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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Long Live the Revolution

There’s nothing like local politics for heating the blood and bringing together partisan groups…at least so it seems here in France. Recently my village, Ste. Colombe, has elected a new Mayor (a powerful office in a small village). The election was fought by two candidates and the new Mayor’s regular news sheet is swiftly followed by an independent bulletin issued by some of those who supported the unsuccessful candidate. This latter news-sheet is intended to give us all the real skinny about what’s going on in the mayoral offices. It’s funny, ironic and even satirical. This comes as no surprise as the village has a history of revolution and counter-revolution.

In the latter days of the French Revolution what was then the town of Ste. Colombe was joined, administratively, with a neighbouring large village, Rivel. Ste. Colombe held firm for the new Republic and its citizens were a mix of moderate republicans and anarchists. Citizens of Rivel on the other hand had always taken an opposite view. Administratively it was intended that the two villages would each have representatives on the local council.

Chief in the brouhaha that followed were the Rolland brothers, Pierre batting for Rivel and Etienne for Ste Colombe. The Rivel camp was bolstered by the Viviès family, notably Jean-Marie who had been the agent for the local aristocracy. This gave rise to the insult that they had sold out to the aristocracy.

In March 1797 the citizens of the two villages met in Ste. Colombe to elect numerous officials to form their new administration. The chief posts, President and Secretary went to Ste. Colombe men but this did not meet with approval from the Rivel faction and especially Monsieurs Rolland and Viviès. Quickly the Rivel group headed, with malice aforethought, for the President and Pierre took the opportunity to hurl a few insults and threats at his brother Etienne. So the newly-elected president adjourned the proceedings and disappeared precipitously.

This was a mistake for it gave the Rivel group time to put in place a crafty plan to overthrow the election results. Pierre Rolland (who seems to have been leader) sent men to all the hamlets and tenant farms of Rivel to tell the people of a dastardly plot on the part of the newly-elected President and his minions to expel their beloved village priest. Naturally this was thirsty work and wine flowed in abundance. Next day, the electors of Rivel headed for Ste Colombe armed with staves and rocks, oh yes…and with a large skin of wine.

At Ste Colombe, the assembly formed again and voting began to yet more official posts (the famous French bureaucracy). During the vote count the Rivel faction spread out into the town taverns to pass on the rumour. Some hardy Ste Colombe citizens tried to tell them that they had been duped – their priest was safe and it was all a ruse, but to no avail.

After the count finished, it appears that 346 votes had been cast but there were only 343 voters. Uproar followed as the President tried to declare the vote null and void. Pierre Rolland and Agent Viviès set on the President closely followed by the rest of the Rivel faction. Ste. Colombe citizens came to his aid and a right old set-to followed. Folk got hurt, blood flowed “staining the council table”. Agent Viviès so far forgot himself as to belabour some poor soul with his sword-stick, finishing him off with a wallop with a stone for good measure. He then nicked the ballot box and ran off with it “for safety”.

In the aftermath two entirely different sets of minutes documented the affair and were sent to the public prosecutor, regional governor and the Ministry of Justice. In these documents each party naturally accuses the other of being the aggressor, of creating “scandalous scenes” and of “raising the standard of revolt”.

The outcome – the newly-elected President feeling his life in danger resigned as did the secretary and one of the deputies. Quickly, the Rivel faction acted to call a new assembly and vote in their own candidates including M. Pierre Roland and M. Viviès. No-one appears to know where those extra 3 votes came from!

The Ministry of the Interior hearing of these shenanigans in south west France demanded of this new administration a full report. In response they provided a detailed account, refuting all allegations against themselves and describing the Ste Colombe faction as being responsible for disorder, anarchy and creating civil war in the canton. They described adherents of Etienne Rolland (the Ste Colombe Priest in case you’re totally lost) as “ferocious beasts calling themselves republicans”.

The success of the Rivel faction was not long lived but at least the next elections, two years later, were conducted with a little more sang-froid and possibly less wine.

The street where I live c.1900

A Salty Tale

The village I live in was one of about a dozen situated in what, up to the French Revolution, was known as La Terre Privilégiée where citizens enjoyed not only exemption from the hated Gabelle or salt tax but they could also purchase their salt at much reduced rates. This latter privilege was probably due to the ease in which inhabitants of these villages could nip across the Pyrenees and buy their salt in Spain.

The tax was the result of a 13th century opt-out clause…pay up or fight in the army and, even in peacetime it was imposed supposedly to pay for a “professional” army. By the 15th century it was a well established bit of fiscal finagling. The collection of the tax was “farmed out” to a bunch of more than usually avaricious folk known as tax farmers general who paid great wodges of cash for the privilege of becoming tax collectors.

Applied across France with a breathtaking disdain for consistency it was probably the most detested of all the taxes, bringing as it did poverty and starvation and adding yet another straw to the haystack of ills besetting France until the revolutionary fire broke out with the storming of the Bastille (14 July 1789).

The Gabelle officials were…well, officious, using stop and search tactics to prevent the smuggling of salt around the country. They poked and proddled merchandise with long metal augers and even, in one town, subjected a funeral cortege to a thorough search. They were given extensive and intrusive search rights including house searches. However one quirk in all this harassment existed – if the master of the house was sitting in his chair (he would have a relatively large and quite grand chair as generally only the better-off could afford to buy salt) he could not be moved or forced to leave the chair regardless of the tax collector’s (probably correct) suspicions as to what he was actually sitting on. Hence, such chairs became known as salt chairs.
salt chair

Salt warehouses opened up in towns across France where those of the local populace who could afford salt were obliged to purchase their ration. However, in some areas every man, woman and child over 8 years old was forced to buy salt (whether they wanted or needed it or not). This duty to purchase salt was known as “duty-salt for the pot and the saltcellar”.

English traveller John Locke saw the bullying and threatening behaviour of the Gabelle officials and heard about the severe penalties applied to tax dodgers. He warned ordinary citizens of the danger of buying any salt from anywhere but the warehouses. The penalties for being caught with “but an handful” that had not been purchased and paid for at the rate set by the tax collectors was to be sent to the Galleys – otherwise known as certain death. As a result, careful buyers would insure themselves against inadvertently buying smuggled salt.

In the years just before the Revolution, over 3500 people were arrested for having contraband salt more than 1500 were actually imprisoned and around 300 men were sent to the galleys for smuggling salt and tobacco. Come the Revolution and le Gabelle along with several other taxes was abolished and many of the Gabelle tax collectors visited Madame Guillotine.

However, taxes are a Government’s get out of jail card when finances look a bit under the weather and Napoleon himself reinstated le Gabelle so that he could fund the invasion of Italy. It remained until after World War Two in 1949 when it was finally given a state funeral.