Fog Filter

red-treeBetween the days of hard blue skies, sometimes we awake to discover that the fog has crept in on little cat feet.

Unable to see the rooftops from the window. Unable to see the road up the hill. Unable to see even across the yard. Thick. Dark white. Quiet.

from-hilltopWhen it had lifted enough not to be treacherous to venture out on foot–the roads have no shoulders, and I didn’t want a passing car to send me into a ditch–I was enchanted by the “fog filter” on the countryside.

north-from-hilltopIt’s funny to see how things turn green in winter. The wheat fields are becoming emerald carpets. The grass and weeds between the rows of vines, left to hold the topsoil in place, are lush.

windmillThe pine trees that can become kindling for wild fires in summer are now verdant, as if razzing the deciduous plants whose finery is gone until spring.

bare-vinesSome of the vines have leaves left, but others are bare. Wintry. The wine growers are busy trimming while the weather is mild.

boar-track

Others are out in the vines, too. The other day we were stopped on a main road for a boar hunt that was passing through. I’ve never seen a boar, but I hear there are too many.

red-seeds

Even on a fog-filter day, there are bursts of color. On this side of the hill, only the sound of the wind in the pines and the songs of birds. On the other side, the cars on the departmental road create a constant thrum. Electric vehicles can’t get here fast enough.

And finally, the fog lifts, and we see the majesty of the mountains. Is that still France? Or is it Spain? Or Andorra? In Nepal, the guest house had the Himalayan peaks traced on the window, with names pointing to crest. You stooped until you lined up the mountain view with the correct outlines and figured out which one was Mount Everest. Because they others weren’t high enough to worry about.

mountains

Though I’m mildly curious about which peak is which, I don’t want to let a focus on superlatives like “highest” take away their collective magnificence.

Happy holidays to all. We are taking a break until after the New Year, as the French do, in order to focus on friends and family at hand.

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.

cows-on-hilltop
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).

accueil
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.

cows-sitting-inside

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.

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

Those choosing steak got theirs on the spot.

steak-in-package
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-coals
Preparing the coals
carrying-grill
Putting the grill over the coals
steaks-on-grill-brown
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.”

daube-cooks
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.

cans-of-daube

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.

wall-of-hay

stone-house

Bye-bye Beach

footprintsJust before school started, we went to the beach. Our first trip this year, though it’s just 45 minutes away.

We aren’t sun worshippers. And that grit of sand in one’s hair and mouth, sand that sticks to everything, even to dry skin, even to dry clothes that were put into a zippered plastic bag at home–well, meh.

peopleThen there are the crowds. The drive is 45 minutes in winter. In summer it can be two hours. Bumper to bumper. And then, you have to park.

We usually head out around 4 p.m., when most people are leaving. This is a good policy in general in France. The French love their schedules. Pretty much everybody does the same things at the same time. By being out of step, you get the place to yourself.

sand-sculpture
Note the cigarette in the mouth and the belly-button shell

For example, the supermarkets have 20 checkout lanes but operate a maximum of eight. I often have spent more time waiting in line to pay than shopping. If you go to the supermarket at noon (supermarkets being among the few businesses open between 12 and 2), there are only two or three checkout lanes open, but nobody in line. On the autoroute, the time not to stop for lunch is at noon, when the rest stops are packed, lines for the restroom are miles long and the sandwich selection is depleted by 12:30. No, lunch time is the time to enjoy the unencumbered highway before all the French get back in their cars and cause traffic jams.

beach-bar
A little bar on the beach where you can rent a fancy bain de soleil, which is what they call the loungers. It isn’t just a brand of sun lotion!

Back to the beach. We drive smoothly past one 80-kilometer-long traffic jam in the opposite direction, then arrive at the beach to find the empty parking spot of one of the cars now stuck in that traffic jam. We get our fill of sun and sand in an hour or two, then look for refreshments. Ice cream is always a good idea. Sometimes, if it’s still crowded, we’ll stick around for dinner (fresh fish!) rather than join the throngs on the highway.

flamingos
Pink flamingos in the etangs, or lagoons.

