Tuesday, 28 June 2011

On heat

It's hot. And that's official.

Like the rest of the country, we're in the midst of a heatwave: temperatures have hit 38 degrees in the shade over the last two days. A couple of cooler days forecast for Wednesday and Thursday, and then more hot and sunny weather; this will, we're told, be the pattern for the rest of the summer, with temperatures distinctly higher than average. Good news for the ratatouille bed in the potager which was planted so late: it's already showing signs of catching up.

A treat yesterday, when the sun was blazing down in the middle of the day and the thermometer was showing 52 degrees in the sun: quite by chance I watched our baby black redstart leave the nest. He (or she. Here we go again) fluttered down onto the grass, looked around, and then bowed several times. Redstarts, if you haven't seen them, bow all the time, like robins only more so; I just didn't expect them to start so young. They're also intensely curious birds: an hour or so later I found him sitting in the brico shed calling furiously for food.

You could say that the heat is slightly less good news for us as we continue to clear the rock garden, but hey - what's a bit of sweat when you're having fun? And it does mean that during the hottest part of the day we get to take refuge inside and get on with all the interminable finishing jobs, like framing pictures and hemming curtains and sorting out all the kitchen equipment for L'Atelier. (Never, dear renovator, ever underestimate just how long this stage will take you. Why is it that I could tile an entire shower in the time it takes to frame and hang just one picture? And that's without the arguments about whether there's a speck of dust under the glass or whether it's straight or not). But we are getting there (even if - sigh - the water still isn't connected: plumber has been, plumber has gone, plumber hasn't finished, plumber is coming back. Just don't ask when).

It's been a particularly frustrating couple of weeks in that I've been getting lots of contacts from some really interesting people - mostly readers of this blog, as it happens - who've wanted to come and stay this summer, and because of everything you already know about I'm still having to say no, which frankly is a bit upsetting. Not for the money, though that would indeed be quite nice, but because without exception they've all sounded like people I would enjoy having around, and because I just have a whole big feeling that Grillou is now ripe for people to be here. It's the first time I've felt that as an actuality rather than as a potential, which means I think that something has shifted on an energy level (look away now if you don't believe this stuff) and therefore that we're on course for all to be well.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

La Fête du Tonnerre

Yesterday being the summer solstice (already! I'm sure the last one was only 4 months ago), it was also the occasion for La Fête de la Musique - a much anticipated event in this household as it marks the first opportunity of summer to get out there and dance till late.

The previous two days had been hot and cloudless. Tuesday dawned still hot, though much more humid and slightly hazy: by noon some ominous looking clouds were appearing from the west. Metéo France, on the ball as always, hurriedly changed its forecast to 'risk of storms'. At 2pm the thunder started. For the next 4 hours, it rumbled and groaned and banged in almost continuously and in spectacular fashion, but without a drop of rain.

At 6pm we came in to shower and change and by 6.30 were ready to go. Just as I stepped outside, I was almost knocked off my feet by the loudest clap of thunder I've ever heard, and someone up there in the sky started emptying buckets of water (and I mean buckets. I've never seen anything like it). It was suddenly as dark as night - all the better to watch the now almost continuous lightning that streaked around in all directions. The rain suddenly turned to hailstones the size of large pebbles. It was awesome.

We ran around with buckets. The storm continued at the same level of intensity for a whole hour before the rain slowly eased off, although the thunder continued in an almost continual rhythm. Then: bugger it, we said, no self-respecting Ariégeois is going to let a bit of a storm get in the way of a good fête. So we got in the car and made our way to St Girons.

We were right. People were arriving in droves. And though the thunder and lightning continued unceasingly, a hint of blue appeared in the sky. Unsurprisingly, what laughingly calls itself the timetable (if you live, or have ever travelled in France, you'll understand exactly what I mean by that ...) had been thrown into disarray, which was A Good Thing as it meant we could still catch the early gig by five young jazz musicians from Marciac, who'd decamped from their open stage to a smaller space under the arches outside the church while volunteers baled out the stage and tried to salvage the sound system ...

We wandered around sampling the usual mélange of thunder, rock, Cajun, punk, flamenco, chanson, blues, classical, Occitan, reggae and all the rest and were just about to sit down with a glass of something, some street food and some salsa when once again the heavens opened. All around us people grabbed their food and drinks and looked for shelter, of which there was nowhere near enough for the two or three thousand revellers. Most, like us, just put up their umbrellas, shrugged, and got on with it. I felt sorry for those eating 'properly' on the terraces of the various restaurants as tout d'un coup their plates were awash with water.

And still it thundered. And still the lightning tore and danced around the sky, often in several directions at once.

A few bands, those playing on open stages, simply had to abandon; some found rudimentary shelter and played acoustically instead. The rest just carried on regardless. As did the rain. We joined the huge crowd gathered around the Guinguette Ludique to hear and dance to the Celtic band Finnan; they're a multicultural (Canadian, French, German and English) mix and always highly popular. And when you're wet, you can't get wetter, so what to do but ditch the umbrellas and dance madly in the rain ............

PS The thunder finally moved away just before 1 in the morning. It had continued for eleven hours ....

Monday, 20 June 2011

Nature rules OK

It's that time of year.

Want to cut back the bay tree on the terrace? Can't. Blackbird still nesting in it - her third brood.

Want to clean the gutters? (All right, 'want' might be just a tiny bit of an exaggeration ...) Can't. Blue tit nest in hole just underneath.

