Sunday, 26 December 2010

Père Noël is a con*

We're having an - um - 'interesting' festive period. So far:

1. It snowed, in an unforecast-type manner. It started on Christmas Eve just an hour or so before we were due to leave to go to some friends in the next-but-one village for an apéro - our sole bit of R'n'R in an otherwise working Yule. We got halfway down the track, and had to turn back as we - or at least the car - were slipping and sliding all over the place. It's been freezing cold ever since - minus 8 when I got up this morning - and we're iced in.

2. The door fell off the oven. Probably terminally.

3. The dishwasher decided, repeatedly, that it was much more fun to empty itself all over the floor than anywhere else. Probably terminally.

4. The fridge clearly felt left out and followed suit. Probably terminally. (Okay, so we inherited them when we moved in and they're all a good 15 years old. But they didn't have to all die at once, did they?).

5. The only tardis I got anywhere near was the one in the 2009 Doctor Who Christmas special, which finally hit the screen here last night (we've not had the merest whiff of the Eleventh Doctor on France 4 yet). Yes, sorry, I'm a Doctor Who fan. You have my permission to yawn ...

6. Nobody changed my sheets.

7. Oh, and John stacked a tonne of books on top of my glasses. Definitely terminally ....

Bonnes fêtes to you too. Bah humbug.

* pun unintended, but satisfying.

Monday, 20 December 2010

Dear Père Noël ....

Dear Père Noël

How are things? I hope you're well and not too stressed out, and that Rudolph's nose is better (has he tried calendula ointment, I wonder?). I realise it's quite a number of years since you've heard from me, but I'm sure you must remember me. I was the one who always used to drink your sherry and replace it with cough medicine.

Anyway. Those days are over: I don't use cough medicine any more. I know you'll be very busy so I won't take up too much of your time, but I was I wondering - ahem - if you might be persuaded to pay me another visit. Please don't listen to anything they might tell you: I have tried really hard to be good this year - I mean look, we've even had the builders here for weeks and I've not murdered anyone. And you can't get much more gooder than that. So if you could just see your way to dropping down my chimney - that'll be the one nearest the Pyrénées, otherwise you'll get stuck in the cooker hood - here are five things that I'd really like:

1. An extra day each week; a secret one, that doesn't appear on the calendar, and if you could just slip it into a different dimension so nobody can find me when I'm sitting reading that would be even better.

2. To miraculously find clean, ironed, white Egyptian cotton sheets on my bed every night.

3. A non-white Christmas so that I can actually carry the materials that I'm working with to and from the barn without crampons and an ice axe.

4. A tardis. I would really love to be able to travel forward in time just to reassure myself that we will finish the work on this house, one day, in my lifetime. And I'd like to be able to travel backwards too, because there are a few decisions I might have taken differently if I knew what I know now. Which reminds me, while we're on that subject ...

5. Do you think it might be possible to have the gift of hindsight, only to have it in advance?

There. I think that's quite restrained, don't you? If you don't think it's enough to be worth the detour, I'd also rather like to borrow a few of your Little Helpers for a while, but I don't want to appear greedy.

Now, do you know the way to Grillou? I expect you use a SatNav these days, so just a word of warning - when you get to Rimont it'll try to send you up a muddy track and through a lake. Not useful, and the reindeer will get chillblains. I'm afraid I won't be able to leave you a glass of sherry as you just can't get the stuff here; would some rather nice Muscat de Saint Jean de Minervois do instead, I wonder?

Anyway, I do hope you all have a lovely Christmas. Please try to stay zen, and remember to breathe.


Kalba xx

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Dogs ...

... are such strange creatures. You buy them warm beds, and fill them with blankets and pillows, and where do they want to be on one of the coldest days of the year?

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Bean eaters anonymous

Once upon a time, we had a habit of spending a weekend somewhere in Tuscany at about this point in the year: to wander, to drink coffee, maybe to do a gallery or two ... and to eat. Well, okay, mostly to eat. But hey, come on, it was work: a lot of the inspiration for what I cooked at the resto came from Tuscany, and by that point in the year I was in need of a top up. Tiresome, huh?

The Tuscans are not called mangiafagioli (beaneaters) for nothing: beans play a huge part in the local cuisine. And they're sooooo good too: in the days when you could actually carry more than a spare pair of knickers on Ryanair we used to bring back kilos of them (beans, not knickers), along with several litres of newly pressed oil (if you once saw someone emptying a large suitcase at Stansted airport security and trying to explain convincingly why it was full of bubblewrap and not a lot else ... that was me). Lucca was our very favourite haunt; apart from being just a genuinely lovely little city, its oil and beans are second to none (Awww. I want to go, NOW!). It was in Lucca that I first ate zuppa di frantoiana - literally 'oil mill soup' - at a trattoria called Gigi. November is oil pressing time, and there are dishes featuring the new oil are on every menu. Gigi's zuppa was so good that we ate it twice, in quick succession, then I came home and did my best to recreate it.

Today being a biting Tuscan-cold type of day seemed like a perfect opportunity to spend a few hours on zuppa duty, especially given that the alternative was yet another hands-and-knees afternoon waxing the newly restored terracotta tiles in the dining room. I couldn't manage the new oil - we buy our 'good' olive oil from the Coop in Clermont l'Herault which produces several varieties, but pressing doesn't take place until December at the earliest - but for the first time (beware - crow alert) I did manage to use a lot of our own vegetables - everything but potatoes, celery and garlic in fact, none of which we grow.

Cavalo nero (black Tuscan kale) growing on the potager

Amazingly, even the tomatoes are ours: we picked them green at the beginning of the month and they're ripening nicely on the windowsill. So, in case you too have a task that you'd like to avoid, here is the (sort of) recipe.

