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Archive for the ‘Living in rural France…’ Category

I’m sure y’awll thought I’d gone… perished… gone up in smoke…  Eh non!  I’m back…

B&B La Souqueto

B&B La Souqueto

To briefly update:  my B&B had become a victim of its own success.  We were full every day with people who booked months ahead and who often adjusted their itinerary to ‘fit us in’.   A huge compliment I realise, and I thank you sincerely for your trust and loyalty.

How could I ever forget our breakfasts together (some of which could take up to 3 hours) – scintillating conversations that sparked around the table?  The many friendships that persist and plans that are being made to meet up again soon?  (Now you obviously want to know if you were among my favourite clients:  eh bein oui, – OF COURSE you were!)

But whilst I adored looking after all my fab fab clients, and even enjoyed  the daily ironing sessions which allowed time for contemplation and philosophical musings, in the end too much time was taken up by running the B&B, leaving little or no opportunity for painting, writing, or gathering inspiration..  Even the cookery and art courses had to take second place – although I did manage to give at least five each year (see http://www.petracarter.com/courses.html

So, my beloved home and B&B was sold in July 2013 – to Jon and Mel Alport whom I am certain have the fearlessness, the soul and the determination to continue the tradition of La Souqueto.  I wish them the very best that their new life can offer them.  They too have become friends in the two months we’ve worked together.

The Arches on Place aux Herbes

The Arches on Place aux Herbes

What now?   Well, I bought an apartment in Uzes not far from the famous Pont du Gard near Avignon – as romantic and beautiful a place as you’ve ever seen – much of it Roman.  If you’ve ever seen Pagnol’s epic film Jean de Florette (forerunner to Manon des Sources)  you may remember the arches underneath which Ugolin sold his first carnations.  These arches are directly underneath my apartment (see picture) where now many interesting little restaurants feature all year around.

So what else is imminent?  Not a B&B this time but a cookery school in a beautiful 15th century building with vaulted ceilings  – which I have tentatively named Le Pistou.  It’s not quite mine yet – I am still negotiating – but here are some photos to give you a flavour of what is to come.

diningentrance

Meanwhile I am busy finding tradesmen to restore both places.

It won’t be quick but I expect to open late summer/autumn 2013.

Meanwhile, I shall work at updating my website and try writing some of those village stories  of the last 10 years – they are firmly in my head and must be put on paper… So keep an eye on the blog – or better still subscribe and you’ll hear when something gets published.

Hope to see you soon…

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Did you know that there is a right (and a wrong) time to cut your hair?  And that your jam keeps better if it’s made at a certain time of the month?  It has apparently all to do with the moon.  If you want your hair to grow thick and fast you should have it cut on a waxing moon. Then again to avoid a strong regrowth (after waxing of a different kind) you’d best be doing that when it wanes.  Incidentally, if you’re planning to clean your house anytime soon, wait till the waning moon –  your house will stay clean longer…

Calendrier Lunaire

You may not know this about the French but many (well here in the Languedoc anyway) strictly abide by the rules laid down in the enduring  Calendrier Lunaire (which still sells some 210.000 copies annually at an accessible €7.50 as opposed to a pricier €36.29 for the Farmers’ Almanac in Ireland.)  No need to spend the money though – it’s downloadable for free.  And the simplified English version of the lunar calendar on the website of  Domaine de la Vougeraie in Nuits-Saint-Georges is worth a look.

