Sunday, August 30, 2009

This Year's Final Night Market

As always, the village's weekly night market closed the main street every Friday night during July and August. The first year, maybe 40 people attended. Now, upwards of a couple of hundred sit down at the long rows of tables. All ages. French, English, Spanish...all the nationalities that make up this region.
    Also as always, the final event, like the faint shock of cold air in the mornings, is an intimation that autumn is on its way. 
    So, a look back...
   Our choir has performed twice, singing itself hoarse on both occasions. Many renditions of Champs Elysées and La Mer and, this past Friday, a song in Occitan. 
  I won't try to guess the number of wine bottles but I do know that thousands of plates have been emptied. 
  Steaks, chops and sausages bought from the butcher's van to go on Christian's grill, paella, escargots, crèpes, nems (spring rolls) and noodles: the food choice roams hither and yon. We usually don't. Invariably Peter goes for the magret, frites and persillade while I gravitate to the van that serves Mexican dishes. I've become such a regular that the man who folds the chopped pork mixture into the tortilla knows to add extra chopped cilantro (coriander) and a sprinkle of cayenne (on one occasion, recognizing my addiction, he gave me a plastic bag of cilantro to take home).
   Local, communal, seasonal, all those buzzwords that float through food magazines, the night markets are all those things--the kind of events that are only one advantage to living in rural France. Wherever you're reading this, I want you to imagine for a moment your main street being closed off and traffic being re-routed simply so people can have a good time. 
   Imagine that everyone can come along and become part of the fun. Couples, families, kids, seniors, sitting elbow to elbow, nobody feeling excluded. 
    Imagine that there's live music--guys playing guitars, dancing in the street (meet Marek and Shirley who run the village café).
    Last Friday may have been the official end of the village's summer but, hang on a minute, let me check the forecast. Mid-twenties doesn't sound too hard to live with.

Monday, August 24, 2009

The Butterfly Bush

     In terms of the garden, this year has been one of experimentation. I'm slowly learning what grows where. That the soil on the east side of the garden is friable and fertile while the soil on the west side is so clay-y that you could mold it into a cricket ball. 
    Down near the pergola is a buddleia bush. When we first moved in, it was probably 15 feet high. Friends Les and Chris, who used to run a garden centre in England, advised us to cut it to knee-high. So I did, thinking..."hmmm, this'll never work." But buddleia grows fast. It's now about 15 feet high and laden with dark purple spiky blossoms--and butterflies. I love to sit in the pergola and watch them alighting, sipping nectar (I'm assuming that's what they do) and taking off.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

A Blue Day

  Long ago, this region was renowned for, and made rich by, its woad, a plant that produces a blue dye. Go to Toulouse and you can see the magnificent homes that were built by wealthy woad merchants. Eventually indigo replaced it and the woad industry dried up. In recent years, there has been a  small resurgence. 
   In the small village of Lieurac, a quarter of an hour away, Andie at Renaissance Dyeing ( grows woad in her magnificent south-facing garden. Last week, she invited a bunch of us over to harvest, process and dye with her woad--and enjoy an outdoor pot-luck lunch.
   Absolutely everything you want to know about woad--its history, how to grow it, how to dye with it--is at so I won't get into specifics. Just know that woad leaves look somewhat like spinach, have to be washed very carefully, then torn, then simmered...and you mustn't let air get into the dye vat It's a very complicated process but the results are beautiful.I'm not a big fan of the colour blue but woad's soft depth is irresistible.  Andie also had an indigo pot going. 
    Some shots of the process, the results and--of course--the lunch.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

First look at our new kitchen.

Okay, mes amis. Yesterday was the day when, after months of drawing and revising plans (I can't recommend the free downloadable Sketchup program enough) we finally headed off to our nearest Ikea store in Toulouse to buy our kitchen. To digress: wouldn't you think that Ikea--creative, design-conscious, cool--seems more akin to Mac people than IBM-ers. But noooooo....their kitchen design program only works on Those Other Machines. Hence Sketchup. 
   So here was how we envisaged the day. We would leave Léran early, do the deed with maximum speed and efficiency, and someone would meet us outside the store at 4 p.m. with a large white pick-up truck.
   We didn't get off to an early start. Something to do with a really good dinner with friends the night before. We roared up the N20 but it was still close to eleven when we arrived. As usual, we kicked off our visit with a pain au chocolat and a coffee handing over our Ikea Family Card as we did so. Little plug for Ikea. You don't have to have numerous kids to get this card, you can apply on-line, it's free--and so is all the coffee you can handle. 
    A double-shot later, subversion and caffeine surging through our veins, we went against the directional arrows as a short-cut to the kitchen section. They said you need a consultant and they're all occupés. Here's a pager. We didn't know how to use it and kept racing back every time it beeped. Turns out we had to await a triple-beep which arrived just as I was swigging my first mouthful of lunchtime rosé and digging into my shrimp salad. 
    Back I went, again against the arrows, sending French toddlers flying in all directions. A very efficient salesperson sat me down at a computer and together we went through the list. Eighty-odd items, 53 of them self-service. Because each item was listed with its precise location, the self-service part went fairly smoothly apart from a brief moment of panic when I realized that I'd put some of our cartons on somebody else's cart. 
   Lugging heaving boxes down from shelves has never been my idea of amusement especially when it's 35 degrees at least outside and not much cooler inside. Two carts later, we arrived at the cash desk where we had to split our order into two as the cash register was physically incapable of handling such an enormous receipt. 
   The truck arrived. Everything was loaded on. We all sweated buckets. We then made our way towards the depot to pick up the other 31 or so pieces. A brief déviation because of roadworks, an outright disregard for a "no entry" sign on the way to the highway and the truck and the Clio were off on the road to Pamiers. 
   Where we picked up a fridge. Here's a shot of the back of the truck as we drove home where we unloaded, cracked open beers and ate a late supper by candlelight in the garden. 

