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

Hot and Sour

We look forward to Wednesdays. It’s the day when our local shop gets in a delivery of fresh fish.  And if you think that getting excited about  fish is terminally sad, you haven’t met our friends who live in a hamlet in the Charente.  The high spot of their week is the day the rubbish lorry comes.

Still, back to that fish. Generally, I keep things simple with such good quality fresh ingredients. But there are days when only spicy will do. This recipe by Atol Kochhar always hits the spot. Though you may prefer to use only half the chilli paste if you don’t want numbed lips for several hours….It really IS very hot.

HOT AND SOUR FISH STEW:

INGREDIENTS
20g tamarind pulp
2 tbsps groundnut oil

2 onions, halved and sliced

½ tsp of amchoor OR

1 tbsp lime or lemon juice

600g – 700 g firm-fleshed fish, cubed

Coriander leaves

For the chilli paste:-

6 red chilllis

2 tsps white wine vinegar

¼ tsp coarsely ground black pepper

1 tsp turmeric

4 cms fresh ginger, finely grated

1 finely crushed clove garlic

½ tsps cumin seed

1 tsp caster sugar

2 tsps groundnut oil

Process the ingredients until smooth

METHOD
Cover tamarind with 400 ml boiling water and leave to soak.

Fry onions till soft and golden.

Strain tamarind and its water into the pan, pushing pulp through a sieve.

Stir in chilli paste and bring to the boil.

Simmer for 5 minutes.

Add amchoor and simmer another 5 mins.

Add fish and simmer for 8 mins.

Serve with plain boiled rice.

Northern Light

I’m back home in Harrogate for a few days.  It’s been quite a surprise.  I left Carcassonne airport in bright hot sunshine, and arrived at Leeds/Bradford to….bright hot sunshine.  And so it continued.

I spent a happy afternoon dealing with Weed Management and Invasive Plant issues.  It was very satisying.  Instead of grubbing about clearing a weed here, a weed there, I was able to sweep up vast armfuls of unwanted plants off into the compost bin, and create an instant impression that only the frogs, undisturbed for weeks now, failed to appreciate.  If only I’d taken some ‘before’ and ‘after’ shots.

Most surprising of all has been the day light.  I’d quite forgotten.  Last night, I was still reading without having a light on at 10.00 p.m.  9.30 would have been more like it in Laroque.  But it was this morning when I really realised I’d travelled north.  The light was pouring through the bedroom window so brightly I sprang up to begin the day.  And then realised it wasn’t even 4.30.  Mornings here begin a full hour and a half earlier than in the south of France – though there is the hour change to take into account.  I do sort of regret that I went back to bed, instead of taking an early morning stroll down to the Nidd Gorge.  Maybe tomorrow.

Ronde de l’Isard

This is the time of year when France begins to limber up for the Tour de France, which happens this year between the 3rd and 25th July.  In truth, cycling never really goes away in France.  Out driving the car, one of the occupational hazards is overtaking largish groups of keenies togged up in bright Lycra cycling gear, with bikes that in some cases have cost more than a decent second hand family car.

I’d forgotten that this weekend is the Ronde de l’Isard.  This is a 4-day cycling event held here in the Ariège that began in the late 1970’s as a bit of a competition between local clubs.  It’s since grown to have entrants from nearly as wide a range of countries as the Tour de France itself.

Free baseball cap....

So, this morning I was strolling along to the baker’s – rather late – it was almost noon. Suddenly, I could hear hooting, sirens, tannoyed announcements, and a fleet of vehicles led by smartly polished blue gendarmerie motorcycles advanced down the street towards me.  Ronde de l’Isard, Advance Guard.  As with the Tour de France, they had gifts, and as I was the only person on my side of the street, they made sure I got the lot: a spotted baseball cap, a key ring, and a leaflet from Tourist Information.

And that as it, for half an hour.  At precisely 12.33,  as advertised, the riders themselves tore into view.  The whole of the rest of the Ariège gendarmerie were there on their motorbikes, advance vehicles of various kinds, and then – whoosh! – the cyclists, a l-o-n-g streak of them, flashed past: to be followed by support teams carrying spare bikes, ambulances, press.

Team support

Today they only had 149.1 km to do.  Just now, the thermometer at the back is reading 37 degrees.  Still, yesterday, just as hot, the distance was 175.5 km.  The winner for the day managed it in 3 hours 55.9 seconds.  Count me out

‘Brittany is a Foreign Country: They Do Things Differently There’

…as LP Hartley nearly said.

When we first understood that Laroque is twinned with Melgven in Brittany, we were nonplussed.  Surely twinning arrangements are with England, Germany, Spain – or anywhere abroad.  What’s the point in twinning with a town in your own country?

