October Beauties

gourds-closeA few pretty things from Saturday’s market in Carcassonne.

Like the amazing collections of pumpkins, squash and gourds.gourds-far

courges-comestiblesThe sign says “edible squash.” In case anybody has doubts. I love the ones that are shaped like acorns.

The florists are gearing up for Nov. 1. It’s a holiday here–no school, everything closed–and not because Halloween is the night before. Everybody is busy cleaning up the cemetery plots of loved ones, and getting fresh flowers. I wish I could do it for my parents.

The favored graveyard flower because it’s so robust. 

There also are lots of pansies and cyclamens, which resist frost and tend to bloom all winter here.

Do you see the bunches of balloons that look like grapes? There was a wine festifal earlier in the week. 
These red plants were arresting. And do you see the orange tree? 

The market is often animated by bands or musical groups of one sort or another. And we get buskers, too. This is the first time I’ve seen this cellist.cello

After the market, we headed to our apartments, just down the street, for a weekend stay. Have to test drive it before we start having visitors! Lots of updates coming. The renovation is nearly wrapped up.




View from the belvedere

The châteaux of Lastours are among the Cathar castles the closest to Carcassonne. The site consists of four ruined châteaux, perched on hills in the Montagne Noire, or Black Mountains.

672.Lastours7Looking at the steep, rocky terrain, you wonder how they picked this spot to live. Life must have been rough, with good views. The Orbiel river runs at the bottom of the valley, providing an occasional flat and fertile spot for gardens.

The visit starts in a former textile factory, with a great archaeological exhibition—the site has been inhabited since the Bronze Age.

661.Lastours3The climb winds around the hill, which makes it longer but safer than trying to go straight up. Still, it’s challenging. Not handicapped accessible or stroller accessible or even out-of-shape accessible.

657.Lastours1But the vistas are fabulous. On a clear day, you can see all the way across the Aude plain to the Pyrénnées. Lastours has only one road, which just goes further into the mountains and thus isn’t heavily traveled. As you climb, you don’t hear cars but birds and the wind whistling through the low brush. You also pass through a mostly open cave, which tends to be unbelievably exciting for kids.

671.Lastours6The four castles that make up Lastours (which is Occitan for “the towers”) are perched close together on a ridge, so once you’ve climbed, you’re good.

My fireman brother was fascinated (not in a good way) by the spotlight wiring, bundled haphazardly and running right across the trail for everybody to step on, and the guardrails (as in, lack thereof).

685.Lastours12Those who can’t hike can get a bird’s eye view from an even higher spot on a hill across the valley, where a belevedere is set up with benches for an evening sound and light show. Entry is included in your châteaux ticket, or reduced if you just hit the belvedere.684.Lastours11For a village of under 200 people, Lastours punches above its weight gastronomically. Le Puits du Trésor has a Michelin star, thanks to Jean-Marc Boyer, who is a real sweetie besides being a great chef. The restaurant is situated in the same factory as the entry to the châteaux and is open for lunch and dinner. Boyer also has a less-expensive bistro, Auberge du Diable au Thym (Thyme Devil’s Inn) next to the restaurant, with a terrace next to the fast and clear Orbiel.

A five-minute walk away, still next to the river, there’s a little bakery with homemade ice cream and tables in a little garden. And at least one shop sells local products, meaning local FOOD products.

You can’t get out of Lastours without eating, I’m telling you.

658.Lastours2You need a car to get to Lastours. Maybe a Tour de France biker would take on the steep road (no shoulders, no guardrails). Anyway, follow the signs for parking. Do not think you’ll find something closer. You’ll end up driving through town and then you’ll have to keep going until you find a spot wide enough to turn around. The town is vertical, with the road at the bottom next to the river, and there isn’t room for a sidewalk let alone parking, aside from the little parking lot.

The Writing Is on the Wall

1907During the renovation, we stashed a bunch of furniture in the attic. Our kid immediately noted the previous presence of other kids there. I had paid no attention to the scratchings on the walls, but yes, there were many hieroglyphics.

game“It’s kind of scary up here, but it could have been a cool place to play,” our kid noted.

stepsYeah, kind of scary. Starting with the break-your-neck steps/ladder to get up there.

A creepy dark room lies behind the little door.
Typical attic junk

But there are several skylights, and the floor is mostly tiled with terra cotta tomettes. This place would be a luxury apartment in Paris.

A good set for a horror film. Yet note the sun shining on the wall, left.

Back to the kids.

julesHow many generations played under the eaves?



1984 is next to the balloon with JPB CP.

Did they know each other? Not as kids simultaneously, but through the generations….kids turn into parents, then into grandparents.heartI wonder what other marks they made on the world. What marks are we leaving? And you?dramatic-light

Pulling Out the Rug

rug-1Wall-to-wall carpet is rare in France. Homes have wood, tile or stone on the floors, with area rugs, especially antique ones.

