Christmas eve and the countryside is stark and brown. Mist rolls in from the river filling the valleys below, but up here on the high ridges the early morning sun hangs low in the winter skies stringing the hedgerows with diamonds. I huff and puff to the top of the hill, gathering juniper berries and prickly tangles of garnet-studded rose as I go. There is no holly on this limestone hill-top, but I pull streams of ivy from the great oak that has somehow forced its roots down into the uncompromising rock. A shrill yelp sounds at my feet, as Hebe, my Jack Russell pup, tumbles into the base of an ancient rose and emerges with tail well tucked in and one earring. Very hip, I tell her. She gambols and frisks whilst I turn slowly, my arms full of winter riches, and gaze across the vast expanse spread out before me. I can see the whole of south-west France. And there, at the very limit of my horizon lies the only snow we’re likely to see this Christmas, the summits of the lofty Pyrenees, two hundred kilometres to the south.
We wander down through the forest to find moss and lichens and maybe some bryony. After a ten minute trek a tiny and long deserted stone cottage hoves into view. An enchanted place, deep in the woods, sliding slowly into disintegration, it’s no more than twelve feet square, with the addition of a huge, rounded bread oven at one end, totally out of proportion to the minute cottage. There must have been a finely planted garden here once upon a time, the remnants of the herbs, long gone wild, still remain, and the whole is surrounded by sturdy stone walls entwined with thick trunks of ivy, delicate coils of honeysuckle and, to my utter delight, red bryony. It hangs temptingly from the highest wall, glistening with dew, its deep red berries, the colour of Snow White’s lips. But this plump, enticing berry is deadly poisonous. Decorative, of course, useful medicinally, but definitely a vine to be handled with extreme care. I hide a string of berries deep in the capacious pockets of my battered Barbour.
We start for home, Hebe always fifteen feet ahead, and I turn to gaze once more at this solitary, sleeping sanctuary. A witch’s cottage – waiting for better times, waiting for a re-birth. As we all are at this time of year.
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.
© Amanda Lawrence 2012
The hedgerows and woodlands of the Quercy are shining with lustrous treasure. Tangles of wild rosehips drip with dew and glint in the early morning sunlight, whilst flame coloured pyracanthas blaze along the broken walls of some ancient stronghold and the tempting but deadly berries of black bryony string themselves through drying teasels like a newly polished ruby necklace laid out for my lady’s approval. Holly doesn’t feature here in this arid, rocky land, but the butcher’s broom, ruscus aculeatus fills its place admirably. I walked through the crackling leaves in an otherwise silent world, marketing basket on one arm and secateurs in my hand, gathering nature’s bounty to adorn my Christmas front door. Another slight issue I had to overcome was the lack of florist’s ring. That sturdy wire base one can buy everywhere in garden centres nowadays – except in France. I had therefore decided that this creation would be a first principles affair, from twigs and moss to the berries themselves. Read More »
The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, and as the church bells pealed in solemn remembrance I stood in twenty-two degrees of glorious sunshine in the market square watching the parade on one side and negotiating half a kilo of Bleu des Causses on the other. Even for south-western France, it was incredibly warm. Normally by mid-November the fires are lit, every chimney is smoking, sales of haricots blancs have rocketed and I am holed up in my warm kitchen for the winter. Not so this year.
Down in the markets summer lingers on with delectable consequences. Late tomatoes adorn most country stalls adding a splash of shiny scarlet to the otherwise more earthy autumn hues. Vast piles of damp lettuces stand side by side with pumpkins and squashes, whilst delicate combinations of pink, white and red long-legged radishes dance before the eyes. Read More »
Glorious sunshine gilds the drab landscape as spring finally makes her debut.
In the forest glades dark carpets of leaves are punctuated by a scattering of violets, like a stolen hoard of amethysts, hurriedly discarded. And every now and then the paler daisy-shaped jewel of an anemone blanda, so charming, so delicate and as tough as old tree roots. Overhead the first green has begun to appear, long lines of chartreuse willow and tangles of hawthorn and honeysuckle, complemented perfectly by a froth of blossom from the early blushing brides, wild cherry, almond and blackthorn. A triple wedding – a promise of good times to come.
Down in the market everything had changed. The last of the winter vegetables stepped back and the spring beauties flounced into the limelight. Read More »
This delightful tale is a total submersion into a life that is altogether different, the French country way of life, slow, sweet and sometimes stingingly sad.
