Having had three children, I’m no stranger to school open days. City life meant they had access to any number of High Schools, so between the three of them, over the years I’ve been to Open Days at: Abbey Grange; City of Leeds; Granby; Harrogate Grammar; Intake; Lawnswood; Pudsey Grangefield; Pudsey Priesthorpe; Rossett; St. Aidan’s, and probably a few others as well. You’d think that would be enough. But no.
Today we had the chance to see the Lycée des Métiers J-M Jacquard in Lavelanet at work when it threw open its doors. We couldn’t resist.
It was like none of the above. I’ve not been to a school before where pupils trundled round a huge loading bay in forklift trucks, moving pallets of goods into a ‘shop’ area where they practiced using computerized stock control. They’re the Logistics students. In another department, white-coated teenagers in white rubber shoes conducted experiments into water purity, or calculated how much salt a particular water source would need to optimize dishwasher use. They’re destined for the Water Processing & Treatment Industry when they leave school. In an enormous modern factory type space, several boys and one lone girl were applying their new skills to the Maintenance of Industrial Equipment.
Somehow, I don’t think any of my three would have wanted to be there – though they might have enjoyed driving the forklift trucks.
Of course, all the usual core lessons go on too – though no music, art or drama, and Mal and I had fun in an English class (none of those students wanted to be there, either). Their teacher was showing them pictures of the sights of London, and she encouraged us to help her prise English words and phrases from their reluctant lips.
By English standards, it’s a small school – maybe some 500 students (and all aged over 14). You might guess that there are about twice as many boys as girls. About 100 are weekly boarders, coming from as far away as Albi, almost 200 km. away. We inspected small dormitories and games rooms, which seemed curiously impersonal spaces for teenagers who spend their evenings there. In fact the whole school was a bit like that. It was impressive – wonderfully equipped with every technological gizmo; polite, helpful and enthusiastic staff and students; views of the Pyrénées . The focus in this Lycée is preparing for the world of work, and there’s no room for the displays of pupils’ work, the pictures on the wall, the school Annual Production, that are typical of an English High School.
But it’s clearly a happy and successful school, and we’re glad to have had the chance of a glimpse through its open doors.
Sunday, March 7th. Malcolm and I go for a walk in the Aude, near Limoux. The day is full of the promise of spring, bright and sunny. The almond blossom is out. We spot baby lizards darting along stone walls, and enjoy watching more lizards sunning themselves on the rocky ledge where we have our midday picnic.
Monday, March 8th. We wake up to snow. And more snow. It was snowing as we got up, and it continues to snow, hour after hour. We watch the flowerpots in the yard as their hats of snow become taller and taller. By mid-afternoon, they’re 24 cm. high, and by 7 o’clock, as it begins to get dark, they’re about 28 cm. high. Up on the roof, the icicles become stouter and as long as the snow is deep. The trees stand stiff and silent under their heavy bonnets of snow. The snow continues to fall as we close the shutters at nightfall. TV news reminds us that we’ve has it easy – look at the deep drifts, and hundreds of stranded lorries backed up in the Pyrénées Orientales!
Today, Tuesday March 9th – no more snow falling- but it’s not ready to melt either. The wind snatches the snow from the trees, and when we leave the house, slaps our faces with flurries of flakes whipped from the rooftops. The birds are constantly busy at our ‘Resto du Coeur’, and we replenish their feeders several times. Gym? Cancelled. Choir? Cancelled
As I still haven’t got my camera, the snowy photos on this blog come to you courtesy of my friend Marianne, who’s been busy with her camera as she and Réglisse, her dog, slip and skate round the chilly streets of le Peyrat, just down the road from Laroque. Thanks, Marianne!
Suddenly, earlier today, I remembered this ditty the children and I used to chant when they were small:
Whether the weather be cold,
Or whether the weather be hot
We’ll weather the weather
Whatever the weather
Whether we like it or not
There are two things I especially love about early spring. Daffodils. Purple sprouting broccoli. The French don’t really do either.
Well, that’s not fair. In the woods near here, in a few weeks, there’ll be swathes of delicate, rather pale and lovely daffodils blooming. At weekends, people will go and pick enormous basketsful of them. They’ll take them home and stick the flowers in vases, where they’ll last only a day or two before wilting in the indoor heat. But the civic displays which for me are one of the glories of the UK simply hardly exist here. No dual carriageways are planted with unreasonable quantities of brilliant yellow daffs announcing to every passing motorist ‘Spring is here!’ There are no newspaper headlines ‘Daffodils on the Stray’, featuring a couple of four year olds gambolling among the flowers. No florists or supermarkets here have buckets of blooms ‘3 bunches for £1’. I probably won’t buy any here if I can find them, as they’ll already be open and the joy of watching them unfurl won’t be an option.
Purple sprouting broccoli’s even more unknown. I haven’t even found an exact translation. Like other English here, if I want to eat it, I have to grow it myself, with seed brought over from England. For 9 months of the year, the large ungainly plants occupy more than their fair share of the vegetable plot, and really, half the time I wonder whether it’s worth it. Well, it is. Today, I picked the very first handful of tightly closed purple heads, enclosed in a collar of dark frilly leaves. And now I know that there’ll be enough and to spare for several weeks to come.
