The Rocky Road

The country side around where I live is dotted with ruined castles built on and within natural high outcrops of rock and escarpment. This is Cathar country and these strongholds played an important role in protecting and sheltering the members of the persecuted sect.

In the 13th century the north of what we know today as France went to war with the south in a crusade against this sect – a crusade that lasted for nearly half a century. The ostensible reason for the crusade was the extermination of the Cathar sect which had a strong following in the south at every level of society. When Pope Innocent III’s personal legate, Peter of Castelnau was murdered (allegedly on the orders of Count Raymond of Toulouse whom he had just excommunicated) he launched the crusade offering all who participated indulgences (pardons for sins committed) as well as the property and lands of the heretics. This set the scene for the invasion of this southern part of France (the Languedoc) with Simon de Montfort, a northern noble leading the charge for wealth, land and titles.

The crusade was typified by small-scale skirmishes, bloody guerrilla warfare and, more significantly, sieges against both the large fortifications of e.g.Carcassonne and Narbonne but also of the remote and relatively inaccessible hilltop fortifications that were dotted all over the surrounding countryside. One such is the Chateau at Roquefixade just a few kilometres from where I live. Built high up on a cliff overlooking the village and using the natural rock and fissures of the site, the chateau dates from the early 11th century. The current ruins are later than this.

Roquefixade Chateau

Roquefixade Chateau

The ascent to the castle is steep and winds around through tussocky grass, scrub and rocky outcrops. Nearing the summit and the castle itself there is just a narrow path roughly hewn from the rock. A hair-raising vertical drop on one side to the valley below waits for the unwary. Once negotiated, this path leads to the remains of the original stone gate tower and on into the lower court (yard) of the castle.

Roquefixade - gateway to the court

Roquefixade – gateway to the court

The view from the ruins is breath-taking. The valley of Lesponne with its small villages nestled in green fields stretches out below; beyond the valley, the D’Olmes mountains and the chain of the High Pyrannees poke their snow-dusted peaks into a clear blue sky.

The valley below Roquefixade

The valley below Roquefixade

This chateau and its village played but a small role during the crusade. It is known that one of those involved in the murder of the papel legate sheltered here with his family and the village is reputed to have had many who followed the Cathar teachings. Other than this and, in comparison with its neighbour – Montsegur castle perched on an even more inaccessible peak- Roquefixade had a relatively quiet time.

Following the fall of Monsegur and the end of the crusade, Roquefixade became the property of the French king and one of a chain of castles across the region to keep an eye on the activities of the count of Foix, the ruler of an independent county in the south (France was still not completely unified at this time). The castle survived until Louis XIII, in 1632 spent a night there on his way to watch an execution in Toulouse, after which he ordered the castle’s destruction. It does seem rather ungrateful of him.

roquefixade from the village

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.

Fur and Feather

I suppose it was inevitable that on the day of the village show the glorious sunshine would turn into wet mizzle-drizzle worthy of a Sunday morning in West Yorkshire. However, here in SW France it is rather disappointing. Nevertheless the show must go on and, in this instance, the show being an exhibition of small animals, market and bric-a-brac stalls. Mostly these fall victim to the weather but in the shelter of the Foyer (the village hall) the exhibition of small animals goes ahead with a vengeance.

Whilst appetising odours drift across the village square from the impromptu café set up for lunch later, (rosemary and lamb, an aromatic marriage made in heaven) an aroma of a very different nature assaults the nose from within the Foyer…parfum de farmyard. I squeeze past the huddle of men gossiping over coffee in the corner and pretend not to notice the flash of silver as a small hip flask, containing je ne sais quoi surreptitiously makes its rounds.

Inside the Foyer I find poultry of every kind.

Massive cockerels, with wicked beady eyes and sharp spur claws, square up to each other. Only the bars of their cages prevents all-out war. These are watched by pairs of docile hens, sitting like fluffy tea cosies and crooning quietly to themselves. A few Silkies shuffle and preen showing off their feathered legs and one with ridiculously curled feathers all over quivers and rustles like a Shaker at a prayer meeting. On the floor larger cages house a few geese and a couple of turkeys with drooping, lugubrious expressions.

However the highlight of the morning is the show jumping… not I hasten to add with mettlesome steeds. No here in rural Languedoc, we do it in style, this is rabbit show jumping. Today there are four charming white rabbits with huge black eyes staring rather sleepily at the crowd around the ring. My Youthful Mentor in all things French and her friend Damielle are ringside and greet me.
“Who’s going to win?” I ask.
My YM replies carefully, cognisant of my inability to understand a word of French when it is spoken at a speed that outstrips the TGV (train grande vitesse).
“I don’t know. Perhaps the one with the blue collar.”
“Non” Damielle is emphatic, “the green.”
A lively argument breaks out and I edge away.

The contest begins. Both blue collar and green collar manage clear rounds but sadly red and yellow collars don’t make it. Now it’s the jump-off. The triple bar fence is suddenly raised to six bars. The spread fence takes on enormous proportions and the bamboo barricade is raised on blocks. We wait. In comes blue collar; first fence and he’s safely over and likewise the second fence. Then, disaster! A refusal at the bamboo barricade followed by escape from the ring.

Green collar enters the ring. Do I detect a bit of a rabbit swagger? He takes the first, second and third fences in his stride. Everyone holds their breath as his handler directs him to the final hurdle – a spread of half a dozen black and white striped poles and as the furry bundle clears it with inches to spare the crowd breaks out into applause.

And the winner is...

And the winner is…

Damielle looks smug; YM exasperated; I know when to keep quiet.

The Art of French Kissing

Ha! Thought that title would get your attention.

I’m settling in quietly here in the Languedoc; treading softly as I find my way around French life and customs – one of which I confess perplexes me a little. The French kiss… not the tongue tickling the tonsils kind and not the fatuous air kiss beloved by many in the UK. No I’m talking about the normal greeting between friends – a gentle buss on each cheek often with the added bonus of a brief waft of perfume or spicy after-shave.

Nothing at all wrong with any of that except that I keep getting it wrong. The question is which cheek to aim for first? My first attempts led to mutual embarrassment when my builder’s eldest Daughter decided to admit me into her circle of eleven year old friends. We bobbed  around each other in approximately the right area, rubbing noses, banging foreheads whilst her mates wet themselves laughing. Finally in frustration she grabbed my shoulders, bade me standstill in stern tones and delivered the required kisses. Meekly I asked her how she knew which cheek to kiss first and received my answer in the form of a hugely expressive Gallic shrug  before she ran off. I was only grateful my first encounter  wasn’t her little friend who wears specs like me. That would have ended up as the clash of the titaniums.

Then again the other problem is one of personal space. How close does one have to/need to get to administer the ritual greeting? Most nationalities have a concept of personal space and I have no invasion plans (at least not yet). So I’ve been  people watching to see if there is any norm. But there again I’ve been betwattled for observations taken so far show wide differences in approach from the crotch-rubbing clinch to the elegant bend forward leaving a discreet and respectful space between bodies. My own attempts have led to an unusual amount of neck-stretching and weaving, rather like a demented goose.

So I am left with the question – is this something that the French learn how to do once they’re out of the cradle? Perhaps it’s part of the primary school curriculum with exams at the end of the year and prizes for the best kisser. Actually that sounds like much more fun than the “posture stripes” awarded by my school to those girls with ramrod straight backs. However, the best advice I’ve had so far is to stand still, pucker up and let the other person do the kissing. Story of my life.