Amanda on December 21st, 2011

Merry Berry ChristmasThe 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 »

Merry Berry Holiday from French Life

Amanda on December 24th, 2010
Cenac In The Snow

Cenac In The Snow

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 »

Christmas In The Quercy from French Life

Amanda on January 10th, 2010
Frosty Walk

A Frosty Walk In The Woods

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 »

The Cold, Calm, Hopeful Days of Epiphany from French Life

Amanda on December 14th, 2009
Frosted Juniper

Frosted Juniper

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.

Winter Has Arrived In The Quercy from French Life

Amanda on December 4th, 2009
Jamie Oliver in Cahors Market

Jamie Oliver in Cahors Market

Salut! And welcome to the beautiful Quercy in ankle-deep autumn.
It may officially be winter elsewhere, but here in this incredibly mild year, autumn clings on. The oaks, reluctant as always to surrender their leaves, are a splendid rusty brown and after every wind, a fresh layer of leaves means the forest floor disappears completely. It’s mushroom time, and my kitchen table is permanently coated with learned tomes on the edible – and otherwise – fungi of Europe. Fortunately I also have a couple of mushroom-guru friends who help separate the delicious from the deadly. Pharmacies will help too, but they’re cautious to the point of condemning everything but those you knew anyway. My gurus are better, and I now have a satisfying string of Clitocybe Geotropa drying gently above the wood burning stove in my kitchen, not to mention a good crop of Tricholoma Terreums and Shaggy Ink Caps growing in the garden. Of course a few mushrooms are great for a risotto and the bee’s knees for an omelette or to add to a casserole, but they don’t exactly keep body and soul together. To that end I hared into Cahors market this morning, early for once to the immense surprise of my favourite stall holder. Read More »

Forever Autumn In The Quercy from French Life

Amanda on November 14th, 2009
Autumn Vives

Autumn Vines

Welcome to deep, deep autumn in the rain-washed Quercy.
In years to come people will talk about the long hot summer of 2009 and remind one another that it truly lasted from April to October. But it’s November now and the bitter Northern winds have swept across the landscape, turning the shivering vines scarlet and bringing driving rain in their wake. For the first time in my life I really don’t mind. The countryside is parched and gasping, wells and waterholes have been dry for months and the gardens are in desperate need of a good drink. Meanwhile the autumn pruning has been done, winter wood has been cut and stacked and all the leftovers piled high on the bonfire. The last of the wild harvests have been gathered too. Pinecones for the fire – pinecones make superb fire lighters – are piled in six capacious boxes on the lower terrace. Walnuts, still wet and unctuous, wait to be moved inside to dry out for the year, quinces await the preserving pans and bags of fat, glossy chestnuts will be roasted, peeled – what a fiddly job that is – and frozen for Christmas. Read More »

Autumn In The Quercy from French Life

Amanda on May 12th, 2009
Quercy Spring Salad

Quercy Spring Salad

Salade Printemps

The days are getting longer and the woods are full of catkins and lime-green hellebores. The breezes are softer and the sun warms your soul. Spring is in the air. The soups and casseroles of winter are banished for another eight months. Or are they? How can you construct a decent salad with the sort of half-ripe, totally flavourless tomatoes available at this time of year? And anyway, it may be warming up, but it’s not that warm… the answer is in the oven, beat the last of the winter blues, roast those tomatoes until the flavour oozes out in a sticky unctuous sauce. You will have created one of the terribly in foods of the moment – the warm salad. In the Quercy this is no new concept, the Quercynois have been making warm salads with duck and lettuce, warm fois gras, crispy toasts and warm goat’s cheese ever since anyone can remember. But classical local salads don’t usually include tomatoes and this one does. In many ways it’s something of a moveable feast. You could give it an Italian slant with Gorgonzola, Fontina and Mozzarella, sprinkled with toasted pine nuts, or slide it down to Provence with Banon, Fontagne and a handful of green olives, liberally doused in olive oil. My recipe however is anchored firmly in the Quercy and was originally developed to use up cheesy leftovers in the fridge. It’s a firm favourite now and it’s utterly delicious, I promise. Read More »

