#Ochre – The Colour Red

This is the last of my blogs from Provence where the orange and yellow cliffs around the pretty town of Roussillon captured my attention and induced me to go underground into the ochre mines – something of a feat since I am distinctly uncomfortable at having a zillion tons of earth and rock over my head. However the now defunct ochre mine at Bruoux, has a cathedral-like atmosphere with the vaulted chambers inside soaring up to fifteen metres. The visions I had of crawling on hands and knees were soon put to flight.

ocre mine

 

Inside the gallery at Bruoux

Inside the gallery at Bruoux

The chambers and galeries stretch for about twenty five miles. At first farmers worked the mines but eventually experienced miners were required and it was they who carved out the vaulted chambers. They went through maybe half a dozen pickaxes every day doing so but they melted down the heads and recycled them. The heyday of the mine lasted almost a century from the mid nineteenth century. Eventually wars in Europe and the invention of synthetic pigments took over and the mine closed in the mid twentieth century.

So what is Ochre? Why was it mined? The simple answer is that it is a group of earth pigments – yellow, red, purple, sienna and umber – derived from iron oxide found in the sandy earth.

A French scientist Jean Etienne Astier developed a process for making the ochre pigment on a large scale in the late eighteenth century. The clay was taken from open pits or from mines and contained about 10-20 percent ochre. The rest was sand. The clay was washed to separate sand and ochre and the ochre dried, crushed and classified according to colour and quality. The very best was used for artists’ paints.

Ochre paintings have been around a very long time. At Pech Merle, a cave in the Lot department of France contains 29,000 year old cave paintings made using ochre as does the cave of Lascaux with its famous horse image coloured with yellow ochre.

Lascaux2

The Ochre Horse at Lascaux

Pech_Merle_main

The Hand at Pech Merle

In more modern times its main use apart from artists’ paints, was, and still is, interior and exterior house paints and for colouring latex.

In the UK Ochre was mined at Brixham and was an important component of the fishing industry. The ochre was combined with tar, tallow and oak bark and painted on the sails of the fishing boats giving them a red-brown colour. This protected the sails from salt-water.

From underground to overground and the Ochre Trail around Roussillon where painting the town red takes on a whole new meaning. Just about every building is coloured one shade of red or another. However, take the Ochre Trail and you can see why. The trail winds through an old ochre quarry and the surrounding woods of pine, poplar and oak. The colours are breath-taking as are the steep bits of the trail but well worth the lack of puff to sit and watch the sun play hide and seek between the trees and the cliffs.ocre cliffs 2ocre cliffs 3ocre cliffs 4ocre cliffs1

 

Advertisements

The Village of Bories, Gordes, France

One of the most fascinating sights on my recent jaunt to Provence was les bories –  settlements built entirely of limestone and without using an iota of cement.

DSC00974DSC00982DSC00984

In the 17th and 18th centuries Provence, like many French regions faced a huge population increase and the King decreed that more land should be taken into cultivation to avoid a dearth of corn and subsequent famine. The poorest people took on uncultivated land, often very difficult to work and developed it into small fields. Often this land was far away from any village so they built les bories using the stone they unearthed or found lying around as they started to work the land.

One such settlement ‘Les Cabanes’ is to be found about 4km from the lovely town of Gordes at an altitude of around 270 metres on an arrid limestone escarpment.

At ‘Les Cabanes’ the buildings themselves are a work of art. Built by a dry-stone method, layer after layer of limestone was tightly fitted together with a slight ‘batter’ to shed the rain. The settlement comprised houses, stables, pig sties, barns, bread ovens, a press and cellar for wine. The tracks around the settlement were enclosed by more stone walls to guard against brigands but, more importantly to protect against the wolves which ran wild in the Vaucluse Mountains at that time.

DSC00987

Doorway into a house

DSC00988

Inside a house

DSC00991

Huge manger carved from one  piece of olive wood in the bergerie – sheep shed

DSC00998

Bread Oven

DSC00977

Inside the Bread Oven

The paysans grew mulberry and almond trees, cereals, hay for their sheep and goats and, above all, olive trees which are well suited to the dry stony ground. All around the Gordes area, olive presses could be found until le grand gel – the great freeze – of 1956 put an end to the harvest.

olive trees

In addition to their main crops the paysans also kept bees, had small potagers, collected the wild herbs, hunted for truffles and raised silkworms – all of which added to their back-breaking labours. Nevertheless the revenues obtained from all this activity gave them the means to avoid starvation.

DSC00993

The Silkworm Shed

The site at ‘Les Cabanes’ was eventually abandoned and during more than a century it fell into ruin. In 1969 a restoration project started which lasted eight years and in 1977 the site was classified as an historic monument.

Cavorting in Calvados

Back from a break in Normandy where cold, windy weather and an excruciatingly painful knee somewhat curtailed activities. However a stop-off at a Calvados distillery refreshed the senses and taste buds, if not the knee.

