Harvest Festivals

Autumn is in the air down here at Ste Colombe, signalled by chilly early mornings and plumes of wood-smoke drifting upwards into a blue sky as my neighbours fire up their stoves. Yet before long, the sun is up, breaching the shadows in the courtyard of my house and the über-snails retreat to the coolness of crevices in the stone walls whilst the lizards come out to play hide and seek between the gnarly wisteria branches.

Although the summer frolics of festivities and fêtes are over and the grape harvest is underway it is now time to pay homage to humble fruit and vegetables and so we have celebrations of the virtues of onions, garlic, apples, sweet chestnuts and even the lowly spud. At these fêtes you can wonder at the sheer variety, sample the goodies and buy, buy, buy ‘til your purse drains dry.

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Yesterday was the fête de chataigne (the sweet chestnut fair) together with a vide-grenier (car boot sale),fairground stalls and the obligatory oomph-pa band. The vide-grenier was a large one and clearly sellers had enthusiastically ransacked every cupboard, cellar, attic and barn . Clothes, toys, books and CDs, old tools, kitchenware, granny’s favourite coffee set, painstakingly embroidered bed-linen – if you could name it, you would find it. So it was that an old wooden vinegar barrel, two sets of wall lights, a pressed glass lampshade and a ceramic cafetière found themselves in the back of big bro’s van and on their way to Petite Rue.

Later in the day, in sweltering heat, the sweet chestnuts were roasting and a tray-full of artisan bread baked over an open fire filling the air with a mouth-watering savoury aroma. However it was the sweet stall that attracted my attention. Goodies of all shapes and sizes, in the most garish array of colours and oozing with sugar – were they as wild in taste as they were in appearance? Was it enough to tempt this gal to abandon her quest to discover her lost waistline? Did she fall by the wayside and give in? Well that’d be telling.

The Lady of the Lake

Here’s a salutary tale for those so smitten by their lady-loves that they commit very silly acts!

In the village of Puivert, a few kilometres from where I live, is a castle perched high on the mountainside overlooking a small man-made lake. IMG_3504

But in times past there was a huge lake confined by stone barrages. However, a certain Aragonaise princess, let’s call her Dame Blanche because she had a thing about always wearing white, visited the castle, fell in love with the surroundings and above all with the lake that stretched out below the castle towers. So enamoured of the place did she become, that she prolonged her visit until she became a permanent resident in the castle. This was much to the liking of the seigneur of the castle, one Jean de Bruyère, who had taken a fancy to Dame Blanche; whether his missus was entirely thrilled was another matter. So, Dame Blanche mooched around the lake every day, communing with nature, talking to the birds and generally not doing very much at all.

As happens to all of us age began to creep up on her and she had increasing difficulty in getting around the lake to do her communing thing. However, she found a rock, strangely enough shaped just like an armchair where she could perch her derrière and while away the hours in contemplation of the lapping waters, the tranquillity and the way the sunsets seemed to set the lake afire, surrounded of course by her entourage always ready to fetch and carry.

Then, one day a rainstorm swelled the lake waters and the wind whipped the ripples into waves which spilled over the banks, submerging the Dame’s stone seat. This catastrophe filled the lady with sadness; she slipped into a green and yellow melancholy and withdrew within the castle walls. However, one of her pages, no doubt a bit lacking in nous, suggested to her that if a hole was made in the lake’s retaining wall the water level would fall and she would be able to recover her seat which, as an added bonus would always be dry.

The Dame put this idea to the besotted master of the castle who could not naysay her and he promptly set his minions to work on creating a hole. Unfortunately, no-one gave any thought to the effects of the pressure of water behind the wall escaping through this small breach. The inevitable happened and the whole wall collapsed unleashing a torrent of water down the valley, flooding the village of Mirepoix some 30 kilometres away causing loss of life and untold damage.

Mirepoix Market Place
It is said that the lady herself was carried away by the flood water and today, she haunts the castle. When it rains in Puivert she may be seen staring out of a window in one of the towers, no doubt contemplating the damage she caused.
And the moral of the tale…well you decide.

(Photos courtesy of June Berridge Photography)

If music be the food of love…

…then I’m in the right place in the right country because it was here in the Languedoc that European literature is said to have been born. Right on my doorstep is Puivert Chateau, whose Lords were some of strongest supporters of the Troubadors, those poet/musicians of the 12th and 13th centuries.

Puivert Chateau

Puivert Chateau


These men and women, mostly well-educated and often of high status, created their sophisticated and often raunchy poetry, written in Occitan (the language of Languedoc) and set to music. They held to high ideals and a philosophy of equality based on virtues rather than family connections or wealth.

