Thursday, 19 March 2009

Spring cleaning

The last couple of weeks have been almost outrageously hot. "Sun bed! Book! Beer! Swim!" demands my still-Anglo-Saxon body. It may learn, one day, that what we used to call a heatwave in England is perfectly normal weather here, and doesn't mean that it's on holiday (though I confess that I did succumb to the sunbed for a couple of hours this afternoon).

I don't know what the spring equivalent of an Indian summer is, but that's what we're having and jolly nice it is too. We haven't seen a cloud for many days, and the clarity of the blue spring light lasts all day and just takes the breath away. The sight of Mont Valier through the trees, still deeply snow covered against the blue sky, is nothing short of awesome. Everything is growing at an unbelievable rate: where a week ago was bare earth, we now have five yellow tulips, perfectly in flower, and the onion plants I planted out last weekend have grown several centimetres. Azaleas are in flower all over the garden. Blossom is ready to burst. The birds are as noisy as on a May morning - save, that is, the blackbird who has chosen our land as his territory, who I'm beginning to think has a speech impediment. Yesterday we heard, and then saw, a Great Spotted Cuckoo fly over the house - a new bird for us both, and a bit of a rarity here. 

Ad we've been spring cleaning. It never ceases to amaze me just how much work it takes to keep Grillou's garden looking natural and semi-wild. There are times when I think it must be easier to have one of those dreadful English style gardens with flat lawn and flower beds, and indeed I occasionally yearn for one - usually after several hours of bramble or ivy-and-moss removal, and admittedly for just three seconds at a time, after which the real me returns. 

Tomorrow, at precisely 12.43 French time, is the Spring Equinox - the day when the sun moves across the celestial equator, rising exactly in the east and setting exactly in the west. It's the true first day of spring; the day when the winter darkness gives way to warmth and new light. Celebrated in almost all traditional cultures, it's yet another seasonal landmark that many of us today have lost touch with. But it's a day to celebrate new growth, new ideas, new enthusiasms, and the beginnings of new projects. 

Me? I'll be on a plane, headed for north-east England; I'm spending a week on an intensive tiling training course, leaving John to carry on the spring cleaning here. I'm a reasonable tiler; being the insufferable perfectionist that I am I can make a pretty good job of a simple floor or wall. But this is Grillou, which doesn't do simple. And with nearly 200 square metres of tiling to be done over the next few months, it's clear that a little more theory and technical know-how won't go amiss if the finished product is going to look as good as it should. Having searched high and low for training in France without success (artisans here tend to learn over years as apprentices, or via a 3 year BAC professionel), there was only one option - a week in England, notably in South Shields, home to one of the three most highly rated professional courses. 

To tell the truth, I'm a bit daunted. Not at the idea of the course, though it'll be interesting being the token woman (!), but at leaving our lovely plants and birds and butterflies and blossom and mountains and most of all our silence for a week in the land of traffic and concrete. I didn't quite realise until this evening, when I took a last walk around the garden, how incredibly attached I've become to Grillou in just two years. I'll miss friends, the simplicity of life here, the Pyrénées, and of course the weather. But hey, there are compensations. South Shields is the curry capital of the north-east ...

See you all in a bit over a week!

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

09 in 09

For a small and sparsely populated department with not a lot of money, Ariège is not half bad at making its presence felt. A couple of years ago, for example, when we were still living over the border in Aude, we decided to hit the bright lights of Toulouse one rainy Saturday in March and what did we find? The main square, Place du Capitole, was filled with hundreds of stalls promoting and celebrating our soon-to-be-home department, complete with goats and sheep and prehistoric flint knappers and every sort of food and heaven knows what else. It was heaving with people - and great fun.

Ariège, or to give it its self-proclaimed full title Ariège-Pyrénées (adopted because it was - and officially still is - the only department sharing a border with Spain that didn't have 'Pyrénées' as part of its name), is department number 09. Every French department has a number, running alphabetically from A to Z (with a couple of quirks, naturally), and residents are strongly attached to 'their' numbers. Two years back, it was decided to replace the current system of departmental vehicle registration, under which the last two numbers are always the department of residence. Now this is a great system, not just because you can wear your departmental badge with pride, but because you also get fair warning that the car behind you comes from one of the departments with particularly bad drivers - anywhere in Paris, for example, or maybe my particular bugbears Gironde (33) and Tarn et Garonne (82) .... So when a national registration scheme was mooted, France revolted. And to cut a long story short, in the end the government had to concede that when the new system finally comes in next month,a department number, while not forming an official part of the registration number, would nevertheless be compulsory on all plates - a typical French compromise.

Now being department number 09 in the year 2009 is not a marketing opportunity to be missed. And missed it won't be: our Conseil Général and the Comité Départementale du Tourisme have just launched their 09 - L'année de l'Ariège campaign, with 9 events which they hope will 'typify the Ariège of tomorrow', put the department centre stage, and give people 9 (more) good reasons to come here. Here they are:

1. The opening of the first part of the new voie verte (green road, for walkers and cyclists - no motor vehicles allowed) which will link Foix with St Girons, along the old railway track. Great news for us, as when it's completed in 2010 it will pass right through Rimont.

