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Morning Mists

Morning Mists

Mellow October is upon us. Mornings are characterised by swirling valley mists that mask little villages and swallow the vineyards. From my balcony, high above the floor of the glorious river Lot, I look down on meringue confections as elaborate as any you would see in the pâtisserie. It is these same mists that on the banks of the nearby Ciron River induce the alchemy known as Noble Rot, a fascinating and benevolent fungus that ultimately produces a delectable form of liquid gold, Sauternes. No such process is required here, and the richly purple grapes must be gathered quickly to concoct our own local brew, dark, delicious Cahors. The harvesters are out all day and well into the evening, tractors with fully laden trailers creak round the hairpin bends leaving small grape slicks in their wake.
The Quercy is busy, busy, for grapes are not the only harvest at this time of year. It is also the time of the walnut, the chestnut and the cèpe. The walnut has been a valuable, cultivated crop since medieval times, and because it’s been around so long it has naturalised. There are numerous walnut trees in the wild, even more numerous chestnuts and a fair haul of cèpes for those who know the likely spots. In the golden afternoons the vast tracts of forest are alive with gatherers. This Sunday my nearest and dearest decided the time had come to join them, and we equipped ourselves for a trip to the woods. We were foraging not only for the first three windfalls, but also for an equally valuable resource, pine cones. Our winter fuel is good oak wood, cut two years ago and perfect for fires, but as every countryman knows, you don’t only need the wood you also need kindling, and a dry, resinous pine cone makes an excellent firelighter. As we have a sprawling forest right on our doorstep we have a lavish supply.

Chestnuts

Chestnuts

The children bounced around in the back of the car as we pulled onto a mauve carpet of fragrant heather beneath a cluster of sixty-foot pines. (One cannot easily carry five large boxes of pine cones) My visiting mother threw herself into the task with great brio, wading knee-deep in heather, directing passing grandchildren to precariously sited troves, collecting just as much as anyone else and even precariously discarding her stick. It reminded her of her childhood, she said. And well it might, for in many respects rural France has hardly changed in the last fifty years. We eventually prised her away, stowed the boxes in the car boot, and drove on to the sunlit chestnut woods. The harvest there was enormous, huge mahogany coloured nuts, the size of small plums, littered the ground under a canopy of saffron and jade. Competition was fierce too, and we collected several kilos in less than an hour. An esoteric crop, the secrets of this delicious nut are gradually fading in the western world. But it is the fabulous, flavourful magic ingredient for many of Europe’s oldest and most delectable recipes. Christmas stuffing’s, steaming bowlfuls of chestnut soup, moist chestnut cakes and a few left over to roast in the embers – marvellous. The walnut gathering operation was quicker still; the trees are obligingly situated on the edge of fields and vineyards and the nuts conveniently shed their outer shells as they fall. Within just a few minutes we had filled a huge basket with all we would be likely to use in the next year. A few cèpes were spotted along the way, not many, but one can’t eat many at one time anyway. It was a glorious, glorious harvest and we returned for well-earned refreshments, thoroughly satisfied.
As I poured the wine and passed the olives in the early evening sunshine, my mother sat back and gave a sigh of contentment.
“What a lovely day” She murmured. And it was.

© Amanda Lawrence 2007

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Autumnal French Life from French Vie

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