Sometimes unexpected sounds float through my open window. Waking in the middle of the night, the city is so silent, I can hear my own heartbeat. And then….Read more
The ancient hearts of French towns hold surprises on their narrow, rarely straight streets. Among all these pretty, old towns, Pézenas, in the Hérault department in southern France, is exceptionally lovely.Read more
It’s been a while. This blog has always focused on the good life in France, and not about my life, which is pretty boring, and, of late, hit by unhappy changes. But I finally got out and did something very French–I went to an antique fair.Read more
Yesterday I crossed paths with the cutest fairy–I was horrified later to realize she was a fairy, having incorrectly called her a butterfly–with irridescent rainbow wings and matching skirt. Even her face had been painted with colorful swirls. She came up to my knees, which is not much at all.
We were crossing the street, the fairy clinging to the hand of her mother. The sun was shining, despite the storm clouds. Just as the light changed, the skies opened in a kind of localized ice-bucket challenge. I was soaked to the skin before I had made it across the two lanes. Preoccupied with dodging the drops, I didn’t see how the fairy fared.That was about the extent of Halloween for us. We don’t get trick or treaters, especially since our kid is too big for such things. What I do see all over is Christmas. No! It’s still warm out! Until the rain arrived, even a light sweater was too much during the day. Of course, the rain is welcome; it’s what turns the countryside a brilliant green in winter. The vineyards are only starting to change color, not yet reaching their vivid peak. Flowers are blooming, especially wildflowers in the garrigue. As I made my way through a wooded area on my walk/run route, I heard a very loud buzzing. It sounded like what some poor idiot hears right before they stumble on the decaying body of a murder victim in a horror film. So it was with great relief that I realized the buzzing was bees, working a flowering vine that had taken over a dead tree. I put a short clip on Instagram. Unfortunately, I can’t electronically share the lovely perfume of the flowers.My new route takes me along the edge of the garrigue, that magical wilderness that smells of pine and herbs. I wear an orange cap I bought in the hunting aisle at the sporting goods store and fluorescent pink windbreaker to let hunters know I’m not a boar (maybe a bore, and at times a pig, especially around chocolate, but never, ever a boar). It only later occurred to me that the more dangerous encounter might be with an actual boar. I decided to sing to ward them off. It’s the perfect place–not a soul.
Sadly, that is changing. I see fields where vineyards have been pulled out, marked off for new housing construction. The centers of villages and towns empty out as people want freestanding houses with yards, encroaching on nature and transforming the landscape in ways that will be hard to turn back. The newcomers do not appreciate chance encounters with wild boars, either.
Today is a holiday–All Saint’s Day–and I’m contemplating how to spend it. Probably raking up the golden leaves, which fall faster than I can pick them up. Gardening is a Sisyphean task.What are you up to? Ready for winter? Or is it already winter where you live?
The nights have been crisper, wonderful for sleeping. But it’s only today that it finally feels like fall. Some much-needed rain started during the night and is supposed to continue, gently and steadily, all day. I imagine the plants in the garden straightening up, as if they’re doing the sun salutation in yoga, raising their anthropomorphic faces to the sky and greeting the raindrops
The wine harvest has started, but it seems subdued compared to past years. Vast stretches of vineyards have been plowed under to become fields of wheat, sunflowers and other crops. Usually the mornings at this time of year would be heralded not by the neighboring rooster but by the growl of the big vendange machines, that look like monsters from a horror film.
Another reason we’re happy for the rain is that there have been a few fires. Every year, there are fires, but these seemed especially worrisome. One brought in 12 firefighting planes. I had only ever seen two flying over, en route between the fire and Lac de Saint-Ferréol, where they refill with water.One fire grew significantly between the time I first saw the smoke and when I was heading home later. I pulled over at a rare wide spot on the road. Other cars joined me. Everybody took pictures with our phones and ended up chatting for quite a while. It’s crazy how you can connect with people sometimes.
A few crazy things I’ve noticed, which are too random to warrant a post.