Zuppa de frantoiana

some onions and/or leeks, diced
some green celery, including the leaves, finely chopped
some carrots, chopped into smallish pieces
a few potatoes, ditto
some garlic, minced
some fresh herbs - rosemary, thyme, parsley, basil, that sort of thing - chopped
a couple of peperoncini or small dried red chili peppers, crushed
some cavalo nero (black Tuscan kale) or Savoy cabbage, shredded
some butternut squash or pumpkin or potimarron, peeled and chopped into small-to-medium pieces
a few fresh tomatoes, skinned and chopped
some vegetable stock
some pinto or cannellini beans, cooked
a rind of Parmesan if you have one
some wheat or spelt grains
some good olive oil

So, this is what I do. In a big pan, warm some olive oil and gently fry the onions for 5 minutes. Add the celery, fry for 5 minutes. Add the carrots, fry for 5 minutes. Add the potatoes, fry for 5 minutes. Add the herbs and peperoncini, fry for 5 minutes. Add the cavalo nero, pumpkin and tomatoes, fry for 5 minutes. I know this seems a bit OTT, but I've found it to be the best way of bringing out the flavour of each ingredient - if you add them all to the pan at once it's all a little bit more indistinct and subdued.

Purée half the beans either with some of their cooking water, or with some vegetable stock, and add them to the pan, with the Parmesan rind too if you have it. Add more vegetable stock to just cover the vegetables, then simmer over the lowest possible heat for an hour.

Add the wheat and simmer for another half an hour. At that point, add the rest of the beans and simmer for another 20 minutes or so. Stir in some olive oil and let the whole thing stand for a couple of hours. Reheat gently - it should now be nicely thick - check the seasoning, ladle into bowls and serve with a glug of good olive oil poured over each one.

Make at least twice as much as you can eat, because it'll be even better tomorrow ....

Saturday, 27 November 2010

A tale of two Grilloux ...

8.30am: a world white with hard frost: minus 6 degrees.

12.30pm: lunch on the terrace: 20 degrees in the sun. On the shady side of the house: still zero; central heating still on anti-frost setting.

A blackbird singing, in blissful defiance of the season.

Monday, 22 November 2010

Silver linings

Yesterday was a thoroughly unpleasant day: cold (very cold), wet (very wet) and dark (very dark). There's a wonderful French word, much loved by weather forecasters: maussade. It means dull and dismal; it also means sullen. (Don't you just love the idea of the weather being sullen? Perfect word.) And the fact that I was putting the seven hundredth and fifty-ninth coat of paint on yet another of our panelled glazed doors did nothing to assuage my mood.

But there was a silver lining: cranes. Halfway through the afternoon a strange and loud trumpeting noise drew my attention. Wah! Geese! yelled the ex-Norfolk me to anyone who'd listen, before realising that the only geese you're likely to see in Ariège are on your dinner table. Flocks of hundreds, even thousands, of flying geese - we'd get them over the house almost daily in the wnter - are about the only thing I miss from the Norfolk days, especially the Brents with their growly 'rruckk' call. I racked my paint-befuddled brain and realised that they must be cranes.

And cranes they were. Huge V shapes of them, common cranes (grues cendrées) on their way across the Pyrénées to spend their winter in warmer climes. Ariège is not on the main crane route, which is much farther west, but birding friends here have told me that we can expect to see them every so often. To see a big flock flying over our house was a huge treat. To see a second flock following at dusk was an even bigger one. But to hear, and then glimpse, a third, flying right over the chimney pots at midnight on the night of the full moon, was something unforgettable: in spite of the bitter cold, in spite of the lashing rain, in spite of being half undressed for bed, I ran outside to the track and watched, and listened.

The picture is not, I confess, mine. But this is what I saw:

And today I stumbled upon this video, captured by a local person at St Lizier, just a few kilometres down the road.

An ah -so moment.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Ariège Moun Pais

The new Ariégeois anthem! Will it take over from Se Canto, I wonder???? (Sorry. Ariège joke ...).

(Paroles et musique Florent Adroit mars 2010)
Je viens te parler d’un morceau de terre
Pas plus grand que ça mais dont je suis fier
Pas loin de l’Espagne même près d’Andorre
Comme un privilège, comme un gros trésor
Toi tu montes au « Pass », eux, ils montent au pa
Ce n’est pas l’Ardèche, non tu connais pas ?
Pourtant je t’assure qu’il y a un grand A
A comme l’Ariège, A comme Ariégeois
Lève ton drapeau, chante tes couleurs
Au vu des montagnes qui sont ton bonheur
Car les gars du nord aiment ton accent
C’est parce que ça monte et puis ça descend
Chante « se canto » la main sur le cœur
Ariège « moun païs » rien ne te fait peur
Car il n’y a pas plus fier que d’être Ariègeois
Chante le bien fort et chante en patois
Non pas toulousain, non pas Doriphore
Nous on les aime bien, eux ils nous adorent !
Pour nos champignons et nos Pyrénées
Nous pour le travail, c’est juste à côté !
On est espanté de voir que ça pègue
Dans nos expressions, là haut ils roumèguent
De ne pas comprendre la moitié des mots
On dit pas qu’est ce que c’est? On dit « Quésaco !!!»
Et à son panneau tu klaxonneras
Comme une sirène pour dire Ariègeois
Tu verras ensuite le panorama
Qui est magnifique, qui laisse sans voix
Car si tu t’exiles un peu trop longtemps
Loin de tes verdures, loin de ton accent
Tu verras alors que des bons côtés
Tu verras l’Ariège : ça va te manquer !
Chante « se canto » la main sur le cœur
Ariège « moun païs » rien ne te fait peur
Car il n’y a pas plus fier que d’être Ariègeois
Chante le bien fort et chante en patois

Sunday, 7 November 2010

The Slow Road to Salau

At half past eight yesterday morning it was foggy, and I was up my ladder, paintbrush in hand. At half past nine the sun started to come through. Knowing that it would probably be our last chance this year to get out amongst the extraordinary autumn colours here, we needed no persuasion to down tools and set off in the car on the Slow Road to Salau, the last village in the Haut Salat before the Spanish frontier.