Such a special vegetable deserves to be more than a bit part, one of two veg. playing second fiddle to a plate of meat. This is the meal we cooked this evening, thanks to Nigel Slater and his newest book ‘Tender’ (Read it, even if you don’t cook much. It’s as good as a bedtime story, though it WILL make you greedily hungry)
Pasta with Sprouting Broccoli & Cream
250g. sprouting broccoli
250 g. orechiette or fusilli
2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
4 chopped anchovy fillets
250 g. crème fraîche
170 g. crumbled gorgonzola (well, we used Roquefort – you would round here)
Put 2 pans of boiling salted water on the stove. Drop the pasta into one, and the trimmed broccoli into the other. As soon as the broccoli’s tender – 3 or 4 minutes- drain it, wipe the pan, and return it to the heat with the butter, garlic and anchovies. Let them cook slowly for a minute or two before adding the crème fraîche and cheese. Bring to the boil and turn down the heat. Add the broccoli, season with black pepper, and then add the drained pasta.
Cheap, quick, delicious, and a real celebration of early spring
I love Atout Fruit. It’s a relatively small, but very effective local organisation that exists to protect and promote our heritage of local and ancient varieties of fruit trees. By being a member, I’ve learned such a lot at some of their monthly workshops. I’ve for instance practised grafting (as in:
‘a. To unite (a shoot or bud) with a growing plant by insertion or by placing in close contact.
b. To join (a plant or plants) by such union.’,
rather than ‘hard work’ as described so effectively by Kalba in her blog Slow Living in the French Pyrénées
Actually, what I learned about grafting, when I did it last year, was that it wasn’t my thing. It’s very steady meticulous work, demanding razor sharp knives and attention to detail, deeply unsuited to a slap-dash like me. My painstakingly grafted specimen died within weeks.
But there have been sessions on pruning, on traditional methods of gathering and preserving fruits, using those fruits in cooking….and so on. Later this month, the session on growing biodynamically will be held in our garden, and I just can’t wait.
I’m different from most other members. I don’t just mean that I’m English, though there’s that too. Most ‘adherents’ were born with more know-how than I will ever have about trees and crops, and practice their skills every day. Nearly all the rest have this background to their lives, even if they have themselves moved away from their ‘paysan’ origins. I hesitate to use the word ‘peasant’ in English, because of the somewhat negative picture it paints. Not here. Even University graduates who have returned to the land are proud to describe themselves as ‘paysan’. It’s been great for me that everyone is keen to help me and seems pleased that I want to learn: nobody patronises my amateurishness.
Once a year, Atout Fruit is given a range of tree seedlings to hand out free to members – mainly fruiting trees, but other indigenous and introduced species too. Members pore over the spread sheets of offerings and make their choices, and wait for the day when we can all go and collect. I felt greedy: I’d chosen 10, but later found that others, with larger pieces of land, had chosen 20, 40, even 100 saplings. This year I volunteered to help sort and distribute the trees, and drove to Claude’s place (which includes a wonderfully eco-efficient house of straw), high above lake Montbel, where it was all happening. My job was to help replace the battered identification labels with rather more legible ones, and make up orders with members as they arrived. Have you ever tried to distinguish an 18-inch high mulberry whip from a crabapple or a wild cherry? Best leave it to the experts….. Later, warmed by glasses of hot coffee, 4 of us made up the bundles of trees for the people who hadn’t been able to come to collect. Here’s a picture of some hard work in a chilly barn: merci, Claude!
Later that day, I planted my seedlings in pots, or direct in the garden. I had quite a time of it. But that’s another story….
Last Sunday, we went off as usual with our walking group, Rando de l’Aubo. We went a mere 20 km eastwards into the neighbouring Aude. What a difference a few miles makes. The rugged forests, with hillside pasture for cattle and sheep, fields of maize and feed crops in our own department are exchanged for an almost Tuscan landscape, with little hillside towns overlooking ranks and ranks of vineyards delineating the contours. Both departments are lovely, but we hicks from the Ariège tend to prefer our less manicured and somewhat wilder countryside.
Still, Sunday’s walk was quite a sentimental journey for Malcolm and for me, because we walked through the village, Ferran, that was our first introduction to this part of the world.
A few years ago, an old friend of Malcolm’s sent him an email. In his letter, he said that it was February, and he’d been sitting outside in his shirtsleeves, gazing out at his perennial view of the distant Pyrenees, at that time covered with bluish-white snow. Did we fancy a visit to him in Ferran? We did. We were of course seduced by those hillside towns, those vineyards, and especially by those views of the Pyrenees. Not too long after, we came over again, to house hunt, and of course didn’t find that elusive, perfect spot. Only after we’d returned home did our friend’s wife, who’s an estate agent, spot the possibility that we just might like the butcher’s house in Laroque where we now live.
It was crazy really. We bought it without really knowing the first thing about the area. But we’ve never regretted it. We’ll never finish exploring the hillside pathways, always deeply mulched with fallen oak and beech leaves, or the craggier routes up mountainsides, or the gently undulating lower paths through meadowlands, bright with orchids and other flowers, as well as butterflies, throughout the spring and summer.
But that’s the Ariège. Ferran and the other villages we skirted last Sunday are typical of the Aude. Colour washed houses and farms in shades of barley, corn and almond perch high on the hillside, looking down over their vineyards, and beyond – one way to the Montagne Noire, the other to the Pyrenees. The hills roll away into the distance, not so blanketed by forest as our hills are, but at this time of year, green and lush. Though we only walked about 13 km, by the end we were exhausted, because throughout the day we’d been buffeted by the winds for which the Aude is known. But how lucky we are to have two such very different kinds of countryside within such easy reach of our homes.
As I’m still camera-less, thanks to Jean-Noël, Michel and Anny for letting me use their photos from this walk, and a recent one near Donazac, also in the Aude