Monday, September 28, 2009

Driving Them Quackers and Other Hazelnut Festival Fun.

    Not far from the lunch area was a small fenced compound surrounded by spectators. Dogs were showing their skills when we arrived. Then came the ducks. If a dog that herds sheep is a sheep dog, this was a duckdog. He quietly but very efficiently guided them towards the arena exit, then out into the main part of the fair and then back in again. 
    On our way back to the car park, we stopped to watch "the friends of old machines" making hay. As we drove away, we were stopped at the rond-point by a parade of cattle-drawn carts, and horses. A gendarme re-routed all cars down a side street. Lavelanet has its traffic priorities right. Its one and only parking meter hasn't functioned all summer as the tattered sign shows. And when it does, you have to plug in 20 centimes an hour.

A Healthy Few Hours at the Hazelnut Festival.

  Because our choir had a date in church at 4:15 p.m. (see a later post) we broke with tradition this year by not attending the afternoon-long lunch that's the high point of Lavelanet's annual hazelnut festival. 
    But we couldn't miss out on the event itself so after a successful trawl of the vide grenier in Chalabre, we drove the few miles to Lavelanet where we ran into friends and had lunch. 
   Close your ears, nutritionists, because what we ate is so dietetically incorrect it doesn't bear thinking about. We crowded around an open-air bar watching a man grill sausages and pork belly over charcoal.  Once crisped but still with plenty of good juicy pork fat present, the belly slices were slapped into split baguettes, and topped with frites. Three large dispensers held ketchup, mustard and mayonnaise. As we leaned on the bar munching away, we reckoned we'd hit all the four food groups--pork fat, baguette, frites and mayonnaise--with the plastic glasses of rosé meeting our fruit and vegetable needs. Meanwhile, the band played on...
   Not far away, a display of an old-fashioned classroom showed modern kids how their grandparents learned their ABCs. Other teaching aids were the posters showing the importance of good health and what happened to your body if you took the wrong route. 

The Big Screen.

     Someone in this household has set his heart on a big flat-screen TV. We have not had a TV for 16 months and I haven't missed it. But winter is coming on and there are all those DVDs we've found at flea markets or ordered from Amazon...
    So the deal is: he can have the big screen and I'll make a big screen to hide it when it's not in use. Scouting around on-line, I've seen numerous "scrap" screens from the Victorian era decoupaged with kittens, faces, roses and all the other images beloved of the era. 
    I want to make something similar and, in recent months, had been hunting around for a source of pictures...postcards, giftwrap...I wasn't quite sure what.
    Then the answer fell into my hands. Bear with me if my prose gets a little purple further along in this post. It's the result of spending time with Volume 2 of Les Batailles de la Vie--The Battles of Life--a thick, heavy tome that, as luck would have it, I came upon lying forlornly on a heap of Readers Digest Condensed Books at today's vide grenier in Chalabre. My heart thumped and my cheeks paled as I asked the price. "Two euros." I swooned.  
    The first few pages are missing but I'm guessing from the fashions and the prose style that it's late 19th century. There's also a telling reference to a certain comtesse Régine who is described as "still charming" at 37 (!!) with shoulders of an ampleur superbe. That era was hot for big lusty shoulders as you can see in the 100 or so engravings punctuating the 1000 somewhat stained pages of mayhem, lurve and betrayal. 

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Road Home...

    In recent years, we've been taking the scenic route to Collioure and points south, and driving the péage home. Péages definitely whizz you quickly across the country but you do miss out on the views unless you're a fan of container truck convoys. 
    This time, because we'd spent the night in Port Vendres and had time to spare, we opted to meander back the way we'd come.
    Once we'd negotiated our way around Perpignan, it was plain sailing west across the vineyards with high, rugged ridges on either side, scenery that author Julian Barnes once described as "God's bridgework." 
    Right now is grape-picking season. Trucks laden with glistening loads sped along the road. High on the slopes, we could see pickers with giant plastic buckets strapped to their backs. 
    All too soon, that golden greenness disappeared and the mountains began to encroach. That gothic silhouette is the Cathar castle of Puylaurens. 
Eventually you emerge from the chasm into the town of Quillan. A long and winding hill takes you back, through the forest, to home. 
     We noticed several cars parked by the side of the road. It's Tuesday so not a hunting day. Must be the start of mushroom season.