The foods at the market are changing. Soon the peaches and nectarines will turn mealy and we’ll have to give up on them. But happily there are already apples. Still lots of tomatoes and I have been given orders to make sauce. If I get it together, I will post a street style roundup on Friday. Until then…
As pretty as Minerve is, it has a dark, gruesome history. Back in June 1210, it was beseiged by the papal forces in the crusade against the Cathars. It was almost a year after the massacre at Béziers and the capitulation of Carcassonne, bigger towns about equidistant from Minerve. Refugees had fled to Minerve, which must have seemed like a safe place, nearly surrounded by sheer cliffs, the sole access by land guarded by a fortress. It was isolated, in the middle of nowhere, and so had been passed by during the original campaign.The leader of the crusade, Simon de Montfort, didn’t like having a refugee center around. He used Minerve’s natural defenses against it, setting up trébuchets on the opposite sides of the deep ravines that surround Minerve. He ordered Minerve to be destroyed. There’s a reconstruction of a trébuchet, dubbed Malvoisine, or Bad Neighbor, on the plateau opposite Minerve. What broke the Minervois, however, was that their access to their only well was cut off and it was summer–no rain to carry them over. The residents were given a chance to convert but only three did; 140 were burned at the stake, probably in the dry riverbed of the Cesse. It was the first collective stake burning of the crusade. They weren’t tied up but marched down rue des Martyrs (Martyr Street) and had to throw themselves into the pyre.
Good thing we aren’t so barbaric anymore, eh?
Today, Minerve is the picture of calm and charm.The rivers must be something when they are high. Think of the force it took to carve these cliffs.
Not far away, not very well marked, is the Curiosité de Lauriole, which I have been dying to see. I don’t have good photos of it, because it’s something you have to see in person, though there are videos online. The road looks like it’s inclining ever so slightly, but in fact it’s going downhill.
I took a ball, but it failed miserably because of the wind. Then I put my car in the middle of the road, stopped completely and let my foot off the brake, expecting to roll gently forward. Instead, I rolled gently backward. I’m all in for cheap thrills.Back to Minerve. I appreciate a street with an archway. I always wonder about the title to the house that goes above it. How do they deal with the street part? The notaries of France must be very creative. When we were looking for property to buy, we visited a house in a little village where access to a bedroom was via a small door–so small that even a shortie like me had to bend way down. How would you even get a mattress in there? And to get to that room you had to go through another bedroom. Crazy.
But the craziest part was that I realized we were above a neighboring grange. Who owned the grange? Someone else. What if they wanted to tear it down? You couldn’t have the bedroom just hanging there, suspended in the air. That place was nuts in other ways, too. I wonder who ever bought it.
And we also saw a house, just next to la Cité of Carcassonne, where the bathroom was down some steps, kind of a half basement, under the neighbor’s house. I asked about it and the owners said, oh, the neighbors are nice. (My reaction: ?!?!?!?) The owners were a certain kind of French older couple you find in rustic places. They were dedicated smokers, both with voices of gravel. He wore a gold chain and pinkie ring. They loved Johnny Hallyday (the French Elvis) and had posters and “paintings” of him all over. One might have been velvet. I wonder whether they got to hear Johnny’s concert in Carcassonne–his last–just steps from their house. I think they sold before. We never know how close we came to having luck, do we? It’s one thing to be in the right place, but you also have to be there at the right time.
There are cute French villages and then there are REALLY CUTE French villages. Minerve is in the superlative category. Officially so: it’s on the list of les Plus Beaux Villages de France (the Most Beautiful French Villages). I know I just said I was a city girl, but I do love places like this.It has been a while since we’ve visited. Though it’s been on the to-do list for all of my recent visitors, we just never had the time for the 45-minute drive from Carcassonne. What a mistake. The drive is gorgeous. And the village…well, these photos were taken on a Sunday afternoon in August. Peak tourist. Yet you can see for yourself that Minerve was quiet. A secret. Now you know. Share wisely.The town is built at the confluence of the Cesse and Brian rivers. About 50 million years ago, the entire area was the bottom of a warm-water sea, as evidenced by the fossils in the limestone. The rivers carved deep gorges, which form a comma-shaped peninsula, kind of. Natural fortification. Unsurprisingly, it has been occupied since the Bronze Age.