After the obligatory coffee and croissant stop, this time in the bar at Castillon that we got to like so much in our Ariège holiday week, we set off down the Bethmale valley towards the Etang de Bethmale, which must be one of the department's most contemplative places. Amazingly, we had it to ourselves, and could contemplate in peace. After a while the sun disappeared behind the peaks just to the south and we moved onwards to the Col de la Core, a few kilometres away, from where there are amazing views to both east and west. The Col de la Core is part of Le Chemin de la Liberté, a path that commemorates one of several secret escape routes in World War Two; as one whose father spent the war years in the RAF and who as a child was fed a diet of war films, I can't help but find it a moving experience to walk in the footsteps of those who found refuge on these trails.

Our Slow Road took us down through the small town of Seix and out along the valley of the river Salat, through the village of Couflens and then on to Salau where we stopped to explore the small Romanesque church. Salau has, appropriately, a real end of the world feeling. By car there's nowhere else to go but back where you've come from; on foot, however, a three and a half hour walk will take you up to an altitude of 2087 metres to the Port de Salau, the border with Spain. This is a path that's been in use as a trade (and contraband!) route since medieval times and links between those living on either side of the (relatively recent) frontier have always been strong; the first Sunday of August is the occasion for Les Pujadas, a meeting of people who have walked up from both sides to celebrate the links between them.

We didn't have the time to do the whole walk, although it's On the List, and we will, one day, when life returns to normal (!). We did, however, walk briskly up above Salau to two rather impressive waterfalls, one short and fat, the other long and thin, and found ourselves in a lovely but un-named cirque. My map tells me that there are nine springs here that jointly form the source of the Salat. In true mountain fashion the mist started to roll in and within a few minutes we were surrounded by cloud; time to make an excuse and leave.

On the way back through Salau we were a bit taken aback to come face to face with what could have been an inner city estate in Toulouse, or Birmingham, or London: five seventies-style concrete blocks of flats set on a desolate piece of ground just outside the village. Bearing in mind that Salau, together with its neighbouring (larger) village of Couflens, has a population of just 81 people, at a density of 1.4 persons per kilometre, my mind boggled. Google, as ever, was my friend, and later told me that they were built to house workers at the tungsten mines at Anglade, closed in the early 1980s. (But who lives there now????? Some, at least, are clearly still occupied. Bizarre).

And today's been rainy and windy, with a snowstorm of leaves, and I've been back up my ladder. Carpe diem, and all that.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Culture shock 2

We're just back from a few days break away from Grillou, a kind of punctuation mark between the life we've led this summer and the one to come over the winter. Fitting, because it coincided with Samhain, traditionally a time for looking back, for letting go of the old to make way for the new. We went to Périgord Noir, between Bergerac and Sarlat, an area that neither of us had visited before. Beautiful though it is, after the first day we almost turned tail and came home.

On the agenda was a bit of exploring, and a lot of walking, and so we stayed in a small, and very pleasant, town between the valleys of the Dordogne and the Vezère rivers where we thought we'd get the best of both worlds. What I wasn't prepared for was the sheer heights to which tourism has been raised there. Now I'm not a good tourist at the best of times: I hate 'attractions' and guided tours and all the junk that comes along with them, and I hate being regimented; I'd much sooner stumble upon quirky, low-key places almost by accident than have everything presented to me on placards and in guide books. And I particularly hate being seen as exploitation fodder. So when, on the first day of our holiday, we thought we would briefly explore a couple of the well known villages on the Dordogne before setting out on a walk from the third, I neither expected nor appreciated having to stuff a parking meter with a rather large amount of change in order to park anywhere within four kilometres of - well, anywhere, really. Hectares of each village were given over to paying (yes, even between 12pm and 2pm, unheard of and truly shocking) parking, with all other land barred off; in spite it of being the Toussaint school holidays the car parks were mostly empty, meaning of course no trade for local businesses ... now how crazy is that as a policy ??? We did stop at one and had a desultory look around, but after half an hour of feeling as though we were in an over-restored and twee theme park we decided, simultaneously, to beat a hasty retreat.

The same evening we ate out in a simple restaurant in our local town known and recommended for its wood fired pizzas. We ordered a pichet of red wine. "You'd prefer a half bottle of this" said our host. Er, no, actually we wouldn't. He snorted, and asked us whether we'd like water. Of course we would. "Still or sparkling?" asked our host. No, just a carafe of tap water, I said. It's many years since I've been through this charade; in Ariège, as in most of southern France, water is brought to your table with a basket of bread almost as you sit down. He snorted again. We ordered pizzas. "Would you like a side order of chips?" asked our relentless host. (Chips?? With pizza???) By now we were feeling distinctly uncomfortable, as if as visitors to the area we were fair game to be milked for cash. Our host sulked off to the kitchen, returning a couple of minutes later to ask ... if we were Belgian.

