Wednesday, 30 April 2008

Two weddings and a funeral

If birds have Michelin guides, Grillou must have at least a two star listing (mérite le détour). We find ourselves sharing our daily lives here with our birds in a way that even we, as seasoned nature-watchers, didn't expect.

The jardin d'hiver, which is destined to become part of our guest accommodation, is home to just about the most persistant wren I've ever met. When we moved in last year, she'd clearly had a nest in there, and still liked to come in most days just for the hell of it, seemingly undeterred by our presence - in fact she soon took to exploring the rest of the house as well, always finding her own way out through - well, actually I don't know what. With major work in the pipeline though, we decided we should remove last year's nest in the hope that she might take the hint (but oh - how ridiculously guilty we both felt!). Now I don't know whether you've ever watched wrens getting it together, but it's better than the Archers. The male's aim is to have as many nests, and therefore as many mates, as possible; at the start of spring he circles his territory, building basic nests - just domed shaped cups of moss and leaves - anywhere he can. When a female enters his territory, he sings to her manically, gradually moving towards one of his nests; still singing, he hops around outside it and finally goes in. She follows, looks around, and says yes or no. If it's a yes, she finishes and lines the nest. If it's a no, she simply flies away.

One Sunday a few weeks ago, we watched in fascination as Verdi, our male wren, was desperately trying to persuade our resident female into a nest that he'd built inside the old porcherie. We of course were all in favour of this particular move and were doing our best to egg her on into accepting it. She went in, she went out, she went in again. She feigned indifference, until he flew off for a few minutes (although actually we could see him hiding behind the walnut tree, watching). Then she went in again, on her own. Yes!, we thought. Back he came, clearly thinking it was in the bag, and sang again. She came out and looked at him. "What, you want me to live in there?" she said. And flew away.

Since then, she's rejected a few of his offerings, including this one, which I'd thought would have been rather desirable:

Clearly there was only one place that she wanted to be, and he must have known it because within a few days he was building away in the jardin d'hiver. We made a couple of vain attempts to deter him by removing his half built structures, but after a while we just didn't have the heart to keep doing it. So he built, he sang, he conquered. And the building work will just have to wait.

In late winter we'd noticed a rather impressive-looking pair of birds in the plum trees outside the kitchen window, eating the buds. We identified them as bullfinches, a species on the red list in the UK and noted for their shyness and secrecy. At first we thought they were just passing through, but gradually we started seeing them more often, sometimes in the big ash tree at the back of the house, and always together.

Then early one morning a month or so ago, I found the female dead on the terrace. I've no idea what happened to her - she hadn't been attacked as far as I could see, and as her neck wasn't broken it's unlikely that she'd flown into the window (a number of birds have, and we now have an emergency first aid kit to hand to help shocked casualties!). We were both very quiet that day.
We thought that that was the end of that, but within a week the male was back ... with another female. And they seemed to be spending more and more time in and around the garden. It soon became apparent that she was nest-building. Not, as you'd expect, somewhere well away from prying eyes - heaven knows, there are enough options in the woodland around here - but in the rose bush right on a part of our terrace. You can see it in this picture, just to the left of the large blue shutter:

We've spent a lot of time watching them over the last couple of weeks and enjoying the soap opera. The pair are inseparable; it's the female that was the nest builder this time, but the male followed her everywhere. He didn't actually do anything mind - she rushed around collecting bits of twig and lichen and building the nest, while he sat on a branch nearby dancing from side to side and chirping quietly. Occasionally when he considered it too risky for her to go into the nest his dancing got more and more frantic until she gave in and flew off with him until it was safer. Where she went, he went. She started sitting on Sunday, and for two days he simply didn't know what to do with himself: he'd turn up every half an hour, calling her out of the nest to feed or just to reassure him that she was still there. He still turns up several times a day; they go off together for a few minutes, then he sees her home, sitting on a branch of the ash looking concerned until she calls from the nest to say that she's safe. It's rather sweet, really (though it would drive me insane, personally, and I'd probably have committed violence by now).

Friday, 25 April 2008

The grilloux are back!

At last the weather has returned to being 'vraiment tee-shirt', as the normally dour forecaster on Radio France Inter described it this morning. It's been unseasonably cold and rainy since Easter - or at least it feels as though it has. Why the sudden change? Nothing whatsoever to do with the anti-cyclone over the Atlantic. No, it's quite clearly because we've finally got round to buying and setting up our water recuperators. Voilà.

