Thursday, October 27, 2011

Angst in Brussels - Joie de vivre in Provence

Another burst of joy simply about living here day to day.

Yesterday, October 26th, was sublime. The morning began with gunshot (local hunters) and heavy mist. The French mist that Maupassant and Pagnol wrote about. That blocks out the early morning sun but is gradually penetrated by brilliant shafts of sunlight that instantly lift the spirit and draw you outside to walk on the limestone track and through the beautiful pine forest.

Europe and the euro were apparently in their death throes in Berlin and Brussels last night but, as far as I can see, the angst hasn't entirely made its way to Provence. Most Provençal people of my acquaintance were shrugging their shoulders, assuming that Sarko and Merkel would figure out some eye-wateringly insane multi-trillion euro sum of money and toss it into the black hole that is Greek debt.

One local said to me: "Another failed German project to dominate Europe. They wanted the euro; they wanted a united Europe. Now it's gone bad, they want to ditch the rest of us." Another said: "The Germans are saying we'll now have to follow their policies. But that's OK. German policies work for Germany. Maybe they'll work for us."

Daily life in Provence, meanwhile, rattles along much as usual. The market stallholders set up as usual in towns and villages. The cafés open and patrons put chairs and tables outside in the sun. A hundred and one associations in every département carry on organising their fetes, days out and celebratory dinners.

The clearest evidence of la crise perhaps is at the local supermarket, where promos offer food and other products at rock bottom prices. Even there though, the price reductions are presented as celebrating the anniversary of the Intermarché chain. Yesterday, I paid around 20 euros for 40 euros worth of food. Rice, tuna, ham, pastry, artichoke soup, pasta, red was all for sale at more or less half-price.

Add a rabbit presented by a friend, wild mushrooms from the forest, broccoli, peppers and tomatoes from a friend's potager, goat's cheese from the producer at Mazan, and olive oil from my own trees, produced last winter, and you can eat well very cheaply (all year round).

The dark clouds over Europe and the euro are certainly for real. But for the moment, Provence continues to poke me in the ribs, saying: "Look at the beauty. Look at the forest. Look at nature."

I probably ought to be depressed about the crisis in Europe, the wicked banks and corrupt capitalism. But I find myself looking elsewhere: at the mist and the forest and the limestone track. And at the plants that are still flowering everywhere I look. I find myself listening to the song birds that sing in excruciatingly sweet voices high in the trees, and the jays that bicker in their funny prehistoric voices. And the more I look at nature, the more I see that is thrilling. And I can't help feeling overjoyed.

Hunting, herding, bee-keeping, carpentry and metal-work in Provence

These are glorious autumn days, this year in October. Warm, bright, sunny and often still, although the mistral and vent du sud blow periodically.

The hunters have been out in force for a couple of weeks now and this morning I was woken by cracking gunshot and hunters' dogs yelping hysterically. Another rabbit turns to paté, for a family from the local village, Velleron, to wash down with local red wine.

I was struck by the hunt today because I'm reading A Shortened History of England by George Macaulay Trevleyan. He was born in 1876, educated at Harrow and Trinity College Cambridge and fought in the First World War. Later, he was Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge. He wrote the book during the Second World War. In the second chapter (I don't always get to the last chapter of history books) he says this of the then-Celtic island:

"Agriculture was not the preoccupation it became in Saxon and medieval times. Hunting, fishing, herding, weaving, bee-keeping, metal-work, carpentry, and, above all, fighting occupied most of the [population's] time."

When I think of Britain today, I don't think of these occupations. I think of a vast public sector and businesses like Accenture, EasyJet, Pizza Hut, CapitalConnect and Carphone Warehouse (I've imagined those last two.)

Yet Provence is still home to those ancient occupations. The hunters are not men engaging in some esoteric and expensive "Hunt" reserved for the wealthy. They're just blokes out from the village, "taking a whirl at the rabbits" as PG Wodehouse described it. They dress in army fatigues, sling their shotguns over their shoulders and drive their beat-up white vans out here in the hope of stocking up their fridges. Occasionally they'll get a wild boar or a pheasant. They also keep an eye on the countryside and inform the police municipale if they see people building where they shouldn't and so on. Most of the hunters represent the latest of many generations of huntsmen in their families.