For the rest of our stay we did our best to get more off the beaten track. The landscape is lovely - deep valleys, limestone cliffs and wooded hills - as is the vernacular architecture. But it's just all so ... nice. The verges look as though they've been clipped with nail scissors; nearly all the houses are immaculate; even the trees are neat. There are no soixante-huitards or 'eepees', not a dreadlock or a beur to be seen (and gens de voyage - travellers - are actually prohibited from stopping anywhere in the two valleys). The level of control - for residents as well as visitors - is awesome. After a few days I was longing to get back to the laid back, well worn, non money-grasping, somewhat anarchic, culturally mixed vibe of Ariège.

And so here we are, home. And at home.

Friday, 22 October 2010

On progress, and the revolting French

This is a bit of a sad week for me: yesterday was my last day (for this year at least) working at the yoga centre, which is about to close for holidays until next May. I've done some lovely stuff with some lovely people from all over the world, met some other folk living locally who came, through word of mouth, for regular sessions, and reclaimed a bit of me that's been filed under 'pending' in a cupboard for the last eight years. Much as I'd love to have carried on working with my local clients over the winter, reality (as in a seriously unfinished réno and a long suffering partner who'd probably kill me) has set in and so it's back on with the blue overalls seven days a week, head down, and full on with all the outstanding bits of work.

Have you ever noticed how things that you set up in your mind as terminally difficult actually turn out to be relatively straightforward (and vice versa)?. Just a week ago, we started to put up the bookshelves in the new dining room, which on its mezzanine level has an alter ego as a library. We swiftly discovered that the wall consisted of plasterboard dotted and dabbed onto hollow brick ... some 10 centimetres away from it. Now why oh why oh why would you do that?? The dots (or is it the dabs?) were dabbed (or dotted) at random, so no chance of screwing the shelves through them. And a brief attempt to fix through the placo and into the brick was not exactly successful - it chewed up the placo then fell out of the brick, in spite of the biggest wall plug in the world. Clearly there was nothing for it but to build a made-to-measure shelving system from scratch - a solution we'd hoped to avoid because of the bizarre dimensions of the space. Sigh. So with heavy hearts, a design was swiftly put together - to accommodate sloping walls, sloping ceiling and sloping floor - wood was duly bought, and over the week the carcasses were duly made (by John), lasured (by me), and hoisted up to the mezzanine (by both of us),

And it worked.

(Yes, I know there are no shelves. Be patient. There will be.)

I'm beginning to think that creating this dining room is just about the most dramatic, and rewarding, thing that we're doing: not only does it give us a whole new room and link up the two previously separated bits of the house, it really opens up a sense of space and light as you walk into the hallway from the front door: whereas once you saw this

now you see this:

Which is just a great step forward, and gives us both the courage and the wherewithal to go on. So the next month (maybe more) will see us putting up a spiral staircase to the library area, building new oak steps down from the hall, fitting oak windowsills and skirting boards, repairing and sanding and finally painting the balustrade and window frames and doors, deep cleaning and oiling the terracotta tiles and building cupboards across the back wall using some reclaimed shutters we found in a local depôt vente.

Meanwhile, unless you've had your head in a paper bag this last week or so you'll know that the French are revolting: ostensibly at the proposed pension reforms but also I think, underneath, out of sheer despair at Sarkozy, his style of leadership and the general unfairness that his policies engender in so many levels of society. Schools are closed, transport is affected, fuel is desperately short with a quarter of petrol stations empty and millions of people, including large numbers of students, have taken to the streets. Life as we know it has been inconvenienced but do you know what? I'm proud to live in a country where people care, and are willing to show outwardly that they care rather than living in depressed apathy and/or finding a scapegoat to kick. The French, I believe, feel no differently from those living in other European countries where policies increasingly ask 'the people' (for want of a better phrase) to pay while capital continues to accumulate in the hands of the few: they're just more accustomed to showing it. And so the protests have my support, as well as that of over 70 per cent of the population, who clearly feel the way one protester on Saturday did:

The placard reads: "Carla, on est comme toi, on se fait niquer par le chef d'état" ...

 Look it up!

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Culture shock

I just got back yesterday from a fast and furious weekend (out Friday afternoon, back Monday morning) in London, working with a group of bodyworkers and therapists. It's a while since I was in London, though I spent a lot of years living and working there and know it pretty well. But oh boy, did I struggle with it this time ...

It all began pretty well, with an on time flight and a quick and easy train ride on the Stansted Express. With a bit of time in hand, I decided to make a pilgrimage to one of my favourite bookshops, Watkins Books. Great bookshop, crap location: in a small alley just off Charing Cross Road, and right by Leicester Square tube. Mistake. Sardines and strap-hanging in the tube I can cope with; I even managed not to disgrace myself with my ignorance of how to use my new Oyster Card. The West End crowds, however, were another story. From the moment I emerged from the underground, I was swept up into a gigantic and frantic crowd of people, all trying to get somewhere I didn't want to go. It was impossible to counter the current. I felt claustrophobic, disorientated. Everybody seemed to have an impossible number of carrier bags (crise? What crise???) or, worse, a pull-along suitcase - yes, my legs have the bruises to prove it - and the vast majority seemed interested only in pursuing their chosen course, utterly oblivious to the presence of other persons, who were simply pushed out of the way. I'm really not trying to offend anyone here and I'm sorry if you're a Londoner, but it was horrendous, shocking: as the French would say, hallucinant.

After an hour of this I wanted to cry and after two I wanted to come home. It was that bad. It continued to be That Bad, too, as I made my way up towards north London to join my group; I felt increasingly invisible, irrelevant, dispensable. I wasn't a person but a thing, an object. I was a grockle, a fish out of water. I wondered how people who live there cope without becoming depressed or homicidal: the noise, the lack of space, the all-encompassing concrete-ness, the traffic, the sheer number of people, the lack of politesse or just basic respect for others' needs and personhood. I guess you just have to close down, to put a wall around you, to grow a thick skin, to put yourself first. And there, of course, is the rub.