So yesterday evening we had dinner outside, for the first time this year. I'm a creature of the outside at heart - I'm sure I was never meant to live inside four walls - and the weather over most of this winter and early spring has meant that we've managed to have breakfast and/or coffee and/or lunch in the garden probably two days out of three. But dinner ... well, that's a seasonal milestone. We ate to a bright red sunset over the mountains, followed by the twilight chorus of the birds; the stars came out, the frogs croaked, and then the grilloux started chirping. And we ate one of my favourite things:

Roast aubergine and chick pea tagine

Actually this is a slightly simpler version of a dish I used to cook for the restaurant. Its flavour, though, belies its simplicity. For 4 people you need:

3 aubergines, diced into 2cm squares
2 red peppers, ditto
3 onions and 3 cloves of garlic, chopped
half a lemon, diced into tiny cubes
a handful of dried apricots, chopped
2 tablespoons of (each) coriander seed, cumin seed, fennel seed
a tablespoon of black peppercorns
one stick of cinnamon
half a teaspoon of black cardamom seeds
2 whole star anise
about a tablespoon of (each) ground ginger and sweet paprika
about a teaspoon of (each) harissa (or cayenne pepper) and turmeric
a tin of diced tomatoes
2 tablespoons of tamarind paste
a large tin (600gm) of chickpeas, or soak and cook your own if you've got time (I didn't).

Roast the aubergine and peppers at around 190C for 45 minutes, until they're slightly charred - this is what really brings out the flavour. Meanwhile grind the whole spices; if you've time to dry roast them first, even better. Add the ground spices, plus a teaspoon of sea salt, to make an aromatic mixture. Fry off the onions and garlic, then add the spice mix and fry for a minute. Add the lemon and the dried apricots and fry for another two or three minutes, then add the tin of tomatoes, bring to a simmer, then add the tamarind paste and the chickpeas. Add some water (about as much as you can get into the empty tomato tin) and cook for ten minutes or so, by which time the roast veg should be ready. Add these to the pan and simmer everything together very gently for at least half an hour to blend the flavours.

We ate this last night just with some simple buttered couscous, a dish of harissa and some preserved lemon (I would have added some fresh coriander, but ours is refusing to grow for some reason). But a couple of chargrilled merguez or lamb steaks would really set it off ...

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

Turn, turn, turn

I love this time of year here in France; there's a real sense of everything coming back to life. Not just the potager (first broad beans nearly ready for picking. Yes!!) and the trees, the birds and the rest of the natural world, but also the towns and villages and people.

There's still a very seasonal outlook on life here. People's daily lives wax and wane with the seasons in a way that seems long gone in twenty-first century 24/7 England; if you travel around La France Profonde in winter you'd be forgiven for thinking that the population had been evacuated. Shutters stay shut, markets are a shadow of their summer selves, restaurants are closed, streets are empty. As the leaves emerge and the countryside greens up, life begins again in earnest; potagers are worked, people stroll around or sit outside their houses, the festival seasons begin, shops and restaurants dust off the cobwebs of their winter closures. The pace builds as spring and summer progresses, rising to the frantic peaks of July and August (la saison) when it feels as if the entire populace is on the streets and every day brings yet another fête. At the beginning of September, everything collapses in a post-orgasmic torpor: beaches and roads empty, everyone returns to work and school, normal life is resumed. This is the time of La Rentrée - the return.

Even the shops - yes, even the big brico sheds - have their seasons. You try buying a wood burning stove in April, a lawn mower in August or a barbecue in December. I've been trying to buy some more wild bird seed now for a month - can I find any? No, here one buys bird seed only between November and February (I've got quite used to the slow, pitying shake of the head and the unspoken "Bof! Les Anglais ..."). Actually, although I know it drives some Anglo-Saxon immigrants mad, I've come to like it. It feels like a much more natural way of living; more grounded, more responsive to the earth. After a while you begin to feel the seasons moving inside you like the tide.

Having said all that, one of the (many) reasons that I'm happy in Ariège is that life does go on in the winter. So there are concerts and events all year round, only a handful of places do the seven-month-closure bit, and the outside tables in bars and restaurants are busy all year (compare and contrast the cassoulet town of Castelnaudary, for example, close to where we lived when we first moved to France, where the cafés and restos didn't even put their tables outside until June). I just wish I could find some bird food.