On to fishing. I walked by the river at the tiny village of Le Thor yesterday, revelling in the light reflected by the clear water as it rushed through the village centre. A couple of trout were basking in the sunlight on the riverbed. The river Sorgue is full of - stocked with - trout during the fishing season and fishermen wade out regularly into the beautiful wide expanse of water at Partage des Eaux (The parting of the waters) near L'Isle sur Sorgue. And this September I was mesmerised as usual by Les Halles at Sète on the coast where the fish market has a practically hallucinatory selection of fish and seafood. On the coast (as on the Atlantic coast, as in Corsica) you'll see men donning wetsuits to swim out and fish at sea. And you'll see them return with fish - most commonly daurade royale it seems to me - strapped to their belts.

Herding? Certainly. I wrote last year about the local berger, Antoine, who brings his sheep to graze here on patches of pasture in the forest. He recently arrived back from summer in the Hautes Alpes and I came across him driving his open-sided lorry down our track, two black sheepdogs keeping their balance in the back. "How did it go in the mountains?" I asked. "Not great" he said glumly. "We lost about 40 animals. Wolf attacks." Last year he had a huge and beautiful pyrénéen mountain dog, Barbar, protecting his sheep. Barbar's attention would wander though and he'd wonder off. I eyed the new black sheepdogs and couldn't bring myself to ask how Barbar had been punished for failing in his work.

My neighbour, Didier, keeps bees and I thought about them at the end of this summer. So warm has it been this year that we were all still swimming in the co-owned pool at the hameau along the track in October. I swam alone several times and noticed, on arriving, that the pool was flecked with small honey bees struggling not to drown. They'd obviously tried to drink, seeing the surface of the water was flat and undisturbed, but then they'd got into trouble. I hoicked them out but, extrapolating from the numbers that had to be saved, I calculated Didier might be losing between 600 and 800 bees a month in the last few weeks when fewer people are in the pool and the bees dare to land and drink. Next year I'll suggest we float discs of cork in the pool as little landing stages for them.

Metal work. Is still much in evidence in Provence. I want to hang a heavy curtain between my sitting room and kitchen this winter so I'm going to ask the local ferronier to make a curtain rod as he's already made all the others in the house, plus an intricate balustrade for the mezzanine.

Carpentry. Menuisiers, carpenters, are everwhere in the region. So are ébénistes, cabinet-makers. My neighbours have lodgers staying for ten months who're studying at the renowned school of ebenisterie at Le Thor. The students at the school are often older people who get sabbaticals from companies like EDF and France Telecom to train in a completely different discipline. Otherwise, they often get state aid and benefits to help them train for a new trade. Working with wood is still a big deal here.

As for agriculture, fighting and weaving... Everyone seems to be involved in agriculture - from my neighbour's cousin who grows cress to my farmer neighbour who grows grapes, abricots, figs and cherries. To the many small producers who sell produce at Velleron market most evenings, all year. I'm involved too in that I grow olives which produce a small amount of olive oil and help neighbours harvest their olives. I was struck by a trip to a friend's brother's place this weekend. François, the brother, has a vineyard of several hectares at Bollène. He produces grenache grapes for Mistralou wine. But he also grows a dozen varieties of lettuce, spinach, broccoli, tomatoes, peppers, carrots, potatoes and cardons. He has olive and fig trees. And a huge plaqueminier - persimmon - on which I estimated a thousand large orange cacis were ripening. Cacis are fabulous. A bit like oysters in that you need only open and eat them just as they are to feel you're eating a luxury. François and his wife Janine - in their 80s by the way - also keep rabbits and chickens so they have eggs, meat, salad, fruit, vegetables, olives and wine on tap from their few hectares. Their way of life is far from exceptional here.

