atout Fruit went mushrooming.  ‘ You couldn’t have!’, I hear you cry, as several people I mentioned it to did, ‘Autumn’s mushrooming time.  On the whole’.  Well, yes, up to a point.  But our guide Francis, an organic farmer near Chalabre, keeps his family in mushrooms every single week of the year.  He knows where to look.

The hunters set forth

And so he took a group of about 10 of us to the woods.  Where?  I’m not going to tell you that silly.  Somewhere near Lavelanet.  That’s all you need to know.

He told us some of the lore and laws surrounding mushrooming.  That you can gather 5 kilos per person per day in the Aude, but only 3 kilos here in the Ariège .  I wish.  I’m ecstatic generally if I find as many as three mushrooms.  That about 85% of land is in private ownership.  That you may have the right to gather in the Fôret Communale of certain communes if you are resident there. That you must have written permission if a landowner gives you permission to go mushrooming on his land in case the police stop you as you carry your haul home.  Theoretically, you could be stopped as you return from the shops with an extra-big bag of them.

An inedible amonite

Mushrooms in the woods, pushing steadily through the thick thatch of decaying leaves, are surprisingly hard to spot, clinging to the base of tree trunks, bulging through the crust of impacted dry foliage.  We quickly divided into a hit squad of those who seemed to have an eye for it, and others, who like me, were destined to remain in the B team.  Francis showed us edible girolles, gariguettes and russules, and warned against the attractive-but-not-to-be-eaten family of amanites.

Look at the whole thing to identify it correctly

We’d trot over to him with our finds, to be disappointed when he warned us against putting them in the pot, triumphant on those occasions when he said they were ‘delicieux’.  We could guess after a while which ones were delicieux.  The slugs and worms had got there first and eaten little circles out of them.  No matter.  Plenty left for us.

After a couple of hours, we wandered back to his mum’s kitchen (she’d lent her house for the afternoon), got out the textbooks, and discussed our finds.  Not many mushrooms are dangerous, but unfortunately, they do tend to look rather like their edible cousins, and it only takes one……

Some of our haul

The family takes its mushrooms seriously.  The ones they can’t immediately eat are preserved in oil, or dried, and the surplus sold to discerning customers.  We spend a happy time exchanging our favourite ways of preserving, drying and bottling all the fruits of the seasons – this sharing is always my favourite part of an Atout Fruit gathering.

Together, we disposed of a big pot of sautéed mushrooms, the juices sopped up with bread, and helped down with a glass of wine, before reluctantly setting off home, our baskets more or less filled with our afternoon finds.  When I got home, Malcolm and Henri were drinking coffee.  ‘Whaddya mean, you’re not telling where you got those mushrooms?’ Henri grumbled. ‘You’re a right proper Ariègoise you are’.

A mushroomy supper cooking on the stove

The High Life at Lanoux

We’ve just had a wonderful weekend at Lanoux.   Well on the way to Andorra and Spain, the reservoir at Lanoux is high up (7261 feet) in the Pyrénées Orientales. It’s a natural lake, enlarged by the creation of an immense barrage that enables it to produce quantities of electricity for the area and for industry in the Ariège.  Building this barrage must have been quite an undertaking – it took 20 years from 1940-1960: up there, it’s a good 2 ½ hour walk down to the nearest road (though they did have a cable car, since removed), and the winter months are given over to deep snow.  And of course there was a world war on in the 1940’s.  We stayed in the refuge used by the construction workers at the time, a simple structure with a dormitory of three storey bunk beds, a large kitchen-living room, two hole-in-the-floor toilets, and … one washbasin just inside the entrance.  Everything we ate, everything we needed, we had to carry up – and bring any rubbish down again. But our two days there were memorable.  Why?

Was it the landscape? Our walk from the valley floor began with wooded green meadows, and as we climbed, we saw lakes, crossed 20 or more streams, and followed the course of a dozen others. Higher, the landscape became starker with slatey outcrops that reminded us of the Lake District or North Wales, though on a much bigger scale. Even though it’s June and the weather was warm, we soon reached what was left of the snowfields. We were surrounded by peaks higher still than we were, such as le Carlit, over 9 ½ thousand feet high

The flowers? Early June is a wonderful time to do this walk.  The azaleas aren’t quite out, but we saw Alpine & spring gentians, both a brilliant royal blue, orchids, sempervivum (joubarbe), vividly yellow gorse, creamy rock roses and saxifrage, tiny pink and white moss campion, delicate mauve violets, bilberry flowers, even a few late daffodils

The animals? Lower down, we spotted a herd of isards (Pyrenéan chamois) bounding across a meadow where semi-wild black Merens horses grazed.  Near our refuge, there were chestnut horses too, with their leggy young foals.  We spotted distant mouflons, and on the way down from Lanoux, marmots chasing and playing on the rocky grass.