Catherine is a resilient and totally independent character, she speaks fluent French – so important – and is determined to make her new life in the wilds of the Cevennes work and work well. I have lived this particular life for seven years now, and although the author herself lives in the UK, she clearly understands the way a French rural community ticks. When a foreign body drops without warning into a tiny village they cannot expect instant acceptance. Like the pebble on the pond the ripples spread and all sorts of unlooked for consequences can occur. But as time passes tranquillity is restored, neighbours become friends, then more than just friends. Rosy Thornton understands this as few others do and this insightful novel reflects her clinging attachment to the region. Love, life, language tangles, the usual fight with the creaking bureaucratic machine all set amongst stunning scenery. If this sounds like your glass of wine, curl up and enjoy it.
© Amanda Lawrence 2011
All Christmassed out? Up to your ears in leftovers? Turn them to stunningly good account.
Cold turkey is of course old hat nowadays – to mix my metaphors thoroughly – and recipes for big bird leftovers ooze from every TV chef’s repertoire like icing from a bag. But what on earth do you do with all those cranberries? Are you one of those who makes three times as much as required – just in case – and ends up with half a kilo of delicious cranberry and orange relish that you can’t even sell with a roast chicken? Or maybe you buy yours readymade, two jars – just in case – and end up using half a jar?
And then on New Year’s Eve your daughter drops a bombshell of nuclear proportions. She’s off for a sleepover, everybody is taking a dish and she – which means you, in code – has been detailed to provide a pudding. You have two hours and the shops are closed. Got a couple of eggs? Then this, my dear gastronomes, is for you. Read More »
Serves eight hungry hunters
Boxing Day, and despite your massive efforts in the kitchen during the previous twenty-four hours, more food is required to feed your healthy-walking, out-hunting, let’s-all-get-fit outdoor types. Game pie is the answer. It is filling, beautiful, utterly delicious and makes a jaw-dropping centrepiece for the cold table. You can – indeed you should – make it two or three days in advance. Fill in the spaces with salad, chutneys and some baked potatoes and you’re all set.
Of course all game pies are made with that mysteriously tricky-sounding pastry, a hot water crust. Well I’ll let you into a secret, it’s a doddle. Follow the rules and you can’t go wrong. Just one pointer – there is no substitute for lard. It’s not common here in southern France, so I have to trot along to the butcher and winkle some out of him. What a sweetie, he spent a good five minutes digging some out, putting it in a tub, sealing it, wrapping it and then asked if I wanted anything else… I didn’t of course. He charged me sixty cents and I felt an absolute heel! Read More »
Dawn revealed a sparkling scene. The huge pines at the bottom of the valley were veiled in a delicate frost, junipers shook the icing sugar from their needle sharp leaves, oaks bowed under the weight of their snow overcoats and forest animals creeping ever closer to the warmth of human habitation. It was Christmas Eve in the Quercy.
Early that morning I visited the age-old Christmas market in Cahors, standing at the edge of the cobbled square I wondered how many Christmases have rolled by in that ancient place, how many market scenes almost identical to the one I was witnessing. Birds of every kind were laid out in thrilling abundance, delicate quail, boned and stuffed, caponed guinea fowl, half-plucked turkeys of every breed imaginable, hung head-down over the counters, wings spread to prove their breed, and of course the ubiquitous duck. But the goose has always been king here, and it is still. A fat Toulouse goose is the perfect centre piece for the Christmas table. Read More »
Mists drift past the dripping hills, shrouding the oaks and walnuts in their delicate, damp veils. As they shift and part shafts of topaz light pierce the scene and a breathtaking world emerges. The countryside is spiced with cinnamon and saffron, peppered with cayenne. Autumn has finally arrived in all her blazing glory. I drive down through the valley passing gilded vineyards of breathtaking beauty, line upon line of flame haired maidens swaying to the rustle and rhythm of the leaves in a vast Celtic dance. Read More »
Summertime – and the living is easy… Okay so it’s not very original, but in countries where summers are hot, harvests are lavish and lazy rivers run full of fish, it’s so very true – nowhere more so than here in the Quercy. The fields are dominated by harvesters, crawling across the landscape like vast locusts; the markets are full of eye-popping colour and equally full of misty-eyed tourists.
My son has spent much of his summer fishing. The river Lot winds its serpentine course through some of the most spectacular and historic landscape in southern France and eventually passes conveniently at the feet of our own hills. Strolling along its enticing banks in the warm, balmy evenings I glance out over the shimmering, rippling stretches. Willows dip and bow, groves of walnuts march right down to the thirsty shore and there are so many fish dancing just below the surface, I feel I can almost reach down and scoop them out. Read More »
The dog days of high summer and the heat is on. Cicadas scream madly from the trees and sunflowers reach for shimmering skies washed of colour.
