Archive for the ‘Village stories’ Category


He was called André Ferrer but everyone called him Pastoret.  This, in local patois, means shephard because that is what he had been all his life – tending his flock of up to 600 sheep until his late 70’s.  So chuffed was he with his nickname that he had it engraved in stone over the door of his little house nextdoor to mine.

Like many inhabitants in this part of France, his family had left troubled Spain in the early 1900’s.  The hungry families came to the Languedoc hoping to find work as migrant grape-pickers but found that there were paid jobs all year around, and so they stayed.

workersThey worked hard for their French landlords – pruning vines and tending livestock in winter, planting vineyards in spring, picking peaches and apricots in summer and gathering olives in autumn after the grape harvest..  They lived frugally off the land and with the money they saved they were soon able to buy their own vineyards and properties.  You only need to look up the telephone directory to see that most of Mirepeisset’s inhabitants still sport Spanish names – Campos, Fuentes, Sanchez, Lopez, Calas, Sabater… – all of them highly respected members of society and well established employers in their own right now.

Pastoret was 80 by the time I arrived in the village.  We were nextdoor neighbours and got on like a house on fire.  He was still very active – getting on his bike everyday to inspect whatever crops or properties he still had scattered about. And depending on the season he still went wild-boar hunting on Wednesdays with his dogs and his mates.

The benches of Mirepeisset - Pastoret is seated in the middle.

The benches of Mirepeisset – Pastoret is seated in the middle.

Otherwise he spent his afternoons philosophizing (or perhaps rather pontificating!) on the benches in the Placette.

Despite being retired, he would already have had his breakfast by 6am.  Most probably sardinas (grilled and marinated in olive oil by himself the day before) and served with plenty of raw onions of course.  Or perhaps a fried egg with salty mountain ham and a hunk of bread.  Oh, and let’s not forget to mention his glass of wine (yes, at dawn – and his only glass of the day).

Migas con chorizo

Migas con chorizo

He was also fond very fond of Migas for breakfast – one of the many hearty Spanish dishes created out of necessity by shepherds and hunters.  (Migas are stale breadcrumbs soaked in water, olive oil and garlic then fried, and sometimes served with some wild greens).   Pastoret liked to add some chopped ham or a few slices of chorizo to his.  Or  grilled calçots (wild leeks) which he may have gathered from vineyards or fields.

Immediatley after his breakfast he started preparing his lunch – which he would eat between 10 and 11am.  Perhaps an asadillo (roasted and peeled red peppers cut into quarters and dressed with garlic and oil).  I would come into his kitchen and there they would lie all ready and glistening in olive oil with some fresh anchovies delicately draped across..

La Placette in the old days

La Placette in the old days

He didn’t know how to read nor write his name – something I found out only when I took him to the hospital from which he never returned.  Embarrassed, he said that he’d forgotten his glasses.  Perhaps he had always pretended to read the local news rag,  yet he was so very wise and knew so many things – ancient cures and housewives remedies, primordial wisdoms, the mysterious ways of the moon, incredibly accurate weather patterns…   One of the last wise things he said to me was that “before television les gens faisaient la fete comme il faut” (people knew how to amuse themselves)…   He was also impeccably clean and proper – always smelling of that cheap but deliciously fresh, splash-on eau de cologne that so many older Spanish men smell of.

His big passion was rugby.  He shouted at the French teams, accusing them of being worthless, but he loved, cheered and admired the Irish.  I’d often watch a match with him and if the Irish played, I’d bring two small cans of Guinness with me.  It was the only alcohol he drank towards the end of his life because he, like the rest of the world, believed that Guinness is good for you.  We’d split one can between us for the first half, and downed the second after mi-temps..

His other big love of his life was his dog Hector – obedient, faithful and a great hunting dog.  One day he asked me whether I could take a picture of him with his dog.  He had scrubbed up, put on his best clothes and installed himself on one of the Placette benches.  I took some photos, but he never saw them.  Pastoret died 4 days after.  Perhaps he knew.

Pastoret with his Hector

Pastoret with his Hector


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sweeping the streets

Monsieur J had a good job.

He walked to work.

Never had to get up too early.

And his work was not stressful – meaning that there was plenty of time for a chat or a cigarette between each flamboyant sweep of autumn leaves…

And lots time for pauses and stretches whilst tidying the communal flowerbeds in spring.

