Trying to explain what is “new” and “old” in France to somebody from the Americas is challenging. In a place where the first buildings still standing went up in 485 CE, something from 1663 is relatively new.
I never liked history because of having to memorize dates. It’s very strange, because I’m good with numbers and am likelier to remember somebody’s phone number or zip code than their name. I guess we also had to memorize a lot of names. Not enough emphasis on the stories!
I finally have a few key points under my belt, such as July 14, 1789: Bastille Day. These things never happen on a whim. The kindling is laid for years, and then when the fire is sparked, it takes off ferociously.
The houses above were built in the period when things had been getting better to the extent that people lived longer and populations swelled. France had the biggest population in Europe. For a while it was boom times, then prices for food rose sharply.
This 1790 house was built in the early days of the revolution, not far from the 1780 house. Had the unrest reached this far into France profonde? To get here, you have to pass the mountainous Massif Central, until the band of plain where these houses lie. Beyond here, you hit mountains, where sheep outnumber people, and then Spain.
I constantly marvel and am thankful that these houses, with their not-square corners and not-plumb walls and not-level floors, have been inhabited and tended to, rather than torn down for something modern.
In the little streets, time stands still.
Despite the simple tools of the time, curves (the intentional ones!) grace the architecture.
Concrete and glass can be beautiful, but after a while, so many pure lines feel bland. Give me a nice stone wall that has seen some things.
Arched door, arched back.
I mentioned just last week, on the first day of spring, that the trees had a green haze that hinted at leaves, which I predicted would burst out all at once. Well, the switch flipped. The photos below are from almost the same spot. The one on the left was from a couple of weeks ago with the first buds, and the one on the right was taken yesterday.
Spring fever is contagious. My kid occasionally often forgets to be a sullen teen, for example, yesterday, exclaiming at breakfast that the birds were singing. Indeed, a whole chorus of birds chirped and twittered in the background of a belted-out aria from Merle, our resident blackbird. Un merle is French for blackbird, and I think it’s a good name for such a singer. He often sits on the peak of our house and serenades us as we dine en terrace in the evenings, something we can finally do again.
One of the first things I noticed when we moved to our little village in very rural southern France: the elderly residents would go to the bakery for their daily baguette while wearing bedroom slippers. Always plaid flannel ones. How charmingly eccentric, I thought.
But far and away the weirdest tale in the village concerns the pornographer parents.
At the time our kid was small—maybe two years old—there was quite a group of mothers who would show up at the park for about an hour before lunch and again after the afternoon nap. A very young woman came one day with her child—new to the village—and we welcomed them into the group.
She was a little odd, but we attributed it to her age. We were all older—I was a late starter, another had teenagers and then decided to have one more baby, two others also had teens and were foster parents to toddlers. The new arrival didn’t work, and her husband was a security guard, she said. They were from Bordeaux. She wore her hair tied up, no makeup, baggy clothes.
One day, we were at the park when her husband came by, panicked. Where were they? Were any strangers around? They might have been kidnapped! Calm down, they just left, we told him, wondering why he was acting so strangely.
We had playdates and birthday parties in addition to our park outings. The new mother gave a birthday party for her kid, and we all showed up. The house was indistinguishable from everybody else’s, with a kitchen opening to a dining area, with a Winnie-the-Pooh playhouse, and then to the living room. A high shelf ran all the way around the living room and held all kinds of movie cameras. They collected them, she said.
About a month later, one of the moms came to the park with big news. The young mother was a porn star, along with her husband. Another mom and her husband had been to the Salon de l’érotisme in Toulouse and had recognized them—they lived a couple of houses apart and hadn’t known until then.
I looked up the porn star’s site. There was a photo of her in a French maid outfit, leaning over the kitchen sink that I recognized, and I realized the photo must have been shot from next to the Winnie-the-Pooh house. There also was a film shot in the park!
The foster mothers were livid that the young woman hadn’t told them about her real occupation. They could have lost their jobs or faced a lot of headaches.
