Christmas markets

Christmas markets always used to be a German thing.  They still are, I think: they do sound rather special.  It’s many years now that Leeds has had its own German Christmas Market, though I’ve always wondered what would bring German stall holders across the channel to pitch their stalls.  Just as I’ve wondered what the attraction is for the hundreds and hundreds of French market traders who regularly fetch up in the UK for the popular French markets, where the prices are inevitably sky high.

But Christmas markets, where you can look for all your presents, made by local craftspeople and artisans, or in sweatshops in China are everywhere.  The difference is that in the UK, they began in November and are now largely over.  Here they’re just beginning, and will go on in some cases, like Toulouse, until after Christmas.

Here’s our stall, Découverte Terres Lointaines, at the market at Lavelanet, on today and tomorrow

Rando commando: or….training for the TA?

Yesterday, we randonneurs headed for the Aude, for a pleasant easy 18 km. walk round a man made lake, la Ganguise.  Not too much climbing, just open views across the lake itself, and to the Pyrénées beyond.  François pointed out that the lake got bigger some three years ago, when more land was flooded to increase its capacity.  Drowned footpaths had not yet been replaced, so we’d simply  be walking at the edge of the lake.  A healthy, but not too hearty day out.  Or so we thought……  Here’s our day, in pictures

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A nation of shopkeepers…or a small town with small shops

Depending on your point of view, it was either Napoleon or Adam Smith who first called England ‘a Nation of Shopkeepers’

But it was only after I came to settle here in France that I started to think of shopkeeping and market trading as  skilled occupations, and realised just what is involved in keeping the customer happy.

It’s probably because it’s just so much easier, where we live in England, to nip down to the supermarket.  There weren’t too many independent shops on our daily round:  so much for a nation of shopkeepers.  Mind you, we loved it when Emily was a Saturday girl at the French patissier who was then in Harrogate, Dumouchel. She would often be sent home with a couple of unsold petits gateaux for us to enjoy,  or some slowly-fermented sourdough bread.  It was small shop, and quite expensive, so she learnt quickly to value customers and to treat them well, so they’d come back.  She learnt too that while most of the people she served were friendly and appreciative, customers could be curmudgeonly too.

The baker's - busy at lunchtime

So who are the good commerçants here?  Well, down at the bakers, they’ll often put aside our much-loved pain noir without being asked if I’m not in bright and early, knowing we’d be disappointed if they sold out.

Buying cheese at the market

Today at the market, madame who runs the cheese and charcuterie stall had printed off some recipes specially for me, because she knew I might enjoy trying them out.

Down at Bobines et Fantaisies, she goes to Toulouse most weeks to seek out unusual scarves and accessories, so there’s always something new and worth trying at her tiny shop. ‘Let her try it on.  If she doesn’t like it, bring it back!’, she’ll insist, as you dither between a bracelet, a couple of scarves and a chic but cosy winter hat.  These shopkeepers remember us, our tastes, our whims and foibles. They welcome us, and chat cheerfully with us, even if we leave the shop empty-handed.

Madame at Bobines et Fantasies helps me choose a few presents

There’s just one shop here that doesn’t cut the mustard. ‘Il n’est pas commerçant’ we all grumble.  Those of us outside the select band are routinely ignored, and as we feel our custom isn’t valued, some of us now go elsewhere.

But not to the supermarket.  Oh no.  Yesterday we DID pop into one, but as the muzak system was belting out a schmaltzy version of ‘Auld lang syne’ in what passed for English, we very soon shot out again.  Small Shops Rule OK.

… Snow’s the Big Story

Everyone in Europe, it seems, has been battling with snow this week. Everyone that is, except us and anyone within easy driving distance of our part of the country.

Road clearing in Cherbourg, 2nd. Dec

Night after night the French news bulletins have been full of tales of woe, endurance, hardship, slipping and sliding and Dunkirk Spirit in Lyon, Orléans, Brittany, and Strasbourg.  Before passing on to the rest of the news, we’d then have a shot or two of traffic jams on a motorway outside Newcastle, or a firmly shut-for-business Gatwick Airport.  Neighbours and friends gleefully filled us in on how dire they’d heard things were in the UK.