I did have a great weekend, working with some great people - one of whom was (and I almost wrote 'also' here!) French, another was also an emigrant, having moved to live and work in Ibiza. But clearly, with four more such weekends coming up over the next 15 months, I need a creative strategy, and one that isn't of the thick-skin-growing 'if you can't beat 'em join 'em' variety because that's just not me. So, any city dwellers out there got advice for a Pyrenean neo-paysanne?

Thursday, 7 October 2010

House of ladders

Blog silence has reigned for a couple of weeks while we've been ... up ladders. Not 'a' ladder, you'll notice; no, the plural is deliberate.

We've been (finally, and only two years later than originally scheduled ...) lime washing the walls of the goat-shed-turned-office-now-turned-dining-room. It's - er - five metres high. Hmm. Plans to use the scaffold that The Perfectionist had brought in were quickly scuppered when it had, rather suddenly, to move on to another project. We were left high and dry - or rather, dry but not high. We considered our options. Short of attaching a rope to the central beam and swinging backwards and forwards, or turning the highest wall into a climbing wall, there was only one: another scaffold. The grapevine swung into gear, and within a couple of days we'd borrowed a tower from some friends. Another couple of days (and much swearing, ranting, cursing, foot stomping and crockery smashing) later, it was up.

The problem is that the dining room is a room of lots of different heights. We've built a mezzanine gallery, which is going to house a library; there's a central beam; and the ceiling slopes down towards the windows at the front of the house, where the height of the wall is only four metres or so. And so we needed not one, but many ladders, which is why for the last fortnight the room has looked like this:

Six days, seventeen thousand colour tests, and four coats of lime wash later, the room looks like this (don't panic, the orange pine will disappear very soon, as will the white painted walls at the far end ...)

and we've got quite fond of the scaffold (yes, the same one that we spent six hours trying to fit eight bolts into to hold the two platforms ...) and will be sorry to see it go. It's made a long job hugely easier, so a big thanks to the mob at Camping Le Montagnou at Ustou for lending it to us - we owe you one!

All we have to do now is to take it apart. So don't expect to see either of us any time soon ....

PS ... look who dropped in to visit today:

It's a praying mantis. Isn't he lovely?

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Sunday, 19 September 2010

On Sod and his law, and tomato gluts

Wouldn't you just know it? After yesterday's weather rant, today the sun shone in a cloudless sky, unpredicted by Metéo France. I, however, was indoors on glut management duties: Something Had To Be Done with the five kilos of tomatoes that had been sitting in their bowls looking accusing for several days. These are Agora tomatoes, from just two plants; I reckon we've eaten a good three kilos already, and there's still, assuming the blight doesn't get them, a good three kilos to ripen: that makes around 11 kilos of fruit from two 60 centime plantlets. Bargain. This is (and I'm frantically touching every wooden object I can find while crossing all my fingers and toes - not an elegant sight) the first year we've not had late blight; we've harvested well from our two cherry tomato plants too, though quite not so well, sadly, from the Cornue des Andes that were so productive last year.

And so I have quite literally been slaving over a hot stove. First I made a large batch of tomato sauce. Everyone has their own recipe for tomato sauce: this is mine.

Rich tomato sauce

3 kilos of ripe tomatoes, chopped
6 large onions, chopped
4 cloves of garlic
a rind of Parmesan (the hard bit that usually gets thrown away. Or in our case given to the dog)
a medium size tin of tomato purée
red wine
balsamic vinegar
one red chili pepper, deseeded and chopped finely
a handful of fresh herbs - I used rosemary, thyme, marjoram and basil, finely chopped or ripped

Fry the onions slowly in some olive oil, over a medium to low heat, until they're translucent (don't let them colour). When they're there, add the garlic and continue cooking for another 4 to 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes, and stir them around, then let them break down slightly in the warm oil. When they're starting to release their juices, stir in the tomato purée, a couple of tablespoons of balsamic vinegar, the chili pepper and the herbs; add the Parmesan rind, bring the pan to a fast simmer and then add a slug of red wine - half a good glass at least. Keep up the fast simmer for 30 seconds or so to 'cook' the wine, then turn the heat down so that the pan is simmering much more slowly.

And then wait. The sauce needs to reduce to about half its starting volume, by which time it will be thick and intensely flavoured: this can take up to three hours, or even more, depending on the tomatoes. Stir occasionally, and as the mixture gets thicker stir more often and keep a wary eye on it - it can catch, and there'll be tears and tantrums (or maybe that's just me. You're probably much more controlled).

When it's ready, season the sauce to your taste. Then you can do any number of things with it: it's obviously a great pasta sauce in its own right, and because it's thick and rich it makes a good sauce to use for pizza too, or just to serve with meat or fish, or to bake crêpes in. Or we'll often add things to it: black olives and capers and maybe a few anchovy fillets, or bacon, or chorizo, or more chili peppers, or ... If you're more refined than I am you can put the whole lot through a mouli (sieve) to make passata (or indeed you might have skinned the tomatoes first. I don't. Life's too short). Then eat/freeze/bottle/whatever.

While the sauce was reducing, I  made some chili-tomato jam, one of my all-time favourite relishes.

Tomato-chili jam

2 kilos of tomatoes, chopped
6 hot red chili peppers - I use Cayenne - deseeded and finely chopped
12 cloves of garlic, chopped
a large piece - 8 cm or so - of root ginger, peeled and finely chopped
1 kilo demarara sugar
250ml red wine vinegar
4 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

Blend (as in - in a blender or food processor ...) half the tomatoes with the chili, ginger and garlic and put the resulting purée into a large pan with the rest of the tomatoes and all the other ingredients. Bring to the boil, reduce to a simmer and cook until the mixture is reduced to half its volume - anything between an hour and three hours. Stir regularly, and as it gets more jam like, hover over it like a hawk. Burnt chili jam is not nice. And after a while check to see whether you've got the balance of sweet and sour to your liking - if not, adjust it as needed.