Throughout the countryside they were welcomed at the Chateaux of their patrons whilst becoming an an anathema to the Catholic church. This hatred arose probably from two issues. Firstly many of their patrons followed or supported the Cathar sect – a bunch of heretics in the eyes of the Church. Secondly, their work lauded both romantic and sexual love – women were an ennobling force as opposed to the Church’s view that women and sex were sinful.

The songs of the Troubadors embraced a number of themes including love, eroticism, war, nature and political satire. But it is the Amour Courtois (courtly love) that blended both erotic desire and spiritual aspirations for which they are most remembered. Courtly love was seen to have six attributes:
– Literary – made popular first in song and verse and then carried out in real life.
– Aristocratic – practised by Lords and Ladies in palaces and chateaux.
– Secret – no-one else must know about it and so it included secret meetings, hidden codes of conduct, gestures and tokens.
– Ritual – included the exchange of gifts and tokens. The woman was the dominant partner and received songs, poems, flowers and favours from her besotted Knight. He would try to make himself worthy of her through deeds of derring-do. She was only required to give a nod of approval for unrequited love was part of the game.
– Adulterous – eventually it included extra-marital rumpy-pumpy as a way of escaping from the marriages of convenience, made for economic or political reasons. Troubadors were cavalier about the concept of marriage seeing it as a ploy of the Church. Their ideal was a relationship based simply on a meeting of minds, bodies and souls.

They accompanied their poetry and songs with a range of musical instruments notably the lute, the cornemuse (a bit like a bagpipe), rebec, tambourine, cithern and psaltery.

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Inevitably as the Church escalated its war against the Cathars the culture of the Troubadors declined leaving other poets such as Chaucer, Dante and Malory to carry forward their work.

A Tale of Two Cats

They appear silently, stealthily in the garden; all colours, thin yet agile. They bask in the sun on the wall tops and stare arrogantly at me before swarming away. They are the feral cats. Once they were fed by the previous owner of the house but I have hardened my heart and refuse to let any old itinerant moggy use the place as a convenient pit-stop.

Earlier this week, a bit bleary eyed I took my first cuppa of the day out to the garden. Whilst I mused on the delights in store for me I became aware of a tabby cat, lying flat out in the loggia. A peremptory “shoo” didn’t move it and since I was wearing flipflops I thought a toe-poke out of the question. I picked up the broom and gently prodded it. Not a whisker twitched…well it wouldn’t, it was stone dead; popped its clogs; gone to pussy paradise. It had ceased to be. This was a very a dead cat.

Unwilling to let the heat of the day do its worst I decided to bury it in the orchard. So there I was at six in the morning, armed with a small spade digging a hole in ground that obstinately refused to be dug. Every so often during this labour I looked furtively around to see if anyone was watching and mistook my intent. Eventually the deed was done and the only evidence was a large hump in the grass.

This charming domestic event reminded me of a half-written story that I abandoned and I thought that even though I couldn’t revive the cat perhaps I could do something for the story which, by happenchance involved a rather smart and mysterious feline. So I spent the day wielding pen instead of paintbrush.

The following night – actually it was three in the morning – I woke up suddenly. I could hear a clicking sound, sort of tchk, tchk tchk in my bedroom. At first I thought I’d been dreaming but then this dreadful pong at my bedhead assaulted my senses. Then, more tchk, tchk. I lay still running through in my head all the possibilities. Billy goat? Nah, too big. Squirrel? Not smelly enough. Snake? We had seen a big one on a walk a few days earlier. Had it followed us home? Do they make tchk tchk noises? Bats with bad indigestion? I could bear it no longer. Gingerly I reached out to switch on the bedside light and my hand brushed something soft and scrunchy. I squeaked, grobbled for the light switch only to find myself grasping my wheatie-bag which I’d used to soothe my aching back.

The lamp filled the room with sinister shadows and I peered around. Was that really a heap of washing in one corner or was something crouching waiting to pounce? Eventually, I gathered what little courage I possess (and it ain’t much) and slowly, fearfully, slid out of bed. It was then I noticed that the door was open several inches and I always have it shut. I didn’t feel able to confront this evil in the buff (yes dear reader I’ve abandoned the pj’s)so pulled on a dressing gown, found my stoutest shoes and made a dash for the door and the main light switch. In the full light I could see no trace of the intruder but, boy, could I smell him. I tiptoed out to the landing, down the creaky stairs and down to my kitchen on the ground floor; nothing… other than this choking pong that Old Nick himself would be proud of.

