You’re probably wondering what on earth a post about small spaces is doing on a blog about the Aude in France. It’s not as weird as it seems. (Or maybe it is – but it seems like a good idea.) I’ll get back to this in a minute. Continue reading
If there are any Francophiles reading this who have never tried eating snails and think they never will, all I can say is never say never.
During our annual holiday in the Aude last August we spent time with our French friends Claude and Julien. They live on a small holding in the country and are the most self-sufficient people I know.
Julien built their house himself when he and Claude were first married in the 1970s. It’s set in a large plot of land where geese, ducks and chickens wander happily all over the place (at night they are kept safe from foxes inside electrified fences). The vegetable garden is the largest and best kept I have ever seen.
Claude and Julien both firmly believe in the maxim that you are what you eat and last summer offered to give us some cooking lessons. So over the course of three days we arrived each morning, washed our hands, put on aprons and stood as willing pupils in the kitchen.
The first lesson was how to make paté de campagne which consists simply of pork belly and pork liver chopped up and flavoured with salt and pepper. The mixture is then put into glass pots, sealed and steamed for 3 hours.
The next lesson was on Toulouse sausages, made of pork belly minced up and pushed into sausage skins. Some of the sausages were flavoured with “épices rabelais”, a mix of spices that comes in a colourful little cardboard box. Unfortunately I haven’t seen them on sale in England nor found them online. Other sausages had Roquefort cheese added, which were my personal favourite.
Finally we moved onto apricot jam, nothing but apricots and sugar, stirred for hours until the mixture is at the right consistency. Claude said that in her grandmother’s day the stirring had to be done by hand. Fortunately Claude has found a huge steel bowl with a beater attached (made by an Italian manufacturer) that does the job now. There were no flavourings, no colourings and no chemical ingredients in anything we cooked.
During the course of these lessons I mentioned that I had never eaten snails. Julien said that when he was a young man working on the family farm, he would go out into the fields in the morning with some bread in one pocket and a packet of salt in the other. When he became hungry he would look for snails, sprinkle them with salt which kills them, and then eat them with the bread.
A few days later we were invited over for lunch. The salad (all the ingredients grown in the vegetable patch) and cured meat (all from those happy geese, ducks and chickens) were set out on the table. Then a huge bowl of snails was brought in. Julien sat at the top of the table beaming and told me he had found them all in the garden the day before and I should try them. So I did because eating them in that environment was quite normal.
The snails had the slightly rubbery texture you would expect, but the sauce they were cooked in was delicious.
At the end of the holiday we drove back to England in a car loaded with pots of paté de campagne, packets of sausages and jars of apricot jam. And one jar of snails in sauce. The paté, the sausages and the jam were greatly enjoyed. The snails didn’t manage the journey as they were rather rancid by the time we arrived home. I don’t think they liked leaving the Aude.
Sometimes when I am lying awake at three in the morning and I have exhausted all the usual worries – work, money, old age, children – I start to worry about our house in Castelnaudary. Can we really justify the luxury of a second home? Should we try to rent it out? Will it suddenly fall down? This last one is a bit bizarre. The house has been standing for 300 years and will outlast us, but thoughts at three in the morning aren’t usually very rational.
I know when my worry about our French home will disappear. It isn’t when we first arrive there. The house is a four storey “maison bourgeoise” in the centre of town. The front half of the ground floor is used as a shop so our entrance is at the back of the building, along a narrow, not very pretty, alleyway. But when we open the front door and step inside I know what to do. I walk the length of the hallway and then look up. I look up through a central staircase that ascends four floors to the minstrel’s gallery at the top of the house, the whole illuminated by a skylight in the roof. The sight never fails me. The first time we viewed the house and I looked up like that, all I could say in in my best French was, “Mon Dieu”. The estate agent standing next to me must have known at that point that he had made a sale.
Then it’s up the shallow, broad stairs inlaid with tiles to the next floors. The house is a simple design; each of those floors has two massive, perfectly proportioned rooms on either side of the staircase. We open up the shutters in every room and we’re home again. It’s time to remember the things we have forgotten. The espadrilles left behind because we only wear them when we’re here. The foothills of the Pyrenees seen from the top front bedroom. The swimming towels used on trips to the nearby Lac de St Férreol. The sound of French voices drifting up from the square outside. The sun lighting up the alleyway in the late afternoon.
Of course it’s not all perfect. The damp in the cellar seems to be getting progressively worse, there’s a small hole in one of the party walls and a large plant growing on the roof. My husband has tried to lassoo the plant with a rope via the skylight but without success.