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Other Sides to Food in France

A day in Toulouse with my Australian friend Lee-anne who, with her husband John, runs L'Impasse du Temple, a gorgeous, Michelin-rated chambres d'hôtes in Léran, as well as a gîte you can rent for a week or weekend that's a French country cottage personified. Oh go on, go have a roam around
   Lee-anne is very busy over the summer so I grabbed at the chance to spend a whole day shopping with her. First stop, an Asian supermarket on the outskirts of Toulouse. It was like being back in Vancouver's Chinatown and I left laden with items I can't find locally (or at least at reasonable prices). Hoisin sauce, pickled ginger, sambal oelek, rice noodles (should have bought more of those) and a ton more. It was pushing 30 degress so I bypassed the--tah-dah--boxes of frozen frogs' legs doing the can-can. 
   Next stop, not far away, was a very big box store called Metro. You can only shop there if you run a business and you have to swipe your card as you enter. Owners of cafés, bistros, little shops and so on all come here buy giant quantities of everything needed to run a café etc. from fresh fish artfully displayed on ice and wild mushrooms to truffled sauce and powder for making candyfloss. Tables, chairs, umbrellas, boxes of little packets of sugar and little boxes of soap, tableware, table cloths: no wonder the carts are as big as gurneys. 
   Only in France I think would you find chunks of baguette, paté and salads to help yourself to as you left. 

Sunday, August 9, 2009

A Musical Evening

Somehow Léran has become a centre for people who paint, sculpt, write and--in the case of Fraser Anderson--sing. 
   We bought one of Fraser's CDs a while back and, during the village's recent artists' "open doors" event, heard him perform live and were completely beguiled by his songs and the gentleness of his voice. 
   Recently, he's been holding events in his home.  Last night, maybe a dozen of us showed up at his and his wife Grace's house, following the pathway, lit by fairy lights, into the salon where we were served wine and olives. Midway though, Grace brought out tiny custard tarts filled with plums from a tree in their garden. 
   Food was only one of the elements that made this a golden evening which included a short story reading in English by a Scottish author and a sample of an upcoming one-woman performance (in French) bracketing Fraser's singing. 
   He's extraordinary, his voice so quiet but his words so powerful that the combination steals your heart away. Do check out his web site.

A Medieval Weekend

July and August the village's main street is barricaded every Friday for the weekly night market. This week it was closed all weekend to make space for one of Léran's major yearly celebrations: tah=dah-- Lérancestral
   Stalls selling crafts, food and food line the street and kids play medieval games but the  high point is the spectacle in the meadow below the chateau, a 90-or-so-minute pageant that recounts the early history of the village. This year the choir was invited to take part so Peter and I, along with maybe 15 other members, dressed up in medieval gear and sang our little hearts out. 
   All year long, a group of village ladies sews costumes and the results are truly magnificent. Mine was a deep purple with floor-sweeping sleeves, and a veiled hat to match. Peter was a picture in a scarlet knee-length tunic. The person behind all this immense amount of work is Anne-Marie. She's the lady with the basket over her arm in the shot at the top of this post. 
    Saturday afternoon, some of the participants paraded through the village. 
What's wonderful about the spectacle--no, two things are wonderful about it--is that first the realization that the scenes you are watching (or, in our case, taking part in) might well have happened on this very spot hundreds of years ago. The second is seeing people you know, Cecile from the boulangerie and her son, Matthieu (in silver and black), our mayor, Henri (in the saffron-and-garnet coloured costume) and his wife, and countless others, playing different roles. In a potentially Oscar award-winning performance. Matthieu, for instance, was scarily realistic as a plague victim, then, magically revived, showed up some 20 minutes later, as a young noble. Meanwhile, Henri pulled the "bring out your dead" cart but also acted as a noble.
   The choir's role was to be wedding guests. We walked on to the meadow, basses, altos, sopranos, tenors, sang our "Non nobis, domine.." then mingled in with two other processions and paraded to the rear of the performance area. Where we danced. Let's be frank here.  It wasn't exactly choreographed. Instead, French and English, we all dredged up memories of whatever country dances we'd learned as kids--and winged it. That over, we became the audience for a tournament. 
    Finally we paraded to the front of the meadow and sang the unofficial Occitan national anthem before applauding the audience who applauded back. We then lined the exit route so that we could each applaud each other all over again. Oh my, it was fun. 

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Hold the Anchovies...

  Depending on how sharp your sight is you may be able to make out the pizza varieties you can order from the van that usually parks at Lavelanet market. 
   Bear in mind that French pizza is always thin-crust, never that fat, doughy stuff. And on top of that, you can have--to describe just the final three:
    The Delicieuse: crème fraîche, magret (duck breast), mushrooms, lardons (bacon bits), onions, olives and cheese.
    The Tipic (not sure where this name comes from. Do they mean "typique" as in typical? If so, here's what's typical of the region): crème fraîche, sèche (dried duck breast), onions, olives, cheese and a lemon-y, garlic-y persillade.
    The Gourmande: crème fraîche, magret, foie gras, lardons, mushrooms, olives and cheese. 
    There's also one called The Titanic which features smoked salmon and sorrel cream.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Van Gogh moments

Their French name is tournesol--and right now is peak sunflower season. 
The narrow road between Léran and the main highway from Lavelanet to Mirepoix is lined with shockingly yellow rows of flowers, a huge massed chorus all turned towards the sun. The occasional seed from last summer was left behind and, in fields left fallow this year, small sunflowers sprout here and there looking rather lost and pathetic.