The two nearest beaches are Narbonne and Gruissan. Narbonne is a little more built-up, with a few apartment high-rises on the beach front. A parking strip runs the length of the boardwalk (which isn’t boards here, but you know what I mean). But the shops and restaurants are right there, too, which is nice.

lifeguard-hut
The lifeguards’ station, with “secours,” or “rescue” written artfully in red.

Gruissan has a bigger beach, and little chalets on stilts line the edge. The parking lot is very small but close by and hidden from view. More charming by far. We’ll take you to the pretty port and the adorable town, which are away from the beach, another time.

emptyOn the day before the new school year, the beach was mellow. Only half had a lifeguard on duty, and the side without was nearly deserted. Walking the length of the beach, I thought a gentleman emerging from the water looked familiar. Indeed, it was a neighbor! Lots of Carcassonnais have beach chalets at Gruissan or Narbonne.

baby-coverup

I didn’t see any burkinis, but I did see lots of kids wearing a high-SPF version, left. A good idea–better than a wrestling match to apply sun lotion, which then immediately gets washed off. There also were a frightening number of naked and badly sunburned kids.

We’ll be back. Our favorite time to visit the beach is winter. The sun is bright but not burning, the beach is empty, and a few restaurants stay open. We only need one.

footprint

Summer Truffles

on breadOne of the saving graces of winter is tuber melanosporum: the black truffles that perfume dishes from December to February.

There’s another variety, called tuber aestivum, or the summer truffle, which is whiter and has a more subtle taste.

Barriere
Philippe Barrière

A couple of years ago, Philippe Barrière opened his Atélier de la Truffe on rue Trivalle, the street just below la Cité. He long was the person who inspected each and every truffle sold at the markets in Aude. As I mentioned before, the truffle trade has long been an under-the-table affair, with unknowledgeable buyers sometimes paying fortunes for nothing more than rocks. In Aude, by contrast, all the truffles sold at the markets are inspected.

Interior
A few tables inside, as well as seats at the bar. More tables outside in front and back. A bounty of good wines.

So M. Barrière knows his stuff, and we and a bunch of our friends decided to spend a summer evening enjoying his expertise.

sel
A tip from the master: a sprinkle of salt heightens the truffle flavor. It worked! Gruissan is not far from here, on the Mediterranean, and has sea salt production.

Truffles are costly, so we limited ourselves to having an apéritif chez Barrière and then moving to a main course in the Bastide. First, we went for foie gras with truffles on toast.

foie gras
There’s foie gras under each row. He wasn’t stingy with the truffles!

I am not a foie gras fan, but I must admit it was beyond succulent. When the slates were set on the table, the scent of truffle from the generous portions was intoxicating.

wineWe had a lovely bottle from Borie de Maurel in la Livinière part of Minervois. If you ever see a wine from la Livinière, you can bet it is good.

chevreThen we had truffled chèvre, again delicious, though the foie gras was better. It’s like poor Aly Raisman. She is an amazing gymnast, better than everybody at the Olympics….except for Simone Biles, who got the gold. (Raisman won silver.) The chèvre was amazing…except that the foie gras was even more amazing.

menuHere’s a quick translation of the menu (truffled plates):

Smashed summer truffle on toast

Shirred eggs with summer truffle

Potatoes with summer truffle

Goat cheese with summer truffle

Beef carpaccio with summer truffle

Foie gras and summer truffle (notice the “and”–it means they’re sliced on top and not grated and mixed in like the others)

Fish carpaccio (he said it was tuna), with foie gras, summer truffle

Homemade summer truffle ice cream

bread basket
Do you see what the bread basket is made of?

We’ll be back….

grattou
Truffle tools: a scraper for €60; €70 if it folds.

 

 

Ghost River

river stonesThe summers in the south of France are hot and dry. It means no sticky humidity. No mosquitos.

By hot, I mean mid-80s to mid-90s Fahrenheit, sometimes dancing around 100. Nights usually are cool, in the 60s. Yesterday, the high was 34 C (93 F) and the low 13.5 (56 F). It’s why we don’t have air conditioning. Just gorgeous summer weather.

More stonesBut the last rain that was more than a trace was 4.4 mm (0.17 inch) on Aug. 4. It’s about one-tenth the usual total for August.

riverThis river has dried up. It’s hard to believe that a few years before we moved here it flooded houses in the village up to the upstairs floor.