Two things made me furious: The porn site had lots of photos of their child—not sexual ones but it was still creepy, with captions like “if you love me, send presents to my little girl.” The other thing that made me mad was that the address for sending stuff was in the village. They didn’t even bother to get a post office box in town. No wonder the husband was worried about kidnappers.
I felt really bad for their daughter. She was very nervous and didn’t talk much. On school outings, she wouldn’t eat. She would hide her food and pretend she ate it. I remember putting her hair into a ponytail for her—it was very long but so terribly thin.
The parents divorced; he was abusive and the porn star often had bruises. They moved away—I don’t know where to—after a few years.
Not to end on such a low note, I’ll go even lower with the tale of another resident.
There’s an older guy, very tall and and thin and gaunt, and with a stiff gait. He must have looked older than his age at first, because almost 15 years later he still looks the same, and I’d still guess him to be about 70. He was one of the regulars we would greet on our way to school in the mornings. I always thought, “Aw, he’s going to tend graves at the cemetery, how touching,” because the only things in that direction are the cemetery, some vineyards and the garrigue. He didn’t carry tools for pruning vines or fixing wires, so the cemetery was the logical destination.
I recently learned that he doesn’t go to the cemetery but to the woods to do his business! Even in bad weather! Does the man not have indoor plumbing? Another villager surprised him in the act one day. And chewed him out. But it didn’t have any effect on him—he still heads for the woods every morning. Now when I pass him, I wince. And I stay away from the woods!
No wonder he has such a weird walk.
Which do you aim for: contentment or happiness? No, they aren’t the same thing, even though happy is content in French. Happiness is bonheur, while contentment is contentement.
Contentment is the long-term satisfaction or deep fulfillment that comes from the cumulation of good times, good relationships. Happiness is the sugar high of buying something new, getting promoted, winning. It’s fun, it’s exciting, but it doesn’t sustain.
So much of our lives are geared toward the attainment of happiness, probably because it’s more immediate and it feels darn good. But contentment is what counts.Children are probably the best example of this. It seems they are a source of unending demands and pressures—starting with 4 a.m. feedings and diaper changes, evolving and expanding to learning to drive, then university expenses and so on. Petit enfant, petit soucis. Grand enfant, grand soucis. (Small child, small worries. Big child, big worries.) Research shows parents are less happy than people who are childless.
But children enrich our lives immeasurably. When this tiny person comes into the world, we think we have never loved anyone so much. And yet that love keeps growing and growing.Of course being a parent isn’t everybody’s cup of tea. I have nothing but respect for anybody who decides they don’t want to have kids. The conscious choice is so much better than those who have kids because they just happened or had them because of social pressure, and then they don’t take care of them.
We can get contentment in other ways—from other family ties, from work, from friends, from faith, from activities like gardening or sports. Contentment requires an effort over time, and that effort might be disagreeable but the results are worth it.Happiness, by contrast, is a quick fix. Amazon Prime. Want it, get it. Now.
Not to knock that, but no amount of shopping or partying or whatever will fill an empty soul.
Life in France is particularly suited to prioritize contentment over happiness. Shops close in the evenings and on Sundays and holidays—no 24/7 here. Retail therapy takes a back seat to family time.Businesses around here also tend to offer a two-hour lunch break. Meals, in fact, are sacred, a time for conversation and sharing. There is nothing I love more than having a dinner with friends, regardless what is on the table (though that is consistently amazing). At mealtimes, everything else stops.
The absence of air conditioning is another exercise in contentment over happiness. It can feel so good to walk out of the heat and into a cold room. But once you cool down, you need a sweater. Not in France. We slowly adapt to the heat, take the time to walk a little more slowly, choose the shade. And after a while, the high temps actually feel comfortable. Didn’t we wait all winter for these warm days? (It helps that we have cool nights and low humidity.) It’s easier to get out and enjoy the summer when your body is used to the heat.Maybe I’m already getting old and crotchety, but I am losing my taste for thrills. The curtains in our apartments were a huge pain (in every sense of huge) to make, but I doubt I would admire them as much now if I had just ordered them online. The antique furnishings that were found from so many sources and brought back to life. It would have been easier to just buy reproductions, or to do the all-modern-in-an-old-building look that’s so popular. But the hard way is so much more satisfying and unique.From my open window, I hear my friend Merle singing (merle is French for blackbird, so I call him that, though he is operatic and not very country at all), and the cigales thrumming. I smell the grass and the freshly cut wheat from a nearby field. Later I will read the latest installment of the novel my kid is writing and marvel at how these ideas came together and wonder where this vocabulary was picked up (in a good way—it isn’t naughty at all; instead, some of the turns of phrases are bowl me over with their artfulness). I will hang laundry to dry in the breeze and smell fresh in a way no fabric softener can replicate. I will make a pie crust for tonight’s quiche. I will do work that I love. These things give life sweetness and meaning. Nothing thrilling, but all deeply satisfying.