When you think it might be ready, spoon out a little onto a cold plate, as you would for a regular jam; you should be able to draw the tip of a knife through it without leaving a wet vinegar-y liquid behind. Then ladle into hot, sterilised jars. Great with - well, almost anything, really. Make more than you (think you) want, because trust me, it's addictive.

Glut management continues this week, in between staircase varnishing and balustrade painting (yuk), with figs and crab apples and quinces. That means - and who needs Metéo France? - that it will without a doubt be warm and sunny. You read it here first.

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Comfort me with shopping

All good things must come to an end. (Or so I'm told. Personally I don't see why they should. Sounds a bit like a Puritan conspiracy to me. However.)

For a start, summer seems to have left us, suddenly and definitively. One day I'm outside wearing - well, not much, and sweltering; the next I'm reluctantly pulling on long sleeves. And today even I, the anti-clothes queen of Ariège, found myself putting on jeans - and, heaven forfend, a denim jacket - for the first time since the spring. I know of course that it's (probably) not all over bar the shouting - we can, and often do, get a wonderful Indian summer. And then there's l'été de la Saint Martin, around 11 November, which is often (more often than you might expect by chance ) an unusually mild and sunny period, after the first frosts but before the first snows - and almost exactly six months apart from the Saints de Glace. But all this aside, today I felt chilly, and I'm not good at that.

And then there's the diminishing of the light. Whereas just a couple of weeks ago we were happily eating outside at 9pm, now it's dark by 8.30, and by the time you've put all the outside lights and something warm on, to be honest the whole thing kind of loses the plot and so on the whole we've retreated indoors. I think we must be becoming French, or something. Mind you, to a sunlight freak like me there's something terribly depressing about the daily loss of daylight we have to endure for six months of the year, especially as it starts in June when summer hasn't even got going: the summer solstice may well be the beginning of summer, but it's also the beginning of the darkness. (Now the winter solstice ... that really is cause for celebration ....)

As if that weren't all enough, we're going through our own, slightly belated, rentrée: after our fantastic Ariège holiday week we're back at work with a vengeance ... and The Perfectionist is back for a final (well final-ish) fling. Much as I love my builder, however, I don't love the lime and plaster dust and mackerel tins that he has a habit of trawling along with him ... The good news though is that the new dining room is now lime plastered, has a door, and almost looks like a room and not the goat shed that it was (you do still have to leap a metre down to get to it as there are no steps yet, but I'm told that will change by  ... December. Sigh.); the good-and-bad news is that the next couple of weeks will see us borrowing some scaffolding from a friend and lime washing the entire room, the walls of which are - gulp - 5 metres high.

And so maybe all this goes some way towards explaining why a quick trip to Saint Girons market to buy broccoli plants this morning got waylaid into coffee with friends, and then into a bit of food shopping, and then into the buying of a half price barbecue, and then into a fully fledged shop-till-you-drop session for new clothes. Both of us have dropped two full sizes since we moved here and now that the trouser-wearing season has returned we've both tended to look, as my mother used to say, like sacks of potatoes, which is not good for the ego (and hoisting your Andy Pandy trousers up 127 times an hour gets pretty boring too). Although I'm not generally a fan of shopping, do you know what? It was fun. And two hours, five shops and several carrier bags later, we're fit to be seen in public again.

Monday, 13 September 2010

Up among the orris

The swansong to our holiday week saw us making a very last minute decision to take our Quechua pop-up tent away for a couple of nights, to Vicdessos. It was the first camping trip of the year, as evidenced by the ridiculous amount of time and tantrums it took us to dismantle the infamous tent that takes only 15 seconds to put up; we go through this every year, along with half our fellow campers, before we realise that in spite of Decathlon's pretty pictures on the bag it's just not possible to put both blues to both browns before you do that funny twisting thing (if you have a similar tent you'll know exactly what I'm talking about) and you just have to wing it, or ask for help. Still, it's all good for campsite solidarité. At least it would have been, if we'd had any fellow campers to be solid with. This time, in spite of fantastic weather, we were alone, apart from a few semi-permanent caravanners who spent most of their time cleaning their cars and hosing their awnings (or was it the other way round?)

Vicdessos and its twin village Auzat sit up against both the Spanish and the Andorran borders, and at the foot of Montcalm, 3007 metres high and often known as the 'roof' of Ariège. Although only just over an hour from Grillou the scenery here is very different - the valleys are narrow, edged in by tall, rocky peaks, and habitation tends to be gathered together in hamlets, some of which, like Mounicou, remain very traditional indeed. A lot of the walking here is of the 'sportive' rather than the Slow variety - but not all. We chose to explore Le Chemin des Orris, up above the man made Etang de Soulcem.

An orri is a low, round shepherds' hut found up on the estives - the summer high pastures - built entirely of dry stone (ie no mortar) and often topped with turf, or sometimes with slate. The design hasn't changed since the Middle Ages, when various confreries or guilds (some of which still exist today) were given the right to construct them on land owned by the local count, or king, or whoever; in some places - and we were in one of them - the orris were grouped into small hamlets, often around a communal courtyard. Until early last century, they would be occupied through the summer months not just by the shepherd but also by a part of his family, while the rest of the family remained down in the valleys to look after the crops; they would be used not just for habitation but also for cheesemaking, for the shepherd was also a fromager. Les Orris de Carla, closest to the lake at Soulcem, were in use until 1968.