Fighting. When Trevelyan fought in the first world war he may not have imagined all the wars to follow. Provence is a pretty peaceful place but of course Provençal people fight as humans always have. I mean professionally. A young neighbours' soldier boyfriend has recently returned from the Cote d'Ivoire following a previous tour of duty in Afghanistan. He's a bucheron by trade - a forester - but joined the French army for five years. He can't wait to get out. A brave young guy, it doesn't seem to be so much the fighting that gets to him. It's the endless hanging around in barracks, doing nothing.

That leaves weaving. I haven't met anyone involved in weaving. But maybe that's just because machine-made cloth is so cheap to come by. Yesterday I went in search of material to make the curtain I mentioned. I went to a warehouse at Le Thor (Tis- Tis) that was stuffed with tissus - fabrics - and off-cuts at bargain-basement prices. Gregoire is a similar business at Saturnin-les-Avignon. The quality doesn't look terrific though. So maybe there are weavers out there producing beautiful hand-made Provençal fabrics. I just haven't met them yet.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Organising Events in Provence

I've lived in Provence for seven years and have known the region since the late 1970s.

One of the admirable qualities of the people of Provence, or the culture if you like, is their gigantic ability to organise large and complex public events as if they were simply setting out tea and biscuits.

The market in Isle-sur-la-Sorgue is a good example. It's set up every Sunday, come hail or high water, and takes over the entire town. From the quais where the river flows, to the shady Cafe de France in the heart of medieval Isle, stalls groaning with produce spring up like early morning mushrooms and spread right across town. There are stalls selling fruit, veg, oil, bread, cheese, olives, paella, espadrilles, cotton frocks, sausage made from donkey meat and wild boars, cheap jewellery, CDs and - the speciality of L'Isle - antiques and bric-a-brac.

The market appears in the morning like an image conjured up by a sorceror and disappears just as quickly at the end of the day. It's like watching magic, transforming the town dramatically twice in one day. Oh, and they do it every Thursday too, on a smaller scale.

What's remarkable is that there's no fuss and no confusion. It all appears entirely casual. Stallholders amble about unloading vans, loading their stalls. Drinking coffee, munching croissants, having a laugh. And smoking, obviously. No-one puts a foot wrong. No-one forgets anything when they leave or drops litter in their wake.

But I wasn't going to talk about the market. I was going to talk about 7ART. 7ART is a project, a campaign really, run by local artists and citizens who want the old medieval Tour d'Argent - the old money tower or counting house in the centre of Isle-sur-la-Sorgue - to be turned into an art gallery and cinema, with space for performances and a lieu de convivialité. Their website is here.

It's a good project. The centre of Isle-sur-la-Sorgue is often dead at night. It's true that there are relatively frequent seasonal events - a procession to light the lights at Christmas, outdoor theatre in the summer and so on. But often you walk through town late in the evening and the bars are closed, the shutters on houses are closed and often even the restaurants are closed pretty early outside the summer season. Meanwhile, the Tour which is a wonderful medieval building right opposite the old church, has been quietly falling into ruin for decades.

Empty and neglected, it houses a huge space that could be turned into the heart of L'Isle once again.

I'm a member of 7ART and last weekend was impressed by how well organised it is. A weekend of events was staged in the local Salle des Fetes with the title En Attendant Votre Tour. There was a public debate, performances by a jazz band, a 'slam' poet, rock bands and a nationally acclaimed comedian, Vincent Roca, who happens to be a friend of the 7ART organisers. The mayor of Isle-sur-la-Sorgue came along to the public debate and the events were well attended.

During the week before the events, volunteers were sought to set up the stage, equipment, catering and decoration. The commune itself set up the seating. When I turned up to help out, there was the usual relaxed atmosphere towards getting things done. Blokes were unloading sound equipment from a lorry, others were on high scaffolding, fixing up lights and decoration. The guys from the municipalité were setting up the seating stands. Someone else was covering the high windows to screen out the daylight. Crates of beer arrived. The caviste from the local wine shop delivered wine. Food was packed in fridges. A local carpenter arrived and set up a mini-Tour d'Argent where children would be able to scribble and draw. I'd brought along sets of tiny lights that would hang like a curtain over the entrance. They needed to be untangled and someone appeared instantly to help.