All winter long, the hunters end their Sunday morning sorties with coffee at the community hall, dead beasts strapped to the hoods of their vehicles parked outside. In spring, they return, this time to eat.
On the menu: sanglier (wild boar) and chevreuil (roe deer, a small breed, 25-70 pounds). Of course, the Carnivore wanted to go.
Early in the morning, under the bridge next to the community hall, a fire was started with pieds de vigne (stumps of grape vines). A huge rotisserie (clearly jury-rigged) started turning, two sangliers and one chevreuil. Like many of the diners, I went down the river bank to take pictures of the skewered hulks. A knot of retirees with well-endowed abdomens discussed the scene, as the head cook used a huge dipper (also jury-rigged) to collect the drippings and pour them over the turning meat. “Mmmmm,” one groaned with pleasure. “Ça, c’est bon.” (That’s good.)
“Oui,” moaned another, adding a bit plaintively, “Pour le cholestérol aussi.” (For the cholesterol, too.)
“Bah, j’ai déjà fait un infarc,” says yet another. (Oh, I already had a heart attack.)
“Moi, deux.” (I had two.)
Then they went into details about how many arteries and stents and hospitals and I had to flee before my appetite was ruined.
The apéritif started as usual, outside under the porch of the community hall. A long table with pitchers of white and rosé wine, and bottles of Ricard. Don’t even think about any other brand of pastis around here. Although nobody orders a Ricard or even a pastis. They say “un jaune”–a yellow–because the alcohol oxidizes with water and turns a milky yellow.
The hunters’ gathering was different from others we have attended. Besides the extreme paucity of women and absence of children (just one boy), the demographic was decidedly older, heavier and had many more smokers. It didn’t seem that they didn’t care; instead it seemed that they DID care, especially about giving a big middle finger to rules and “shoulds” about healthy eating and moderation. On the other hand, I never saw so many people for whom the first description would be “jolly.” The cooks, especially. Big guys, their sagging, faded T-shirts stained with smoke and sweat, beaming with pride, their nonstop chuckles occasionally bubbling up into raucous belly laughs. Just recalling them makes me smile.
Anyway, they know how to cook. The first course was a salad, topped with walnuts, warm duck gizzards and a slice of foie gras. Then, after a leisurely pause, came trays groaning with sanglier. It was so heavy, our tray bent and landed on the table (without damage). There was a huge tray for every 10 people or so.The boar was served with potatoes that had roasted in the juices of the meat, and sliced onions also cooked in the meat juices. OMG.The meat itself was perfectly seasoned. With what? The cooks played coy (not just with me; a woman at the next table also tried, unsuccessfully, to wheedle the secret out of them). This led to a big discussion of what each diner detected: mustard, thyme, harissa….and of course the cloves of garlic stuck into the meat all over.
The trays were refilled with more sanglier. As if we weren’t all stuffed.
Next, they came around with the chevreuil. I passed, but the Carnivore was in heaven.
This was followed, in its sweet time, by cheese–a wedge of brie and a chunk of roquefort. The dessert was crème brulée. Then coffee.
There were three huge trays of meat left over. The meal, which started around 1:30, after the apéro, wound up around 5:30. We were all invited to come back for dinner at 8, though most of our fellow diners planned to go home and nap and to skip dinner altogether. We could hear them continue with Part II well into the night.
