Tuesday, March 31, 2009

A room with a view.

Our neighbours across the way recently cut down a few enormous trees that had been damaged by the winter winds. This has given them lots of wood for the fire next winter and us a wonderful view of the chateau. Here's what we can now see from the studio upstairs, with, and without, the closeup lens.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Once upon a time in Foix...

If I'd written that title in French, it would be "il était un fois à Foix". Other homonyms are "foie"--liver--and "foi"--faith, offering all kinds of opportunities for intellectual French puns. 

Anyway, Foix with an "x" is the capital of our department, the Ariège --the least populated capital in France according to the Internet--and, as we had some business to do, here's where we went. 

Once the home of the counts of Foix, this splendid castle stands on a colossal rock and looms over the town leaving no doubt as to who was in charge.

Enough history for today. Our Ariège business finished  (which took all of 15 minutes including hand-shakes) we sauntered around the narrow streets, ruined our appetites with a late-morning pain sux raisins eaten in the shade of the cathedral. Which is not to say we didn't want lunch an hour later. A sunny day, a great day for hanging washing on the line which means breezy and the temperature was just a few degrees too chilly to eat outside. Peter went for the plat du jour and I had a goat cheese salad, and drank the rosé that came with his duck confit and frites.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Changing seasons

The edible landscape is gradually turning from shades of gold and orange to sharp bright crimson and green. Like many, this stall at the market is selling both. On your left, squash, on your right, new white-tipped scarlet radishes and artichokes. Asparagus is starting to appear too--but it's staggeringly expensive. 

Monday, March 23, 2009

Getting our hands on a composter: Parts 7 and 8

Part 7:
Signed papers in hand (we forgot them last time) we set off the Communauté des Communes in Mirepoix this morning with a double mission: to take possession of our composter and to obtain an access card to the garbage dump. We have a lot of garbage to dump and you can't just swan in and ditch it. You have to prove your right to the card by taking along an electricity or other bill.

It took surprisingly little time. The man who handles these things gave us the smart plastic kitchen bucket, inside of which was an enormous carry bag, bigger even than the ones you use temporarily at Ikea. Along with these came a booklet describing what we can compost. Just about everything, it seems, including paper towel and handkerchiefs. Most important of all, he gave us a hand-written note to take to Copami, home to large composters.

We were so thrilled that we took the plastic bucket to the market square to have its photo taken, and then out for a coffee and pain aux raisins.

Part 8:
Baskets filled, we returned to the car and drove to Copami which is beside the cemetary. A man told us to take our official paper to the cash desk in Gamm Vert (I'm unsure of the connection) where they looked at it and told us to go outside to the warehouse section. There, a young man took the paper, disappeared and emerged with a very large flat box. This is the quick assembly type of 600 litre composter, obviously. We pointed nervously at the Clio, a compact car to say the least. He opened the trunk and slid the enormous box inside. It fitted exactly although it did completely block the rear window. I have visions of composter box designers experimenting with different sizes until they found one that would fit even the smallest car.

Next, wait for it, the composter is assembled and installed in its final resting-place. P.S. Which is wasn't the following day because it rained.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Lost French Words

Browsing at Shakespeare and Company, the iconic English bookstore on the left bank, I picked up a copy of The Discovery of France by English author, Graham Robb. It's a book that's hard to describe but basically it recounts how numerous mini-civilizations, all with their own cultures, came together as "France."

The book is packed with engaging bits of information. For instance, Robb describes how: "The shepherds of the Landes spent whole days on stilts, using a stick to form a tripod when they wanted to rest. Perched 10 feet in the air, they knitted woolen garments and scanned the horizon for stray sheep."

Among the many, many other facts that will have you nudging the person next to you and saying "did you know..." Robb explores how numerous dialects were eventually replaced by "official" French. 

Unfortunately that meant the loss of some truly useful words:

Affender: "to share a meal with an unexpected visitor" (and haven't we all done that at one time or another).
Aranteler: "to sweep away spiders' webs"
Carquet: "a secret place between breast and corset".

I can't wait to say: "Je dois aranteler mon carquet."

Thoroughly recommended. 

I read it in one sitting. Five sittings, to be strictly honest:

1. On the TGV from Paris to Toulouse.
2. At Toulouse station while I waited for the train to Tarbes. Trains to Pamiers were cancelled because, I later found out, an electricity line had come down so, very much on the ball, SNCF rerouted us.
3. On the brief rail trip from Toulouse to Portet sur Garonne
4. On the bus that met us there and  took a circuitous route to drop off passengers who normally disembarked at stations between Toulouse and Auterive.
5. On the train between Auterive and Pamiers. 

Eating in Paris

What would a day in Paris be with no mention of food? So, breakfast. The hotel where I'm staying sets out a buffet that goes far beyond the usual "continental" to include granola, smoked salmon and scrambled eggs. 
  Lunch, because I only had the afternoon free, was a quick ham on baguette. 
   I snapped these seafood and quiche closeups through a store window. Couldn't you just dive right into that salmon thing or, indeed, the little scallop number on its right? 
  Dinner was a recommendation from the concierge. "A bistro but nice and within walking distance," was the Cinq-Mars, empty when we arrived a bit before eight, rocking by the time we left. 
   The menu was classic. I has eggs, "grandma" fashion which meant poached in cream with chopped chives on top. Let's hear it for French grandmas. My friend's was a lentil salad with crisp bacon on top. She moved on to a plate of grilled squid. Show me the word "rognons" on a menu and I'm there. These were large chunks on a large plate in a zippy grainy mustard sauce with a separate dish of mashed potatoes. Cheese for her, fromage blanc for me, coffee and back to the hotel.
   P.S. The post-war, I'm guessing, bungalow is a vintage photograph. A basketful of different photos sat on the bar. The restaurant simply stamped its particulars on the back. How chic is that.