But here in the Languedoc, older generations that have grown vines for as long as they, their grandparents and their great-great-great grandparents can remember, have no need for the book.  They know it all by heart.  Nobody would dream of pruning or planting at the wrong end of the moon, and they shake their head in resignation and acceptance when they see an entire peach orchard being planted at a time it shouldn’t. Then shrug their wise shoulders when the trees remain sickly…

Another thing you may not know about the French is that they consider themselves not quite as far removed from the animal kingdom as we do perhaps ourselves.  They think that this not only explains but also excuses most of their thinking and behaviour patterns.  And again the moon is sometimes involved…

dung beetle

Every French-man and woman knows that in order to explain the nightly tossing and turning and general unease we experience during a waxing moon, we only need to look at nature.  Animal behaviour changes radically during this time – marine organisms move up and down in the sea depending on the level of

moonlight and crabs migrate when the moon tells them so. On land, nocturnal animals come out on a well-lit night to hunt (think whooping owls and howling werewolves!), others stay hidden to avoid predators, while males can become more aggressive.  Even African dung beetles, oddly, have been proven to walk in a straighter line when the moon is full.

Thus the French believe that other behaviour patterns can easily be explained by these two facts. Cheating on your mate is common in societies all over the world, but only the French blame it on the moon and our analogy to animals.   “Have you ever seen a male impala refuse the advances of one of his neighbours’ wives?” they ask as if this a simple fait accompli.

But that, dear readers, is another story for another day…

     *) Photographer: Laurent LAVEDER : http://www.pixheaven.net/livre/crbst_6.html

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my trophies...

A VIDE-GRENIER  is a sort of amateur flea market. They have them all over France every Sunday – most villages offering just one in spring and one in autumn.  It literally means empty-the-attic and that is exactly what people do, displaying everything they no longer have a need for, in the hope that someone else does – from obscure farm equipment and blackened silvery preciousness, to outgrown toys, ancient embroidered sheets and granny’s last shoes.  Because of its randomness (and the fact that IKEA is more in vogue nowadays) you risk finding all sorts of goodies – many of which you’ll recognize as props in my food photography!

old madeleine baking moulds...

Last Sunday, it was the village of Olargues that caught my eye – situated high up in the Black Mountains above St Pons, the weather is not always predictable, but we dared and won.

Olargues is as typical a French village as you get – nestled into a mountain side with its steep streets running towards the church in the centre. These mountain people don’t seem to joke and laugh quite as much as ‘chez nous‘ (no doubt due to constant fog and rain) but we loved our visit and roamed around for a while, discovering at least one more bridge built by Gustav Eiffel (there’s lots of them here).

perfect retro restaurant LAISSAC

When tummies started to rumble we decided to stop for lunch at the one-and-only hotel/bar/restaurant in town.  Typically too it was run by Dad (kitchen), Mum (diningroom) and their 14-year old son who was in charge of the bar (no one worries much about under-age slavery or exposure to alcohol-abuse in French and Irish country pubs).

nuf said...

When I say we were whisked straight back to the late 60’s, this is an understatement – some of it harked back to the 50’s, complete with authentic 50’s furniture, styrofoam ceiling tiles, plastic Poinsettia decorations,  well-used vinegar/salt/pepper sets and cheap metal breadbaskets. How cool is that?

There was only one other couple well in their 80’s who probably never noticed that time had moved on. They looked as if they seriously enjoyed their cozy Sunday lunch – tucking in with gusto, still dressed in coats and scarves, dentures clicking in cheerful unison…

Mountain Pheasant with Chestnuts

Admittedly, the décor from years hence was more interesting than the menu (even the normally spectacular Chateau Gourgazaud Minervois had seen better times).  The ‘mountains’ are known for their great but seriously unhealthy charcuterie.  And their FABULOUS rye bread (which tastes like rye unlike most commercial specimens).   Thus, a copious plate of exceedingly unhealthy mountain charcuterie for himself and a salad with hot crunchy duck innards (called gésiers) for me.  This was followed by Pheasant with Chestnuts and Mountain Ceps (ugly but delicious) and an entrecote (which was more like a tough ould piece of boil-in-the-bag brisket).

...retro steak...

And then there were retro spuds… served of course in retro baskets…

... retro spuds, in retro dishes...

And here’s more retro furniture…

.... more retro furniture....

…. and then another super-retro Gustav EIFFEL bridge….

.... another Pont Eiffel....

…. and how about a retro rainbow…?