To make sense of orris you need to understand the concept of transhumance. The transhumance is the leading of livestock - cows, sheep and horses - from their winter homes in the valleys, along roads, paths and mountain trails, up to the high mountain pastures - the estives. The system evolved during the Middle Ages and is still widely practised here in Ariège today, where it's not only a part of the farming calendar but also now a form of pastoral tourism: many people gather each May or June to follow the transhumance journeys up to the estives, which have become festive and convivial occasions as well as serious work. These days, some farmers have grouped themselves into associations which hire seasonal shepherds and cowherds to look after the animals, whereas others merely pay occasional visits to their livestock, often on a shared rota basis with colleagues. Pretty much wherever you walk in the mountains in the summer you'll come across animals; a few of the estives are fenced, though mostly the animals roam semi-wild, simply being led from one grazing area to another every so often by the shepherd or farmer. The sound of bells is an integral part of any walk in the high pastures.

The pastureland above Soulcem is stuffed full of orris, some of which have been recently restored. Sadly, six more groups of them were flooded when the lake was formed by the creation of a huge barrage. A lovely, and simple, walk takes you from the parking area at the end of the étang - at around 1200 metres - along the valley, either on the piste on the east side of the water or boulder hopping along the streams on the other. Longer and more challenging walks take you up and over the peaks to either side (it's quite possible to walk to both the Andorran, and the Spanish, borders), or in a circle up to a grassy shoulder.

This is one of the Orris de Carla, complete with new occupant:

Inside one of the orris - the stone platform at the back would have been used for sleeping, covered in leaves and moss:

Part of a hamlet of orris higher up the valley. This one had an enclosure, and another piece of ground that looked as if it may have been used to grow things.

The piste leading from the étang is wide and accessible, though you still get a real feel of being in a high mountain area. Here it feels almost Alpine in character.

Down on the valley floor, where a herd of Mérens horses were grazing. Mérens are a native breed of Ariège, and are believed the be the closest descendants of the wild horses of prehistoric times.

They are beautiful creatures. Just down the road from Grillou, at La Bastide de Sérou, is the Centre National de Mérens, where you can discover the breed in every which way.

Fantastic lichen formations on the rocks ....

Much higher up the path on the grassy mountainside we encountered a shepherd moving a huge herd of sheep from one grazing area to another. We sat quietly and watched for a long time; the communication between him and his dog, a Border Collie, was almost mystical - none of the arm waving and almost constant yelling of One Man and His Dog (a series of TV programmes popular in the 1980s that set British sheep farmers and their dogs in competition with each other in various sheep dog-y exercises), but just eye contact and the occasional trill or other sound. If you click on the picture to enlarge it, you'll just see the shepherd standing on a rocky outcrop.

The other breed of dog that does this work is the Berger des Pyrénées. Our own dog is (mostly) one of these, though we've no idea whether he comes from a working family as he was originally taken in having been abandoned. However - and I'm aware that this may sound far fetched to some - when we were up in those high mountain pastures it was as if something was calling to him from a collective unconscious ... the way he looked, and listened, and thought ... a particular sort of alertness, a sort of intelligence, that was new. It was as if he was thinking "Hang on a minute ... I know something about this ... I've been here, before ...".

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Taking the Slow Road to the Gorges de la Frau: Part Three

And in staying much longer than we intended, before we knew it it was too late to continue upwards to Le Pas d'Ours, where there is a superb viewpoint over the gorges we'd just walked up. But that's the nature of Slow Walking - the moment is always more important than any pre-fixed plan. Just for good measure, this is what we missed:

Thanks to Gunther at Le Silence du Midi for that photo. See that little snake-y thing down the bottom? That's the path. The very same path that took us almost as long to walk down as it did to walk up, given the way the stones on the steep bits had a distinct tendency to slide from underfoot and take you where you had no intention, or desire, to go. You have been warned ...

We wound our way back through Belesta to Foix, stopping at the Fontaine de Fontestorbes on the way. Now this is an odd thing. It's an 'intermittent spring', one of only a handful in the world. What that means is that in summer the water flow changes from almost nothing to a raging torrent, and back again, in a cycle that seems to vary between 32 and 70 minutes or so. When we arrived, there was a bit more than a trickle, but not much, and I was just about to follow the stepping stones into the cave when I thought I detected a slight increase in the flow levels.

Sure enough, we'd arrived just at the beginning of a cycle; within no more than 5 minutes the source was belting out water at a rate of knots and the stepping stones were part of a waterfall.

Although it sounds about as exciting as like watching paint dry, it's strangely compulsive viewing (okay, so maybe I have a high boredom threshold). I made a brief attempt to understand the physics behind it - there's an 'idiot's guide' on a panel - but I'm sorry to say that it completely passed me by ... unsurprisingly as my grasp of conventional physics never really got beyond the ball and ring experiment. There's a scarily comprehensive non-idiot's guide here, should you be so inclined. We and a couple of women stayed and watched the water for half an hour or so, filling our water bottles too (ice cold and delicious) until, would you believe, a pensioners' coach party arrived from Toulouse. It was time to go.