The Romans came along, too. The town appeared officially in writing around 873. Old. Stuff like that just boggles my mind. Obviously places fell down and were built over, but probably some of the same stones were used. And today those houses are still there, and they have Internet.
There’s a charming bookstore and lots of artists’ shops and studios and many places to eat and drink. There are about 130 residents, down considerably from the boom years of the mid-1800s, when there were about 400. It’s clearly not an easy place to live. Imagine hauling your groceries–or worse, a new piece of furniture–down these “streets.” But vacationers provide some animation. Just enough to keep the place alive, without overrunning it. The rivers lie far below, bone dry at this time of year, but prone to flashes of rage. At least the town is high and dry.
The Candela is all that remains of the viscount’s castle, which was built at the end of the 13th century. There once was a drawbridge nearby. The castle was dismantled in the 18th and 19th centuries. I wonder why.The church was closed, but the exterior was fascinating.
I took so many photos, I’m going to do another post. Come back for more on Friday.
In the south of France, people are laid back, things move slowly, we take the time to savor life, and that includes two hours (minimum) in the middle of the day for lunch and nap. It all seems idyllic, until it isn’t.
We woke up on Thursday morning with no Internet, no fixed phone service and no mobile phone service. Things were a bit like when la Cité of Carcassonne, pictured above, was built back in the Middle Ages.
It turns out that a telephone substation in another village caught on fire. This station serves 33 villages, including ours, across a surprisingly wide area. Who knows when it will be fixed. (1) It’s still August. You can’t do anything until after la rentrée (the re-entry) on Monday, Sept. 2. And even then, people are coming back from vacation and need a good week to get back into the routine. (2) The phone company, Orange, is unfamiliar with the concept of customer service. They seem to have watched Lily Tomlin’s phone operator skits as guides. I shouldn’t dump too much on Orange; I cannot think of any phone company in any city or country where I’ve lived (and the list is long) that had good service. (3) We’re in the south, and nothing moves quickly, even when it isn’t vacation. (4) The point that irks me the most is that it just affects some little villages, and thus isn’t important.
Sometimes–often–I hate living in the country. I love France, and I love living in France. But I regret not living in a city. I am 100% city mouse.
I remember one time we went to Barcelona for a weekend. We stood near the corner by El Corte Ingles, the big Spanish department store worth a post of its own one day, and looked at the wide street sloping down, completely full of people. I sighed with happiness; the Carnivore sighed with stress. Some of us cannot wait to jump into la foule (the crowd) and swim with the schools of humanity. I find my heart warming as I observe my fellow humans going about their business. Some are chic, some are eccentric. Children seem to be in a bubble of their own, never paying attention to where they’re going, quick to spot other children, or animals, or disgusting things on the sidewalk (they ARE closer, after all), while their parents struggle to herd them along. I wonder where everybody is going, what their lives are like. I want to chat with them all.
I was talking to somebody just recently about moving to France. I told her we moved here from New York and that it was hard. I cried and cried for months. Her eyes grew big, and she said something about culture shock. I assured her that I’m a lifelong francophile; the culture shock wasn’t about France, but about going from a major metropolis to a village a few hundred people.
The closest Carcassonne comes to bustling is la Cité on summer afternoons and the market in the central square on Saturday mornings. Even then, it’s a dialed-down version. There’s a certain convenience to life without crowds. Parking is easy. Lines for anything are rare. People are friendly.
I try to appreciate the good side. It’s essential for survival. The rolling hills of vineyards, giving way to the mountains, are exquisite. This blog has made me pay attention to all the beauty around me.