On the first Thursday of each month he had to drive a pick-up to collect old televisions, broken chairs and other unwanted things people put on their doorsteps. Naturally he also gave a helping hand setting up the tables in the salle de fetes for the frequent communal village meals.

The village hearse

Besides this he had only one other responsibility – that of driving the community hearse whenever someone had died.

Life treated him well. He was never hungry and never had to rush.  He liked his job and he was liked as a person.   So why did he lose his job?

It happened out of the blue.

Unexpected, unintentional and unrehearsed.

He was to collect the coffin from the home of the deceased and take it to the church in the village hearse.

There he was to wait until after the service, when he was to drive the coffin, now covered in flowers, at a  slow walking pace to the cemetery.  Since the cemetery was a mere 300 meters from the church, the mourners would walk behind the vehicle.

The sad but peaceful and dignified procession had not gone more than 50 meters when suddenly, without any warning, the car engine  roared and the hearse shot forward at a terrifying speed. Bowed heads raised to watch the car come to a screeching halt 20 metres further with the driver jumping out and disappearing in front of the car, leaving everyone else shocked and dazed in the middle of the road, wondering what on earth could have happened.

Well your Honour...

“Well your Honour” Monsieur J  later declared,  “it was like this”.

“Right there in front of me eyes, I saw this hare popping out from between the vines… he looked at me and I looked at him as he prepared to cross the road…

And milord, for a second, all I could see was him, all plump and succulent and covered in fragrant sauce,  in the pot on my stove. Not having a gun with me, it was the only way to get him”.

And that was the end of his job…


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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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flowering almond trees

We know the French love their bread.  We know that they cannot eat a meal without it.  And we know they panic when they haven’t bought it by a quarter to lunchtime…

But when we all thought it was summer 3 days ago (what, with the brilliant blue skies, temperatures up near the 20’s and all the almonds in full flower) – and then suddenly the barometre dropped to down to 0’C (or even minus 3 degrees) and we woke to 20-30 cm layer of snow, there was utter commotion.

By 8am all the bread (baguettes, gros pain and ficelles, as well as pain complet) had sold out (just in case there wouldn’t be any around the next day)…

olive trees in front of my house...

By 8.30 even the normally unpopular salt-less bread had sold out.  And by 9am all biscottes and preservative-heavy sliced pan (which the French would normally avoid like the plague) were sold out.  By lunchtime the shop shelves were empty. Gone the bottled haricots, the dried pasta, the tinned fish, the packets of biscuits, the cartons of yoghurts, the bidons of wine and all fresh charcuterie and cheese… Even fancy chocolate, washing powder and packets of peanuts had disappeared.


But our pretty epiciere Dominique braved the elements and the slippery roads and stocked up her shop this afternoon. And everybody breathed a sigh of relief.  Only the papers never got here today…

one strange icicle...

our pretty epiciere Dominique with her son Pierre

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Mirepeissetois of a certain age

Just recently, Mirepeisset’s Mayor Andre Ratia, sent an official letter to the Mayor of neighbouring village Ginestas, complaining that a few of their youths (who are courting some of our young girls) had been ‘impolite’ towards some elderly villagers. Not that they had used foul language or thrown stones or been brandishing weapons they shouldn’t have.  No, it was that they had not shown enough ‘respect’ to the aged.

The Placette

Good manners, it seems, are still important here. They are considered part and parcel of a child’s upbringing, even though the general trend is to think of them as out-dated and unnecessary. My own sons thought it hilarious when some French guys in their late teens formally shook hands when they met up in a cafe/pub. The fact that male cousins or best-friends unashamedly kiss each other on the cheeks, had them in stitches.  Imagine an Irish pub on a Friday night. A well-placed thump on the shoulder is the usual greeting, accompanied with a “Howya, y’old wanker”. This is considered perfectly friendly and amicable in Dublin –  evidence perhaps of the deep-felt fear and suspicion most young Irish men have of intimacy and being too ‘nice’ to each other.  Maybe a lack of self-confidence too of course.

Valentine's menu for the old

Anyway, this respect the many French have for their elders (or could it be that they simply take delight in older people’s well-being?) manifests itself in many small daily tasks and friendly gestures that I witness every day. But there are also  special events and services organised in pensioners’ honour. One of these is a yearly Valentine’s meal for the over-65’s, that takes place in many of the small Languedoc villages. Each year they arrive in their droves, dressed up to the nines, to take part in this annual feast.

