Spring is springing

ns4I was out for a convalescent constitutional this afternoon: William had passed A Bug onto me last week, and I’ve been a little delicate.  I hadn’t taken my camera with me, only my phone, so these images aren’t the finest.  But I don’t care.  They’re evidence that spring is on the way.  I wish you could hear, as I could, the birds singing as they do only when they too know that short winter days have passed. Yes, spring is springing.

Snowdrops: this year’s final curtain call

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I know I’ve mentioned them already, but this year’s crop of snowdrops has been quite astonishing.  Maybe they weren’t quite such a feature of our local landscape in France.  Maybe when we last lived in England,  because we were in town, we saw them only tucked into quiet corners of suburban gardens, or on occasional weekend sorties.  Perhaps snowdrops round here are always this special.  But for us, this year has been a real treat.

Snowdrops have been almost the first thing we see as we set foot outside the house.  They’ve been in dense groves in nearby woodland.  They’ve been on sheltered verges.  At first slender, pointing their sheathed leaves upwards in search of light, now they’ve opened their petals into blowsy bells and flattened  their leaves gently towards the ground beneath.  This is the sure signal that they’re on the way out.  Gardens are displaying the first of the early crocus, and even daffodils are opening in more sheltered spots.  I think snowdrops prefer to be the centre of attention, prepared to share the woodland only with occasional patches of aconites.  Now that spring is really on its way, and the birds are honing their voices in preparation for their courtship rituals, the snowdrops are preparing to allow their flowers and leaves to wither and die, as the bulbs enjoy their long and nourishing hibernation below ground.

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Ransoms and bluebells

Wild garlic in the woods
Wild garlic in the woods

Little tells me more forcefully than a walk through the woods at this time of year that we are back in England.  Instead of crisp brown leaves underfoot, from the Autumn before and the Autumn before that, there are narrow damp paths through the rich carpet of undergrowth.

Wild garlic, ransoms, bear's garlic, ramps
Wild garlic, ransoms, bear’s garlic, ramps

And that smell!  As you walk, inevitably bruising the leaves that crowd onto your path, you’ll smell the pungent notes of garlic: because those leaves, topped off by a mass of star-shaped flowers, are wild garlic (or ransoms, ramps or bear’s garlic), and they’re unknown in the part of France where we lived.  In among, competing for the sun which dapples in through the tree canopy, are bluebells.  At the moment, they’re largely still in bud but give them a few days and they too will carpet the woodland floor in a shimmering violet-blue.  And these are our English bluebells.  They’re more graceful than the upright, paler Spanish bluebells that we sometimes saw in France.

Bluebells
Bluebells

The blogosphere is crammed with suggestions for making use of the garlic, among the earliest greenstuffs available after the winter months.  Here‘s what David Lebovitz suggests.

Well, I rely on David to supply ideas for delicious grub, so off into the woods I went for garlic leaves.  I was careful to pick only leaves, rather than yank up entire plants with their tiny bulbs, so that they would grow again next year, though a few bulbs crept into my harvest despite my efforts.  I’d taken my haul  in any case from the woodland edge, as the garlic plants made an escape bid into nearby fields.

And here’s the resulting pasta dish.  Frankly, we were a little disappointed.  It wasn’t the most interesting dish we’d ever eaten.  But I could see the charm of these leaves to those who’d struggled through the winter months on a diet of beans, swede, and the odd bit of salted pork.  Wild garlic has a bright, ‘green’ flavour, mildly garlicky of course, and I will try it again, maybe substituting it for spinach in a tart with walnuts and a sharp cheese for instance.  I always enjoy an excuse to forage for food.

Wild garlic pasta, David Lebovitz style.
Wild garlic pasta, David Lebovitz style.

‘L’auberge espagnole de la Résistance’

…. which is, being very roughly translated, our pot-luck picnic on the Resistance trail.

Posh picnic?  I think not. But it's the taste  and the company - that counts.
Posh picnic? I think not. But it’s the taste and the company – that counts.

Jean-Charles has long wanted to get us up to Croquié, a village high above the road between Foix and Tarascon, for a walk with a 360 degree panorama of the Pyrenees, and a very moving monument to some of the Maquisards who died fighting in the French resistance in World War II.  This really was the last Sunday we could go, and the day was glorious: hot, with clear blue skies and views for miles and miles in every direction.

Neither Malcolm nor I is particularly on form at the moment, so while our Laroquais friends yomped up a semi-vertical path, deeply slicked in mud, we went part-way up the mountainside from the village of Croquié by car, and then walked on up by road (a road, however, closed to cars) to meet the rest of the group.

