Truffles and troubadours

Saturday 9th January 2010, Ambre-les-Espagnolettes, Languedoc
We've just returned from an interesting evening at the mairie at the top of the village. We are enthusiastic observers of notice boards. You can learn a lot about a place from browsing the notices. Usually they are out of date, the event having taken place a few days or even months beforehand but just sometimes we strike lucky. This time it really was chance. The mayor and councillors were presenting their best wishes and plans for the coming year to the residents to be followed by a verre d'amitié. The notice at the bottom of the village announced it was last week, while the one outside the mairie said it was tonight. Fortunately it turned out to be tonight and we arrived to be greeted by the mayor who wished us a happy New Year and told us we were very welcome, especially if we were friends of Ivor and Lesley as they were his friends. Everybody shook hands and seemed cheerful and friendly. Soon the room filled. We had no idea there were so many people in Ambre-les-Espagnolettes. The mayor coughed into his microphone and rustled his papers professionally. He had a powerful accent du Midi which even to our ears sounded rather flat and was difficult to follow even without the distorting microphone. We did however understand that there are major difficulties with providing broad-band to the village. Hollow laughs all round from the frustrated residents. Apparently the aerial is set up but the signal is set to come from the neighbouring village where the mayor refuses to get his finger out (so to speak). It seems there are difficulties with siting a transmitter on or near an ancient tower standing at the centre of a mediaeval circulade protected under French planning legislation. Councillors there seem unprepared to find an alternative solution and meanwhile everybody is frustrated in their endeavours to access the internet.

The official business did not take long and soon a couple of hundred people were crowding around the tables filling their glasses with wine donated by one of the village producers. There were platters of smoked ham, pâté, savoury gâteau, blood sausage and really lovely bread (we must ask in the mairie next week where we can buy it). Not only did we meet and chat with many of the French residents, but we also met the English, Irish and Dutch ones too. They make up a significant minority. Everybody was very friendly and we enjoyed the evening greatly. We even met a friend of our friends Susan and Ray from Loches, who has recently moved to Ambre, and we now have several invitations to visit people around the village.

Reception at the mairie, Ambre-les-Espagnolettes

One thing that did not altogether surprise us is that we met several English people who had mixed feelings about continuing to live here and who are thinking of moving away when they can. They told us it was wonderful for a holiday or for a few months from time to time, but when it is your entire life it becomes monotonous. As one person said, "the Mediterranean is one thing, the Atlantic another. The skies of the Midi are blue and boring, those of the north are full of activity." Well actually the skies here at present are anything but blue and we've seen stunning cloud formations, but we take the point.

We also learn that many of the English and Dutch residents drive over to Spain on a regular basis to have their hair cut and fill up on fuel! The Irishman misses his Guinness and the green grass of Kerry.

The Dutch on the other hand seem very happy here. They are such a cheerful nation, laughing 'til they cry almost. Those we met tonight never want to return to Holland permanently though enjoy returning for holidays. They say they are here for the climate, not for the scenery or the people. We may be in a rare pocket without snow at present but it's still very chilly here and in the summer it's like an oven but the Dutch seem to really enjoy it all.

It's the time of year for the Gâteau du Roi. Throughout January cakes filled with marzipan are served. Inside is a little ceramic figure called a fève. Whoever gets the fève in their portion is king and wears a gold coloured paper crown. These gâteaux were served up to guests but the crowns had long been taken by the kids attending the reception. They were busy skidding around the polished floor in their crowns or hiding beneath the tables, generally having a happy time together. That was one thing that was particularly nice. Here in Ambre this evening, different generations and different nationalities mixed in happily together.

Younger residents at Ambre-les-Espagnolettes

The weather today has been glacial. We didn't even bother to go out this morning. Instead we snuggled in the warm kitchen while I discovered how to cook stuffed aubergines in a remoska and Ian worked on his French book trade. The wind whistled down the narrow street outside our window and tiny flakes of snow stinging against the glass warned us we were on borrowed time and could be smothered anytime the gods so wished.