Thank you for reading. Who knows whether we will have Internet next week. Maybe I will commute to Carcassonne for a connection. We’ll see. Meanwhile, tell me, are you a city mouse or a country mouse?
We had a little get-together last weekend, and I wanted to share some dishes with you. But first, some exciting news: We’re featured on Distant Francophile, on the “Franco-Files” audio interviews. Janelle, the Distant Francophile herself, visits France regularly and writes a great blog about French style, travel tips, culture and more. I was very flattered to be included. We talked a lot about buying property in France and renovating it.
On to the dinner: Everything was made ahead, no last-minute slaving in a hot kitchen. Like most people in France, even in the south of France, we don’t have air conditioning. But the evenings are cool and the climate is dry enough that we don’t battle bugs. It’s ideal for using our outdoor dining room, a pergola surrounded by stone walls.
Our neighbors and our kid are vegetarian; I am 99.5% vegetarian, too. When I was dating the Carnivore, he asked me, warily, whether I was vegetarian. In my mind, either you are or you aren’t, like being pregnant, or being an art thief. There’s no, “it depends.” Thus, having a hamburger once a year and steak tartare maybe twice a year, plus a chicken a couple of times, and fish, too, made me anything but vegetarian, even if the total came to once or twice a month. Certainly not once or twice a day, which is the Carnivore’s case. So I have been a huge disappointment in the meat department, especially because he doesn’t count chicken or fish as meat.
Anyway, my plan was to have a complete vegetarian meal, and he would grill ridiculously gigantic steaks for the meat-eaters. I wasn’t interested in the usual vegetarian option of making a menu and just leaving out the meat for the vegetarians–“let them eat potatoes.” I wanted to flip that and make a vegetarian menu and just add meat for the carnivores.
For starters, we had crudités with ranch dip (huge hit in France); oeufs mimosa (deviled eggs); and hard sausages.
The entrées were tarte soleil with zucchini and tomato, carrot rillettes and a clafoutis with cherry tomatoes. Une tarte soleil is just a tart with the crust cut to look like a sun. Very pretty. And while clafoutis is typically a dessert, this was a savory version with cheese.
The main course was a daube, or thick stew, of eggplant and chickpeas, served with potatoes–same as for the steak eaters. And there was a vegetable terrine on the side. I wanted the vegetable side dish to be cold, pretty, and something I could serve as a piece, not by the spoonful. It was an esthetic choice. I didn’t want the vegetarian plates to be just splotches of undefined stuff.
You never know the secrets people will spill after a few glasses of wine. The secrets cascade, too. One person divulges something, and, receiving nothing but empathy and caring from those gathered, someone else is emboldened to share something as well. One friend described being taken from his hard-working but impoverished single mother and shipped to a convent, where the nuns were cruel (this was a common theme in the friends’ stories). This guy is the sweetest, calmest, gentlest person. So many people who have had bad childhoods turn out with their kindness broken. It’s beaten out of them. But not him. And it all made me think of how the scars of separation never heal, even seven decades later. He described the scene of being taken from his mother in minute detail. Children belong with their parents. I have several friends who are foster parents, and some of the cases are heartbreaking proof that at times children are not safe with their parents. But then there are cases of cruel bureaucracy–back in the day it was against single mothers; today it is, in some places, against parents with brown skin fleeing violence that has its roots in the very country they’re fleeing to–their hoped-for safe haven created and fed the dangers in their homelands that caused them to run.Another friend is from Normandy. That I always knew, and I always knew his age. But what I failed to put together before is that he was born in 1941. Think of what was going on in Normandy in the 1940s–some of the worst of World War II. He said his earliest memories were the planes buzzing overhead and the German trucks trundling past the house. Can you even imagine raising children smack in the middle of war? But if you can’t escape…. And of course, the problems didn’t end with V-E Day. Communities were destroyed, food was rationed, malnutrition was rampant. Our kid listened, eyes wide, to his very unusual childhood memories. Talk about making history come to life. It’s too bad elders aren’t tapped in a better way as a resource for teaching.