Quercy Spring Salad Recipe from French Life

Amanda on January 1st, 2009
Frosted Vines

Frosted Vines

Year 2009 dawned bright and clear in the lovely Quercy and we’re all set for a good year.
Out in the chilly vineyards half-frozen paysans bend over the wiry winter vines pruning and tidying, they’ve been out there for weeks and it’s a relentless task. I watched them on Boxing Day (the 26th December isn’t a holiday in France) full of Buche de Noel and litres of good wine, doggedly ploughing on despite the sudden fall of snow. The hunters were out in force too. According to the local rag, and despite the best endeavours of the afore-mentioned, wild boar caused hundreds of thousands of euros worth of damage amongst the precious vines in this tiny area alone. There are thousands of them out there in the rampant oak forests, which is peculiar, because although you see plenty of evidence, where they’ve rooted for truffles at the base of a tree for instance, you hardly ever see them, although when you consider that whenever they tentatively poke their snouts out of the undergrowth they get their whiskers blown off, perhaps it isn’t so peculiar. Read More »

A New Year, A New French Life from French Life

Amanda on May 13th, 2008
Tournon d'Agenais

Tournon d'Agenais

First of May, First of May, Flowers Strive to Bloom Today
They certainly did in Tournon on Thursday. This ancient and beautiful bastide village was overflowing with flowers and plants of every conceivable variety. The sun shone, heat radiated from the old stones and delicious fragrances permeated the alleyways.
This is a famous annual festival in Tournon, attracting visitors from far and wide. As it is a true bastide, with only one winding road into the village – lined with parked cars – and one narrow winding road round, a one-way system had to be devised. Gendarmes were much in evidence, waving their arms, smiling benevolently and occasionally directing wayward cars, there seemed to be a remarkable number for the purpose and most were standing around chatting and smiling at the visitors, but they were there if really needed and that was the main thing. Meanwhile at the foot of the hill a park and ride shuttle bus was doing a sterling job of hoisting hundreds of old biddies to the top and the day’s delights. Read More »

Tournon d’Agenais Flower Festival from French Life

Amanda on April 25th, 2008
Hisqua

Hisqua

The panoramic view from my terrace stretches for thirty kilometres, across immaculately tended vineyards, huddled villages, river valleys and great sweeps of forested landscape. In the far distance, if your eyesight is pretty good, you can just make out the tower at Tournon D’Agenais. Naturally the house is on the side of a steep hill, and yesterday, as I was out pruning my lemon trees and trying to coax the oleanders into a little more effort, my only company appeared to come from a pair of buzzards riding the thermals. Warm spring breezes drifted across my overgrown garden as I carefully tended the riotously blossoming orange tree on the corner, and I blissfully inhaled the wafts of delicious scent. Read More »

It’s a Cat’s Life in France from French Life

Amanda on March 12th, 2008
Helen Martin

Helen Martin

In days long gone by most good guidebooks were essentially travel books. Charming, personal and full of odd little facts known only to the author. To a great extent these honourable tomes have been swept away on the tide of serial guides. They tell you where to lay your weary head, how much you should budget to do so, where to eat, drink and be merry and a great deal about the history and architecture of your chosen destination into the bargain. Invaluable stuff, and nobody should attempt a new region without one. But if you want to scratch just a little deeper, really get under the skin of the area you intend to visit, then what?

If your area happens to the Lot you need look no further, Helen Martin supplies it all. Lot, Travels Through a Limestone Landscape is a vast volume of impeccably researched fact and delicious personal preference. She doesn’t tell you where to eat and sleep, eschewing the role of conventional guide in favour of friend and mentor. Read More »

Book Review – Lot by Helen Martin from French Life

Amanda on November 1st, 2007
Stunning Sunset

Stunning Sunset

Winter is knocking on the door in Southern France. Here in the Quercy, mornings are sharp and frosty, afternoons blue and brilliant and temperatures have dropped like a stone. The markets are now less than half their summer size, all the tender fruit and vegetables have long disappeared, with gnarled cold-weather warmers piled in their place. I discovered a new one last week. Whilst my weekly heap of leeks and endive, Jerusalem artichokes, red cabbage and celery was being weighed, the stallholder came across a measly rutabaga in my selection. I was late that day, and this was literally the scraping at the bottom of the box. Read More »