Oh, and the price? €13 per person, drinks included.
As with the Easter omelette and the fêtes du village, you can get in on these communal dinners. Just look at the notices at the local grocery stores and bakeries, which usually are also where you buy tickets. You need to bring your own cutlery, plates, glasses and napkins.
Here’s the promised recipe for a neglected winter vegetable: Swiss chard, or blettes. Recipes usually treat this vitamin-rich vegetable like spinach, and that’s fine, too.
But you can take advantage of the large leaves to do something special. And of course, cream and cheese make everything delicious, right?
This is a recipe I found in a French decorating magazine before Pinterest. That means I have it ripped out and stuck in a file folder. And too bad for the magazine, because it didn’t print its name on each page, so how am I to know which of the 20 magazines I bought a decade ago was the one with this recipe?
Being a loosey-goosey gourmet, about the only thing my version has in common with the original is the idea of Swiss chard as a wrapper for a cheesy custard filling.
This is very, VERY easy but it gets lots of points for presentation. It’s a great idea for a dinner where you want to impress. Plus you can make it ahead and pop it into the oven at the last minute. And you’ll seem so cool, being somebody who actually knows how to cook with Swiss chard. And you even know the French name is blettes (pronounced blett–can it get any easier?).
Swiss Chard Pillows of Bliss
a bunch of Swiss chard
one onion, diced
20 cl (a cup) of heavy cream (whatever–our village grocery didn’t have heavy cream so we took the whole cream, and I am sure it would work with low-fat cream or even milk. Just get something from the milk family.)
a cup (about 80 g) of grated hard cheese like parmesan or gruyère
a cup (about 80 g) of nuts. The magazine says pine nuts. Around here pine nuts cost so much that they are kept behind the cash register. So we went with chopped almonds.
1 tsp of oregano (not fresh because it was raining cats and dogs–see below)
salt and pepper
chives, fresh and nice and long. Ideally. For tying up your little packages. But if you don’t have chives, don’t worry!
Preheat the oven to 120 C (250 Fahrenheit)…unless you are making ahead to serve later….it doesn’t usually take long to get an oven to just 250 F.
First, you chop the stems off the Swiss chard and dice them like the onion. Heat a skillet with a little olive oil (enough to cover the bottom) and get them started to brown softly over medium-low heat. Sprinkle with oregano, salt and pepper. Stir, then put a on lid so they don’t dry out and keep cooking them slowly so they soften.
Blanche the leaves by plunging them into a pot of boiling water for a few minutes. This will make them pliable for rolling. You want them to be flexible but still bright green. When they are ready, remove them and pour cold water on them. Then spread them out so you can stuff them.
Beat the egg and the cream in a little bowl. Pour this into the onion/stem mixture. Turn off the heat. Stir in the nuts and the cheese. You don’t need for the mixture to cook; just get it mixed.
Prepare a cookie sheet with a silicon liner or parchment paper. Put a spoon of the onion/stem/cream mixture on a leaf and then fold it up like a burrito. My blettes were on the small side, so I used the smallest leaves as wings, and wrapped the bigger ones around that and they held. No waste. If you have chives, use them like ribbon to tie up your packets.
Set them on the cookie sheet and brush with a little olive oil (I used my finger; it only takes a couple of drops).
Cook them for about 15 minutes, just enough to get warm and so the filling sets.
Vegetables aside, we had quite a week. Late Saturday, I think, it started to rain. The pace stepped up on Sunday, with lots of wind for drama. By Monday, it was pouring rain and the wind was howling and our electricity was out more than it was on.
A little nervous, I inspected the river next to our house, but it was unimpressive despite the downpour.
But Monday night, some meteorological firetruck parked in the skies above our village and let loose with water cannons. I didn’t sleep for the racket. The next day, I got a message that a package had arrived in Carcassonne. Fine–we set off to pick it up. Pulling out of our driveway, we were shocked to come almost nose to nose with the river. THIS river, that was bone dry in August. Most of the time, “river” is an exaggeration, because it’s about ankle-deep and two feet wide.