In the markets meanwhile, colour reigns supreme. Piles of misshapen scarlet peppers and shiny purple and mauve aubergines nudge their culinary partners, the abundant courgettes and vast, delectable Marmande tomatoes; a ratatouille dances across almost every market stall. On the long fruit stands the star of the summer ball is making her flamboyant entrance – the beautiful, fleshy peach. Cherries are over now, apricots are making their bow, but the lovely peach will see us through the holiday months – and for sheer voluptuous pleasure, there is nothing to touch a ripe peach. A private pleasure of course, one wouldn’t want to be caught in the act, it can be embarrassing. Read More »
Warm breezes caress my bare shoulders as I sit on the terrace amongst my lemon trees. Despite their diminutive size, the amazing scent of their blossom is almost overwhelming. At the bottom of the garden I can hear the first of the season’s cicadas screaming – the heralds of hot weather – and I sigh in contentment. Nowhere is summer more seductive than in the Quercy.
Down in the markets the early summer fruits are rolling in. Prayssac was awash with cherries this morning, huge black Burlats, tart and exciting, laid in vast piles on the wooden tables, the dusky scarlet Bigareaux just beginning to nudge them out. They are late this year and before long will be replaced by the honey-sweet, fuzzy golden globes of the early apricots, and everywhere the fragrant aroma of the Garriguette strawberry. Read More »
May in southern France is like June in England. Soft air, the first of the season’s brides, markets stuffed with hopeful herbs and leggy tomato plants – and roses, roses all the way. The huge gallica by my kitchen door is smothered in breaking bud, lime green goblets filled with a deep magenta that simply spells summer. Very soon the whole bush will be completely hidden in a mass of blooms, suffusing the air with that rich, inimitable fragrance that must have scented the courtyards of Damascus for so many years. Of course May is not only the month of roses, it’s also the month where the true Mediterranean shrubs come into their own, none more glorious than that flamboyant little number, the cistus. Read More »
Tags: Quercy Diary
Spring is in full flow here in the beautiful Quercy. The countryside is foaming with blossom. Rivers of blackthorn, late after the freezing winter have run into the cherry, wild pear, plum and quince, providing a fountain of confetti for the thousands of avian brides newly arrived from their overwintering grounds in Tropical Africa.
As I drove down through the vines yesterday, delicious spreads of butter-yellow cowslips covered the verges. The crowded woods created a chartreuse backdrop and the enticingly warm breezes lured me from the car for a quick ramble through pristine fields of new meadow flowers. Read More »
Early March and spring rushes in to relieve the chill of a long, hard winter. My almond trees are spreading their delicate petals to the seeping warmth and the Rosemaries have suddenly exploded into a riot of pale blues. The sun is hot now, despite the still-cool air, hot enough to eat lunch outside – and on the spreading pavements and boulevards of Cahors that is exactly what they have been doing.
Outside one of my favourite cafes – just beside Gambetta’s statue – a party of English tourists noisily settled into a large table for eight, excitedly rustling their maps and expressing wonder at the glories of the architecture. Dressed in pale creams and beige linen, newly streaked hair perfectly groomed, they pushed their up-to-the-minute shades into their hair and looked expectantly at Florian. He was busy juggling beers for a pair of regulars, stopped en route to the bar to kiss my ears, and shimmied in without seeming to notice his suddenly expanding clientele. Long years of experience. Read More »
It’s a strange phenomenon, but as winter loosens its iron grip and the first spring bulbs begin to feel their way into the exhilarating air of a Quercy February, my mind takes a retrograde step. I start to think of truffles.
I imagine it happens this way. November is too early and often still warm. December is the usual frantic stuffed-bird, fat pudding, vast quantities of everything, festive season. January is devoted to repairing the ravages of the festive season, lean, calm and frugal. By February my usual buoyancy has returned and I’m ready for a little deep, dark, intensely indulgent deliciousness. I don’t think I’m alone either, but whilst most do it with chocolates – around about Valentine’s Day – I do it with truffles.
It all started for me this year when I went to visit a couple of friends of mine – a pair of particularly wise old owls. Their knowledge of botany is a constant source of delight, and I sat in their sunny conservatory sipping my Lapsang Souchong and entering gamely into a profound discussion on a reliable organic cure for Codling Moth. We chatted about this and that, watched a tree creeper mousing its way up their giant oak and thrashed out the probable chances of success for my maiden apple trees. Read More »
The inspiring tale of one woman’s war.