Finally I decided that I had vanquished whatever it was and after a thorough search of the kitchen…just to be sure…I made myself a consolatory cuppa, opened the back door and sat on the bench just outside. Deciding that a quick ciggie would calm ragged nerves I lit up whereupon this huge ginger cat shot out of the house, swarmed up the courtyard wall where it paused, gave me a withering look and disappeared into the night, leaving only eau de tomcat as a lasting reminder. The cuppa went one way, the ciggie another and I flopped into a gibbering wreck.

This morning I’ve rather a lot of washing to do…oh and some floor scrubbing too.

A Bit of a Stew

I hate to say it, let alone write it but there’s a hint of a twinge of autumn in the air here in the Languedoc. Days are warm and sunny but there’s a bit of a chill in the evenings now. Summer plants are starting to give up the ghost, many of the second-homers have packed and gone and Vincent, the local log man is busy trundling up and down the street with a lorry full of logs. My turn came this morning when 4 cubic metres of beech logs were tipped in the orchard ready for barrowing up the path to the log store. An hour or so later, bowed of back and cronky of knee I sat drinking a reviving something-or-other and started thinking about filling the freezer for the winter to come. From there it was a hop and a skip to thinking about cassoulet – that iconic dish about which there is much controversy. Mind you that’s not saying much; as someone once said, put four Frenchmen together and they’ll have no difficulty in holding six different opinions.

Cassoulet, if you haven’t been introduced, is a thick, heavy stew comprising haricot beans (about which variety there is also much dispute), duck confit, garlic sausage and pork. That is if you are an aficionado of the Castelnaudary cassoulet (the birth place of cassoulet if its citizens are to be believed). On the other hand, should you vote for the Toulouse cassoulet you would have the eponymous sausage, mutton and goose whereas in Carcassonne there would be the addition of partridge, especially in the hunting season. So you pays your money and takes your pick.

Castelnaudary’s claim derives from the story of how during the misnamed Hundred Years war, (1337-1453) the Brits, led by the Black Prince, besieged the town. Its good men and, more likely, women gathered together all the remaining bits of food and decided to make a huge hearty stew for the soldiers defending the town. So hearty and fortifying was it that it promptly resuscitated the soldiers’ derring-do and they gave the old heave-ho to the Brits and saved the city from British occupation – shades of Monty Python.

Another more prosaic view is that it is a melange of culinary cultures including Arab and Catalan.

Equally under dispute is the pot or cassole in which this chef d’oeuvre is cooked. It is agreed that it must be earthenware, made from the local red clay and glazed outside but not in. Originally the pot was a cauldron placed on an open fire of gorse wood collected from the Montaigne Noir (these are some local mountains). I know, I know, but these details are important if you wish to join the cassoulet club. Later things changed and oo la la, the shape – the shape it is everything. It is the shape about which cassoulet connoisseurs disagree. Some advocate the conical pot, narrow at the bottom and wider at the top. This is said to expose the beans to the heat of the oven. Others pooh-pooh this concept and go for a wide round one so that the beans don’t dry out. What is necessary is that the skin that forms as the dish is cooking must be broken and then stirred in again seven times.

the cassoulet pot

I’ll leave the last words to chef Montagné who, in 1928, perhaps in an attempt to pour oil on troubled cassoulets, described the dish as his gastronomic holy trinity:
“Cassoulet is the God of Occitan (Languedoc) cuisine; a God in three persons. God the Father is that of Castelnaudary; God the son of Carcassonne and the Holy Spirit that of Toulouse”
I look forward to tasting all three at the forthcoming Fête du Cassoulet in Castelnaudary at the end of the month. Lots of music; lots of guzzling; Yummy.

An Accident, A Disaster and a Duff Plum Tart

It’s Thursday morning, around 9.00am and there is a suspiciously large amount of activity in Petite Rue. Shutters are flung wide, pots and pans rattle and a delicious muddle of savoury and sweet scents fills the street drawing in the village cats. They menace any injudiciously open window, yowling, eyes a-glitter tails stiff and upright to warn off any competition. By 10.30 the village shop has had a run on eggs, milk and flour and when I trundle there on a quest for ground almonds all I can find is a small packet of salted whole ones for snacks.

It is of course the day of the “voisinade”, our street party. We all pay 5 euros for the meat, wine and bread and then each household brings either an entrée or a dessert and we have a good old knees-up.

A quick trip to my neighbour Sandra furnishes the ground almonds and the fun begins. I’ve opted to use up the plethora of plums from the garden transforming them into a tart. The plums are to be doused in calvados and set into an almond base. So far so good. Down in my bat cave (aka my kitchen) I start to cut open the plums and in one after another, a disgusting mass of midget maggots writhes in greeting. It takes several kilos of plums just to find some fit to eat.