The first time I saw a home with tiled floors in the living room, I thought, ick! This is like the rec room in my parents’ basement. But I quickly came to distinguish nice materials, like terrazzo, from wannabe terrazzo-patterned lineoleum. And I really love encaustic and terra cotta tiles.3-rugs-to-washWhen I mention wall-to-wall carpet, my French friends wrinkle their noses. It’s so dirty, they say. Not hygenic.

In France, one of the rites of summer is washing the rugs. I wait for a stretch of nice, hot days and haul out one rug at a time, set up over garden chairs. It gets sprayed down with a hose, rubbed with a big brush, and the one under the dining table gets a little Woolite. Then a rinse and it’s left to drip dry. I do it on the east side of the house, so that the rugs don’t sit in direct afternoon sunshine.

rug-2This year has been extra busy, with the carpets we bought for the apartments needing a wash.

A silk rug we bought second-hand, with stains
The rug after a wash, with a little Woolite on the stains, which disappeared.

Once I saw an enormous rug hanging to dry at a village lavoir, or public washing house. That would have been convenient for washing, and drying, but a hassle to haul it back and forth–they are extremely heavy. Maybe it was someone who didn’t have a courtyard.

Do you like wall-to-wall carpet or area rugs?



Chic at the Market


Even though this blog is about the good life in France, and appreciating the Gallic taste in all things gastronomic and aesthetic, we usually avoid fashion. There are just so many great French fashion and street-style blogs: Garance Doré (even though she moved to NY; she remains steadfastly French), Inès de la Fressange,  French Essence and more.

The woman in white/khaki, left, was meeting the one in the white dress.

How fantastic is the woman above in the white dress? The skirt is lace. She’s wearing gold sneakers. And that mini straw bag! Her friend, left, also looks classy in a simple, crisp white shirt and khaki trousers. Note the sharp crease on the sleeve. People here iron.

Neutrals are winners in summer. I think both of these women look like a million bucks.

Or take the pair above. Clearly the one on the right fits the classic image of a chic French woman. I love that she’s wearing  flats. Her market basket is full. Fanciful feathers in her hat. Her tunic is a bit transparent, so she has on beige leggings. This was in summer, so it was quite warm, but she isn’t baring much. Her friend on the left isn’t as svelte (and this isn’t a perfect-body blog, so we don’t care!), but she has chosen a top that’s cool and flattering.

Not everybody goes neutral. This woman mixed orange and apple green.

There’s plenty of material walking around here, though usually I fail to have my camera in my hand. There’s one woman who dresses like Geneviève de Fontenay, always in an impeccable suit, with a hat cocked at a jaunty angle.

Of course, we also see some don’ts. Even in France.



Big Drink

cloudy-skies-1It rained. At last.

puddleActually, it rained a few weeks ago, a nice, long soak that allayed the fears of many who saw ground hardened like concrete by drought, which, in the past, has led to flash floods when rain falls at last but too fast.

cloudy-skies-2But then more weeks passed without a drop. The garden sagged. Finally, when the wine harvest was done, it rained again. A nice, long soak.

wet-leavesDon’t you love the smell of rain? The smell before it even starts? The smell during? I was in the house with most of the windows shut, but I got a whiff and knew it had begun.

drop-on-palmI had to go out and walk amid the drops. It was primeval. We need rain.

Our back yard, before the rain. At least we don’t have to mow.

We even had thunder and lightning for drama! Just so we could feel like we had a REAL thunderstorm and not some namby-pamby “shower.”

from-roofEven so, the sun came out. That’s how thing roll here. When we lived in Belgium, the sun would be shining bright but you still needed to take an umbrella because it was likely to rain at some point during the day. Here, even when the rain is dashing down, sometimes you need sunglasses because part of the sky will be clear. I’ve driven with the windshield wipers going full tilt AND with sunglasses on against glaring sunshine at the same time.

I love seeing it come down in the distance. 

see-rain-afar-zoomSurprisingly I didn’t see a rainbow, despite the combination of rain and sun. I guess it wasn’t the right angle.

white-cloudsNo pot of gold. But afterward, there were diamonds everywhere.


Doe, a Deer

signPart two of Ferme en Ferme fall: our postprandial yet still gastronomic promenade through the Black Mountains.

Can you spy the deer between the trees?

Picarel le Haut, run by Catherine Souef near Saissac, has 120 cerfs (deer), biches (does) and daguets (brocket deer–a small species), as well as 30 Arab pure-breed horses. (Saissac is a great day trip from Carcassonne, with ruins of a Cathar castle in a very pretty village perched on a mountainside.)

Deer terrine (like a pâté)

Tastings included deer pâté and morsels of grilled doe steak. I’ve never been a fan of deer meat, despite having grown up in a family of hunters, but here biche is a classic for Christmas dinner. And now we know where it comes from.