Well, quite a lot as it turns out.  As part of the twinning arrangements, citizens from Melgven come for a long weekend here in Laroque , while Laroquais have the chance of a few days’ stay there in May.  This year, we signed up for the 10 hour mini-bus trip to Finistère

Straight away, we began to see the differences.  As we arrived, we were welcomed to enjoy poking round their fundraising ‘Troc et puces’ fair in the Sports hall.  The Bretons are a Celtic race, and it shows in their physical appearance.  Meanwhile, down here, there’s a long tradition of Spanish immigration, most recently in the Spanish Civil War, and the Second World War, so many locals here are olive-skinned and not very tall.  A tannoyed announcement for M. Garcia and M. Sanchez to report to the desk in a public hall somewhere near here would have nearly half the room scurrying to reception.

And then there’s the food.  Brittany, like Britain, favours butter, and unlike the rest of France, the salted variety.  Out to a meal on Saturday, the lunchtime bread came with pats of butter, something that never happens down south.  In the Ariège, cooking’s done in duck fat, and more recently, olive oil.   No part of  Finistère is very far from the sea, so fish and seafood are an important part of the diet.  Down here, duck in all forms is king.  But pork, lamb, game, beef are all welcome on the dinner plate. If it moves, eat it.

When we looked round a market in Concarneau on Saturday, we were struck that there was little charcuterie or cheese on sale, and what there was came from elsewhere.  It seems as if every other stall in our local Ariègois markets is one selling cheese and charcuterie, much of it from just a few miles away.

Brittany – cider and beer.  Southern France – wine.  As part of our welcome apéro, we were served kir made with cassis and cider.  After sipping it suspiciously, we accepted refills with enthusiasm.

So…what were the highlights?

The welcome. Of course.  Some Laroquais have been going on these exchanges for several years, and the warmth of the relationships forged is clear to see.

A change of scene: the countryside. Our host, Albert, took us on several walks, and we were struck with how very British this part of Brittany looks: softly rolling hillsides, woodland and meadows.  We traded orchid spotting in the Ariège for enjoying the swathes of bluebell glades in the woods.

A change of scene: the town.  We exchanged the shallow-roofed, unpainted or pastel coloured houses of the south for the tall white narrow pitched roofs of Brittany.  Down here, we’re used to our towns and villages being shabby.  Brittany’s are clean, sparklingly so, with flower boxes, neat gardens, and a general air of pride in the community.  And then there are the churches.  No clochers-murs in Brittany, but rather complicated steeples instead.

The seaside. Concarneau was at its sparkling best, with breezes tugging at the flags, clouds pluming across the sky, an early pre-season freshness to the narrow streets of the historic quarter.  Their fishing museum there shows all too graphically just how very tough the life of the fisherman was – and is. But it’s a picturesque sight for the tourist

Sightseeing: Our first treat was to visit Locronan, a beautifully preserved granite built 16th & 17th century village, with a mighty central church, and a small chapel at the end of a charming walk.

Next was Trévarez, a chateau that might look Gothic, but is in fact a 19th and 20th century construction.  Its brickwork gives it the name “château rose”.  We spent more time in the gardens though.  Apart from a formal area near the house itself, the garden is informal in the style we’re so used to from English stately homes, and glorious at the moment with azaleas and rhododendrons

Celtic music: Friday night was concert night: the chance to listen to an hour or two of traditional Breton music.  Malcolm and I particularly enjoyed hearing those favourite Welsh hymns – Land of my Fathers, Cwm Rhondda in Breton– they sounded very different, but just as good

Story telling: Such a treat.  Michel Sevellec enchants audiences in Finistère and beyond with his tales drawn from many traditions.  On Saturday, as part of a local festival, we joined local children to hear his interpretation of Native American and other stories.  Can’t wait for him to come to Laroque in a fortnight!

Crêpes:Everyone knows they make crêpes in Brittany.  Lots of us have watched them being turned out on those special round hotplates.  I always assumed it was easy-peasy.  Until we went to eat crêpes at Albert’s mum’s house and she let me have a go.  First, carefully pour the batter with your left hand while equally carefully drawing the batter round the plate with a special wooden spatula – not too fast & not too slow, not too thin & not too thick.

Expert at work

Then flip the delicate creation, so thin you could read a newspaper through it, over onto its other side to finish cooking. It was lucky there were hungry dogs to eat all my cast-offs.  Lucky for us too perhaps: we’d still be eating them now.  Malcolm and I thought 6 crêpes each ought to have been enough for anybody.  Our hostess disagreed.

So….we discovered in Brittany an area very different from our own in languages, customs and appearance, and had a chance to be more than simply tourists.  We now have new friends in  Melgven but also in Laroque as a direct result of this weekend.  A good experience.

Pont Aven: I didn’t even mention this lovely little town, did I?