Now, the little rapids look like ghosts. Will we be haunted by what we’ve done to the Earth?

 

close rapidsAt the beginning of the summer, I couldn’t even see the blocks to cross the passage à gué.

passage a gueFarther downstream, underground springs revive the river to a trickle. Enough for some ducks, who set up housekeeping at the same spot every year.

ducksThe marin has kept the Pyrénées in crystal clear focus. Not a cloud in the sky. Usually the easterly marin brings rain. Thunderstorms are forecast for Monday. Fingers crossed.

 

Port de Trèbes

portContinuing our staycation, we decided to eat out at the best place for fish in the region: La Poissonnerie Moderne de Trèbes.

Trèbes is a pleasant town nestled up against the east side of Carcassonne. Though it’s 70 kms from the coast, it’s a port … on the Canal du Midi.

poissonnerie moderneThe fish, however, comes from the sea. The Belgian of the household knows his moules-frites, and gives the highest honors to Martine of la Poissonnerie Moderne. It’s a fish shop that has a restaurant only in the summer, with tables facing the port.

vignes de bacchusIt isn’t alone: neighbors are les Vignes de Bacchus and a very good pizzeria, Trattoria Napoli.

Meanwhile, tables on the boats faced the restaurant scene.

boats resto tablesA constant stream of people drifted by, adding to the holiday atmosphere.

street

singer
French hits from the ’80s

A guy on a recumbent bike seemed outraged by the pedestrians. He didn’t make eye contact with anybody, just huffing and glaring at some point far ahead when the throng hindered his progress. I think he needed a glass of wine.

bikeThe moules-frites were deemed delicious. We also had a starter of pickled seafood, then salmon and tuna. Five stars.

moules

eating moules
To look like a pro mussels eater, use an empty shell as tweezers to pull out the mussel. 

Trèbes was holding its Marché Nocturne at the end of the port, so we meandered that way in search of dessert.

The market was small, mostly wine tastings, local food specialties, handmade jewelry and brightly colored plastic toys. No dessert. We were too full anyway.

If it seems as if there’s always some event going on, that’s because there IS always some event going on. More to come!

 

 

 

 

 

Paradise in the Middle of Nowhere

20 view southThe garrigue is a magical place. We try to picnic there at least every summer, which really shouldn’t be a big deal, because it’s a 20-minute walk outta town. Yet, it’s another world.

12 sky pine cones17 view northThe garrigue is a wilderness. It has trees, but isn’t really a forest like in the north. In some places, there’s just low bush that reminds me of the African savannah. Apparently, there was a vast Mediterranean forest that from time to time was degraded, often by fire, and the garrigue is what grew up afterward. The ground is so rocky that it escaped farming or development and stayed wild.

18 rock
The road

The garrigue has the most divine perfume. A mix of dry pine needles, hot dusty rock, thyme, rosemary and wildflowers. I would love to bottle it and spritz it around my house.

19 cigale
A cigale! It stopped rubbing its wings when we approached…like “nothing to see here, move along!”

The garrigue also has an enchanting song. The wind whistles and hums through the pines. The birds sing. But they’re all just backup for the lead singers, the cigales, that scratch out their steady beat. (Here’s a link with recordings of cigales.)

Cigales are cicadas, but their song here isn’t at all like the one that lulled me to sleep in the Midwest of the U.S. It’s as if they speak different languages.

19 pines sunWe decided to go to a spot accessed by the far end of the village. Since we had a cooler of food and other stuff, we took the car and parked at the entrance to the garrigue. It’s almost formal. The road goes up past vineyards, then forks, one side continuing to more vineyards and the other turning rocky and forbidding. We advanced to a shady spot and parked.

We aren’t experts on the garrigue, and it’s huge, so we are careful to stick to the main path. We continued on foot, looking for just the right picnic spot with lots of cushiony pine needles and not too many rocks or sprouting bushes.

3 bikes
Three bikes. The only people we saw the entire afternoon. And no motor sounds or other human presence.

Our picnic consisted of a classy “empty the fridge” assortment of sandwiches, followed by cheese (duh!) and nectarines for dessert. Nothing tastes as good as a picnic, especially one in the garrigue, where the scent of herbs is so strong you can taste them.