…. and a retro view of Olargues...

retroview of Olargues...

…. and the retro co-diners, the sound of whose dentures I’ll never forget…

And finally….. more retroprops saved from oblivion…..

....more props 'saved' from oblivion....

.... retro co-diners....

.... and a good old-fashioned mountain rainbow....

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mating owls

There is always lots of cheerful whistling going on in Mirepeisset but these days there’s no getting away from it.  This time it is NOT just Robert singing and whistling his happy heart out.  Everyone is at it now.  Day and night, night and day, in the streets and in the trees, in the shade and in the sunshine, beside the river, along the Canal, from the rooftops and tree branches….

Who causes all this cacophony? Well, you already know Robert. And you already know our two resident owl couples that nest in the trees behind the house – the ones that in spring announce noisily that they’re in love, and the ones that for the rest of the year keep us informed as to the exact status of their boisterous love affair simply through the different sounds they produce…  The herons are silent enough. The geese and water hens less so, and our little (more or less tame) pigeon makes a little discreet wrrrooo wrrrooo on our doorstep…

African hoopoo

But what has us holding our ears now are all those other returning visitors… It seems that all of Africa’s birds have landed here in the Languedoc today to spend their summer holidays…

A hoopoo has been sitting on my neighbour’s roof nodding and whooping right into my bedroom window from 5am every morning…

The kingfishers are more considerate – they wait till 10am before they joyously inform everyone just how much they love the thrill of skimming low over the surface of the river behind my house. How they can catch any fish at that speed frankly baffles me.

bee eater

The bee-eaters too are back from Africa – balancing on the wires in ones or twos, not decimating our precious bee population, but catching a few each day simply to survive…

Meanwhile, the bees are busy collecting pollen from every flower in the region – not just the obvious bright and colourful specimens, but they also seem to find all those insignificant little green, perfumed flowers that can only be spotted by a trained eye…

busy bee

My favourite beekeepers Miellerie les Clauses in nearby Montseret have already  filled their first jars with delicate Rosemary and Acacia honey.  The further we go into the summer, the stronger the flavour of the honey gets – garrigue, lavender, forets eventually winding up with the rugged, pungent, almost savoury, chestnut honey..  Perfect for drizzling over some young goatscheese… or perhaps adding to a light dressing for a perfectly barbecued duckbreast.  Or maybe simply dribbled over hot toast that is dripping with melted butter…

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… comes sunshine.

As many as several thousands of households in the surrounding villages of Bize and Cuxac were affected last week when 250mm of rain fell in 3 days.  Despite preventative sandbagging, many basements flooded, but it was in no way as serious as in 1999 when in villages like Salleles d’Aude houses were submerged under 2 or 2.5 metres!

Several hours after it stopped raining there was little sign of the devastation – it seemed as if the soil greedily drank it all up, and as thanks gave us peach blossoms and wild asparagus!

peach blossoms

asparagus

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…. there was quite a bit of water around! These are photos taken 2 days ago…

The Cesse in Agel is normally a dry riverbed - this is what it looked like yesterday!

Same Cesse river - same 'dry riverbed'

Same river, which is normally dry.

Bize being flooded, yet again...

Flooded cellars in Bize...

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My friend Nicola, author, literary researcher and member of the professional food writers’ forum called Eatwords, (we call ourselves Eatworders), asked a food-related question yesterday…

Help, please, literati… I have been given a manuscript to read.   It’s a food history book, and is written in US.   The author discusses French and Anglo Saxon food words and refers to ‘porque’.  I have never seen it written anything other than ‘porc’ in French, but is this some obscure historical way of spelling it?  Or has the author simply made a gaffe, perhaps by confusing it with the Spanish word for ‘because’?