Want to put new light up on L'Atelier's terrace? Can't. Black redstart feeding young in nest right next to the door, here:

Readers with a photographic memory (pun unintended) might recognise this niche as one rejected by The Most Persistent Wren On The Planet three years ago (oh my god!!!!! Three years!!!!!!!!!!) ....

Not that we're short of things to do. The gardens are in their Forth Bridge mode at the moment: just keeping the grass and the brush and the weeds down takes around 18 hours a week (a horrified friend recently declared that "nothing, but nothing, would induce your thoroughly unpleasant looking timetable on me. Tower block in Toulouse rather than that"). Not only that, but we've embarked on some mega-clearing of previously long-overgrown areas in the rock garden, discovering in the process some long lost natural rockery beds that were probably last tended by the family we've met who lived here in the fifties.

All in all, between that and the day job, there's not a huge amount of time left just at the moment to spend working indoors, though slowly slowly curtains are being hung, light fittings and pictures are going up, furniture is being waxed and polished and patina'd, and by the end of this week (I have everything crossed here. And I mean everything) we should finally have water connected to our guest accommodation. I have a feeling that the first time one of us takes a shower in either of the new shower rooms an awful lot of wine is going to be drunk to celebrate ....

Our latest visitor to the garden arrived this week in the shape of an arctia villica: a Cream Spot Tiger Moth. I first spied him (her?) on the night of the eclipse, sitting placidly on top of the terrace lights watching all the other moths going bananas as usual. I swear s/he had a superior look in his/her eye ...

The next day, amazingly it (I give up on gender) was sitting on a blade of grass not very far away; it remained unphased even when I clambered round close by in an ungainly fashion to take pictures. 

It even tilted itself at an angle so I could photograph its belly. Now how vain is that?

Pretty though.

Friday, 10 June 2011

New fangled thingies

I've always been a bit of a use-what's-around freak when it comes to vegetable growing: collecting leaf mould from the woods to lighten up our clay soil; schlepping down the hill with a trug and a wheelbarrow to pick up Benjamin-the-donkey's fumier, making benders from hazel and polythene to use as cloches, saving lengths of wood to make plant supports and frames ... and so on. All of which is actually very 'Ariège'; few people here would dream of going out and buying such things when the wherewithal for creating them is all around.

But over the last few years a phenomenon has been appearing in our area. More and more of what I (warning: non-PC language approaching) term the 'old boys' have started using metal spirals to support their tomatoes. And it's spreading like a virus. And this year the old boyiest of them all, he with the beret, huge potager and hand-knitted chicken sheds just outside the village, has installed a couple of dozen of the things too.

A few days ago when I was buying tomato plants (yes, I know we're late. M. Vieuxgarçon already has big green tomatoes on his plants ... but a little thing called a holiday got in the way) I stumbled upon a huge pile of these lethal looking 2 metre high metal spirals. They were only a euro each, which sounded like a bargain (and probably explains why people here buy them ...). So I bought some. Quite whether we'll get better, or more hassle-free, tomatoes because of it only time will tell. But the plants seem to have taken to them and are already wrapping themselves around the spirals like young lovers.

(Yes, I know there's a wooden frame there too. Blame John-the-sceptic).

Since last weekend's cherry marathon we've been dodging the rain to try and get the whole garden area into some kind of order so that we can sit in it without constantly thinking "Aaargh - I should have done that bit" or leaping up and pulling out a ton of weeds in between dinner courses. I'm now at the point where I can stare out of the bathroom window without wincing. Watch this space.

The grapevines we planted three years ago have their first fruit:

These will take a bit longer though: they went in this year, after the felling of the maple trees gave us a sunny south-west facing wall at the front of the house:

Sorry - another rose  ... but it was so pretty I couldn't resist:

Monday, 6 June 2011

Seeing red ...

We've just spent some time exploring and chilling in the Pays Basque (yes, yes, a holiday ... what Protestant work ethic?). It's not a region that I knew well: one camping holiday many years ago (it rained), and another five years ago when we were house hunting (too expensive, and it rained). Well, guess what? It didn't rain. Not once, in 17 days. And we loved it.

Many things stand out in my memory - the ocean, the light, the green conical hills, the unpronounceable language, the food - but none more than the colour red. To explore a French Basque village is to feast on a symphony of red and white: red shutters and columbage set starkly against the white of the lime used in the facades. It doesn't do to be an individualist here.

And as if all that weren't enough, there's the red of the Espelette peppers that help make the local cuisine so distinctive and of which I've been an unconditional fan for a long time. So of course an early pilgrimage to Espelette itself was called for - that's it, in the first picture above - to worship at the feet of the piment and its growers.

As you can see, Espelette does a pretty good job of worshipping at the piment's feet all on its own. But for all that it remains a very attractive and characterful place. We went on a long walk in the hills around the village, and it was a Big Thing for me to see fields of the newly planted seedlings everywhere. I even managed to persuade one of the growers to let us have a few plants to bring home, although I'm not quite sure what to make of the way he laughed so maniacally when I told him we lived at an altitude of 500 metres ....

And then we came home.

And it rained. And rained. And rained.

And in the tiniest window between the opening of the heavens, we picked 12 kilos of red cherries.

It's our biggest, best and - erm - reddest crop since we moved here.

One weekend, several hours with the cherry stoners, ten pots of cherry jam, seven bottles of conserve, one clafoutis and a huge tray of frozen cherries later, and I'm still seeing red.

Oh, and it's still raining.