Saturday afternoons the IT suite at the library is open so we piled on coats, gloves and hats and drove down to St. Chinian. This time there was a new way of preventing us from accessing the internet. As we arrived in the library there was a power cut! It lasted well over an hour. We read the paper, chatted with the staff and did some searching in the books before it got too dark to see to read. I struggled with "La littérature française pour les nuls" in an attempt to understand more about the troubadours and their songs and poems of courtly love. They originated in this area during the 11th century. Writing poetry about the virtues of women and singing their songs of perfect love they wandered the countryside, welcomed into the palaces of the kings and nobles where they would entertain the court and charm the ladies.

Meanwhile Ian got into conversation with a Frenchman who had put on an exhibition of razors and shaving equipment through the ages, in the library. Ian proudly told him that after nearly fifty years he was still using a Gillette hand razor identical to one in the exhibition. The man became expansive about his razor collecting hobby and when he found that Ian collected toilet paper and photos of manhole covers he became ecstatic! A fellow collector par excellence! Ian has now been invited to his home to see his collection of 3,000+ razors and vine cutting tools! He said his wife goes mad at him for cluttering the house with them and wasn't it strange that men liked collecting things while women just got cross about it? At this point he was joined by a friend who said he knew someone who collected condoms. In French they are called capots anglais while in England they are called French letters. The three of them got engrossed with finding out the derivation of the terms in the fading light of the increasingly chilly library. Books were piled on the tables as Ian found them the references they needed. So much chatter, and the French always use their hands so graphically when they describe things. It was definitely a men's conversation and I kept well out of it!

Just as it got too dark to see and we were on the point of leaving, the lights and computers came back on and we were able to send the pile of emails we'd prepared back home. We also saw a satellite photo of Britain emailed to us by Jim in Exeter. The entire country is a white out! A stunning photo. Our sympathies with everyone caught up in it. Still clear here tonight but the high lands around are covered.

Sunday 10th January 2010, Ambre-les-Espagnolettes, Languedoc
This morning there was still no snow around so after breakfast we set off for St. Pons, twenty five kilometres over the Montagne Noire on a good road through the impressive Defilé de l'Ilouvre, to discover the Foire de Truffes or Truffle Fair. I recently read an interesting article on truffle production in the locality and was intrigued to see and learn more. According to the publicity there were talks in the tourist office, demonstrations of dogs and pigs finding hidden truffles, seedlings of truffle oaks for sale, demonstrations of cooking using truffles and of course actual truffles for sale. Our plan was to try out the truffle omelettes being offered for lunch.

As we reached the top of the pass across the mountains and started the long, steady descent down to St. Pons the road conditions changed dramatically. How could we have blue skies and sunshine one moment and snow and ice the next? We slithered cautiously down the winding road through the snow into the main street of the town which seemed remarkably empty for such a special fête. The tourist office was closed and deserted. No whiff of truffles guided us to the fair so we asked for directions in the florist's shop. "Normalment c'est annulé," we were told. Rather as we'd started to suspect France was failing to come up with the goods yet again! What a lovely expression though! Does it mean it's cancelled most years? We were told the suppliers and cooks had turned up with their saucepans and equipment but had been sent home again! They are even less prepared for snow here than we are in England. At the first snowflake everybody goes into panic mode!

So we went to the only lively place in St. Pons, crossing to the PMU bar for hot chocolate to warm up, where we squashed in between the punters filling in their betting slips. As in St. Chinian it was an entertaining experience and the characters in the bar were so typical of French rural life.

Returning to Modestine we passed a lady coming out of her house wearing all her clothes plus a pink woollen dressing-gown over the top. She had her cat on a lead and proceeded to tie it to the edge of the shutters before returning indoors again, leaving the poor cat on the freezing street. Many people in the little towns of Southern France can be remarkably strange!

The roads on the St. Pons side of the pass were too icy to risk exploring further so we returned to St. Chinian where the sky was blue and the sun actually giving off warmth. As we set off we each sucked a chocolate truffle – the last of the Christmas present sent to us by Geneviève. At least we had truffles of a sort in St. Pons.

