We are lucky enough to have some fine example of bastide towns within easy driving distance, so on a misty morning in February we took our guests on a tour which included the nearest and with a little poetic justice the impressive town of Najac.
First stop Sauveterre, a small but classic bastide town where the central square and the old town walls are very easy to see. The town attracts artists and artisans; there are workshops where you can buy paintings, drawings, sculpture, traditional knives and even hats. There are also several lunch options from the basic to the rather splendid “Le Sénéchal”
Spring with a question mark about sums it up. The long, cold and extraordinarily wet winter has become a very wet spring. On odd days it suddenly feels like midsummer with temperatures in the 30s, but we are soon plunged back into the grey and damp, apparently while the UK has record high temperatures……..the irony!
It’s not all bad. Everywhere is a lush green and nature is still doing its stuff. Dandelions turn the some fields turn yellow then white, others are white with daisies. The hedgerows are full of birds and flowers.
At the end of February I had the privilege of showing one of my nephew’s and his wife around my little corner of France. They braved the coldest month of the year and gave me a great excuse to show them round and to revisit some places I hadn’t seen for a while.
Marcillac market on Sunday mornings is very busy in the summer months, but on a bright cold morning in February it is still vibrant but calmer and it’s much easier to park!
The produce on sale include local specialities: farçous, tripoux, tête de veau. Some greek treats including keftedhes and baklava. A fabulous cheese stall supplied direct from the producers in the mountains of Cantal (and I have been here long enough to be pretty blazé about local cheeses, so trust me when I say they’re good!) and the local Marcillac wine also direct from the producer, a stall that can get very lively as the tastings get underway.
Just down the road towards Rodez, is the village of Salles la Source. There is a lovely nature trail, a museum of local crafts but we visited the waterfall. One of the advantages of the wet winter is that the “cascade” is at its most dramatic. A truly magical place.
Spring is the season when traditionally people went out gathering what they could find to help boost the system after a winter of eating preserved meats and a distinct lack of vitamins in the diet. Two foraged plants which feature heavily on the spring menu are; the fresh young dandelion (pissenlit) leaves that can be used in a salad and rapountchou.
The collection of rapountchou is still very popular in Aveyron (as well as the Tarn and the Gers) and sometimes it seems that around every corner you come across people standing in ditches and examining the hedgerows.
Also known as “L’herbe des femmes battues” because the root was used as a treatment for bruises. The method of cooking is a subject for much debate or should I say many conflicting categorical statements!
Repountchou is very bitter and the method of cooking often varies according to how much bitterness you can stand. Cook it for an age, cook it as briefly as possible, don’t change the water, change the water 3 times. Some would say “confit” it in oil and serve it as a salad dressed with lardons and vinegar. I’ve also been told cooking it in milk takes away some of the bitterness.
Below is the Claude Izard’s recipe, a local chef and author of a book on the subject!
blanch in boiling water for up to 3 minutes
Serve in a salad with hard boiled eggs and grilled streaky bacon
He also suggests coking the tips in the same way as they cook all there spring hedgerow greens in Cyprus, in a sort of scrambled egg/omelette.
The spa in Cransac, made from acacia wood, and sitting above the town on “la montagne qui brule” is surrounded by the largest acacia forest in Europe. If you visit “La forêt de la Vaysse” in May the air is full of the smell of acacia blossom (a glorious mixture of the smell of honey and jasmine) and the sound of the bees working away on the early summer treat acacia honey. Go on a Saturday and you can also treat yourself to some acacia fritters or buy a bottle of the syrup at the local market.
The thermal springs, that have been know since antiquity, became famous throughout France in the 17th century and people still come to take the water, a “cure” can legitimately be prescribed by your doctor. The “curists” are a much sort after section of the tourist market. Walking through the forest you sometimes see the pipes weaving through the trees taking the precious waters to the spa and even the ground steaming as the mountain “burns”.
Aubin and Cransac are two towns so close together that you cannot see the join. But both have a very clear identity. Aubin, with its connection to the mine at Decazeville, it’s musée de la mine and the maison de la memoire resistance, deportation et citoyenneté, has a gritty down to earth atmosphere.