Snapshots of Paris

Well, that was a swift trip. Up there on Wednesday, work on Thursday, back on Friday. Train both ways with lengthy books.
   The general strike on Thursday seemed to have little effect in Paris apart from thinning the traffic along the quais. Someone told me this was because many people took a day off rather than face with what turned out to be no chaos at all.
   The metro was running--I learned this after I'd worked 40 minutes from the hotel to my appointment. That over, I ducked underground and metro-ed to Opera for lunch and a quick look at the clothes in Galeries Lafayette. 
   But it was too summery to be indoors. I started walking back in the vague direction of Ile de la Cité avoiding the grands boulevards, letting narrow streets take me where they wanted and coming upon an entire glass-covered alleyway lined with shops selling nothing but old postcards, stamps and coins.
   The day was warm enough to have filled outdoor seats at all the cafés  in 
Rue Montorgueil to bursting.
   Cyclists, pedestrians, dog walkers including this couple with the matched set of poodles, everyone was making the most of the sunshine.
   I crossed over to Notre Dame. Kids see-sawed and chased each other in the gardens to the south. As usual, the flowers in the formal gardens intrigued me. Whoever designs the plantings always choses unexpected combinations. This time, santolina and chard were in the mix. On the left bank, you could buy a print of this grand and graceful cathedral and just stand there in the sunshine and gaze and gaze at the real thing.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Local style and chapeaux

Say "France" and you probably think of fashion. Around here, you don't see many people sporting designer labels but you do see some remarkably individual style. I'm gradually assembling a gallery of innovative looks and hats. It's definitely not planned but I love it that the woman on the right has picked up a book that exactly coordinates with her outfit. 

A couple of photo ops on the same day

Beets, or beetroot or silver beets, depending on where you come from, take a long time to cook. Here you can buy them already steamed, vacuum-packed in fours at the supermarket or individually from a market stall. I'm not sure where this one originated but, dressed with olive oil, its juices had Peter leaping for his camera the other lunch time. That night, the sky was a suitably beet-crimson and olive-oil-gold. 

More finds at the Pamiers flea market

We drove to Pamiers this morning through a mist so thick and wet that most cars had their headlights and windscreen wipers on. When we got there, we saw that many of the stallholders had covered their wares with plastic sheets. It was too chilly to eat our pains aux raisins outside so we squeezed into a café on the main square and drank our crèmes elbow to elbow with everyone else. Eventually the sun burned through and the thermometer shot up but not to the high teens (Celsius) that it's been for the past couple of days. 

As usual, what was for sale ran the gamut from these 1930s soda syphons to spanners and children's clothes.
Our buys today included a saw for pruning roses and hedges, a DVD (although we still need a player) a classic tweed overcoat which I was sold by a very persistent vendeuse, a small folk art house to hang on the wall or, as you can see, stand on the stairs, and a china mold for foie gras. The woman who I bought both these from--for a total of three euros--did add that the mold could hold other foods besides foie gras.

Monday, March 9, 2009

What we listen to...

The village of Montaillou is a community with a population in the two figures. But, small though it is, its radio station totally rocks. While strong on classic French chansons by the likes of Edith Piaf and Georges Brassens mixed in with 60s and 70s Brit hits (Beatles, Stones...) the playlist also occasional the occasional bit of classical and traditional bullfight music. "Eclectic" is an understatement. It's rather as if whoever programs what's aired has put the station's entire CD collection in iTunes and then hit "Party Shuffle".
   We listen on the radio or the internet. Not sure if it works outside France but, if you're curious, go to www.radio-montaillou.com and hit the red speaker just below "écouter." Let me know if it works.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

More dandelions for supper.

I've been a little remiss in posting recently mainly because we are deep, deep in house renovations and, in my case, gardening. Meteo France has forecast that the warm, sunny weather will have turned grey, rainy and chilly by Thursday and Friday.
  The war on the dandelions continues. I savagely lop off each yellow head as it appears before it has a chance to turn to fluff and send its virulent thistledown far and wide. The new roots are terrific in, or as, salad. Because they're so fresh, once washed and cleaned, they keep for a good few days in the fridge. 
  I've also picked a bag of the new nettle shoots which are destined for soup or a quiche.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Boot mending, babies and reflections.

Every week, Mirepoix market turns up a few surprises. The first this week was a travelling van that opened at the back to reveal a fully functioning shoe mender's shop. The next was this cute little kid who cheerily munched on an apple while her maman sold me a fat lettuce. The third was the perfect stillness of the canal.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

A "wall" of violets.

Midweek, Peter is leading the group on a walk we took several years ago. So, because it was several years ago, we did a practice amble on Sunday afternoon. The route starts in Caudeval near a solidly built chateau (around here, these tend to look more like fortresses than fairytale castles and this one is no exception). 
   The track led uphill, deeply rutted and extremely squelchy. It was almost, but not quite, raining adding a gauzy screen to our view of meadows, hills and trees.
  This is the season for violets. (We missed the Toulouse violet festival a couple of weeks back so must mark that on the agenda for next year.) Tiny purple flowers are all over the garden of our first house. And, on this walk, we saw them growing in large clusters at the sides of the track which descend so steeply into the ditches below that what you see is like a small wall of violets.