There was an evil wind on the hills and we both found the thought of lunch in our warm kitchen rather alluring. Very little light gets into the ground floor of our house however and with such beautiful weather outside we just had to go out for a walk during the afternoon. We were lucky. Sticking to the valley and the vineyards we were sheltered and in full sunshine. It was cold, but dry and bright for a couple of hours walking. There were many footprints of wild boar among the vines and we could hear the hunters' guns in the woodland on the edge of the plain. Returning to the village there was still sufficient daylight left for us to fill buckets from the tap outside the mairie and give Modestine a much needed wash, removing the caked on salt and mud accumulated over the last few weeks.

Recently cleared field with stones piled up around the edge. Known as Clapas they may later be used for a capitelle or sheltering drystone wall.

Tuesday 12th January 2010, Ambre-les-Espagnolettes, Languedoc
Last night we were so tired and cold from a full day driving and exploring that we felt too tired after supper to write blogs or work on the French book trade, so with mugs of tea we sat in the warm kitchen watching that most tasteless of films "Up Pompeii" on Ian's laptop. How dated and horribly sexist it now seems.

This morning there is still a thick white frost on the pantiles of the village roofs but the sky, three floors above our dark cosy kitchen, is blue and promising of another sunny day such as we enjoyed yesterday.

Happy as we undoubtedly are in this house, when sunshine is in such limited supply we cannot waste it indoors, so yesterday, knowing most of France was under snow, we set off across the plain to the coast. Down here there was nothing but bright sunshine across the bare vineyards and the roadside puddles were rapidly losing their film of ice.

Passing through Cazoules we noted their mayor would be presenting his good wishes to the citizens on Saturday. It occurred to us that following the welcome we received in Ambres when nobody really knew who we were, we could go around the countryside attending every free mayoral reception on offer, simply saying we were staying at the home of friends in the rue du Puits. Every little town has a road so named and the mayor would surely be too polite to question exactly who the friends were. A good idea but even we are not that cheeky.

The nearest seaside to our village is Valras Plage some twenty kilometres to the south. We'd never visited it having read that in common with most of the coastal resorts near here, it rose out of the salty, mosquito-ridden swamps back in the 1970s and 80s once DDT had finally wiped out the noxious insects. These seaside towns exist almost exclusively for tourists and during July and August they are heaving with visitors while much of the rest of the year they lie dormant.

Initial impressions of Valras Plage confirmed our impressions. It was clean and bright, painted in whites, creams and yellows. The streets were empty of people and vehicles and the countless blocks of holiday apartments and seaside villas all had their windows shuttered until the summer. Determined not to miss anything we walked down to the expanse of white sandy beach scattered with pretty shells and less pretty sandy-coated dog-turds. The sun was dazzling and the gentle, tideless waves of the Mediterranean broke gently onto the sand.

We have a low boredom threshold however and with nothing else to watch we quickly returned to Modestine. A couple of kilometres further along the coast, just back from the sea, we found the mairie and parked in the sunshine on the little tree-lined square. Here there were a few people around and even a baker, a bar and a vegetable shop open. The rest of the shops in the tiny streets were geared for tourism and closed. We discovered the local school where three policemen were deployed to see the children across the deserted streets as they returned home for lunch. They even held up some non-existent traffic for us to cross the road!

Actually we rather liked the little town finding it far nicer than we'd expected. We bought a roll, some pizza, and a sticky bun for Ian in the bakers and sat inside a very warm and sunny Modestine for our lunch accompanied by mugs of hot tea. Nearby we were watched by a lone customer on the terrace of the bar. His tiny pocket dog sat on the next chair, his paws on the table as he busied himself scrutinizing the pages of Midi Libre.

As we climbed out of Modestine after lunch they came over to chat in English. The man turned out to be Norwegian and was happy to find us to talk to in a town so completely deserted at this time of year. He moved to Valras five years ago when he retired and completely loves it here. He's used to the emptiness after Norway and says the winters here are paradise compared to the weather north of Bergen where he comes from. Ian asked whether he ever felt homesick for the Vinmonopolets which our new friend found hilarious. (These are the only places in Norway where you can acquire alcohol for home consumption and it is about ten times more expensive than here.) He says when he returns to Norway it's worth his while to buy the cheapest wine here at about 1.50 Euros and pay the Norwegian duty on it when he arrives at Bergen. This amounts to about 4.50 Euros a litre. The six Euros a litre is still only a fraction of what he'd need to pay if he bought it back home!