2. The opening last month of the centre thermoludique at Ax les Thermes - the first in Ariège, and destined to become one of the best in the Pyrénées. I've not managed to get there, yet, but oh, I will, I will ...

3. The enlargement of the Parc de la Préhistoire in Tarascon, at the heart of one of the most extensive networks of prehistoric caves in Europe.

4. The designation of part of the Cathar Pyrénées as 'pays d'art et d'histoire'.

5. The official creation in May, after several years of negotiations, of the Parc Naturel Régional Pyrénées Ariégeoises. Rimont, and Grillou, will be a part of the new Parc.

6. The celebration on 22 August of the 20th anniversary of the Challenge des 3000 Ariégeois, a mountain running 42.5 km marathon that climbs - wait for it - over 2500 metres. I shan't be running.

7. The creation of a major competition for local innovators, to dynamise the local economy.

8. The commemoration of the 800th anniversary of the Albigensian crusade against the Cathars.

9. And finally ... la surprise. On the 9th September 2009 (09/09/09) at 09.00 (it had to be, didn't it ...), the Conseil Général and the Comité Départementale du Tourisme are preparing 'an event'. That's all I know, because for now their collective lips are firmly sealed on the details. But watch this space. Or even this one.

Friday, 13 March 2009


Today was - well, just so gloriously yellow:

These were out in force ...

And these ...

And this ...

He was singing his heart out all day ...

... while he (she?) and dozens like him (her? How do you tell?) flew in every direction ...

The first of these appeared ...

... and the sun shone, though I couldn't get a picture of that. But it was still 33 degrees Celsius in the sun at 5pm ...

Sunday, 8 March 2009

Good things 1

Any of you who knew me in my previous (restaurant owning and food writing) incarnation may perhaps be a little perplexed to find that plumbing appears to have overtaken produce in my affections. Indeed I'm a little perplexed myself. So, on a chilly and dreary Sunday afternoon, with only the songs of the birds to remind me that it's spring, I think it's time to indulge in a bit of unashamed glorification of our local food.

Like much of France, Ariège is blessed with some wonderful local products. To take a trip to Saint Girons market, 20 minutes down the road, on Saturday morning is to be faced with a near paralysing choice of what to bring home: fruits and vegetables, for sure, but also mountain cheeses (from cows, sheep and goats), an endless variety of duck goodies, ham, charcuterie, conserves of all kinds, beans, wine, nuts and nut oils, honey, breads and croustades, millas, donkeys' milk soap ...

We buy unpasteurised whole milk, yoghurt and crème fraîche from a farm in next-door village Lescure, or sometimes from another farm at Castelnau Durban, next-door in the other direction. Castelnau Durban also has a summer-only echoppe (Gascon for shop, apparently) which sells only Séronais produce and is cooperatively run by the producers. Our third neighbouring village, Clermont, has a bakery which is known far and wide for its croustades. And Rimont itself now has an artisan charcuterie, Le Grenier à Jambons, which raises, butchers and - er - charcutes its own pigs.

Our most local produce, however, is the organic honey from our neighbouring farm, Saurine. My out-and-out favourite is the acacia: it's an extraordinarily pretty light, clear golden colour and has a very delicate flowery, vanilla-y flavour: great with yoghurt, or on sourdough toast. If, like me, you grew up on Gales, you probably take honey for granted. But it really is an amazing thing, worthy of a little wonderment ...

So what is it, exactly? Well, it's the sugary nectar of flowers gathered, modified and stored in a honeycomb by honeybees. As far as the plant is concerned, the function of nectar is to attract insects, which pick up pollen and transfer it from flower to flower. As the bee swallows the nectar, its saliva splits the sucrose into the two simple sugars, dextrose and fructose. It stores the nectar in a special 'stomach' and takes a little for its own nourishment; the rest is given up when the bee returns to the hive, where it regurgitates it into one of the cells of the honeycomb (don't you wish you didn't know that?). Each honeycomb cell is an incubator for young bees, which feed on the honey as they grow.

Nectar turns into honey by evaporation, and the composition of the honey depends on the type of flowers visited by the bees (which is why different honeys taste so - well, different). Now, you'll like this bit. As each bee returns to the hive it performs a kind of wriggling dance at the entrance. The angle at which it moves shows the direction of flight to the flower in relation to the current position of the sun; the enthusiasm with which it wriggles shows how good a source of nectar it is. That, I promise you, is absolutely true. And so are these three amazing pieces of trivia:

1. The bee is so well designed that it can carry its own bodyweight in nectar (whereas a jet plane is limited to 25%).

2. It's been estimated that the bee is efficient enough to fly nearly seven million kilometres at a steady 12 kilometres an hour on a gallon of nectar.

3. Apparently it takes bees 10 million trips (or 300 bees around one month) to collect the nectar for one jar of honey. It's the females that do most of the work. The males just hang around waiting to mate with the queen. Hmm …