Morning Mist

Morning Mist

October has stolen in with her spectacular mists and temperate breezes bringing in her wake a flurry of seasonal activity. It’s the time of the vendanges and in the Quercy that doesn’t just mean the grapes but the walnuts too. All day long you can see the tall, blue harvesters sailing over the vineyards like land-loving catamarans. At night you can still hear the distinctive drone and spot the vineyards by the lights as an indefatigable workforce press on well after dark. By nine o’clock the buzz gradually ceases and lines of lights appear bumping down the tracks. It’s dinnertime and not even the lure of a bumper harvest safely gathered will come between a Frenchman and a good dinner. The narrow lanes are crowded with tractors now too; there are squashed grapes on every hairpin bend and the odd ancient beast, spewing disconnected fragments of rusty metal abandoned in disgust by the side of the road.

Down in the valleys the walnuts are just beginning to ripen and fall. The wild roadside trees have already yielded their crop, nuts litter the verges and crunch under the wheels of passing cars. Only for a day or so though, they quickly disappear into the carrier bags of passing peasants and the pockets of school children waiting for the bus. I discovered that I can pull up beneath one of these bountiful trees, throw both children out of the car armed with baskets and after a mere four minutes of frenetic activity pull away again with six kilos of walnuts. It’s great fun.

Cassoulet

Cassoulet

The earthier flavours have hit the markets too. Walnuts and prunes adorn almost every small stall, vast glowing pumpkins – sold by the slice – and patissons with scalloped edges. Huge cauliflowers are everywhere, their enormous creamy heads side by side with their green cousins, the broccoli. At the very edges of the market, impromptu stalls have appeared. A couple of boxes of cepes, balanced precariously on an upturned wine barrel, shield an elderly individual in a pinny and zip-up slippers. She’s doing surprisingly brisk business with the local matrons too. Beneath the larger stalls lie sacks and sacks of drying beans, sold by the kilo and still in their protective pods. The haricots verts have gone and in their place these fat, white haricots blancs provide the substance for the classic casseroles of the region. The revered Tarbais, finest of all, is the one to have for your celebratory cassoulet. For everyday you could try the shorter, plumper varieties. The Cadurciennes buy them in vast quantities whilst they’re still cheap and plentiful. After all a couple of sacks in the cellar will see them through till the salads of spring. I decided it was time I followed suit and, greatly daring, bought a ten-kilo sack last week. Of course the obvious drawback to buying your winter supply in this manner is transport. I staggered bow-legged through the market and collapsed into the car too exhausted even to stop for my usual restorative coffee.

It was worth it. Late one blustery night, as the harvesters were leaving the fields and the wind was beginning to whip down the Lot valley, I triumphantly brought a mouth-watering casserole of Limousin beef, Cahors wine and fresh beans out of the oven. As the kitchen filled with it’s fragrant steam, we were initiated into the legendary, beguiling pleasures of the soft, creamy haricot and realised just why the ladies of Cahors rush to buy their beans when they do.

It’s the Quercy on a plate.

© Amanda Lawrence 2006

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Misty Mornings in the Lot from French Vie

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