We headed to town, gasping at the water everywhere. We got our package, headed back home and found that the river had risen even further. “We’re leaving,” I said. And within half an hour we had packed up clothes and food to take to our apartments in Carcassonne, which were high and dry and with electricity and running water–in taps only.
Our village had been hit hard by floods in 1999, and everybody still talks about it. I had no desire to live through such an event with our kid. Even if our house is high enough to have escaped the 1999 flood, it was tiresome to be without electricity.
Amazingly, in Carcassonne, it wasn’t even raining. The parking lots along the Aude river, which is a real river, much bigger than the usual trickle next to our house, sometimes flood but they were dry and in no danger.
Today, the sun was out, the weather was warm and we had the windows open. And the river was way down. I haven’t been to the park or to my usual jogging route to see the effects, but I suppose they will be temporary. A big drink.
Actually, 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.
But then more weeks passed without a drop. The garden sagged. Finally, when the wine harvest was done, it rained again. A nice, long soak.
Don’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.
I had to go out and walk amid the drops. It was primeval. We need rain.
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.”
Even 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.
Surprisingly I didn’t see a rainbow, despite the combination of rain and sun. I guess it wasn’t the right angle.
No pot of gold. But afterward, there were diamonds everywhere.
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?
The vendange, or grape harvest, is in full swing. Well before dawn, I hear the big harvesters rumble down the road to the vineyards. As I write, the hum of a harvester drifts through my open window.
The hot, dry summer means this year’s harvest is small but good. When rain threatens at vendange time, the winemakers work around the clock to bring in the grapes before the precipitation dilutes their sugar content, or makes the vineyards too muddy to traverse, or, worst of all, brings hail that ruins the crop. This year’s clear blue skies have spared the vines of such problems.
Life around here still revolves around the vendange even though it no longer requires all hands on deck. For example, the village gym classes don’t begin until late September because traditionally too many participants had to work all day in the vineyards, harvesting grapes. These days, much of the harvest is done by giant machines that, when they roll through a little village, seem like contraptions out of horror movies, with their rows of teeth.
Hand harvesting is back-breaking work. The grapes are just at a level where you have to bend over constantly. It was women’s work, while men collected the buckets of grapes and carried them to a wagon. It was a time for the locals without vineyards to earn a little extra money, though often they were paid in wine. I looked at help-wanted ads to see what seasonal workers earn now; it seems to be €9.67 an hour, which is minimum wage. With many easier ways for the French to earn the SMIC, it isn’t surprising that the seasonal workers are mostly from Eastern Europe, Spain or Portugal. The New York Times had an article last week about volunteer tourists helping the harvest.
The Domaine Fontaine Grande on the outskirts of Carcassonne is one that harvests by hand. A dozen workers quickly filled bucket after bucket, their secateurs, or clippers, snipping the generous bunches neatly. As fast as they went (most of my photos were blurs), they barely seemed to make headway in the vast vineyard.
It’s hard to miss the vendange. Traces of grapes on the roads. The heady scent of already-fermenting fruit drifting out from the cuves.
Before the vendange, taking grapes is theft, but after, the left-behind fruit is fair game. (Beware of the vendange tardive, or late harvest–those aren’t for taking either! The grapes are left on the vine until they start to dry out, to make dessert wine. It’s pretty easy to tell when a vineyard has been harvested–no big bunches are left). Though it’s mostly the sangliers, or wild boars, that snarf up the last grapes.
Soon the 2016 millesime will be developing in the giant wine vats, and the leaves on the vines will change to brilliant hues of red, orange and yellow before falling off for winter.
The animals we encounter in France are different from those I’ve dealt with in the U.S.
My parents lived in a mid-size city of about half a million people. With a wooded park nearby, deer often ambled onto a vacant lot one house over. Even some very big bucks. Raccoons were a constant challenge. And the opossums! Squirrels were taken for granted.
Here, on the edge of a little village that’s on the outskirts of a little city of 50,000, I see far less wildlife. Occasionally a fox or pheasant or quail. The hunting club gathers at the community center on Sunday mornings, with wild boars strapped to the hoods of their vehicles. We got all excited recently with a sighting of a single squirrel in the park. And a nest of hatchlings, below left, and a poor injured bird, right, had us cooing.