Cansalada – or ‘petit salé’

Living in the part of France where patois (a local dialect with a distinct Spanish accent) is still very much part of daily life, I found that this question presented a challenge…

‘We’ here in the deep South of France, pronounce all our T‘s and S‘s and even our silent E‘s at the end of a word.  (Goodness, it is so easy to do when you’re here a while – even I have now acquired that odd local twang).   Thus, Mirepeisset (the name of our village) is pronounced ‘Mirepeissette‘, neighbouring Argeliers is pronounced as ‘Argeliesse, as is Montoliesse (Montoliers) and Ginestasse (Ginestas).  Even the word moins (as in ‘less’) is spoken with its final S well articulated.  We also say ‘paing‘ and ‘vang‘ and ‘veng‘ instead of pain, and vent and vin

I do not think this is entirely due to half of the local inhabitants being from Spanish descent (having come here as migrant grape-pickers during the early part of the last century), because the accent is rather the same in every village – from Perpignan to Provence (you only need to listen to Yves Montand’s delicious diction in Pagnol’s Jean de Fleurette and Manon des Sources).

Since it is a wonderfully balmy and star-lit evening, and the little restaurant in the square is still buzzing with the influx of diners, I thought I would pop out to the Placette and ask for an informed opinion on the subject of ‘porque‘ – seeing as  this ingredient plays such an important role in people’s lives and daily diet here.  For who could possibly survive without the salted and heavily peppered cansalada (more commonly known as petit salé)?

The ‘habitués’ sur la Placette

Our (by now famous – see earlier posts) 20 odd batchelors are out in force tonight – occupying every public bench in sight.  Some are even seen ‘mingling’ with the Parisian, Bordelais and Lyonnais tourists that have descended for their annual holidays.  I approached one such little group and when there was a brief gap in the  conversation, I posed Nicola’s question…  It was like throwing a cat among the pigeons (or rather the undisputed chat parmi les pigeons).  From the ensuing cacophony I retrieved the following comments…

more of La Placette célibataires

- “Ah beng NONG (local accent), “le porc c’est le porc” (no audible pronunciation of the final c).  “There’s nothing more to it”.

- “Ah si“, (nasal Parisian accent – not too popular here because of its implied haughtiness), “j’ai entendu, bien que très rarement, la prononciation ‘porque’ ici dans le Sud”.  This is vividly and noisily contradicted by the locals.

- “Mois aussi” (pipes up a Lyonnais accent – even less adored here because of its  self-assigned and presumed superior properties) “j’ai entendu les gens d’ici dire ‘porque’…” (Surrounded by so much local talent, he dared not call us ‘natives’ and so described us more politically-correct as ‘people from here’.)  Bad mistake.  Naturally his opinion was completely drowned in a waterfall of passionate disapprovals.  These protests were issued on principle, for what do these ‘foreigners’ know about our accents anyway?  And how dare they have an opinion on a subject as close to our hearts (and stomachs) as pork?

- A Bordelais joins in, unaware of the perils.  (Being from Bordeaux, he’s an obvious target too – don’t they sell wines over there that, whilst being totally inferior to our own sublime Languedoc specimens, they have the culot to charge more for?  And doesn’t that make them even more fair game than Parisians or Lyonnais?   “Moi aussi” he ventures hesitantly, “j’ai entendu porque des bouches fleurantes le terroir…” which translated  means ‘I have also heard porque from mouths with accents that are perfumed by the land‘.

Dead silence in the square.

That was it.  Nobody said a word. And nobody had an answer to that.  I’ve put my foot in it with this question and well I know it.  We’re not just talking about a cat among the pigeons here.  More like un loup dans la bergerie!

Undecided and confused, I retreat. Nothing more needs to be said and tomorrow is another (sunny) day.  My soft-talking sweet neighbour Serge takes pity on me and gentlemanly catches my elbow.  He volunteers that ‘the mountain people’ from the Ariege mountains, in the foothills of the Pyrenees, sometimes say porque with the final Q well pronounced. And then confesses that if a woman would eat messily and spills her food (or wine), she COULD say: “je fais la porque” – as in: I eat like a pig.

There you have it. porque versus porc.  I now need a good shot of something strong to calm my nerves…

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