Anne-Marie Walters was a mere twenty years old when she was recruited by the Special Operations Executive (SOE) and secretly dropped by parachute into occupied south-west France one freezing, moonlit night in January 1944. Life as a secret agent seemed to suit the indomitable courage of this remarkable young woman. She became a courier on the WHEELRIGHT circuit, carrying messages, arranging escape routes for British airmen and living in daily fear of exposure. Then, just when liberation seemed to be truly on the horizon, she was ordered over the Pyrenees to Spain – on foot. No mean feat even in peacetime. And unlike so many of her SOE colleagues – for so long the unsung heroines of WWII, captured, appallingly tortured and eventually shot by the Nazis – Walters survived to tell the tale. She wrote this vivid, ebullient account of her life as ‘Paulette’, living clandestinely among the gallant French Resistance, immediately after the war. Through these pages she takes you with her on her breath-taking adventure, sharing her joys and her sorrows, and appreciating the nail-biting drama all the more because you know that when the last page has been turned she at least made it safely back over the white cliffs.
First published in 1946, this new edition includes notes by David Hewson, who identifies many of the characters behind the pseudonyms. It also includes a great many photographs. A beautiful book and a thoroughly absorbing read.
Published by Moho Books RRP £13.99
© Amanda Lawrence 2010
Tags: Book Review
Welcome to the freezing Quercy in deep mid-winter. Today marks Epiphany and the end of the festive season. It’s the end of puddings and pies and Buche de Noel, the end of Bing for another year, and the start of a new life for our Norwegian spruce in the little copse behind the old orchard. Much as I look forward to the hustle and bustle of Christmas every year, I look forward even more to this.
Outside the temperatures are dropping, a scattering of snow ices the view from my window and more is forecast. The deserted vines are no more than marching ranks of tangled wire. The oaks have finally shed their leaves and a six-inch carpet swathes the forest floor. Morning walks have taken on an eerie quality, apart from the odd creaking bough, the woods are absolutely silent. Scarlet rosehips dangle like forgotten Christmas baubles right in my path and the acid-green of an early hellebore catches the eye. Read More »
It’s official, I have become a bumpkin! Five years of rural French living have squeezed the sophistication out of me, like toothpaste from the tube, almost without my noticing. It was brought to my attention with blinding clarity one wet chilly Tuesday in late December.
It all began with a request to Santa for an LBD for Christmas. The old boy deputed one his elves – heavily disguised as the beloved – to escort me to the metropolis, wine me, dine me and buy me something wildly gorgeous. The metropolis in our case is Toulouse. Sophisticated, rose-pink and undeniably youthful – it was a bit of a shock. The city centre was heaving, people were moving en masse like a nest of chic ants. Every sleek, soignée girl had knee-high shiny boots. Mine were ankle-length and a tad dusty. Every man was cool to the point of boredom and well under twenty-five. Mine was harassed, fifty and a tad dusty. Hmmm. I mused, slightly appalled at the yawning gulf between the two, time for a change of lifestyle. Read More »
Strong northerly winds have swept the vines bare, the temperatures are dropping fast and outside my warm kitchen snow is falling. The prickly junipers and rosemaries on our rocky hillside, that in summer hang so grimly on to their precious water resources in searing tropical heat, are now half frozen and veiled with white. The Mediterranean pines are beginning to look like the marches of the Arctic Circle.
Winter has arrived in the Quercy.
In the fields sheep huddle in their winter woolly jumpers. A lone donkey watched me nonchalantly as I walked swiftly past – snowflakes gathering on his eyelashes – he stood there patiently waiting for the storm to pass, he’s a wise old beast and he’s seen it all before. I could spy a familiar figure toiling in the distance. Monsieur the elder was pruning his vines. Why now? I wondered for the hundredth time, why do they wait until the weather is cold enough to freeze a bowl of soup in thirty seconds? I really must enquire one day. As I neared his vineyard it rather looked as if I was going to get the chance, he spotted me, and came wading, waist-deep through the immaculate ranks.
‘Beh, ma belle!’ He greeted me affectionately, removing his beret and preparing to scratch my cheeks. As I gingerly pushed back my swathes of wrappings to receive his enthusiastic embrace I noticed his worn shirt and waistcoat, reinforced with just a light jacket. He wasn’t even wearing gloves. He is well into his nineties and as fit as any man around. They breed them tough in these parts.