My neighbour first introduced me to Calvados, surreptitiously adding it to my coffee one night after the village fete. I wasn’t looking and sipped the coffee quite happily. An hour later I had great difficulty finding my own front door despite the fact that I live opposite, just a mere handful of metres away. Since then, whenever he visits Normandy he has brought me a bottle back “straight off the farm”…er…that is to say… made privately for the makers own personal consumption.

Calvados is distilled from cider made from specially grown and selected apples. The fruit is harvested and pressed into a juice and then fermented into a dry cider. After that it is distilled into eau de vie. It can only be sold as Calvados after spending two years maturing in oak casks. The longer it is left, the smoother it becomes.

512px-Calvados_Apfel_0596

Apples for Calvados

Calva_still

A Calvados Still

It’s a versatile spirit – an aperitif, a digestif, useful in cooking (particularly to pep up pork) and in coffee.

There are a number of traditions that surround Calva. One I was told of was le trou Normand, or “the Norman hole”. This is a small drink of Calvados that you take between courses during a very long meal, supposedly to resuscitate the appetite.

But I really like the sound of an old ritual that the Norman farmers followed at the end of a meal. It is called the seven rounds of Calvados and it goes thus:

Round 1.          Le Café Calva (a tot poured into the coffee)

Round 2           La Rincette (a little nip)

Round 3           La Sur-rincette (another little nip)

Round 4           Le Gloria (yet another)

Round 5           L’Alléluia (and another)

Round 6           Le Coup de pied au cul (the kick up the backside)

Round 7           Le Coup de l’étrier (the kick in the stirrup – that is the kick out of the door and onto the horse)

It was a ritual for men only and said to leave the ladies free and happy for the evening. I can bear witness to that last point!

Couperne_Calvados

The End Product…Mmm!

Stormy Nights and Ladies in White

The church clock struck midnight. Outside the rain fell in torrents beating a tattoo on the porch roof. Wind moaned through a gap in the shutters. In my office the chandelier lights flickered and the computer gave an apologetic “huff” and died only to mysteriously self-resuscitate a few seconds later.

I was researching more ghosts, myths and legends for another set of spooky stories and had arrived at the legends of the Dames Blanches – White Ladies. They’re everywhere in France but especially in Normandy and the Pyrenees. There are two around me haunting Chateaux Puivert and Puylaurens. At Puylaurens, the great-niece of Phillipe le Bel, restlessly walks the battlements. At Puivert (click for the full story) their Dame Blanche appears on rainy nights at one of the tower windows and just over the border in Andorra there is one who defended the principality from a huge wolf which was really an angry bishop in disguise. Goodness knows how many more there are lurking in the shadows.

What’s with it with these ladies; flitting around in the most inclement of weather wearing little more than some flimsy draperies?

dameblanche2

 

Jesuit Martin Antonio Delrio writing in the sixteenth century reassures me. He writes that these ladies are generally benevolent towards we mere humans, they are merely feés appearing in the woods and on the plains. They appear to be kind to animals too as he asserts that often the ladies appeared, carrying a lighted candle, in stables. There, they would let a few drops of wax fall on the incumbents’ manes and tails and then proceed to tenderly and carefully comb and plait them.

Another writer, Thomas Keightley makes me nervous though. In his book “The Fairy Mythology” he recounts tales of the malevolent nature of the Dames Blanches where they lurk at cross-roads, narrow bridges and ravines and insist on forfeits. If you want to pass by you may have to dance with them, get on your knees to them or assist them in some way. Woe betide you if you refuse. You may end up in a patch of nettles and brambles. These unkind phantoms are said to be found mainly in the north of France, particularly Normandy. Did I tell you I’m going to Normandy at the end of April?  Me with my cronky knee. Just my luck.

 

Dame_blanche_opéra

PS Did I also tell you that my collection of spooky stories – “Spook Me Out” will be available from Amazon at the end of March?

cover-spook.jpg

Three Years On

Roll back three years, February 2014. There I was sitting like Dido in the ruins of Carthage amid cartons, packing cases and bubble wrap. The materials goods of my life packed and awaiting transport to France.

I remember the shivers of trepidation as I wondered what the hell I was doing yet a pleasurable anticipation that the move to France would kick-start my life which, truth to tell was a bit stagnant and aimless.

Today a neighbour asked me how it was all going, this adventure of mine and it set me thinking. I’m not going to make comparisons between France and the UK – comparisons are odious as John Lydgate said in a debate about the horse, goose and sheep. So, here are some thoughts.

Life here in my part of France is one of halves (nearly did a John Moxon there and wrote two halves). Spring through to autumn is a hive of activity with festivals, concerts, fêtes, vide greniers and a hundred and one places to visit most of which I’ve yet to see. It seems to be a law of the expat universe that you only get to see your surroundings when you have visitors.

