26 May, 2009

La Tramontane, a.k.a. Something Else To Complain About.

The Provence, neighbor to Languedoc, may have its Mistral (known in song and story for driving people mad--or at least exacerbating insomnia) but we have our own famous wind, la Tramontane, and it has struck the Languedoc again. I'm blaming my sudden, complete lack of interest in standing over a hot stove or weeding/pruning/watering on this wind.* It's that discombobulating--at least that's what I'm telling myself.

The summer heat that had settled in for the past few days has been savagely disrupted today by alarmingly near-constant gusts from the north/northwest. A local friend told me about the 3, 6, 9 adage; basically, the Tramontane blows for either three, six, or nine days. Have mercy, three entire days of this chaos, let alone more, might sorely test my nerves, even if it is brought on by a wind so timeless and specifically from this region as to be sung about by the iconic native son Mr. Brassens. Okay, so he's the icon you may never have heard of, but he really is quasi-worshipped across France--on a par with Jacques Brel (of "Ne Me Quitte Pas"/"If You Go Away"). Georges Brassens is generally well-known across Southern Europe, if not all of Europe.

Anyway, there's a strong wind blowing here, one of the several local winds. (Yes, you have the vent Scirocco, which brings sand from the Sahara, the western vent Cers, the vent Marin, and the notorious vent Autan). I'd write more, but I'm feeling slightly...winded.

*I'll be back in the kitchen once I'm properly hungry.

25 May, 2009

La lenga nostra.

I usually have the rather tinny radio in my Renault Kangoo tuned to Lengadòc.
Radio lenga d'oc, una ràdio del Nord...de la Miegterrana que difusa son programe sus lo 95.4 Mhz de Montpelhièr, Besièrs, Seta e Alès.

This choice is partly practical, partly romantic. It is one of the only stations that usually remains clear on the winding mountain roadways, where I can't even hope to hold on to a mobile phone signal, but it is also the only station where most of the time the announcers speak in Occitan, the Langue d'Oc (and they stay away from the more usual musical fare--you can sample their broadcast from the site "en dirècte"). Languedoc is also the name of the province I call home.

The old, old sound of the Occitan language is warm and rolling, and reminds me very much of Catalan, to which it is closely related. It gives hints of the cosmopolitan past of this Mediterranean region in the range of latinate sounds, relatively free from the comparatively harsher Northern tongues. (By this I mean German, Celtic, etc.) It gives a small sense of the separate history and culture of this particular, southern region of France. It is the language many call Provençal, and is a tongue that can make you dream, with its redolent suggestions and scent of Italy and Spain. Those similarities continue into culinary territory, I might add. In Languedoc as in those other two countries, there is a long tradition of olives, sausages, and herbs du terroir.

Therefore it wasn't too startling to be discussing bulls with our neighbors, over glasses of a Banyuls rosé and slices of richly flavored saucisson maigre. While bull-fighting is inextricably linked to Spain, it also has a strong following and surprisingly extensive history in southern France, especially in the Languedoc region. Our neighbors have some 80 purebred Spanish animals living in the wild (on a stretch of about 180 hectares). The best of these animals--they hope--will one day (think at least a good decade from now) be fighting in the ancient Roman amphitheaters of Nimes and Arles, considered the top French bullfighting venues. In fact, the Nimes Feria de Pentecote, arguably the best known event in the French bull-fighting calendar, takes place this next weekend.I won't be attending, but we have been invited to join the festivities in August, when our neighbors select which animals they'll keep. I promise to take photos. (I just wish I could say that in Lengadòc).

19 May, 2009

Paris by night.

An artist has no home in Europe except in Paris. -F. Nietzsche

Go ahead, play the video while you're reading this. I really think you won't regret it.

So Patrick Watson visited one of my favorite cities. Granted, you don't actually see much of the city, but you don't need to. That warm cast of the streetlights is classic Paris at night. And thus my day, a day filled with all the best reasons, surprises and reminders of why one moves to the south of France, comes to a perfect end with the discovery of this footage (thanks, Cerre).

If I have left you yearning for more of the Canadian Mr. Watson's lush sound and delectable voice, you can find him on You Tube; his Great Escape stopped me in my tracks, but browse and discover your own favorite. Tell me what you decide. In the meantime, I'll be mixing the season's first gin and tonic, with a generous squeeze of lime, while nibbling at shavings of a very special Basque Tomme de Brebis, or sheep's milk cheese, which you'd have to taste to believe. It's that good. And it's even finer eaten out in the fresh air, under swooping swallows.

15 May, 2009

April showers in May.

We got hailed upon, too. The wisteria suffered a bit. This may nearly qualify as an armegeddon of sorts, for the south of France. But the chickens (now there are three), horses (now there are many) and dog (just one but it feels like more) are none the worse for wear...Hope there is better weather to come this weekend, here and in your neck of the woods!

12 May, 2009

Bridge to somewhere.

I took some friends to the Pont du Gard the weekend before last. This is a Roman bridge, and one of the most popular tourist sites in all of France. Despite its antiquity (it is over 2000 years old), the bridge is looking better than ever. After serious flooding damage to the area in 1998, the state stepped in and spent some 30 million euros (!) to restore and upgrade the space, including setting up a museum and visitor center as well as some good walking trails.

