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. Deer pick their way cautiously through this newly exposed landscape, a sudden scuffle and a hare shoots out from under my heels and bounds off into the distance. He’s a big one, standing his ears would reach my thigh. There have been rumours of other rather less benign animals too. Late one evening driving along the narrow, serpentine road that winds up from lovely Albas, a huge, shaggy, grey creature streaked across the road in front of the headlights, its distinctive tail disappearing into the trees on the far side. Too big for a dog, what else could it be? There are wolves in the mountains of the Auvergne, a hundred and fifty kilometres away, but not in the Quercy. Or are there? One hundred and fifty kilometres isn’t really very far, I mused nervously to myself, and that’s the road route. It may only be a hundred by wolf-track. Hmmm. I resolved to carry a stout stick on my solitary walks.
Back in the relative tameness of my garden, beneath their protective covering of oak leaves and snow, spring bulbs are already beginning to appear. I deliberately scuffed the ground under a large copse of oaks, to find a mass of tete-a-tete narcissus poking hopefully through and the fat juicy tips of a scented spread of blue hyacinths. Hope in its most delicious form.
Meanwhile something else in its most delicious form is steaming on the back of my wood-burning stove. Onions. I bought five kilos for little over a euro in the market and bore them home in triumph. A vast iron casserole sits heavily beside the blackened stove pipe containing a kilo of onions, a few cloves of garlic caramelised and melted in olive oil and butter, a slosh of white wine and a sprinkling of herbs – rosemary and bay today – followed by a few litres of stock. On the slab sits a large rustic loaf, like a collapsed football. It’s a Croustilot, pride of the Lotois boulangers – this is as local as it gets. The wheat is grown in the Lot, ground in the Lot and the bread is baked with a sourdough by the artisan boulangers of the region. It’s good, beautiful, flavourful and as tough and chewy as your grandmother’s handbag. But saw it into sizeable chunks and crisp it on the hob beside the casserole – I hesitate to use the word crouton, it’s too poncey for this dish – float the crispy pieces on top of the liquid, top with grated gruyere and allow to simmer for just a few minutes whilst you warm some good, deep bowls, and you will find the uncrackably hard bread has swollen and mellowed into into an exquisite, comforting concoction.
French onion soup, the only thing to have on a cold day.