The Fishing Nets of Port Vendres

Some people go crazy over flowers or art or music. I'm with them on those but I also have a quirkier passion. Ever since I first saw them in 1993, I've gone nuts over the fishing nets of Port Vendres (a small town just down the coast from Collioure). Heaped almost two metres high, their vivid colours faded and bleached by the sun in places, they're a complete visual treat. So, of course, we took plenty of closeups plus a couple more to show this riot of colour in context. These shots really don't do them justice--if you like fishing nets.

Sunny Day Boquerones

  We're back in Collioure, basking in that Mediterranean sunshine and light. (It was chilly and rainy when we left Léran). Here it's warm enough to settle in at a sidewalk café for lunch. Three courses for 15 euros, taxes and tip, as almost always, included.
   Here is fish country not duck country and that made up most of the choices. Two had little bowls of steamed mussels with slices of Serrano ham. Peter and I had anchovies done two ways, salted and as boquerones--lightly pickled in vinegar. That red bed they're draped over is the Catalan specialty, pan con tomate. Start with a slice of toasted bread, rub it liberally with raw garlic and finely chopped tomato, and drizzle with olive oil. Sounds delicious and is.
   Squid and prawns cooked on a plancha (or planxa) was my pick for the main course. Truth be told, the seafood was overcooked but the side dishes, the persillade on the squid, the delectably creamy potatoes, the stuffed tomato and the aioli, stiff with garlic, and sauce romescu (a purée of more tomatoes, garlic and roasted red pepper) were considerable consolation. Desserts were equally typical of the region: crème Catalan--basically crème brulée, or a couple of scoops of thoroughly delicious French ice cream. 

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Day the Sheep Came Down from the Mountain...

  Sunday, 20th September, marked the annual transhumance in Le Sautel, a village about 15 minutes west of Léran. We had such a good time last year that, earlier this week, I phoned and reserved four tickets for this year's répas.
   Like last year, cars were parked on the verges of the road up to and beyond the official limits of the village. Unfortunately, unlike last year, the temperature was cool with the occasional spit of rain. But it didn't stop the local line-dancing team, or the sheep coming down from their summer pasturage in the mountains, or the three-hour lamb lunch or the singing under the white tents. 

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Art in Aix-en-Provence

   Something over four hours east on the péage recently took us to Aix en Provence where, as usual, we promptly got lost in its diabolical one-way street system. I'd spent almost as long as it took to get there sleuthing the Internet for a hotel, this still being tourist season (in fact, there appears to be a small boom happening now that les enfants are back in l'école). But it was worth it. A massive Picasso-Cezanne exhibit was our reason for going there and the hotel turned out to be no more than a half-minute away from its site, the Musée Granet. 
    We'd booked tickets on-line, showed up at our designated time of 9:30 a.m. and spent over four hours gazing and gazing. The security guards were very sticky about photography otherwise I'd have more to show you. The enlargement of the official exhibition poster shows Jacqueline Picasso, the artist's second wife. I especially liked it for the cat that looks so at home on her lap. 
    Buzzy squares teeming with small crowded cafés, plashing fountains large and small, gracious stone facades that glow in the afternoon sun, what we did most--apart from looking at the staggering range of works by Picasso and Cézanne--was amble around with the occasional break for a coffee, or lunch, or strawberry-flavoured kirs. 

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Collioure Equals Colour

    We've never been to this little town in high season. The word is that during August, the queue of cars goes back beyond its boundaries. Even in early September, we ended up having to park by the railway station which is a good five minutes' walk from the beach. 
    Of course it's worth it with its small harbour, picture-perfect tower and everywhere, glowing Mediterranean colours. Doors and walls painted the hues of ripe peaches and nectarines. Great tumbling swathes of eye-searing pink and purple bougainvillea.  As Dufy, Matisse, Derain and others discovered, every corner is a painting waiting to happen. I'll go light on words on this post and let the images tell the story.

A Day by the Sea: Getting There

     Our nearest body of water is Lac Montbel a kilometre away. Our nearest seaside resort is Narbonne Plage. Our nearest water+artistic links+swooningly pretty houses is Collioure, a town not far north of the Spanish border. 
     Usually we drive across country to get there, a stunning couple of hours that begins with rolling meadows that gradually turn to forested hillsides before you begin a long dramatically winding drive down into the town of Quillan, toy-sized from the top of the hill. 
      Next you're into gothic country, passing through limestone chasms and beneath immense overhanging rocks. Then the land opens up and becomes vineyards clear to the sea.