Finally, yesterday morning, the snow arrived here too.  Frankly, we knew we weren’t going to get the news crews down here looking for a story.  It hardly settled, and then it began to disappear.  Still, I found excuses in the afternoon not to get on, but to sit next to the woodburner and do some jobs on the computer.  I got distracted. Somehow, although it’s not at all my newspaper of choice, I started to look at the readers’ photos on the Telegraph website.  They’re terrific. Gorgeous snowscapes from all over Britain; funnies, such as the rabbit tentatively sniffing at a snowman; curiosities such as the milk bottles out on the step whose contents had expanded to make  tall chimneys of frozen milk extrude from the top.  Sorry – my links won’t lead you to the exact photos, because the Telegraph’s organized them into galleries.  But have a look anyway.  You too may spend quite a while browsing through for your favourite.

Near Roquefixade

And now here are our snow photos, taken on the way to Pamiers, and home from Foix.  We were meant to be Christmas shopping.  Well, that didn’t last.  A cup of decadently rich smooth hot chocolate at a chocolatier in Pamiers, and we were off. The pretty way home, via Foix, seemed a much better idea.  My photos will impress nobody who’s been battling with the real stuff this last week.  But we like them anyway

On the road from Foix to Roquefixade

No snow yesterday: mountain views and a Benedictine abbey

Distant Pyrénées. Not my photo, not the view we saw. But you get the idea
Distant Pyrénées. Not my photo, not the view we saw. But you get the idea

I gather that the last thing anyone in England needs right now is someone chirruping about how beautiful the snow is.  Well, here in the foothills of the Pyrénées, we’ve been almost alone in France in being a snow-free zone.  But please note: ‘the foothills’. The mountain tops have been covered for some weeks, and over the last week, the snow levels have crept down..and down…and ever nearer. And it’s quite simply beautiful.

Distant Pyrénées

Yesterday we went walking in the Lauragais.  That’s a gentle, verdant region north of here on the edge of la Montagne Noir.  Perhaps the most wonderful thing about the walk we had here, through sandy woodland paths, crunchy with fallen leaves, were the views across to the Pyrénées: mile after mile of distant peaks blanketed in blue-white snow beneath a bluer sky.  If only my camera began to do justice to this impressive sight.

A misericord to support a monkish bottom
Abbaye de Saint Papoul
Abbaye de Saint Papoul

Healthily exercised, we came down to the village of Saint Papoul, and looked round the Benedictine Abbey of the same name.  I found myself lingering in the 14th century cloisters and in the abbey itself, inspecting the misericords, the small decorated wooden shelves hidden under the seats to provide a bit of support for the poor monks as they stood for long hours during their religious devotions.

The Flight into Egypt

Perhaps the most enjoyable bit of our visit was a chance to look at the special exhibition devoted to le Maître de Cabestany, a Romanesque sculptor who seems to have left his mark on many of the pilgrimage churches on the route from Rome to Compostella.

The infant Jesus takes a bath

His figures, despite their realism, their chunky hands and elongated eyes, seem to have a slightly supernatural feel to them and they were fun to explore and enjoy.

It was cold though.  Snow threatened, but didn’t fall in the end.  We decided against a mooch round the village: probably something to do in the future, and scurried back home to toast our toes and fingers

The weathered pillars of the cloisters, and their equally weathered capitals

A Salute to Alex Taylor

People who know me here are no strangers to the fact that we tend to avoid the English in France.  Not because we don’t like them (Some of our best friends are…. etc. etc), but because it seems to be a bit daft to seek them out here when there are some hundred and fifty thousand French living right here in the Ariège whom we’d maybe find it interesting to meet.  Our social calendar already seems entertainingly full with the ones we do know.

So perhaps it’s rather odd that my favourite radio presenter here is an Englishman, Alex Taylor. He co-presents the breakfast spot on France Musique, together with Emilie Munera. Despite the fact that he speaks excellent colloquial French, he’s got a recognisably British accent that cheers me up and brings me closer to England as I listen in on my way to the gym, or doing some early morning jobs round the kitchen.  His is a good programme too.  A well as an astonishing variety of music – not simply the classical repertoire – the pair look at current and musical news, and at what’s in the world’s press that day.  Is it my imagination, or are British papers more fully represented than others in this spot?  And I really enjoy the 5 minute Mot du Jour by Pierre Charvet when various musical terms are explored and defined.  What, for example, is the difference between ‘symphony’ and ‘philharmonic’ ? What is ‘noise’?  Thoughts on aspects of African music….and so on.