A post-prandial siesta followed. Not so much sleeping as being still and absorbing. Pure heaven.

13 sun
The view when lying on the blanket in the garrigue.

A visit to the garrigue is a special moment in this part of the south of France. For a happy trip:

2 paths

5 brush–no fires! They’re strictly forbidden because the place is a tinderbox. The region gets a lot of wildfires, often started by something as small as a cigarette tossed out a car window. It’s usually very windy, which makes fire all the more dangerous, and in summer  the few streams are bone dry.

4 view to carca
Carcassonne in the distance, with the Pyrénées beyond.

 

 

French Underground

P1000969
A column, designed and sculpted by nature

I never thought I’d get into speleology. For one thing, where I grew up, it’s flat. No caves that I know of. Well, John Brown’s cave, but that was pretty far away. For some reason, I dreamed of seeing Carlsbad Caverns, but that was even farther.

Turns out the mountains in France are Swiss cheese. Caves galore to expore!

P1000970I wouldn’t say I’m “into” speleology, but when it’s as easy as the Grotte du Limousis, it’s hard not to at least check it out. Limousis isn’t adapted for wheelchairs or strollers, but we took elderly mother-in-law, who managed the short hike through the garrigue from the reception to the cave entrance, after which, you’re in a more or less flat cave at 55 degrees. Which is fabulous in the middle of summer. Or winter.

P1000945
The bottom third of the photo is reflection. Can you tell?

As a room mother, I had the honor (?) of visiting an unmarked, “wild” cave nearby. There is nothing quite as terrifying as being cut off from mobile phone reception (duh, underground), with a lamp on your helmet (already, we have to wear helmets? It’s that dangerous?) and a squirming bunch of third graders who are harder to herd than cats and a guide who says, “keep a watch over there,” pointing to a dark corner of the cave, “there’s a hole that goes down 20 meters or more.” Because that’s the room mother’s job, keeping stray cats, I mean kids, from falling into bottomless holes in the middle of the earth.

P1000946Saving grace: while there were bats, there were no spiders. It occurred to me to be afraid of the bugs only after I was well underground with the class and no longer allowed to panic, and it was a huge relief to discover there were no bugs at all.

Limousis is nicer because (1) it’s well-lit, (2) you can walk through it comfortably—no wiggling like a snake through a chatière (definition: “a very difficult and tight passage that you can only get through by crawling”—ha! as if a chatière were big enough for being on all fours! no, you squirm like a worm, plus it’s wet), (3) no puits or deep drop-offs or holes, at least not on the tourist route, (4) it’s beautiful, (5) they serve wine.

So if you’re into caves, just curious, or want to taste some good wine, Limousis is for you.

P1000944The cave was discovered by people who could write in 1811, or maybe 1789. It was discovered much earlier by people who didn’t write, but who left skeletal remains, thank you very much. A bear left its marks, too, near the entrance.

There’s a room that’s rather large with a nice flat floor that the nearby village of Limousis used to use as a salle de fête—a party hall, like for wedding receptions—and it’s naturally air-conditioned (summer) or heated (winter)! Plus the acoustics are awesome. The floor was created over millennia by calcium deposits on an underground lake, which eventually hardened, while the lake water receded, leaving the floor stretched like the cover of a drum, and a hollow space below that produces the resonance.

There’s a pretty green pool and stalactites (the ones hanging from the ceiling) and stalagmites (the ones growing up from the ground), not to mention columns where the two meet, all over the place. Don’t touch or you’ll “kill” them—oils from our hands changes the special chemistry. It would be a shame because they grow drop by drop, about a quarter of an inch to almost an inch per century. Math quiz: if a stalagmite is 3 feet tall, how old is it?*

In the last room, there’s a huge formation of aragonite, which is pretty cool.

P1000937
Aragonite, up close. Doesn’t it look like something from the ocean depths?

Unknown

In the first room of the cave, the wine cooperative Alliance Minervois ages some wine, called l’Amethyeste—what better place, right?

 

Answer: 3,660 to 14,400 years old.

Character

blue shuttersDo you dream about a house in the south of France? Check this one out.