The all-out six-course menu this year included puff-pastries brimming with scallops and prawns in cream, seabass with champagne sauce, a pallet-cleansing sorbet well-doused with eau-de-vie de poire, duckbreast with wild mushrooms, a cheese course and a beautiful individual chocolate truffle tart. The entire lot was washed down with copious amounts of wine of course and a rose was presented to all the ladies.

Le Cabaret

But that was not all. The 5-hour-long repas was accompanied by a cabaret that could rival that of Moulin Rouge. Pretty girls in suggestive costumes dance and sing romantic (or naughty) chansons of olden days throughout the meal. What makes it all the more fun, is that the showgirls really seem to be enjoying it too – tickling the men with their feather boas and placing red lips on the bald heads (the resulting marks being proudly carried home as provocative proof of their virility.)

And in between all the eating and the singing and the jokes and the laughter, there is also the dancing to fit in.  Not just a bit of limp shuffling around the floor. No sir!  We’re talking here about waltzes, paso dobles, tangos, cha-cha-chas and even a spot of line-dancing if you don’t mind! I have to admit that the erotic Argentinian Tango has somewhat been adapted to suit the region and the elderly, but the flirting continues and it is quite evident that these oldies do not feel old.

Tangos and Paso Dobles...

In a country where the general retirement age is still set at 55 (that is if you work for the State or semi-State bodies – i.e. anything from the army, the police, fire brigade, civil service, railways, gas or electricity companies, medical personnel etc etc) these people keep themselves young by looking after their grand- and great-grand children, helping their children look after their vineyards, walking, socialising (holidaying, travelling and other such pleasant pursuits if their pensions permit it).  But there’s one thing they all have in common: they enjoy their troisieme age…

Manolo and his Julietta

Manolo is a life-loving, virile Spanish-born 80-year-old who up to 3 years ago kept his 3 girlfriends extremely satisfied. Two are no longer part of this world and so now he has promised to be loyal only to Julietta – whom he calls Marrrrrileeen Monrrrroy! Nuf said.

Jacko chancing his arm...

Jacko, also in his late 70’s and a well-known womaniser in his time, still hasn’t given up hope…

And so life continues, here in the small village of Mirepeisset.  And nobody ever seems to get a chance to be bored!

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a trailor-load of freshly picked grapes

As the vendange 2009 is nearing its end, the air is heavy with the smell of fermenting grapes – a smell that throws me back to the early seventies when I tried making wine from elderberries, and the elation that came with it when the “bubbling’ had started. Only this time the smell is ten times stronger. And it’s everywhere…

From a height I can see the patchwork of fields planted with row upon row of neat lines of vines, some already changing colour. Little plumes of dust rise behind the huge harvesting machines that steadily plow through the lines.  Tractors with trailors patiently wait for their precious load, which they must


drop off as quickly as possible at the cellers – for in the heat, the fermenting process starts as soon as the grapes are picked.
But there are still those that harvest by hand.  Firstly, the small, exclusive wine houses often choose the hand-picking method over machine harvesting because the grapes arrive undamaged and the oenologue or winemaker will have more control over the fermentation process.  Then there are those vineyards, either because they’re too closely planted or because they are too steep for machines to access, that harvest by hand.


And then there are the many small vignerons that don’t have money to hire a big monster-harvester. Not only do they pick by hand (with the help of their relatives and friends), they also turn any old van or ancient cart into a hickeldypickeldy temporary trailer to transport their grapes to the caves.  These make-shift trailers are often built up with wooden planks so as to take the extra load, and they leak like a sieve. It’s no wonder then that right now, many of our roads are stained a dark deep red and their surface is sticky with spilled grapes and juice.

But nobody minds too much battling through the treacle-like substance on the roads. Nor do they mind getting stuck behind a tiny tractor that snails along the road at a maximum speed of 20 kms per hour.  Because this is an industry that everyone depends on in the Languedoc. And one that everyone after all benefits by…

a grape pickers breakfast

In the past, the Languedoc grape pickers were mostly Spanish migrant pickers who descended on here in autumn in their hundreds of thousands. Today they still come in their thousands to help with the harvest.  Getting up at the crack of dawn they’re in the vineyards as early as 5am.  Not surprising then that at 9.30am they tuck into their robust and traditional grape-pickers breakfast – jambon cru, sauccisons, crusty bread… washed down of course with copious amounts of wine…

sustenance for the hard-working

slicing a boudin

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