There are titillating secrets, too. I heard about one villager, known as TinTin, who apparently quite the womanizer when he was young. To get even, his wife had an affair with one of his buddies…and got pregnant. As the son grew, he looked exactly like the buddy; it’s true he doesn’t look a bit like TinTin. I used to think he was always mad, and steered clear–our kids were in school together. But now I wonder whether his expression was of sadness, of probably knowing the story of his birth, even though TinTin raised him as his own. And I never would have guessed Mme. TinTin was the scheming, nasty person described; I knew her only as the very prim and proper lady, whom I would greet as she meticulously swept her front step.
Back to the recipes!
1 premade flaky pie crust (pâte feuillété…you can get a bunch of different kinds here).
2-3 tablespoons of soft cheese: cream cheese, ricotta, Boursin. Just so it spreads.
summer vegetables, sliced very thin. I used two zucchini and a tomato. I peeled the zucchini, cut rounds, then cut the rounds in half.
2 tablespoons of olive oil
Preheat the oven to 360F/180C. Spread out the pie crust on a large cookie sheet lined with parchment paper. Mine were too small, so I turned one over. The crust extended past the edge a little but didn’t slump.Put a bowl about 5-6 inches (12-13 cms) in diameter in the middle of the crust. Smear the cheese on the pie crust around the bowl. Then arrange the vegetables. I made two rings, facing opposite directions.Remove the bowl and cut the pie crust in the center as shown below. Fold back the dough over the vegetables. Brush with olive oil and bake until the crust is brown. Delicious at room temperature.
Rillettes are made from meat or fish, cooked very, very slowly in their own fat until they fall apart into shreds. The vegetarian version gets its name because the carrots fall to shreds and you can spread the stuff on bread, but that’s where the similarities end.
2 carrots, peeled and cut into rounds
3 oz. or about 1/3 cup (75g) soft cheese like cream cheese, ricotta, St. Môret….I used cream cheese for both this and the tarte soleil, since the tarte requires so little.
Boil the carrots until they’re soft. Drain. Use a fork to smash them roughly into chunks. You don’t want purée.
When cool, mix the carrots with the cheese; salt and pepper to taste. You can jazz it up with spices–cumin is good.
Spread on baguettes or toast.
Usually clafoutis is a dessert, made with cherries. The batter is similar to the batter for crêpes, but instead of individual, thin pancakes, you pour it all into a pan.
1 cup/120 g flour
1 cup/25 cl milk
2 oz/50g parmesan, finely grated (please don’t use the ready-made stuff!)
30-50 cherry tomatoes (small ones are better, but you need more of them)
Butter for the baking dish
Preheat the oven to 360F/180C. Beat the eggs. Add the flour, then thin out the mixture with the milk so you don’t get lumps. Add the parmesan. Let it rest 20-30 minutes.
Butter and flour a 9×12-inch baking dish. Pour in the batter. Then drop in the tomatoes here and there. Sprinkle with thyme and peppercorns. Bake for 25-30 minutes. Then you can set the oven to broil for a minute to make the top browner, if you like.
Serve at room temperature.
I didn’t have enough tomatoes from our garden, and the tomatoes I found at the market were pretty large, with the result that they produced a lot of juice.. Look for the smallest size you can. A mix of colors is pretty.
You can do this other ways: instead of parmesan, try mozzarella (you’ll want to add some salt to the batter; note that this version doesn’t have any because parmesan is pretty salty).
More recipes on Friday!
Little French villages are special in a general way, with their beautiful stone houses and flowers and fountains, and they each have something unique, too. Recently, one of the little villages around here put on the most astonishing performance. Young mixed with old and creativity flowed in a way that almost brought tears to my eyes.
It was a moving performance in all senses of the term. Yes, there were emotional moments, but the scenes were scattered around the village, and the spectators walked from one to another. It started at the football (soccer) field. A couple of children kicked a ball, then a flood of kids invaded the field, all while music played on loudspeakers. Then referees–adults–ran in and kicked the ball just to each other as the kids surged from one to another of the refs. A loud boom send the players all to the ground. Sirens started, and some guys dressed in white ran onto the field with a stretcher. They loaded up one of the refs, who seemed to have a ball under his shirt. Then the kids all ran off and the audience moved on…not having the slightest clue.
