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 ....

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Le Cap du Carmil: a balcony on the Pyrénées

The walk we did today is not a famous one. It's part of the GR du Pays de la Barguillère, but not in the major guide books; it's not in one of Ariège's newly sexy valleys like Bethmale or Bellongue. It's tucked away in the Séronais, in the middle of a deeply unspoilt, forested region with great natural beauty but almost no habitation. So what a lot of people don't know is that with a couple of hours and 400 metres or so of relatively easy climbing, a 360 degree panorama is yours, and as if that weren't enough, you'll get to eat your lunch looking at the entire chain of the Pyrénées from Mont Canigou in the east to the Pic du Midi du Bigorre in the west.

After a gentle beginning during which you weave in and out of mixed woodland, you start climbing through an area full of blueberry bushes where the views gradually start opening out on your right.

After a while you reach a gate leading to the estive - summer pasture - area; we passed through herds of cattle (including a magnificent and fortunately peaceable bull), horses and mules who were in the main not only curious about us but sociable too.

The path winds up to a false summit, at the top of which you see that you're most definitely not there yet ... but the views at this point are already fantastic. Another 75 metres or so of ascent and you're on the Cap - a wide, flat, grassy area: the highest point in the Séronais at 1617 metres. Today was slightly hazy, but even so we could see, apart from the chain, the whole of the department of Ariège plus the Corbières, the Black Mountains, the Petites Pyrénées, into Andorra and Spain, and in the distance the first buildings of the built up jungle of Toulouse.

We spent a long time on the end of our binoculars, in particular trying to locate Grillou (not easy as ours is one of the most hidden houses I've ever come across - but we did eventually trace the clearing in which the house and grounds sit).

It was fascinating to be able to see how different pays of Ariège may have no vehicular access from one to another, yet are incredibly close - often just a couple of kilometres apart, yet separated by a huge massif of rock. And it was fascinating too to try and tease out all the valleys that sit just underneath Mont Valier, the emblematic high peak of the Couserans region (the one and only advantage of winter, as far as I'm concerned, is that you can see Mont Valier from our garden - in the summer it's hidden by leaves and you have to content yourself with the view - a full-frontal one - from the track). The day wasn't without ornithological treats either: we were buzzed by bee eaters, possibly en route to overwinter in Africa, and a flock of hobby falcons, and as we ate lunch we spent a long time watching four golden eagles soaring on the thermals.

Oh yes, and when you've come down and it's still hot and your knees are protesting and you've broken your walking pole and you realise that even though you've been outside for much of the summer and it's now September you've got a bit sunburnt, it's less than a five minute hop in the car to the Auberge de Marrous and its lovely garden bar.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

An afternoon on the rocks

This morning we drove through the Garbet valley - one of the most remote, and sparsely populated, bits of the department - to Aulus les Bains, a miniature spa village specialising, would you believe, in cholesterol. Cholesterol was not, however, the purpose of our visit; we were there to walk up to the Cascade d'Ars, a waterfall in a wild and rocky valley nearby that's reckoned to be one of the most beautiful in the Pyrénées.

It's not a difficult walk; the path winds up through a beech forest, beginning as a wide rocky track and then gradually narrowing and getting steeper until for the last part you effectively find yourself clambering up a staircase of rocks. 

The river swirls and splashes beneath you, becoming almost gorge like in places. As you climb, the noise of the waterfall gets tantalisingly louder and louder until after an hour and a half or so, and 500 metres of ascent, you get your first awe-struck glimpse of it.

In three sections and some 240 metres high in total, the main - middle - section alone falls for well over 100 metres. The path - at this point the GR10 - takes you steeply up another 150 metres until you're level with the second 'landing' of the waterfall; from here you can clamber over the rocks and sit underneath. And so we did.

And the sun shone, and a few people came and went, and some raptors flew over head, and the noise of the waterfall was hypnotic and all encompassing. And so we stayed, and all thoughts we'd had of continuing the walk up to the Lac de Guzet were put to one side, for another day. And we lay like lizards on the rocks, and we dreamed, and we looked back down at the valley we'd walked up:

And then in the early evening, we drove back across the Col d'Agnes, and looked down on where we'd been: