Saturday, December 24, 2011

Crime and Justice in Provence

Well, it's everywhere. Crime, I mean.(You didn't think my rose-coloured glasses were that heavily tinted, did you?)Every time I open the local paper or turn on the news there's another armed robbery reported or another shooting in Marseille. Yesterday a 17-year-old boy was shot dead in Marseille outside an apartment block, La Castellane. The sapeurs-pompiers (fire brigade/paramedics) arrived promptly but couldn't save the boy from the seven rounds fired into his body from a kalashnikov rifle.

Marseille's long had a reputation for violent crime and the latest version of urban warfare in France's second city combines cocaine dealing with kalashnikovs.

A few weeks ago another youngster, Ali Attia, was shot dead in his cousin's restaurant in a café in Saint-Antoine, a quartier in the north of Marseille. His killer strolled in with a kalashnikov and shot him as he sat at the dinner table.

These tit-for-tat killings are referred to in the Provençal press as a war of the clans - gangs and families vying to control cocaine supply in Marseille. But there are also casual killings when young men loaded up with cocaine take offence at a passing glance from another kid in the quartier. Guns are used as casually as fists once were. The ex-wife of a friend of mine was shot in the head some time ago as she walked down a road in Marseille in daylight. Obviously not knowing what had hit her, she was rushed to hospital and luckily survived. What had hit her was of course a stray bullet from a gun being used by a local guy to settle some imbecilic score - drug payment or other.

Since la crise started to bite in Provence as elsewhere in Europe, there seems to have been exponential growth in the business of armed robbery too. In and around Avignon for example, a series of recent armed robberies have targetted businesses like McDonalds and Quick (a drive-through takeaway). Supermarkets like Intermarché have been frequently hit too. The police in Avignon caught six teenage boys within minutes of the Quick robbery. Turning up to the scene of the crime with admirable rapidity, the unit made a tour of the vicinty and found six armed lads in a car counting cash.... Back to crime school, boys - you haven't learnt the basics.

Another criminal gang that needs to go back to crime school tried to blow up a bank in Gardanne in the Bouches-du-Rhone this week. They used explosive to blast the safe that feeds the cash distributer. But they didn't use enough and the safe stayed intact. They did however blow out the windows of an elderly resident's house. And they also apparently managed to get themselves filmed by the CCTV camera, also unaffected by the blast.

Crime isn't always violent, of course. Marseille has just seen the trial of a counterfeiter money-maker, Michel Vialle, who bagged himself a profit of around 150,000 by stealing the special paper used to make money, then forging a bunch of euros and Algerian dinar. (Actually the paper theft was violent. A vehicle carrying the paper was blasted open to carry out the theft.) Vialle - nicknamed le canard - the Duck - I have no idea why - told the police he was pretty astonished at the success of his forged euros. He hadn't expected them to be accepted all over the place, but they were. He was caught after a bloke saw him burning a few counterfeit bills, outside, and later handed burnt fragments to the police. The police went to the site and found a toothpick Vialle had discarded by the notes. It had his DNA on it. It must be the first time in history, surely, that a counterfeiter has been trapped by a toothpick.

Last week I went to see the French film Les Lyonnais, starring the increasingly watchable Gérard Lanvin. Directed by Olivier Marchal, it's a hard-hitting film about gypsy crime families in the 50s and ensuing decades. Based on the real history of Edmond Vidal, nicknamed Momon, it shows the excessive violence of that milieu and that era. It borrows a bit too much use of imagery and episodes from The Godfather, but nevertheless it's a very good film.