We climbed one of those passageways you find in old villages, made by and for pedestrians centuries ago. Dancers writhed against the walls. Then we came out at a space where a grange or garage or house had been torn down, leaving a gap like a lost tooth in the otherwise complete row of attached stone houses. It was set up like an operating room.The ref was on the table. The surgeon shouted orders. “Pump!” And the ambulanciers loudly worked a bicycle foot pump. “Pump! Pump! Pump!” the surgeon shouted, and the guys, the surgeon and the nurse all jumped up and down. “Knife!” the surgeon yelled. The nurse grabbed two–a butcher cleaver and machete, holding them in the air. “That one!” the surgeon yelled, pointing at the machete. It got more and more hysterical. Finally they delivered the ball, which was tossed to a waiting soccer kid, who led us to the next scene.In the middle of a street, a bunch of residents, wearing long work cloaks that blue-collar workers used to wear here (one of my kid’s teachers, an older guy, would don a cloak while teaching). They were in a huddle and scooted up and down and back and forth along the street as small children ran to a wall and picked off messages that were tacked there, handing the messages to people in the audience.
We migrated up the street, where a big pot of artificial flowers was in front of a house. A very tiny, very ancient lady stood in the doorway, laughing that so many people were behaving so strangely in this little village. Children came and plucked the flowers, handing some to her and some to the audience. Across the street, somebody’s legs dangled and kicked out of an upper-story window. As we climbed the narrow street, sweet notes of a cello slipped out of an acoustically lovely old stone garage, played by a very handsome young man, maybe late teens or early 20s. Everybody held their breath as he let the music float out to embrace us. It was magical.Around the corner, some people wearing rain coats and hats were seated in a line of chairs, reading the newspaper, as if they were on a train. They took turns reading random headlines out loud, like some kind of Dada poetry slam.
Adding to the train impression was a big white sheet stretched across the street (which was only barely wide enough for a person to lie down in cross-wise). Some bright lights blared at us from behind the sheet, almost like a train coming through a tunnel. We advanced to the sheet, and then music started. Dancers were behind the sheet, casting shadows on it. It got silly and funny and was all improvised. We moved to a village square, where some older residents and young girls playing cards around a big table. They were clearly cheating, getting more and more outrageous. The girls crawled under the table and walked on top of it, throwing cards. All this was to music. Finally the cards got more maniacally tossed in the air, a boom rang out and we were off to the next thing.
The nurse and surgeon were back, this time with an improvised tale that was completely nonsensical, with lots of double-entendres and puns that would be way too complicated to explain in translation. Between the slapstick and the coy jokes, young and old were cracking up. Under the trees in a cool spot by the park, a young woman perched on a stool. She exuded calm and poise. She had two instruments, a large drum filled with pebbles, and a finger harp. She asked us to close our eyes, and she took us to the sea. She spoke about the beauty of the sea, the importance of the sea, while the waves swirled audibly around us. She added a few notes from the harp, which seemed to me to be in my ears what the sun does when it glints off the water. Again, everyone held their breath. Mesmerized.
In the park, a final scene brought all the cast, starting with dancers who scampered among the trees. An adult in a rabbit costume walked a tightrope stretched between two trees. Every talent had a place! The football players arrived, and finally everybody took a bow. Two food trucks were in the park, and tables were set up for the shared moment to continue.
Have you ever seen such a thing? I was so impressed by the wide variety of people who participated and the many talents of such a little village. If anything, it was a bit like Dr. Seuss’s Whoville, and after this special night, the village’s heart got even bigger.
I don’t have the kind of WordPress account to allow for videos, so I’ll try to put some clips on Instagram. A couple of the acts I have only videos of–the cellist and the wave-maker.