Meanwhile, upstairs in the apartment kitchen, Barbara, my brother’s significantly better half, is far more daring than I. She has opted to make a pavlova – a meringue circle filled with cream and fresh fruit from the market. Alas, these French eggs haven’t heard of E.L.James. Their whites resolutely refuse to be whipped into soft peaks as per the recipe and after a brief consultation we hie to ever-helpful Sandra, to borrow an electric whisk. Finally, Barbara calls time on the whipping, takes a swig of something that looks like alcohol and bundles the whole lot into the oven. After an hour and some anxious peeks, the obstreperous mix gives a sad sigh and collapses over the tray into something akin to a pancake.

Nothing daunted meringue mark II is born but…oops some of that pesky egg yolk smuggles itself into the mix. A quick trip to the shop and nursing yet another clutch of eggs, the indomitable Barbara starts again. By this time lunch is well past and nothing solid has touched our lips. Mark II is encased in the oven and Mark I removed in disgrace to my kitchen where we stuff it in a cooling oven. By this time the plum tart is done, a bit saggy in the middle, but hey, who am I to talk. It looks good and I allow myself a brief frisson of satisfaction or is it smugness?

Meanwhile up in the apartment kitchen Barbara keeps an anxious vigil on Mark II which shows every sign of following in the footsteps of its predecessor.

Some hours later, Mark I meringue (the pancake meringue) is released from its oven and whilst trying to slip it onto a plate, The Accident happens and it slides off on its own little journey to collapse into sugary morsels which we throw artistically on a plate, slather with squirty cream and stir in slices of juicy peaches. Eton Mess has nothing on this.

Time is pressing so we decide Mark II has had enough of our attention and gingerly Barbara removes her day’s opus from the oven. Only, instead of the perky fluffed up crown we expect, we have something resembling a well-trodden sombrero. The Disaster! When faced with disaster reach for the G&T and make a few dozen biscuits instead.

The street party is a hoot and we get to meet neighbours and move from the formal “vous” to the more friendly “tu” mode of addressing them.The babel of conversation rises in proportion to the quantity of wine flowing and the Disco plays on until 2.00am. Everyone has a great time and agrees sagely that “this is how village life should be”.

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The irony of this tale is that every morsel of meringues Mark I and II was scoffed. Not a scrap remained and Barbara recovered the empty plates in triumph. The biscuits were yummy too. As for my plum tart… well, anyone want half a duff plum tart?

A Village Affair

Last weekend was the village fête here in Ste. Colombe. Now my experience of English village fêtes is limited; the only ones I’ve attended took place on washed-out Saturday afternoons with a few stalls of indifferent items probably destined for the dustbin after a couple of days; a bouncy castle for the kiddies with more sag than a sumo wrestler; a Z-list celeb and an assortment of sausage rolls, scones and sponge cakes provided by local worthies.

They do things a bit differently over here.

The fête started Friday night with a meal in the village hall. Take your own plate and cutlery and fill up on cassoulet accompanied by pitchers of wine. Animated French betting on which of the English present would be the first to get up and re-fill the pitcher took place and, I’m proud to say, my brother was first past the post. After the meal there was a dance and music which went on…and on…and on until around about 2.00am someone called time.

Saturday afternoon the fun started up again with a concert from the local choir and the Holme Valley choir who were on a visit from England. Great music, great fun and the delightful voices had no problem in drowning out the chatter from the impromptu bar set up outside the Foyer (village hall). Come the evening and there was the parade through all the village streets with tiny tots carrying lanterns marching in front of a small brass band – lots of oomph with the oom-pah.
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Once the circuit was completed we had yet another dance with another band shaking the foundations of this rickety old village. And the band played on…and on…and, well you get the picture. I finally fell by the wayside around 1.30. Others with more stamina saw it through to the end around 3.00am.

Sunday activities geared up with a hotly contested boule match, games and sports for the kiddies and yes, a third dance with a third band. All my neighbours turned out and we got ready to rumble. At midnight we all adjourned to the park where there was a fantastic firework display. A whole new galaxy was born as rockets shot green, red and gold starbursts out into the velvet black night sky. I finished the night at my neighbours’ house with Mikael the masseur and another guy (I hadn’t a clue who he was). We swapped rude words in French and English before toasting the dawn with chilled rosé and finished off with neighbour Sandra’s by now legendary café with calva (calvados).

Fortunately I had only to cross the road to go home but the house seemed to have moved so it took me a while to find it.

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