Provence also has a very large community of gitanes, officially recast as gens de voyage these days. I don't give two hoots for the politically correct terminology - one of my neighbours out here in the forest is a gitane and the first thing she ever said to me after announcing her name was "Je suis une gitane". The gypsies of Provence hail mostly from Spain originally and still have a strong presence in the Camargue, the marshy wetlands south and west of Arles. But sites, official and otherwise, are dotted all over Provence. I have been told that the prisons here are largely controlled by the gitanes - internally, I mean. I've also been told that some years ago there was a battle in L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue between local gitanes and the maghrebin community. Apparently, the gypsies took offence at something done by young maghrebin guys and turned up at their estate in the evening and started shooting out windows in the tall apartment blocks. I was told that the police were informed but declined to get involved, feeling perhaps that this was just another, if smaller, war of the clans. Maybe it's an apocryphal story. But maybe not.

What is noticeable in Provence is that very often the wheels of justice turn quickly. If a criminal is nabbed quickly, and the evidence is clear and simple, the offender can find himself in court and in jail within days. I recall a case where a young driver was stopped by police for traffic offences and swore at them. He was in court the next morning, convicted and jailed. The police respond quickly to crime - not always but often - and the courts tend to hand out punishments fairly freely for anti-social behaviour.

There's also petty crime all over the place and even that tends to be reported by people and documented by the police even if little can be done to catch offenders. My neighbour came out of his house one morning not long ago to find his car propped on a breeze block. A wheel had been stolen. A few years before, his previous car had been stolen. This is up a track outside a small village. Other neighbours have had petrol stolen out of their cars and tractors. One had a large agricultural trailer nicked. My nearest neighbour called the cops one night when burglars were breaking into her house. The intruders buzzed off. Other near neighbours had a young guy walk into their home and steal cash, a satnav thing and a digital camera. He had the nerve to return a few nights later but this time was scared off.

Last year, a disgruntled neighbour asked me if I'd seen anyone hanging around his land just before Christmas. No, I said. Why? "I came out to pick my olives" he said "and they'd all been stolen. It's completely uncivil." He's right of course. But at least the thieves didn't turn up with kalashnikovs.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Cours de Cuisine at the Auberge de la Camarette, Pernes-les-Fontaines

It's nearly Christmas and in Provence that inevitably means thinking about food over the Christmas weekend. This year I was lucky enough to have a friend offer me a cookery class at the fairly sublime Auberge de la Camarette, just outside Pernes-les-Fontaines in the Vaucluse, as a Christmas present. La Camarette seems to be a bit of a secret around here - it's excellent and almost always fully booked and yet I've mentioned it to a number of people - even a couple of Provençal chefs - who don't know the place. It's set in its own large vineyard, in a former medieval silk farm, with a lovely view of Mont Ventoux - and fabulous, light, well-judged cuisine. The set menu each day uses the best local produce and wine from the vineyard is included in the 32 euro 3-course menu. No wonder the place is always booked out - it offers just about the best value in Provence.

The last time my friend and I went to cook with the talented young chef, Hugo, in May, we made stuffed quails with velouté d'asperges as an entrée. This time we made foie gras, brioches and pineapple chutney. At each stage, Hugo demonstrates what needs to be done and then helps you realise the dish. The first thing to do with the foie gras (duck, not goose, in this case) was to open the foie, trace the nerves delicately with your fingers and lift them out. Then you season the foie using black pepper, salt, a prune liqueur and cognac. (There are several different alcohols that work well depending on your taste, including muscat.)

Then we put the foie into terrines, compressed them to force air out and put them in the fridge to rest. We started on the brioches, making the pate for customers who'd dine at the Camarette during the evening. As the pate needs to rest for hours, Hugo had made our brioche pate the evening before. It was simply made with flour, yeast, water, eggs, salt and a touch of sugar. A mound of butter was then added and the mixture was left to rise. We took the dough that was already risen and rolled it on a floured surface to make round brioches which we packed in aluminium cases and put in the oven.

The fois gras was then cooked in a bain marie for around 20 minutes.

While the brioches and foie gras were cooking, Hugo made a pineapple chutney explaining the possible variations. He used fresh diced pineapple, fresh chopped ginger, raw cane sugar, wine vinegar and garlic cloves. (The garlic was left whole, just to lightly flavour the chutney, and then removed.) The result, once he had made the mixture meld and brought the flavours out, was delicious.

Now, everything stopped for a while to make a fuss of Hugo's small son who came trundling into the kitchen holding a cane far taller than he was. He announced that he wanted to see daddy and had a bit of a chat with everyone, then beetled off outside again. Hugo gave us an update on the progress of his baby daughter who is now five months old and the image of her mum.

The terrines of foie gras were now taken from the bain marie and we put weights on them to force out the melted fat. This needs to be melted on a low heat and then poured back on to the terrine to solidify. The dish can be kept for up to two weeks in a fridge but the five of us who were cooking today planned to serve it over Christmas.

The brioches came out of the oven. Hugo glazed them quickly with a little of the duck fat on a brush. He cut one brioche which we all tasted. Heaven. It was subtly flavoured and very light.

Throughout the morning, we learnt a hundred and one cooking tips as we went. Hugo is a terrific teacher as well as a terrific chef. At noon, as we worked, he served the Camarette's lovely apéro epicé - rosé or rouge as you prefer. And the kitchen, which had seen three dishes made by six people over four hours, looked as pristine as it had done at 9am.

Hugo is a very talented young chef who can teach while he cooks, help others cook all morning and then cope with a restaurant full of diners at lunchtime and in the evening. Somehow, he does it as if it's an effortless exercise!

The Camarette is rather hidden away just outside Pernes-les-Fontaines, but well worth finding. The vineyard's wine is pretty decent but the real show is the restaurant and the food. The cookery classes are really good fun and informative and make a great present for yourself or a friend, or both. Here's the website, below, if you feel like spoiling yourself while you're in the Vaucluse - at 32 euros all in for an evening meal, the value really couldn't be better. or tel.: 04 90 61 60 78.

The Camarette has rooms available too, by the way, but I don't really want to recommend them as I have a lovely apartment to rent out at my place near L'Isle-sur-Sorgue!

Friday, December 16, 2011

Bonjour - is that France Telecom?

One of the periodic frustrations of living in the Provençal countryside is that phone services and electricity are prone to give up the ghost fairly frequently. Since 2004, when I began to live here full time, the phoneline has always stopped working for a day or two after heavy rain. “Won’t be able to call or email you tomorrow” I’ll tell a friend, ”there’s a lot of rain forecast.”

Often the line goes dead for no apparent reason. Once your Livebox stops showing the steady little green light and starts flashing a little red one, you know you’re in for several weeks of trouble. Since your fixe (landline phone) and internet both depend on the Livebox, you can find yourself stuck up a track in a forest without internet or telephone for weeks on end. Since I’m the only person on the planet not to use a mobile phone, bang goes my entire communication system.

In 2009 when my line stopped working, it took 6 weeks and 7 visits by 14 young France Telecom subcontractors to restore the service. They persistently turned up without ladders, so they couldn’t work on the line attached to the top of a post. Cynical I may be, but I guess that France Telecom pay these subcontractors every time they turn out to a client’s home. Therefore they have every incentive to turn up, find an excuse not to fix the line and come back a few days later. Rinse and repeat.

The last time they fixed the line, instead of connecting the cable in the air between two posts, they left it draped across hundreds of yards of my neighbour’s land, on the ground, among wild herbs, flowers and shrubs. “It’s a temporary repair” the young technician said. “So I see. D’you think the permanent repair can be made soon?” I asked. He shrugged. “Insh’allah” he replied. So, here we are in France in the 21st century and I have to rely on allah for my phone service.

Repeated pleas to a France Telecom manager to connect the cable properly had zero result. At one point, he told my neighbour that I had to make a complaint (it was my phone service) and told me that she had to make a complaint (it was her land). The fact that we’d both made the complaint, several times, achieved nothing.