He told us he has a home here and loves it. In the summer, when the population rises from 4,000 to 80,000, he lets it and goes back to the log cabin he owns in Norway, returning to a peaceful, deserted Valras again for the winter. For him it's the perfect life spoilt only by the fact that Ryanair flights won't allow him to take his tiny pocket dog, even in his pocket, so instead of a cheap flight from Bezier or Montpellier, he and his dog have to go all the way to Barcelona for their flight.

Leaving him taking a stroll along the seafront we drove to le Grau d'Agde where the Herault finally reaches the sea. Despite the sunshine it was icy cold from the slight sea breeze.

le Grau d'Agde

Here one of us inevitably fell foul of a glutinous deposit from one of the many unattended dogs running around the streets. It's difficult to paddle in the sea wearing trainers, squidging around in the wet sand to clean it off. Why oh why does it have to be like this? Every day in every way Southern France is getting fouler and fouler. There was a huge deposit in the street at the top of our road in Ambre when we arrived a fortnight ago. It is still there today and almost certainly will be there when we eventually leave. That, above all else, is the reason why we could never consider living in a southern French town. It's not our place to say anything but we get furious as we see people standing waiting for their dogs and then walking away without a second thought. Ian has a theory that dog owners should be charged a massive annual taxe de déjections canines by the commune, the money raised ring-fenced to buy in dog turds. Anyone can supply the mairie with plastic bags of dog poo gathered from the streets and would be paid a large sum per kilo collected. This he thinks would solve the problem completely. I think the streets may well be cleaner and some residents could become millionaires, but there would probably be lead balloons floating over the mairies of France at the suggestion.

Marina at the Cap d'Agde

Further along the coast we stopped at Cap d'Agde, a massive holiday complex which in season would be humming with activity. The huge marina was filled with thousands of gleaming white luxury yachts overwintering while around the edge were equally prestigious shuttered apartments. The sea here was crystal clear and huge shoals of small fish swam in perfect formation around the hulls of the moored yachts. There does not appear to be any centre to Cap d'Agde which stretched several kilometres along the sheltered and sunny shore, the hinterland a grassy avenue of shady green Mediterranean pines. Most of the bars and cafes were closed but several with sunny, glass-sided terraces were open with people enjoying coffees as they watched the gently bobbing yachts berthed alongside.

Our main purpose for this trip, which clocked up over 100 miles by the time we'd returned to Ambre, was to visit the Noilly Prat retail shop in Marseillan on the edge of the Basin-de-Thau, just along from where Ian had his accident last May. We needed several bottles of "Noilly Ambre" for friends and it could only be purchased at their distillery. It's part of their sales technique because it is regarded as something very special. It is indeed delicious and we were looking forward to treating ourselves to a bottle as well. Needless to say, we arrived to find their Christmas break lasts until 1st March!! How is that for a shooting yourself in the foot sales promotion? Noilly Prats!! A notice in the window told us they'd deposited bottles at a particular bar for customers wishing to purchase during the winter period. The bar of course was also closed for its annual Christmas vacation so we returned empty-handed and rather cross.

We were mollified a little by the clear views across the Bassin-de-Thau towards Sète which looked lovely in the late afternoon sunshine. Even better were the large flocks of pink flamingos feeding in the shallow waters of the lagoon. We watched them with our usual fascination as they flew in to land in the water, or waded around with their long necks and upside down heads filtering the nutrients from the salty water shovelled through their strange beaks.

The long drive home had to be faced. We hate both Béziers and its industrial ring road so decided to return across country passing through Florensac and Pezenas as well as several hilltop mediaeval towns so typical of this area, with their chateau or church on the summit and the circulade of dark, narrow, easily defensible streets leading up to it. The sky was an amazing rosy pink scattered with billowing clouds stained brighter than the flamingoes on their underside, looking like huge, celestial candy floss hanging right across the flat landscape of the red soil of deserted vineyards. The walls of the hilltop towns glowed in the reflected light of the scarlet sunset and gradually the dark peaks of the Espinouse rose out from the plains as we neared home and the sun finally disappeared.

It had been a long day, but considering most of the rest of France and England are still in the icy grip of direst winter, we were very fortunate to have enjoyed it to the full.