Our first destination was the Monument to the Resistance.  This site, with views across to the mountains dividing us from Spain, far-reaching from west to east, was chosen as a memorial site not because it was a war-time battle ground.  Instead it was a training school for resistance fighters from France, Spain and beyond.  There are no barracks, no lecture-halls, no buildings of any kind.  Instead the men led hidden existences among the forest trees and rocks.  And now there is a fine memorial to them.  Singled out were two men who died in nearby Vira (the area where we walked last week) a Maquis stronghold, one who died in our neighbouring town of Bélesta, and one who died following deportation.  There is a statue to these men, who are nevertheless depicted without facial features.  In this way they stand representative for all the men – and women – who died whether through fighting, by acting as liaison workers, or by offering essential support by giving shelter, clothing and food.  Individuals did not pass over to Spain from here: the border is too far away.  Instead they were driven to one of the freedom trails such as those near Oust and Seix.  Petrol?  It could be organised, albeit with difficulty.  A key man ran a garage.

The sculptor of this monument is Ted Carrasco.  A native of Bolivia, pre-Columbian art  is a clear influence on his work.  He seeks always for his pieces to be in harmony with the environment in which they are placed.  His monumental granite figures look over to the Pyrenees which were the scene of their fight against fascism and the Nazi occupation of France.

Time to move on, however.  Our path took us slowly upwards through forest, along a track which became increasingly snow-covered and tough going.  However, it was only 3 km. or so until we reached the top, where there’s a refuge dedicated to the memory of its original owner, Henri Tartie, known as ‘l ‘Aynat’ – the elder, in Occitan.  The original structure is tiny, but served as shelter to many a Maquisard .  Now it’s a wood store, because a newer concrete annexe has been added with cooking facilities so that hardy mountain walkers can rest, make a meal, and warm themselves up.

We commandeered a circular concrete table outside, with apparently unending views of those Pyrenees, and somehow squeezed all ten of us round.  We unpacked our food:  as ever there was wine to share, rhum baba à l’orange, galette charentaise, biscuits – all home-made, of course.  Malcolm and I knew it was our last walk with our friends.  The fine views, the fine company, the cheerful conversation had a predictable effect.  We became tearful.  But so grateful that this walk was a bit of a first.  Extra-special views, extra-special weather for March, the chance to get close to an important slice of Ariègeois history, and our extra-special friends.  We shan’t be with them next Sunday: there’ll be too much to do.  It doesn’t bear thinking about.

The two of us, just after lunch.
The two of us, just after lunch.

Two walks: the last walks?

This post is really just a chance  to post a few photos from a couple of recent walks, one in the Ariège, and one in the Aude.  Each walk brought out some of the contrasts and similarities between  the two Départements.

The more local walk, near Ventenac last Sunday, was near meadows where cattle grazed, through fields being prepared for sowing feed crops such as maize, and through oak and beech forest.  Though there are villages dotted about, the area is still thinly populated, densely forested.  During the Second World War it provided cover for the Spanish Maquis , scourge of the German army.  With the support of many, but not all locals,  the Maquis came to regard the area as a centre of gravity, from which they emerged to pass soldiers and refugees across the mountains, and to organise acts of resistance to German occupation . You’ll find monuments to their activities, their battles, their acts of martyrdom all over the area.  It’s easy to see how, in this large territory, with under-developed links of communication, the Germans had such difficulties keeping tabs on the Maquis’ whereabouts.

Over in the Aude on Thursday, near Esperaza, we saw no farm animals, but our path took us past vineyards where the vines were being hard-pruned ready for 6 months of vigorous growth and grape production.  Martine, from a wine-producing family, explained some of the different methods of pruning  – and there are dozens.  Older varieties of vine, unsupported by wires, may be pruned with an open centre, so the core looks almost like a bowl.  Other kinds of grape usually require training along wires: all sorts of schools of thought here.  These days, much harvesting is mechanical.  Martine’s family send their grapes to a wine co-operative for processing.  This co-operative sends an oenologist every year to analyse their grapes and those of all the other members of the cooperative.  Then he will book everybody a two-day spot with the mechanical harvester at what he believes to be the optimum moment for their particular harvest.  Few grapes cannot be harvested in this way, but the local Blanquette de Limoux is one.  Its low-growing grapes are unsuited to mechanical methods.  With wine-production the main agricultural industry, the villages here have a properous air to them.

Both walks shared a fair bit up uphill (and therefore downhill) marching.  And in both cases, the rewards were in the views of the distant Pyrenees, still covered in snow.  In the Ariège, you’ll be looking to recognise the peaks of Saint Barthélemy and  Soularac, whereas in the Aude, you’ll have no difficulty in recognising Bugarach looming above the surrounding peaks.

These last walks are bitter-sweet.  We’re enjoying them, but not enjoying the fact that, for the time being, there are (almost) no more to come.