Vacuum-packed deer steaks

The shy animals were well behind the trees of their large enclosure, and it wasn’t easy to get a picture. Did you know that stags shed their antlers every year?deer-headAnother stop was at the Ferme du Villemagnol, just west of Saissac, where Nadège and Corine Guinebault raise free-range pigs and sheep.saucissonWine-fueled singing wafted out from the tent for diners; clearly the customers were content. We were keen to pick up some saucisson, or hard sausage. The line stretched around the tent housing the butcher counter, even though the staff worked quickly to slice ham to order and wrap up sausages and other goodies.hams-2


From left: galabard (a kind of black boudin that includes tongue), snout, ribs, pâté 
The sign says “Everything is good in the pig” 

Our charcuterie experts decided, upon tasting, that it was worth the wait. “It’s nothing like what you get in the supermarket,” the Carnivore declared. “It’s nice to chew, it has no gristle or lumps of fat.” Yes, food gets analyzed in the same way wine does.goatsgoats-and-kidsWe also visited the Chevrerie du Colombier, near Fontiers Carbardès, where Cécile and Thomas Hollard raise goats to produce several kinds of cheese.cheese-softcheese-grayThere were the softest cushions of snowy white fresh cheese to heart-shaped cheeses covered with gray mold to great rounds of hard cheese, with thick crusts. The names include petit colombier, tomme, cabrichon and cabribert. Cabri is a kid–a baby goat.cheese-cabribert-stackscheese-tommeWe were disappointed not to happen on any goat-milk ice cream, which is a real treat. I suppose they didn’t expect the weather to be so warm.

These guys bought a live goat, who was not cooperative at all.

By the time we got home, it was clear what we would have for dinner: cheese, sausages and fresh baguettes. Just perfect.



Grilled Bull

gate-in-woodsSunday was another round of Ferme en Ferme, or Farm to Farm, this time winding through the Black Mountains north of Carcassonne.

mountain-in-fogIt was much more crowded than the one we did in the spring. And strangely, the license plates of the cars we saw were mostly from the region, compared with lots from far afield in the spring. A cloudy morning turned into a gloriously warm and sunny autumn afternoon, perfect for a jaunt in the countryside, and maybe everybody had the same idea.

Do you see the cows on the hilltop?

We examined the map carefully, knowing we could hit only four or five of the 17 participating farms, which stretched from Argeliers, well east of Carcassonne (with a snail farm), to Revel in the west (with a farm raising angora goats for mohair).

The reception area, with a fire grilling samples of steak, below.

steak-tastingWe decided, what the heck, to start off with La Calmilhe, about halfway between Cuxac-Cabardès and Mazamet. The road is impeccable, but so winding that it took us 45 minutes. The scenery was stunning–black forests (hence the name of the mountains!), distant vistas, lush pastures.


La Calmilhe, run by the Régis family, raises cows and taurillons (bullocks) of the limousine breed. We had been there before, only to discover that they had planned for 700 meals, had already served 900 and were turning away everybody else. We tried again over the years when they were on the program, calling to reserve, but always too late to get a spot. This time we went to buy their produce and didn’t expect to get in on the meal. We anticipated a roadside picnic, picking up baguettes to eat with cheeses and hard sausages bought at the farms.

To our amazement, there were only two cars in the pasture that served as parking lot (if you do Ferme en Ferme, make sure you don’t have a low-riding car or you’ll never get out–all the parking areas are in fields!). Even more surprising, when we admitted we hadn’t reserved, they said they could squeeze us in. Luckily we had brought our own flatware. Lesson: as soon as you get out of airport security, keep a pocket knife with you at all times so you are never at a loss when confronted with sausage, cheese or a bottle of wine that needs opening.

La Calmilhe runs a well-oiled machine: the lines were set up to pay (€14 for the meal including wine), get a ticket for either daube (beef stew) or bull steak, then get a tray with a salad, apple and choice of cheese/flan/rice pudding.

That’s boudin on the salad. The pocket knife is Laguiole.

Those choosing steak got theirs on the spot.

A vacuum-packed pair of taurillon steaks

After having the salad, the daube eaters could go to the daube stand to be served, while the steak eaters had to go outside to grill their own. Brilliant move–you can cook it how you like it.

Preparing the coals
Putting the grill over the coals
The Carnivore likes it either saignant–rare–or bleu–VERY rare.

steak-on-plateHaving arrived so early, we were the first in. It soon filled up, and people scouted for places to sit. The Carnivore found it funny that we were eating in a manger–and manger of course comes from manger–the French verb “to eat.”

The daube being heated in a bain-marie (double boiler)

daube-on-plateThe steak was judged tender and juicy by the Carnivore, who despite extensive research has had trouble finding bull meat that works on the grill.


As for the daube, it was delicious. They just opened cans of their own product (smart move–they could easily open more or less as needed), making the case for buying a few cans to take home. If you can’t get here to buy some, try this link to 15 traditional recipes.



Bikes and Old Stones


Biking isn’t always easy in the French countryside. The departmental roads are narrow, with no shoulders and ditches right up to the tarmac edge. Except when platane trees are there.


The small streets of old towns and villages were made for horse-drawn carts, not gas-guzzling 4x4s that take up two parking places. Bike lanes? Rare. But they are catching on. It’s odd it has taken so long, when bikes seem so quintessentially French.


Do you bike in France? What has your experience been?