We finished the evening in Foix, where it was the first day of the fêtes locales. A huge funfair had taken over the town centre, and it felt as though the whole of Ariége had arrived to watch the firework display. At 10.30 sharp the streetlights went out, the dodgems drifted to a halt, and everybody gathered below the chateau to wait and watch and ooh and aah. It was magnificent.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Taking the Slow Road to the Gorges de la Frau: Part Two

From Notre Dame de Celles, the road snakes over some lovely, hidden countryside below Mont Fourcat (which I confess I'd never heard of), past remote and tiny hamlets - one of which in particular fascinated me as all four houses appear to have their doors opening onto a communal courtyard. The residents must obviously be a lot more tolerant than I am. After a while we hit the village of Montferrier - the main street of which is so narrow that we had to reverse no less than three times before we could pass - where I'm told there is a bar-restaurant, but as I've never managed to locate it, that may be an unfounded rumour (actually, I've never quite 'got' Montferrier - we once went to view a house there but rapidly made an excuse and left, though that of course could just be me ...). Never mind - the scenery is beautiful, and never less than when suddenly the Cathar castle of Montségur appeared before us.

Montségur is probably the most well known of all the Cathar sites and has developed something of a cult following in recent years. In a nutshell, it was the last major stronghold of the Cathars during the Crusades, when it was besieged by the royal troops of the Catholic church for some ten months. When the Cathars there finally surrendered, they were given the choice of renouncing their faith, or being burned. Over 200 of them refused to renounce and were burned in a field just below the castle. Impossible to think about that without a small shiver running up the spine ...

There are legends too: some say that it was the last known resting place of the Holy Grail. And as if all that weren't enough, it surely can't be a coincidence that the building is designed so that on the morning of the summer solstice the first rays of sunlight shine in through the windows on one side, through the keep, and out of the windows on the other side ... (In actual fact, the present chateau apparently post-dates that occupied by the Cathars, which was destroyed by the royal troops, but hey - when did any of us let facts get in the way of a good story?).

Not long after passing Montségur we reached the long drawn out and rather strange village of Fougax-et-Barrineuf. Passing swiftly on, in more ways than one, we took a small road leading to the Gorges de la Frau and drove to the point where the tarmac ran out - the start of our walk. No gentle warm up to this walk: straight away you're puffing up a steep gradient as the path - not much more than a loose pile of rocks at this point - climbs up between the rocks that tower some 400 metres above you to either side.

The gorges are part of a Réserve Biologique, designed to protect ancient forested areas that have somehow managed to remain un-messed-about-with by us humans, and to allow their biodiversity to evolve naturally and with minimal intervention. The gorges are undeniably spectacular, but sadly dry, and I found myself yearning for the sound of running (or even trickling) water.

Some three kilometres later, we emerged from the sheerest part of the gorges into the department of Aude. The path turned into a woodland piste, which we followed for another three kilometres to the village of Comus on the edge of the Plateau de Sault ...

... and to our destination, Le Silence du Midi. How to describe Le Silence du Midi? It's a wonderful, and quirky, domaine that's been created by a Flemish couple who bought the old buildings, then completely broken down, 10 years ago and finally moved in 5 years later: they have rooms, and a couple of gites, and a yurt, and donkeys to stroke or to hire, and a childrens' play area, and space to put up your tent, and a simple restaurant, and they'll serve you drinks (including some great Belgian beers) and food pretty much at any time - for this is their home, and even if you've just popped in for an ice cream you're their guest. They have an eye for the oddball, and have furnished their terraces with 'finds' from the local brocantes. It's a feelgood place, a Slow place, and we stayed much longer than we'd intended.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Taking the Slow Road to the Gorges de la Frau: Part One

So, last Friday we decided to head east, over to the other side of Ariège - almost into Aude, in fact. We wanted to test out one of our new potential Slow Roads to see how it felt to actually follow and hence whether it would make it into the Slow Road collection. What's a Slow Road? Well, it's a term we've coined (along with Snail Trails for our walking paths) to describe some of the itineraries we're putting together here at Grillou for our future guests. A Slow Road will always be scenically beautiful (not difficult here), unhurried, quiet, a bit off the beaten track and sometimes slightly quirky; it will always offer interesting stops, a Slow Walk or two, at least one place to sit and just be, and somewhere interesting to eat and/or drink: in other words it will encompass all the different bits and pieces of the Slow philosophy.

We set off via Foix on the road to Lavalanet, but instead of continuing on the 'fast' road we turned off at Celles (don't be fooled by the grimy bit on the main road; behind that is a surprisingly pretty village with a lovely arcade of plane trees), from where a single track road starts to climb up towards the Col de la Lauze. Well before the Col, though, our attention was taken by a sign towards a chapel on the left: Notre Dame de Celles, site of an apparition. Never ones to turn down the prospect of a miracle, we followed it, up a steep road where there's a little parking area and an even steeper, stony pedestrian path through the trees. To be honest, the chapel is nothing much to write home about, unless you're a fan of Catholic neo Gothic, though the situation is beautiful. But I do like the story, although I had to dig it out when I got home as there's no mention of it on site when the chapel's closed: in 1686 (note that date well - nearly two centuries before the apparitions at Lourdes) a young paysan was coming back from the fields when a dove led him to a spring where it promptly turned into a young girl and told him not to be afraid because she was the Blessed Virgin (stop sniggering at the back, you heathens - I said 'the', not 'a' ...).

The people of Celles, she told him, needed to repent and it was his job to ensure that they did. Some time later, post-repentance, she appeared to him again and told him that the spring would be 'good'. After that dozens of people reported miraculous healings there; the place became a place of pilgrimage, and a chapel was built. However, the complex historical circumstances that prevailed at that point in time meant that the results of a religious enquiry that confirmed the miracles remained locked in a treasure chest in Pamiers; as a result the Vatican never got to 'pronounce' on the apparitions (if it had, Celles could have been Lourdes ... merde alors) and few people have ever heard of the place, although there is an annual pilgrimage and the chapel has very recently been restored.

Here's the chapel ...

in a lovely verdant setting

and the spring ...

Looks like the BV left her shampoo bottle behind ....