Winter Approaching from French Life

Amanda on October 1st, 2007
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. Read More »

Autumnal French Life from French Life

Amanda on June 23rd, 2006
Boeuf Quercynois

Boeuf Quercynois

Boeuf Quercynois

Every region of France has it’s own classic stew or casserole. The most famous, and certainly the most abused beef stew must be Boeuf Bourguignon, closely followed now by the increasingly popular Provencal Daube. In the Languedoc, just south of the Quercy, the king of casseroles reigns supreme, it’s the land of the Cassoulet. However we are splendidly situated for an outstanding casserole of own. To the south we have access to the finest haricots in the world. Just to the north, in the Limousin, some of the finest beef in France. In the west of the province the great Marmande tomatoes beg to be included and right on our doorstep the deepest, darkest, richest wines known to man. This is my own version of a time-honoured recipe that I first ate in the ancient stone kitchen of a nearby farmhouse. I present for your delectation, Boeuf Quercynois. Read More »

French Beef and Bean Casserole from French Life

Amanda on November 5th, 2005
Mincemeat

Mincemeat

This is unashamedly an Anglo-French recipe.
Taking all that’s wonderful, and quite impossible to give up, from an English Christmas whilst using classic Quercy ingredients.
You may already have made your precious jars of mincemeat of course, it’s getting a little late now, but if you haven’t do try this.

Makes about one and a half kilos or 30 – 36 mince pies.

Ingredients Read More »

Quercy Christmas Mincemeat Recipe from French Life

Amanda on August 23rd, 2005

Historic gateway to the South of France

Pont Valentre

Pont Valentre

History
Cahors is strategically situated in a loop of the curvaceous river Lot, surrounded by hills. To the north the roads lead straight to Paris, to the south straight to Toulouse and on to the passes of the Pyrenees and the bustling ports of the Mediterranean. To the west, following the line of the river, lies the great wine producing city and port of Bordeaux. To the east, the wild and beautiful Causses and the foothills of the Massif Central.

It was in this advantageous spot that the ancient tribe of the Cadurci decided to settle in about 800BC. Many scholars maintain that it was from these first settlers that Cahors and the Quercy take their names. Others argue that Quercy comes from the Latin Quercus, meaning oak, a reference to the oak forests that romp across the landscape. Either way, both Cahors and the Quercy itself are ancient settlements. Read More »

Cahors – Capital of the Quercy from French Life

Amanda on July 13th, 2005
Salade Quercynoise

Salade Quercynoise

Salade Quercynoise

Everyone’s heard of Salade Niçoise, it’s eaten at a million tables all over the world every summer. However if you come a little inland you’ll find that most regions of France have their own summer speciality. Some, like the Niçoise, can be found on restaurant menus all year round. Quercynoise is one of those select few. Absolutely local, totally delicious and just as welcome in the winter as an hors d’oeuvre, as during the summer as a lunch dish.

This is my version, but you don’t want to be too strict with the ingredients. Use what is freshest in the markets that morning. Read More »

Salade Quercynoise Recipe from French Life

Amanda on June 13th, 2005
Albas Wine Festival

Albas Wine Festival

Largest Cahors wine festival in one tiny village
Albas is a charming little village, built entirely of the local stone and wedged precariously into a rocky cleft on the left bank of the river. The population is normally pretty stable at around 500 – that’s if you include all the surrounding farms and hamlets – but on one particular day each May it swells to over six thousand. It’s the day of the annual fête du vin and the whole village bows in worship of the grape and gives itself up to the pleasures of the table. The thought of six thousand inebriated people crammed into little Albas was arresting, to say the least; surely they’d be falling into the river? I decided I’d better go along – purely in the course of duty – to see what it was all about and what measures had been taken to prevent a watery end. Read More »

Albas Wine Festival 2005 from French Life