I love the heat of these summer days on my ageing bones and, if the temperature soars over 35 degrees which it did last summer, there is always the cool, freshness of the house to revive me. This is the season when shutters stay resolutely closed during the day and opened at night. At the end of a long hot day I have the choice of two swimming lakes to wallow in followed by a glass of chilled white wine at the buvette.

In case you fear that I spend my life lollygagging around, take heart. I have my routines. Weekday mornings I write. I have my main meal at lunchtime now usually shared with a neighbour and we take turn and turn about for the cooking.  Most days I have a siesta and then work in the house or garden until the sun goes down. It’s a routine… but  not immutable! The weekends I cut loose a bit.

In contrast to these months winter begins with migration; the swallows that have amused  me all summer disappear en masse, the cattle are brought bellowing in indignation off the summer pastures and the foreigners, mainly Brits in this village go back home. This exodus is shortly followed by the appearance of piles of logs tipped in front of the doors of the houses that line the two main streets. These will have to be carried through the houses to the little yards at the back.

2011-12-25-05-51-46

Winter Fuel

The summer attractions are closed and the ski slopes are wakening. The shutter routine is reversed… open during the day and closed at night. But there is always a twilight zone when, if I happen to be walking down the street, I can sneak a surreptitious peep through the windows, lit from inside. Winter is the time when the village wakes late and goes to bed early. The only constant is Carmelite, a very old lady who, winter and summer alike, stands at her doorstep at twilight murmuring to Santa Maria and counting her blessings.

What else is new?

I like the greeting ritual, the “embrace”, a kiss on both cheeks. Once I realised that “baiser” meaning to kiss has an alternative meaning akin to a well-known Anglo-Saxon four letter word, I hurriedly dropped it from my growing vocab.

I have exchanged my smart Ford C-Max for a Nissan X-trail; old but serviceable and hopefully, like me has a few more miles left. It is far more practical for the sort of fetching and carrying I do such as taking home an eight foot solid oak cornice to make a canopy for a bed or using the brilliant search lights, whilst roaming off-piste at midnight, looking for a missing  dog.

I can converse pretty well in French although telephone conversations stymie me now and again as do the very thick accents that some of the older villagers have.

I’ve become an adept at managing my shopping around the midi-break when many of the smaller shops are closed for a couple of hours. I fell foul of it so many times and made so many futile trips before I learned to organise supermarket shopping (because they remain open) at lunchtimes and all other shopping either before noon or after 2.00pm.

The famous or infamous French bureaucracy defeats me from time to time. I am still waiting for my Carte Vitale after twelve months. This is my passport into the French healthcare system. Fortunately I haven’t needed access except for the dentist and I guess “the system” is geared to the long wait since I have two years to reclaim the fees I have paid.

All in all I am content. I’ve completed a novel, currently out for editing and plan to publish a collection of short stories myself in March/April.  The second novel is in planning stage too. Whilst there’s still a load to finish off in the house, ca marche as they say, it progresses.

I’ve been lucky. What started out as a spur-of-the-moment decision which could have gone seriously wrong has turned out to be probably one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.  But if the gods are smiling on me at the moment I know, capricious beings that they are, that they might yet have a sneaky trick up their sleeves to play on me. So I tread cautiously.

PS: If anyone fancies sampling a bit of la vie francaise , my brother has a lovely self-continued apartment in the house available to let, so come on down for a taste.

https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/16714011

A Salting Tale II

A belated bonne année to you all. Again I’ve shamefully neglected this blog for what seem to me to be very good reasons. A nasty virus crept up on me over the festive season and I found it difficult to write when breathing like a pair of worn out bellows and wiping away something akin to mushy cabbage emanating from nasal passages. Yuk indeed!

The other reason, after recuperation was an absolute determination to sign off The Book. ‘Tis done. V6.2 completes about twelve months of indecision, wavering, rewrites and rewrites of rewrites. It is going to lie fallow now until April when the pro editor gets her mitts on it.  I’m happy to bid farewell to inscrutable Oskar, wicked Ombrine and the neurotic Richard…for a while anyway.

That done, it was time to turn my attention to the large lump of pork entombed in salt in the garage. (If you missed the first exciting episode go A Salting Tale immediately!) The time had arrived to lift the lid of the saltière to see what lurked within. Gingerly I scraped off a little of the salt. A dark, sullen red patch appeared. I gave it a poke – firm but still with a bit of give. OK it was still undoubtedly dead. The squidgy smelly mess that I had imagined was still a figment of my imagination. Time to call in the expert, James, or Jams as he announces himself. Jams came, inspected and pronounced. “Parfait, c’est prêt a partir.” Good to go.