In Cransac, on the other hand, you sense the loss of a more affluent past, an air of tired gentility.
Cransac’s elegant buildings: the huge Hotel Du Parc, the old town hall and above all, literally, les Thermes. Are down to the presence of thermal springs first exploited by the Romans.
As I walk around the village and the surrounding countryside, there’s a song that won’t stop playing in my head, “walking back to happiness”. 2016 was a difficult year, I have no intention of boring anyone with the details, but a walk is good therapy.
There are no shortage of good walks round here and they are kept up to scratch by a small but dedicated band of volunteers. The first “atelier” is next weekend and we will be kept busy for the season.
There is a very Aveyronnaise feel to these workshops. They start slowly with a good half hour of chat to “put things in place”. We are then divided into teams which must be carefully balanced so that there are enough women on each team to clear the debris left by the men with the power tools (the women are outnumbered by about 4 to 1). Then all back to someones house for a drink and a debrief. Nothing is ever done around here without plenty of discussion.
The mundane, the run of the mill, the day to day, the common; things that we see,do and hear on a regular basis. It is human nature to treat these things with a lack of respect, but as I sit here with the smell of lilac on the breeze and hear the blackbird singing I don’t think you could say there was much wrong with the mundane.
Spring has made everyday routines that much more enjoyable. On the daily walk to work it seems there are photo opportunities everywhere:
The wisteria and irises.
The lilac and the cherry.
On the hillside the new greens of spring with the white of the plum tree blossom.
Yes I know, shopping , not the most interesting of subjects, but for me , people watcher/nosy bugger, quite a lot of clues to lifestyles and attitudes can be gleaned from shoppers and the shops themselves. I’m not talking clothes etc here, just day to day shopping, and in fact that’s the first difference between where we were in the UK and here; there’s no such thing as just shopping. In the Uk the food shopping is a chore (I am of course generalising here), you arrive at the supermarket clutching your list, head down determined to get it over and done with as quickly as possible. Here people arrive, head up, on a mission, convinced of the importance of their duty to provide for the family.
Food shopping is an honourable pastime, an important part of the quality of life. Discussion must be had, the pluses and minuses of each product carefully weighed up.
Another interesting phenomenon is the chair. In lot of local shops (particularly butcher’s and post offices for some reason) there are chairs, you are encouraged to sit, to take you time (in fact in one of the local post offices one of the chairs is taken pretty permanently by an older lady who just likes to watch the coming and going).
Even in supermarkets nobody expects you to pay until everything has been properly packed away, and possibly discussed. the cashier enquiring into your purchases, quality, uses, showing an interest in a new line etc.
So I know I’m not the first to say it, but this these last two months have been incredibly mild. The sun has shone and there has been much talk of the dangers of late sun. The clear skies have meant a succession of the most gorgeous sunsets. The day time temperatures reaching, on a fairly regular basis 20 degrees and certainly often 17. Although just as often falling rapidly at night and we have had a good few night time frosts.
We have made the most of it with plenty of country walks, because, as the local “paysanne” never tire of saying “we will pay later.” The cows and calves and the sheep are still out in the fields when it’s long past the time when they would have been taken indoors to protect them from the extremes of the weather. The catkins (chatons i French, sweet huh?) are hanging like fat hairy caterpillars on the branches and the fat hairy caterpillars (processionary caterpillars) are still marching when they should be sleeping.
The Ransomes is already well above ground, the daisies are out and the gorse is in flower.
I can remember years when by December it was already so cold that the rain froze as it hit the ground turning the ground into sheets of ice and as evening fell you could see the fingers of thick frost creeping across the road from the frozen gulleys. When the waterfalls stood frozen in mid flow. I have never on the other hand known a year when we have been able to celebrate Guy Fawkes night outside coatless, or in the case of my son, in a T-shirt.( but the habits of 14 year old boys are not of course those of the rest of the population!)
I look forward to continuing to make the most of it, but snow can be seen on the higher mountains in the distance and a wind came up today that hinted at the possibility of an approaching chill. We shall see.