Sunday, 20 April 2008


There comes a point, if you're driving south or west from the eastern or northern bits of Ariège, when the feel of the landscape changes almost in the blink of an eye. Vast rolling hills and fields with tracks leading to huge farmhouses perched on top of ridges with fantastically wide, panoramic views of the Pyrénées give way to steep wooded lanes, lush pastureland, rocks, trees and streams, with the sheer proximity of the high peaks taking you by surprise when you round this corner or that.

We had, we thought, a problem. While we loved some of the big ridge-built farmhouses to the north and east, and could probably have spent the rest of our lives gazing at the views, we both felt slightly uncomfortable with the sheer openness of it all. Maybe it's because we'd spent the last eight years living in a house that was in all the guidebooks, in an (admittedly very picturesque) village that was overrun for much of the year both by daytrippers and by the Kensington-on-Sea brigade; maybe because running a restaurant with rooms in your own home means that you and your life are permanently 'on display' to all and sundry. Whatever the reason, we wanted the land around our next home to offer both an openness to the mountains, and a lush, tree-surrounded retreat where we and our guests could feel a million miles away from the rest of the world if we so desired. Moreover, we'd already fallen for the south west corner of Ariège, the Seronnais and the Couserans. The trouble is that down here, big maisons de caractère, with plenty of inside space, surrounded by their own land and a decent distance from a main road, are somewhat thinner on the ground, especially when you've no intention of falling for the renovating-a-ruin game.

We'd only properly viewed a few houses when Bruno, our immobilier in Foix, showed us Grillou. He was clearly besotted with the place and had (unusually) taken so many photos that by the time we arrived at the house the following week we almost felt as though we'd been there before. He seemed firmly to believe that we were going to buy it and, embarrassingly cliché-ridden though it sounds, so did I, before we even got out of his car. And so we did.

Four months later we, and a week later our five containers of books, more books, still more books plus the odd piece of furniture, were installed in our new home. For the first week we simply wandered about, getting lost and wondering where on earth we would start. The previous owner specialised in the conservation and restoration of medieval wood- and wall-painting; some years ago he had converted the former stables and grenier into a huge double level studio (every time we came to the house before he moved out, there was a virgin sitting in the corner ...). As soon as I set eyes on this particular space, I could see its potential to make the most fantastic guest accommodation, but I knew that that would have to wait until we'd lived there a while and could get a feel for what was right. We knew there would be other work, too: the house is big, but due to the fact that it had once been at least two separate houses, plus barn, stables and workshop, it has a slightly odd layout which makes it difficult to access one part from another.

Although the house is (or at least will be) amazing, what makes it particularly special is its environment. We're the last but one house along a chemin rural, surrounded by woodland and completely private yet only 3km from our village. Google Earth puts our altitude at 501 metres, thus we neatly avoid both the mists that can linger in the valleys and the more capricious mountain weather that kicks in at around 800 metres. Both the variety of bird life and the birdsong is amazing; the latter, plus the ubiquitous crickets (les grilloux), an occasional cow bell and - if the breeze is in the right direction, the church bells - are all you can hear. Apart from, that is, the not infrequent laughter of our (only, but fortuitously compatible and convivial) neighbours in the valley below. Although we have a year-round view of the surrounding hills, we were taken wholly by surprise in November when the leaves fell to see a snow-capped Mont Valier and much of the western chain appear as if by magic. Although we've been here eight months now, we still spend an inordinate amount of time sitting gazing at the surroundings, planning things that, to be honest, would probably take two lifetimes to achieve ...

Saturday, 19 April 2008

... and what happened next

Do you remember that W.H. Murray quote on commitment? (I'll dig it out in a minute and add it to this post). Well, that's what happened next. Somehow, on the side of that mountain, something inside both of us had shifted from the perennial "wouldn't it be great if we could ..." to "okay, we're going to do it". And, true to form, things did then start to happen. We put our Cley house on the market; within a week we had a choice of five buyers. Although we initially 'chose' the wrong one (who turned out to be a Timewaster with a capital T), one of the remaining four came back in with another offer before we'd even put the house back on the market, and everything then proceeded normally - well, as normally as the sale of a quirky, historic, listed building can ever proceed. We went public with the news that we'd be closing our doors in Cley in Setember 2006, which led to longer than ever waiting lists, enormous curiousity about our plans and even the occasional bit of hate-mail. Hmm.