We lifted the ham onto a large stainless steel platter and carried it ceremoniously to the kitchen table. There we gave it a dry rub down until all traces of salt were removed and relocated to the kitchen floor. About a ton of freshly ground black pepper was vigorously massaged into the ham’s now liver-coloured flesh. This we followed up with an aromatic dusting of herbes de Provence – a mixture of rosemary, thyme, marjoram and oregano.

jams-and-jambon

Once Jams was satisfied he prodded and poked at – sorry I haven’t a technical term of this – the thin end to find the hole that the thoughtful butcher had skewered ready to push a hook through. Said hole duly uncovered Jams threaded a cord since the only hooks I possess are for pictures and tied a complex series of knots probably known only to those in the innermost circles of home-cured ham.

Maintenant, le filet” Jams breathed. I produced the net in which the ham will spend its next few months. James slipped it over the ham as though he were encasing one of his wife’s shapely legs into a fishnet stocking.

jambon-peppered

That completed all was tied tight and the ham transferred to its final resting place in the barn where it will hang until my brother gets his mitts on it in a few months. The net should keep the nasties away but I have noticed the neighbour’s cat casing the joint…as it were. I wonder who will get there first?

 

 

 

 

 

A Salting Tale

Vegetarians you might want to look away with this one.It gets bloody!

I live in France, the land of the foodie; furthermore I live in rural foodie land where fast food means it only takes a couple of hours and twenty different apero’s to down before the dish is cooked.Here, there is still a strong tradition of bottling, pickling (self and vegetables) salting and otherwise preserving the fat of this land.

Enter James – henceforth to be called Jams according to his French pronunciation. He is a guitar-playing friend of big bro’s and has a small-holding close by.

jams-hens

Seduced by the home-salted charcuterie that hangs from the ceiling in Jams’ pantry said big bro agreed to give it a go; placed an order for a ham and…er…well returned to England for Christmas.

As it happens I am not totally unfamiliar with salting a ham. I have an unwanted recollection of doing something like that when I had the farm. I remember also that a hard hat, hammer and chisel were required to prise open the too, too solid flesh that resembled nothing less than a gnarly piece of wood, bathed in sea water for twenty years and immune to all blandishments.

However, nothing ventured and all that.

The day arrived when the portly porker designated to have one of its hind legs preserved – if not for posterity at least until next Christmas – could be despatched to the celestial pig sty. It required a full moon and possibly other portents, I know not. A telephone call to let me know the deed was done and a master class in salting awaited.

In Jams’ kitchen I learned the art of squeezing the last drops of blood from the veins. This required a great deal of squeezing of the ham on Jams’ part and swabbing any remnants that exuded on my part – cue theme music for Dr Kildare. (Ok, so I’m showing my age – sue me!)

Next the skin was given a quick facial salt scrub to cleanse it and the two protruding bones got an extra dollop of salt to prevent “les microbes” gaining illicit access. That done, plus several coffees, home made choccies and introductions to neighbours who dropped by, the ham was lovingly wrapped in a clean white cloth and carried carefully to my car. An odd spot or two of blood besmirched the pristine cloth – a last reproach from the pig I fear.

prize-jambon

Chez moi, apart from nearly slipping a disc whilst bearing the ham on its tray to the salting box all went smoothly.Ha!

I laid the ham tenderly on a white bed of salt – oh dear, not enough to meet Jams’ strict requirements of 5cm . Quick dash to Carrefour to purchase another 20 kilos. That’s better now it has its 5cm mattress on which to repose and do its thing.

jambon-entombed

Time to cover it up completely and make it snug. Oh-ho not enough salt left – one more bag should do it; back to Carrefour. Nope there’s still some pink bit showing.

dsc00665

What’s going on here? Then I heard a faint rustling, a whisper of sound. Was this amputated limb coming back to life? Am I about to be clobbered over the head by an angry ham on a quest to reunite with its missing bits? Ah no. I’m afraid big bro left just a wee bit too much of a gap between the boards he screwed together and, rather like the sands of time in an hour glass, the salts of time were creating little white pyramids on the floor beneath the salting box. Que faire? With some ingenuity and a lot of huffing and puffing I managed to insert a flat tray under the extremely weighty salting box and that appeared to put a stop to the exodus. Still a bit of pink shank was showing but a hasty call to Jams reassured me that it was not necessary to trek out at 8pm in search of more salt. Tomorrow will be soon enough. Leave it in peace.

So carefully noting all the details  and calculating the date when the ham should be woken from its salt bed, anointed with herbs and what-not, then netted and hung I placed the lid on the box and now await the 14th of January to see its transformation.

jambon-1

I wonder if big bro will be going home Christmas 2017 – guess it depends how it turns out.

 

Have a very Happy Christmas/holidays/Scrooge time (whatever floats your boat) and if you’re very good Santa will give you an update in the New Year.