For planning purposes: it can be a blisteringly hot part of the country, so please don't visit in high summer unless you love hordes of tourists and stifling heat that can make you rather light-headed. That said, do come; the area is vast and beautiful, and the bridge can make you dream.
The problem with being for all intents and purposes a local is that you become far too cool to go through local museums. It was only after looking at these photos I'd taken (then forgotten) that I realized I actually knew embarassingly little about the history of this part of the aqueduct that originally ran the fifty-some kilometers from Uzes to Nimes. So, rather belatedly, I went online to the official site (only in French, I'm afraid).

At nearly 50 m high, it is the highest known Roman aqueduct in the world. It crosses the river Gardon (which gave its name to the region, le Gard), and measures some 360 meters in length. On its first level, there is a wide road and at the top of the third level, a water conduit. The entire aqueduct had a gradient of 34 cm/km (1/3000), which meant it descended only 17 m vertically in its entire length...It is estimated that the aqueduct provided 20,000 cubic meters (5 million gallons) of spring water daily to Nimes, known under the Romans as Nemausus.

Visiting the Pont can bring to mind the Egyptian Pyramids; at least it did for me. This is because it was constructed entirely without the use of mortar, and because the Romans used (locally quarried) limestone, as did the Egyptians. The stones are enormous, mind you--some are 6 tons--and, as with the Pyramids, precision cut to fit perfectly together. According to Wikipedia:

The masonry was lifted into place by block and tackle with a massive human-powered treadmill providing the power for the winch. A complex scaffold was erected to support the aqueduct as it was being built. The face of the aqueduct still bears the mark of its construction, in the form of protruding scaffolding supports and ridges on the piers which supported the semicircular wooden frames on which the arches were constructed. It is believed to have taken about three years to build, employing between 800 and 1,000 workers.


Hmm. Maybe Sarah Palin was aiming for an Alaska version of this, before her ambition was thwarted. Maybe I am getting little light-headed myself and require some hydration. (Where's that mint lemonade when I need it?)

Update: the weekend edition (May 16-17) of the New York Times has a article about finding Roman Gaul in the south of France, and features a slide show, which offers, among other Roman images a gorgeous night shot of the Pont du Gard.

11 May, 2009

A pot to put it in.

I made my mint/lemon zest sirop last week, using lemons from our trees, which have been dragged out of their winter seclusion. Which got me thinking, the way these things do, about Anduze pots. I have been wanting to acquire one or two of these for years, but have never gotten around to it, because every time I look at the price tags I regretfully change my mind.

As we live within driving distance of Anduze, I have had a chance to get a good luck at these imposing pots with a long history. Just looking at one makes you think of chateaux, glassed in arboretums--and the south of France. This is with good reason: from the sixteenth to the seventeenth centuries, they were in fact only to be found on the properties of the very wealthiest. And at Versailles.

In the nineteenth century, the rather nouveau wealthy silk merchants in the Anduze region (purveyors to the Lyon textile industry) began planning their own private parcs. The merchants demonstrated their wealth by acquiring the most exotic possible plants and trees, such as sequoias, shipped in from California, and bamboos brought back from China. As a true measure of having arrived, the orange tree, previously only to be found at Versailles, became quite the thing to have. The orange trees were planted in large (and heavy!) glazed Anduze vases, as they had to winter indoors.

Sidenote: if the horticultural side of things intrigues you, then a visit to the Bambouseraie just outside of Anduze is certainly in order. 150 years old, it boasts the largest collection of bamboo in all of Europe, and while it is a Monument Historique, its programs continue to change and develop, incorporating contemporary art and other cultures to beautiful effect. You will certainly see an Anduze pot or two there, as well.
One of the family operations in Anduze is called Les Enfants de Boisset; Boisset being the name of the man who, legend has it, saw Medici vases at a fair in Beaucaire, then returned to Anduze, where he made his own version. You can find their pots on the route leading to St. Jean-du-Gard, in Anduze (tel. : +33 (0)4 66 61 80 86).Another two well-regarded names that I like are Poterie de la Madeleine, and Poterie Le Chene Vert, which are just outside of Anduze. (All photos courtesy of online sellers, because, yes, you too can order these by internet. I'd strongly recommend seeing and touching one first, however.)

But if you can't really afford these pots either--as remarkable as they might look on a terrace--then perhaps you should just pour yourself a glass of mint lemonade and daydream about them, and what you might put in one.

Sirop à la Menthe Citronnée (Mint Lemon Syrup)
Makes 2.5 cups, or enough to fill an old glass bottle.

3 cups packed fresh mint sprigs
2 cups water
1 cup granulated sugar
Zest of 3 lemons
A good squeeze of lemon or lime

Bring water, sugar and lemon zest to a boil in a medium saucepan, stirring until sugar is dissolved. Remove from the heat, then add the mint, stirring to combine. Cover and let stand at room temperature for at least an hour. Squeeze some lemon or lime juice in, then strain the syrup through a sieve, pressing hard on and then discarding the solids. The syrup will keep, covered and chilled, for at least a week.

To serve, fill a glass with ice. Fill it halfway with the syrup, and the rest with either still or sparkling water.

Refresh yourself. Relax.

05 May, 2009

Of goats and music.

The great thing about the internet is the occasionally serendipitous randomness. Case in point: I was trawling for information about goats, since we are exploring the possibilities for an, ehm, acquisition or three. Because why live in the south of France if you can't make your own goat cheese, right?...Instead I find myself watching this odd little gem of a music video, by, you guessed it, The Mountain Goats. According to the director, Rian Johnson, no special effects were used. Just a lot of planning. You heard it here first: "Woke Up New."

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