There was, again, no fuss and no lack of co-ordination. Everyone seemed to have an idea what they needed to do and got on with it, helping one another with great good humour. At midday, a huge table laden with pizzas materialised and everything stopped for lunch.

Local graphic designer Marc Peyret, who leads the campaign, was at the centre of things and had clearly done a mass of organising over the preceding weeks. He had bought, begged and borrowed the materials and people he needed to make the event work.

The story was the same on Monday when we all turned up to dismantle everything. Just as the market in Isle magically goes away at the end of every Sunday and Thursday, the Salle des Fetes was restored apparently effortlessly to its normal state.

Which made me think how easily the town could restore the Tour d'Argent and breathe new life into the centre of this beautiful town.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Pinching Post-Harvest Fruit in Provence

A friend called this week and asked if I wanted to go over to her place and steal apples.

Well, not steal exactly, but snaffle the fruit that remain hanging about on trees after the recent harvest. This gathering of fruit for free, post-harvest, is common practice in France and is called "grappillage". My petit Larousse describes grappillage like this:

"faire de petits gains secrets, souvents peu licites." (Making small secret gains, often illicit.)

Grappillage is also described as collecting grapes that remain on the vine after the vendange.

Joelle scoffed when I asked if it was illegal. The agriculteur who owns the orchard couldn't care less what happens to the left over apples, she said. The harvest's over as far as he's concerned and the apples are away to market. Either we collected the apples left on the trees or they'd fall and rot.

I duly dawdled over to Le Thor with a large straw panier and we went into the orchard. There were hundreds of apple trees and thousands of leftover apples. Large, small, ripe, unripe, red, green.

We wondered in and out of the ranges picking apples as we went, leaning into the espaliered trees or reaching up into the higher branches. The first week of October has been very hot in Provence (I was lucky enough to swim in the blissfully warm Med on the 2nd October) and the sun was beating down cheerfully as we worked. The orchard is bordered by a typical Provencal irrigation ditch and the sound of the clear running water was punctuated every few minutes by a frog leaping in to cool himself off.

I wondered along to look onto the ground adjoining the orchard. It belongs to two friends, Richard and Denise, who keep sheep, geese, various different brands of chicken, dogs, doves, ducks, cats, kittens, donkeys and horses. They were away, but Richard's handsome son was out feeding this lot, who were all milling around in a cacophany of excited communal noise. There were a few lambs gambolling. The turtle doves were wheeling around the barn and then swooping to land in a willow tree. The geese were striding. The ducks were waddling. It was a lovely late summer scene.

I threw apples over to the horses and donkeys who were highly appreciative and came over demanding more.

We went off to pick late figs from one of Joelle's fig trees that hangs into the orchard. Huge frelons, the oversized wasps of Provence, had got there before us so we had to work carefully alongside them. Butterflies were delicately feeding on fallen figs. They flew in wobbly flightpaths so I suspect the figs were partly fermented and alcoholic.

At the end of the grappillage session I had a basket straining under the weight of apples and figs. The apples were so numerous that I'll have to store them in a cool dark room over the coming weeks. There's no way I can eat them all in a week or two. Before eating I'll peel them, as is standard in Provence. We see how many treatments, preventive and curative, are sprayed on the apple trees.

I've already started on the figs, baking them with almonds and sloshing light créme fraiche onto them. Some weeks ago we had some of the summer figs baked with lamb and sweet simiane onions. Completely aphrodisiac, I'd say.

There is something wonderful about eating food you've grown yourself - grapes, tomatoes, figs, melons, spinach, olives.

But there's something great about food you've collected for free too. It really does feel like a small illicit gain. I notice the local harvest of pumpkins is drawing to a close so the large orange courges may be next on my grappillage list. In fact, I was out walking at the weekend and saw hunters had been up to a spot of pumpkin grappillage. In a small woody clearing they'd smashed a dozen pumpkins hoping to attract sangliers - wild boar - and shoot them.

I hope the sangliers don't fall for it. I like their presence around here. If they have any sense they'll avoid the pumpkin trap, get into the fields and scavenge their own meal of courges. That's what I'll probably do. October and November are great months for pumpkin stuffed with farce and wild mushrooms.