Najac is usually a busy place, but on a rainy day in February we had it pretty much to ourselves
After a tour and lunch in the only restaurant that was open The “Air du Temps” offered a warm welcome and a hand written menu, a good start. Basically a crepe and galette place. There was also a selection of daily specials. Everything was freshly made and good value.
On from Najac to Villefranche de Rouergue, a proper bastide and much bigger than Sauveterre. A very popular market is held every Thursday morning, but today the town is quiet and there is plenty of time to visit the cathedral, explore the medieval streets and stroll along the river (now the river has receded a bit! last time I was here the river had flooded the footpath.)
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 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.
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.
An extra event in the year’s social calender can be the “repas de quartier”, but it depends in which quartier you live.
These yearly celebrations of your own personal “quartier” of the village have their own characters and traditions. Amazing that in a village of only 300 people we can mange to subdivide on so many different lines, and yet the events themselves are very inclusive. Anyone within the boundaries is invited, no matter their popularity ratings.
So different quartiers have slightly different traditions. The old market square leave it up to one person to get the food and drink in (handy to have the local restaurateur on the team!) and then divide the bill. The menu revolves around a BBQ and the date is usually fixed last minute based on the weather and peoples commitments.
The hamlet of Le Fau has a fixed date in the summer and a firm tradition of who does what. Some quartiers rarely have a repas any more and some never.
Our own celebration is in June or September depending on the organiser’s (guess who!) diary, but always a Friday. We are blessed with a wide range of ages (6 months to mid 80’s!), personalities, and professions and can be up to 40 strong.
Everyone brings something. Some have specialities like Juliette’s “Poule Farcie” and Réné’s “Ratafia” , other’s like a change, and we have now come right up to date with a bit of barbecuing!
The fact that the tradition continues and that people are so willing to take part is another testament to the community spirit that still exists in our little community.
Well the long hot summer has turned into a beautiful autumn.
The blackberries that looked very small and unappetising after the lack of rain in the summer have ripened beautifully with the help of a few showers and everyone is busy making blackberry jam or, for the more daring, blackberry jelly!
The apples, peach and fig trees are also full of fruit. As you stroll around the village people offer you a share of their bounty. Like last night, when I came back from closing up the chickens I was carrying 2 kilos of peaches kindly given to me by a neighbour.
The walnuts, ready earlier than I have ever known are starting to fall and soon every house will have its “cageot” of walnuts propped up again the walls drying, proof again of how the village retains its links to the seasons.
Something that gets me in to all sorts of interesting situations, is “Can I help you” After spending most of my working life in food service it has become almost a reflex, it’s out of my mouth before I know it and usually with a sincerity that I’m pretty sure I never intended!
It’s what got me committed to door opening duty in the church. Every day , under the eagle eye of Alice who lives opposite, I open the big church door say good morning to God and Alice (who also has an all seeing eye!) and smile at the fact that in a village of 250 French, catholic souls, the only person they could find to take on the responsibility of “The Key” is a Welsh protestant!