It’s an architect-designed house, built in 1904. Made of stone, with decorative “quoins,” or corner stones. The walls are 80 cm (30 inches) thick in the basement, and 50 cm (20 inches) thick upstairs. That’s amazing insulation—warm in winter and cool in summer.

street viewThe 190 square meters (2,045 square feet) are spread over eight main rooms, with parquet floors. There are six working chimneys—four in sculpted walnut and two in marble.

officeA grand staircase made of oak.

stairs

The rooms are spacious: a living room of 32 square meters (345 square feet), and 11-foot ceilings. Two offices (it was commissioned by a notary) of 20 m2 and 16 m2. The kitchen is as big as some Parisian apartments—35 m2! The street-side window is stained glass.

And an “oeil de boeuf” or bull’s eye window. (Sigh. I’m jealous. I love those.)

 

Upstairs there are three big bedrooms and one small one, plus a bathroom and separate toilet.

In the basement, there’s a wine cellar (of course!) and an atelier with direct access to the street. And, what I think is coolest of all, a well made of carved stones.

The garden is big enough for a place to eat outside and grow some plants but not so huge that you’ll never have time to do anything but keep up with it.

gardenEven more charmingly, the house has stayed in the same family for a century. In the past 10 years, certain things have been modernized, including the plumbing, electricity, attic insulation and furnace.

corner viewIt’s in Lombez, a town of not quite 2,000 people in the department of Gers, about 45 minutes from Toulouse. The Pyrénées are just over an hour away for hiking or skiing, and the Mediterranean and Atlantic are just over 2 hours away.

If you’re interested, let me know. I’ll put you in touch with the sellers, who are friends.

far view

Turn Turn Turn

wheat vines bestIn spring, the vines are brown but the other fields are green, whether with tender shoots of winter wheat or just plain weeds. It’s odd that a place is so verdant in winter. We rarely see snow, or even frost, so everything just keeps growing.

By figs green
Wheat in spring

In summer, it’s the reverse. Already at the start of July, the wheat is being harvested, first shorn like the buzz cuts my brothers used to get every summer. My uncle would come over and shear them outside not to make a mess, one after another, like so many sheep. A rite of summer.

By figs brown
Same field, about a week ago.

It’s funny to drive by and see stiff stubble where days before heavy heads of grain rippled in the wind, shivering like a body of water. Amber waves of grain. Later, the fields are cut again, shaved down to the skin of the earth.

Patchwork fields 1Sometimes the harvesters are working at 3 a.m. They probably are far away, but it’s so still at that hour that sound carries effortlessly. The farmers probably are racing the weather, their best frenemy forever. It looked like rain last night–dramatic black clouds, theatrical thunder, impressive lightning, but then nothing more than a few sprinkles that seemed to evaporate before reaching the hot ground. Enough to dirty the car but not enough to sate the tomatoes. Ça ne sert à rien, quoi.

vines wheat treesThe perfume is intoxicating. Cut grass on steroids. That makes sense–wheat is a grass after all. The syrupy sweet smell oozes through the windows. It’s so thick, I want to drink it instead of breathe it. Or bite into it, with melted butter on top. It smells almost, almost, like bread baking. How crazy is that?

long view to carcaWhen we came here, all the fields were vineyards. Nothing but. Since 2008, the European Union has tried to shore up wine prices by reducing supply. Winegrowers get a payout to pull out their vines. Every season, we see more and more vineyards yanked out.

wheat mountains green
Another view in spring

It seems sad because wine is really adapted to the circumstances. The climate here is very hot and dry, and vines send their roots far down to find water underground. Many vines are 40 or 50 years old, gnarled and thick. They are survivors. It hurts to see them pulled out. Plus, the region’s wines have gotten very good.

wheat mountains brown
The same field from almost the same place in summer

In their place? Wheat, colza (rapeseed),  sunflowers, and other things I don’t recognize. They create a patchwork across the countryside, with colors that are continually changing–green, bluish, reddish, brown.

red field
Somebody tell me what the red field in the middle is

It makes me think of that Byrds’ song from the hippie dippy 1960s. A song I never liked (is it because they spelled the band’s name with a y?), but it ran through my head yet again today as I drove past the changing fields. The lyrics, at least, ring true.