Around the house, the birds that woke us early in the spring seem to have fled the drought; with rain this week, we’re hoping they come back. In winter, we crumble up any leftover bread to sprinkle on the grass. In the mornings when I open the shutters, they are lined up atop the wall, looking at me, as if to say, “So? What’s taking you so long? How about some crumbs?”
A family of mésanges, or titmouse/chickadees, had nested amid the rafters of our entry for years and were none too pleased when we enclosed it. They would click and cluck at us, keeping a distance of about a meter wherever we went in the yard, simultaneously fearless and wary.
Bats come out in the evenings. Sometimes when closing the west shutters against the approaching afternoon sun, I would disturb bats that had taken refuge against the cool wall behind the shutters. They are such little balls of fur when they sleep.
Mostly, though, have lizards galore. They occasionally get inside the house and panic. We try to get them back out without hurting them. Our kid has a knack for picking them up, which is amazing because they are so skittish and lightning fast.
For a while we had a huge lizard–at least a foot long–in a pile of rocks. It was great entertainment to watch the lizard peek out, then tear across the grass into the oleander along the wall, then reappear, twig in mouth, to streak back to the rock pile. We haven’t seen this lizard for some time, which is too bad. We’ve been told that a lizard like that in a garden ensures no vipers will take up residence.
Just as the appearance of the geckos is a sign of spring, we’ll know it’s winter when they stay hidden away.
La rentrée–the re-entry, to work, school and regular life after summer vacation–coincides with le vendange–the grape harvest. France has many famous wines, but also many smaller ones that aren’t as well known but often just as good.
Minervois is a small region just northeast of Carcassonne, with mostly family-run wineries. It’s one of the oldest wine-growing regions in France: around 6 B.C., the Greeks brought grape vines here.
We recently joined friends new to the region for a tasting at one of our favorite wineries, Domaine de la Tour Boisée, in Laure-Minervois. The domaine is a family operation headed by Jean-Louis Poudou, producing 14 reds, whites and rosés, on 84 hectares (about 207 acres). It recently took on the bio, or organic, label.
Here, wine-making takes its time. We once went to a tasting in the U.S. where the vines were but three years old and the winemaker bragged about “aging on wood.” When we asked where he got his barrels–which are a big expense–he sniffed that he didn’t use barrels but wood chips in metal tanks. His wine was beyond awful.
By contrast, at la Tour Boisée, the vines of carignan, a variety that’s typical of the Minervois, are 60 years old, and those of alicante, a Spanish grape, are 80 years old. There’s a special wine, called 1905, that mixes 23 varieties planted on a plot in the village in 1905. It’s VERY good.
And the Marie-Claude wine of syrah, grenache and carignan is aged at least a year in oak barrels. Real ones. An investment in time and materials.
While choosing a wine is a personal affair, la Tour Boisée’s large selection caters to many tastes. What I want to focus on is the ritual of a tasting.
First, there was a discussion about our preferences. Our group of five adults leaned toward reds (though I’m a big fan of their chardonnay). Frédérique, the owner’s daughter (who has a wine named after her! Isn’t that sweet?), led us through seven wines. Small amounts were poured into stemmed glasses, swirled and sniffed. The wines’ legs were examined–the legs are the traces of wine that flow back to the bottom of the glass after you’ve swirled. Mouthfuls of wine were swished around, breathed through, and mostly swallowed. The drivers took advantage of the crachoir, or spitoon.
We spent two hours tasting and talking and learning. Then we filled the trunks of the cars with cases of wine. A big difference with the U.S.: it’s pretty much unheard-of to charge for wine tasting, but it’s considered bad form not to buy at least a case. Of course, if you don’t like the wine, you’re under no obligation.
We didn’t leave without walking around the property. The namesake tower was part of the village’s ramparts.
I don’t do sponsored posts, and this is no exception. We just are fans. Many of the Minervois wineries are too small to export their wines, but la Tour Boisée can be found in the U.S., including at Astor Wines in Manhattan.