We finally left England in January 2007, with everything we thought we'd need for up to a year piled in the back of our slightly beaten up Berlingo, and everything else in long term storage. For six wonderful days, until we arrived at the little house we'd rented, we were homeless:
sans domicile fixe. The sense of freedom was, for two people who'd spent the last eight years working absolutely by the clock, profound. We could go anywhere, do anything. We were sorely tempted to go AWOL, to keep driving, stay somewhere different every night, live on the move ... but we didn't. I did it once before, some fifteen years ago: spent more than six months living out of my rucksack, sleeping on people's floors, in tents and tipis and attics. It has its limits. But when we arrived at our destination, it was with a determination to find a way to live at a more natural rhythm. The first thing I did was to take off my watch. I rarely wear one now.

After a couple of months of generally not doing much other than a bit of walking, reading trashy novels and staring at the Pyrénées, we felt ready to start looking for our next home. Being the precocious daughter of an estate agent and surveyor, I spent a good part of my childhood years on the other side of the desk, so to speak (I always tell people that I sold my first house at the age of ten, which is in fact partly true), and as a result I suspect that I'm an agent's nightmare client. At least some of the agents we visited gave that impression, and more than one was seen cringeing in the back office every time we they caught a glimpse of me through the window. Strangely, though, we found few descriptions that resembled English-style estate agent speak - you know the kind of thing: where 'charming and characterful' really means 'pokey and delapidated' and 'internal viewing recommended' means that the outside looks like the back of a bus. Actually, and let's be honest here, we found that few of the French agents bothered with descriptions at all. 'House, 6 rooms' was about as good as it got, occasionally accompanied by a picture of a pile of washing, or the toilet. Requests for information about particular houses I'd seen on an agent's website, or in their window, were often met with a blithe dismissal of how horrible/overpriced/badly situated the house was (and it usually was, too). We knew that the kind of house we wanted didn't come on to the market very often, at least not in the area that we wanted to be in, and were quite prepared to be looking for a year or more. In fact, that didn't happen.

"Until one is committed there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation) there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plan: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one's favour all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance which no man could have dreamt would have come his way, I have learned a deep respect for one of Goethe's couplets: 'Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it.
Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.'

W.H. Murray, from
The Scottish Himalayan Expedition

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

How it all began ...

So there we were, halfway up a Pyrénée, stretched out in tee shirts enjoying the view, the midday sun and a rest for our Norfolk-flatland legs. It was January. I'm not sure which one of us started it (probably me; it usually is), but by the time we'd got back to our rented house that evening we'd decided to move to France.

Moving to France had been On The List for me for - oh, thirty odd years, ever since I was a student obsessed with the language and the country. Plans came and went; I got a proper job, the inevitable mortgage, all the usual baggage. I moved round the UK like a veritable nomad; dropped out, and back in, and then out again of a conventional(ish) lifestyle. Barely a year went by without a visit or three to France, but that's as far as it got. For John it was different: although he'd done his fair share of travelling, the USSR and the Eastern bloc (remember them?) had been more his style, and France was more than a bit of a mystery to him until we got together.

At the time of that winter trip, we'd been running terroir, our tiny restaurant with rooms in Cley next the Sea on the north Norfolk coast, for eight years. terroir happened, somehow; an antidote to our years of working in intensive/intense people-based professions with all the demoralising politicking that seems inexorably to go with work like that. It's a long story. For ten months a year, we cooked, hosted, washed up, grew vegetables, cultivated local suppliers, joined and promoted the Slow Food movement before anyone much had heard of it, and learned as we went along. We worked towards being carbon neutral, ran a carbon offset scheme along with Climate Care, and did our level (if largely unsuccessful) best to get other small businesses to adopt greener practices. Meanwhile North Norfolk became fashionable, every other house became a second home, and although we barely advertised, we became increasingly well known and often had silly waiting lists.

We had enormous fun, and met some really great (plus a few not-so-great) people. We learned that there's nothing quite like the buzz of a really convivial evening when something just clicks and a whole roomful of dinner guests feel it. We also worked 14 hour days, six days a week, answered the phone from 7 in the morning to after midnight, shared our home on a daily basis with 12 or 13 people, and almost never got to see the sea. That kind of life has a definite expiry date; when you sense it coming, you do one of two things. You carry on doing what you're doing, but you pull your self back from it, you disconnect ... or you move on. We moved on.