Why peasants need computers: and why, maybe, they don’t.

Three minutes after publishing my last posting, a message popped into my in-box.  It was Kalba.  Had I thought of looking on Le Bon Coin, the site where everybody looks for anything from a second-hand T shirt to a pre-loved car?  Well, no, I hadn’t, but we were soon ploughing through and responding to all the wood-for-burning adverts we could find.

By the next morning, there were a dozen suggestions in my email account, and as comments on the blog.  Even Bloggerboy, all the way from Germany, was on the case.

So how could we peasants have done without our computer? Quite well, as it turned out.

A phone call from a friend led to our calling his brother, who passed us on to somebody else who…..has wood.  Lots of it.  Well weathered chestnut, oak, beech.  We ordered some. It’s coming on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, another friend called HER friend who rang us with another lead.  This lead was the mayor of a tiny commune near here, and, intrigued by our plight, he came straight round.  He hasn’t really got any more wood to spare, but he promised to go home and scout round, and bring us something, anything, to ‘put us on’.

Just after we’d concluded that all the calls and emails made to people we’d heard of courtesy of the computer had come to zero, this evening we had a message.  A farmer near Ventenac who’d advertised on Le Bon Coin has stacks of well-weathered oak, and he wants to come round tomorrow lunchtime to see whether he can get his tractor and trailer down our street.

Yeah, yeah, I know we’ve already ordered some for Wednesday, but we peasants, you see, have to have something put by for when times are hard.  Play our cards right, and we won’t need any more wood for another four years

Wood awaiting deivery. Can you see the wild albino rabbit centre stage?

The Peasants of Silicon Valley

Over the past months you may have sighed indulgently – or with irritation – as I’ve described our attempts to get to grips with our peasant lifestyle.  I’ve smugly talked about our efforts to get a 52 weeks a year veg. patch going, about going equipped on every walk, prepared to carry loot home: a bagful of walnuts, chestnuts to roast, windfall apples and pears, a log or two for the fire.  We enjoy what we do and it matters to us, but frankly, if we don’t get these things right….well, there’s always the market, or someone around who can sell us what we need.

Until now.  Now we’re in crisis.  We’ve no firewood for the wood-burning stove.  Well, not much anyway.  A friend’s cousin was supposed to supply us with our wood for the winter, and he did.  But it won’t do for this winter, and probably not next either.  We need wood that’s had all its natural moisture weathered out of it, leaving it dry and combustible.  What we got was freshly-hewn logs.  They sit in the grate and spit and sulk. We’ve been busily lugging them to the open first floor of our atelier, and stacking them where the air will get at them and dry them out.

Wood for the stove....going....gone

So now, half way through November, we’re asking anyone who’ll listen where we can buy seasoned wood.  And the answer is, we can’t, it’s too late. It’s all sold.  Like real peasants, we face the prospect of a winter without our beloved wood-burning stove.  Unlike those peasants, we do have a few radiators, but they don’t glow cheerily at us after a chilly day playing at being self-sufficient in the great outdoors.

And unlike those peasants, we’ve had another, peculiarly 21st century crisis. Our computer became terminally ill.  Its death in the night seemed certain.  We were distraught.  How to keep in contact with friend in 3 continents?  How to pay bills, organise our banking, buy tickets to England for Christmas?  Hearing of our distress, friends and family phoned, diagnosed, offered treatments, and somewhere in among all this, a remedy appeared.  It might turn out to be merely patching the wound, but it’s working so far.  It’s reminded us though that we’re not quite the horny-handed sons-and-daughters-of-toil that we like to see ourselves as.  We have some way to go before we achieve The Good Life

A rural scene a few miles from our house. This farm's ready for winter

Something delicious, down in the woods

A friend brought us some mushrooms yesterday.  I’m not going to tell you which friend.  And I shan’t tell you where he found them either.  He was ranging about in the woods, snaffling mushrooms.  If the forest ranger or a landowner had caught him because he’d strayed onto private land, they could have fined him.  150 Euros.  And the friend who was with him, another 150 euros. It’s a lot to pay for half a pound of mushrooms, but everyone does it.

Nobody however, wants to kill the goose that lays the golden egg, and most people, like our friend, pick carefully and respectfully so that mushrooms will still be growing there tomorrow, and the next day, and for as many years as there are people wanting to eat them.

The ones he brought us are lactaire delicieux – saffron milk caps. I know they exist in England, because Googling produces a score of recipes from the UK, but I’ve never seen them there.

In fact they’re native to this part of the world, both in France and Spain, and live in the acidic soil under Mediterranean pine trees.  They’re yellowy orange, and exude orangey milk when broken or cooked.  Roughly handled, they develop a scary green stain.  But that doesn’t mean they’re poisonous. Anything but.

Here’s what he suggested we do with them.

You’ll need at least 2 or 3 large ones each.  They’re often small though, so you may need more. Clean them by brushing them gently and lay them cap side down in a shallow buttered oven dish.  Cover generously with knobs of butter and Roquefort cheese – 4 parts cheese to one part butter.  Grill till the cheese is melted and the mushrooms cooked.  Serve with lots of crusty bread to mop up the juices, and a green salad.

If he brings any more, or if we’re lucky enough to find some ourselves, I’ll be Googling again, because there are any number of simple ideas, just waiting to be tried and enjoyed.

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.

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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.