The water? The lake itself is sternly beautiful, set among the slatey mountains of le Carlit, and the area is criss-crossed by deltas of streams and rivers, with splashing cascades as the water tumbles down the mountain sides.  There are ponds and lakes at every turn, and in every distant view.

Friendship? Weekends like this are the chance to nourish existing relationships, as this weekend with our Laroquais friends showed.  Up at the refuge though, we were joined by a group from Toulouse, who’d come, like us, to enjoy the empty countryside and to spend time together.  They all knew each other very well, and could have resented our intrusion: but instead, we shared some very special moments.  We pooled our food and drink, ate their homemade pâtés, and drank their homemade apéros.  We talked, laughed, played silly card games, and the next morning, went walking together.  So now we have some new friends too.

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Martine’s Medal

The Médaille de la Famille Française was created on 26th May 1920, following the catastrophic losses of the First World War, and can be awarded to mothers:

Bronze medal: for raising 4 or 5 children

Silver: for raising 6 or 7 children

Gold: for raising 8 or more children.

Since 1983, fathers or non-family members who have been responsible for bringing up numbers of French children can also qualify for a medal.  There’s even a Catholic priest who qualified for the award, having raised his housekeeper’s children when she died.

Why the history lesson?  Well, recently, we were invited to a ceremony to award such a medal.  Sadly, I was in England on the day, but Our Man in Laroque, Malcolm, has submitted his report of the event

Two French friends, Martine and Francis, have a large and happy family – six children: three boys, three girls.  Recently, Francis invited us to attend a ceremony to award his wife a silver Médaille de la Famille Française – not a word to Martine about this, you understand – a family event, but to be a surprise for her.


Turned up on the dot – a quaint English practice – at the appointed place.  There were only six people there, and no sign of husband or wife.  Nibbles were ready and waiting on tables, along with a few bottles of champagne, and there, on a separate table, stood a framed award, a small velvet-lined box containing a medal, and flowers, beautifully wrapped in presentation packaging.


And so we waited.  And waited.  Gradually, more of the children arrived. But not all.  Then Francis, wearing a blue suit (before, we’ve only ever seen him casually dressed).  And then, eventually, Martine appeared, chauffeured by one of her boys, and looking somewhat bemused.  She too was wearing some finery.


And still we waited.  For the sixth, and youngest, child of the family to arrive.  But she didn’t.  Turned out she had a football match on, and had forgotten….


So the ceremony began without her.  A smartly dressed woman of a certain age, the representative of the préfet, read a prepared speech from a sheet, Francis read another, and then presented Martine with a large bouquet of beautiful and rather exotic-looking flowers.  Then came the handing over of the framed certificate, more  flowers, and, most importantly, the silver medal, which was taken from its box and pinned on her.


The ceremony over, it was time for wine, nibbles, and photos.


And later?  The family went back home to eat a special meal. This time, all the children were present, as the football match had ended.  More posing, more photos, then an evening round the table – mother and father, their six children, a daughter-in-law, heavily pregnant, her parents, and one guest – me.  I felt tremendously privileged to have been invited to this ceremony and then to their celebratory meal.  Unique – I’d never been to such an event before, and doubt I’ll ever go to another like it – and moving – if integration is what we’re trying to achieve, it doesn’t come better than this.

A Consumer’s Guide to Grass Cutting

Up at that garden of ours, there’s rough grass to cut.  We use a strimmer, and it takes a long, sweaty time.  We can’t do away with it, but perhaps we need help?

We thought of  sheep:

We considered a donkey:

We discussed a goat:

We’re serious about hens:But when  came back to Harrogate, I saw that our neighbour’s 5 year old’s just acquired a guinea pig.  Every day the run is moved, and every day, there’s a new rectangle of freshly nibbled grass.  Hmmm.Nah, not really.  Hens it’ll be.  But that little guinea pig of Paul’s is very efficient and purposeful