The first drink of the holiday always takes place at Café de l’Industrie, a short walk away. Ali the owner never forgets us and shakes our hands, a favour only given to regulars. As I sit there enjoying my pastis and admiring the plane trees lining the cours de la République I know why we’re here. In the words of the American Express ad, it’s priceless. That’s something to remember at three in the morning.
At 2am on the Sunday of this year’s Fête du Cassoulet, I looked out of the sitting-room window of our house in Castelnaudary. The crowd in the square outside was dancing along to the live band. Fortified by Castelnaudary’s “ divine dish” they had no trouble enjoying themselves into the early hours. After dancing in the square ourselves for the previous two nights we were just craving sleep.
There are numerous places in the Languedoc that claim to be the birthplace of cassoulet. Castelnaudary is the only one that holds an annual festival in honour of that hearty mixture of haricot beans, duck fat and pork. Statistics are not usually very interesting but these ones speak for themselves. Castelnaudary has a population of 12,000 people. During the Fête held over four days at the end of August every year more than 50,000 visitors pour into the town and over 20,000 meals of cassoulet are served by local restaurants.
But the Fête isn’t just about eating (except maybe for the mayor who holds the current cassoulet-eating contest having managed nine in one week). There are incredible free concerts in the three main squares every night, water games on the Canal du Midi, wandering musicians, activities for children and a food and wine market. On the last day a procession of floats, each one made by a local village, parades through the streets
The live bands attract loads of youngsters and a local bakery stays open until 2 am to keep them fed. The “Living Farm” held in the place de Verdun is a favourite with children and features an enormous shire horse, a cow, donkeys, sheep, rabbits and chickens. The procession of floats is unbelievably popular with people packing the streets to watch. I think they must all be the residents of the villages come to support their home float and to see what the competition has produced.
Being a greedy middle-aged couple, our favourite event is the food and wine market held along the cours de la Republique. This year there were of course tins of cassoulet from every supplier in town (it’s France’s main tinned food) and wines from local vineyards. Bread of every description was available including one with a sign saying that it goes well with foie gras. Stalls of locally produced charcuterie, sausages, patés, cheeses, honey, nuts, oils, cakes and syrups lined both sides of the street.
As we walked past a stall selling Blanquette de Limoux (France’s oldest sparkling wine) the stallholder called out to us, “There’s no crime in stopping for a taste of Blanquette”. There certainly wasn’t.
There wasn’t one single incident of trouble at this year’s Fête. Some careful (and unobtrusive) planning and policing must have taken place. Maybe the peaceful atmosphere was also due to the nature of the people who came to the Fête, they just wanted to enjoy themselves.
A good time was had by everyone. The Fête ended on Sunday night and on Monday morning the whole town was very quiet, as if it was nursing a collective hangover. We weren’t the only ones craving sleep by then.
The village is definitely very charming but it is going to remain nameless in this blog. All I will say is that it overlooks the Lauragais plain and is full of beautiful medieval buildings.
We decided to have Sunday lunch there at the height of last summer. This being the Aude by the time we arrived at 1pm the streets were deserted as everyone was inside eating. We knew there were a couple of sizeable restaurants in the village and wandered about trying to find them but with no luck and there was no-one around to ask for directions. Finally walking down a narrow cobbled street we came across the very pretty garden of a café. The garden was on one side of the street and the café’s kitchen was in the house on the other side, a couple of steps away.
It was a hot day and we were pleased to sit down in the shady garden. The menu was limited to salads but we were happy with that. We could see a woman working in the kitchen across the street, so we waited for her to come and take our order. Then a man who appeared to be her husband came out of the house and walked into the garden. Picking up a small stone statue he said to it (I swear this is true), “Ah Marcel, now we have to work”. He propped open the gate with the statue and then went back into the front room of the house where he stood looking out at the garden.
Another couple came in after us and sat in the garden. The woman in the kitchen, who looked a bit of a hippy, eventually came out and took their order. Once she had made and served their salads she finally reached us. After another half an hour had gone by our salads arrived. They were very good but my husband John said his was nothing like the one he had ordered.
By the time we had finished our meals the hippy’s husband was still standing in the house looking out. I approached him to ask where “les toilettes” were. He pointed to a wooden structure at the end of the garden. When I lifted the curtain at the entrance to this structure I discovered that it was “les toilettes” and an environmentally friendly affair. Instead of running water, sawdust and a spade were provided. I could cope with that but what if someone lifted the curtain while I was in there? There were two options, I could sing loudly or pray. A family was by now sitting at a nearby table so I decided to pray, fortunately successfully.
As we left the café we could barely stand for laughing. Things that would drive us mad in our everyday life just seemed hilarious when on holiday sitting in a garden in a charming hilltop village somewhere in the Aude.