And in case you’re wondering at our relatively high-brow choice of radio station….here in the sticks we can only receive three.  France Inter, whose relentless talk drives us both nuts in the morning; France Culture, which is interesting but hard going if you’re not prepared to listen attentively; and…France Musique.  No contest.

Découverte Terres Lointaines

Nobody could call our nearest town, Lavelanet, a hub of multi-culturalism. But neither is it an Ariegeois ghetto. Of course, as in most French towns, there’s a big Maghrébin presence: inhabitants of the former French colonies of Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria. There are significant numbers of people of Spanish origin: their families probably came over in the Spanish Civil War. Dunno how so many Portuguese got here, but in addition there are Swiss, Belgians, Roumanians, Brazilians, Vietnamese, Chinese, Argentinians, Australians, Germans, Dutch…..ooh, and a few English of course.

Recently, I got to know two local women, Sylvia and Noëlle. Some time ago they, together with another friend Nadia, had come up with the idea of bringing together women from some of these countries to share their cultural heritage, particularly through the medium of cooking. The idea got bigger. Over the last 18 months or so, they’ve developed themselves as an official voluntary group, ‘Association “Découverte Terres Lointaines”‘.  They and their ‘benevoles’ (volunteers) have animated cookery workshops in schools, old people’s homes, youth clubs, centres for people with various disabilities. They’ve raised money for these activities by selling foods from all over the world, which they’ve prepared,   at local festivals.  But why stop at recipes?  We all have a culture to share – children’s stories to tell, songs to sing, our daily lives ‘back home’ to compare, and all this too is included in the mix.  Recently, I’ve joined in some of their activities.

It’s got a bit more formalized now. There’s a bit of a special focus now on a particular country in any one year. This year it was Quebec (OK, it’s a province, not a country.   But it DOES have a very distinctive voice within Canada), and next year it’ll be Algeria.

Nadia makes the dough for her Algerian sweetmeats

Last week was a first though. We were invited to provide an International Buffet at a multi-services training day being laid on by the Mairie. At various points in the days leading up to it, we got together in the kitchen of the Family Centre (CAF), and helped each other cook.

Then Sylvia winds the dough strips into little 'birds nests'....

Nadia showed us how to prepare Algerian grivvech: thinly rolled dough cut into strips and wound into jumbled little nests before being deep fried and doused in honey and sesame seeds. There were Quebecois dishes, guacamole topped toasts, and treats from around the world.

...the deep fried, sticky, delicious result.

Best of all was the unlikely sounding tomato and banana soup from Brazil.  Do try it: recipe below.

What could I contribute as an English finger-food? I thought long about this, and came up with Scotch eggs (thanks, Kalba, again). You need to know that here in France, sticky tape, as in England, is known by a trade name. Not ‘Sellotape’, but ‘Scotch’. So Sylvia’s eyes darkened in puzzlement when I suggested these Scotch eggs. ‘Sellotape eggs? What on earth….?’

And what fun it all was.  I can and do open recipe books to try out dishes from any and every continent.  But it’s not half so exciting as working with women from Algeria, Brazil, Roumania, wherever, as they talk you through the techniques they’ve known for years and years, and stand over you and make you practice and redo things till you jolly well get it right.

I'm NEVER deep-frying 30 Scotch eggs again

Anyway, here are my photos of the preparations for a successful lunch. We could have taken any number of repeat bookings, but for the time being, the organisation will maintain its ‘benevole’ status, and not venture into the hard realities of developing a business.

Brazilian Tomato and banana soup

Soup just cooked and ready to go


I onion

I tbspn rapeseed oil

Large bottle of passata

5 ripe bananas

1.5 l. bouillon

Small carton cream

3 tsp. curry powder

1 tsp. cayenne

Gently cook the onion in the oil.  Meanwhile, remove the black central thread which you may never previously have noticed and any seeds from within the peeled bananas, and mash thoroughly.  Add the passata to the onion, together with the spices and cook gently .  Add the mashed banana and continue cooking.  Add cream, reheat gently, and serve