Over the months, the cable moved around in shrubs swayed by the mistral. Passing wild pigs no doubt picked their way across it and the local shepherd got annoyed because he couldn’t let his sheep graze around it in case they inadvertently tugged it loose and disconnected me. I don’t suppose I’m the only customer in Provence to worry, when I spot a wild boar, that my phone line may go down or to feel guilty that the local sheep can’t graze because I need to use the internet.

Eventually the inevitable happened and the cable trailing on the ground got tugged by wind or beast and disconnected from the telephone pole. When the service went off I wondered out to inspect the cable and found the end of it lying wrapped round a small pine tree.

France Telecom promised to send a team to repair it yesterday but they didn’t turn up and reported that they couldn’t find the house. Silly, really, as they’ve visited many times. Still, they’ll be paid to try and find it again in a few days… Meanwhile, the girl at the FT depannage service told me darkly that the line has been tested and the problem is beaucoup plus compliqué than I think. Not being a telecoms engineer, I can’t really comment but it certainly looks quite simple to me. The cable is disconnected from the pole.

I have a friend who lives nearby whose service was off for nearly three months this year. It worked intermittently at first – two minutes on, five minutes off, ten minutes on, three minutes off…. Each time it came on, she’d scramble to call FT customer service to report the fault. Naturally, the reply each time was that the line seemed to be working perfectly well at that moment so there was nothing they could do. By the time the problem was resolved she’d spent over 1000 euros on a clé 3G, on internet cafés, and calls to FT and Orange. She absolutely had to have internet access for her work. France Telecom offered her a refund of her subscription amounting to 180 euros and she’s currently discussing the issue with the ombudsman.

It’s not just France Telecom that has trouble providing a service in rural areas either. Electricity supply can be a patchy affair. The electricity tends to go off during a storm whether there’s rain or not. Sometimes it comes back on quietly, of its own accord. Once, the pole got struck by lightning and a squad of handsome men turned up like circus acrobats, with impressive gear – harnesses, ropes, power tools - and reconnected the supply within days. EDF just contacted me this week though, with a new problem. My electricity counter apparently hasn’t counted my electricity consumption since 2010. They’d continued to send me estimated bills all through 2011 and I’d continued to pay them. But when they sent a bloke to read the real figure in December 2011, it was the same number that showed in November 2010. The dial simply stopped turning a year ago. I was asked to call this number and that to have an engineer turn out and fix it. After a morning of getting nowhere, a young girl at EDF told me she couldn’t send a guy out because there was a general systems failure in the EDF offices. OK. So I wrote them a letter saying that when the current goes off it’s my problem but now the counter’s stopped turning it’s their problem. They can send an engineer whenever they like since the counter is outside the house. Voilà – and we’ll see how quickly they turn up to fix it.

Friends tell me that I’m quite wrong to think there’s anything particular about power and phone supplies in the countryside in Provence. One friend told me her boyfriend had a problem with his phone line and internet service last year and it was three full months before FT got it fixed. ”And think of where he lives” she said. Bang slap in the middle of Marseille. The second biggest city in France.

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.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Autumn in Provence: Fatal Mushrooms and Playing Squirrels

The seasons here turn like clockwork. First of September and there's a change in temperature signalling that summer's over.

Not quite, of course, because there are still many hot days but there's also an underlying change which is unmistakeably autumn.

As an example, I was lying out in the hammock this afternoon watching a red squirrel skip through the trees to a water bowl left out for his convenience, when I spotted a brilliant white speck yards away in the undergrowth.

Going over to have a look at it, I saw it was the first plump ammonite phalloide of the autumn. Pushing up through the forest floor, it was round, compact and flawless. Soon, it will flatten out into a large white mushroom as wide as your hand. These tantalisingly perfect, toxic snow-white mushrooms are fatal if you're foolish or ignorant enough to eat them. But they're beautiful in a spine-chilling way. It's only too easy to imagine an innocent person grilling them and eating them without a care in the world. The sequel is up to two weeks of slow death as the ammonite systematically destroys your liver. There is apparently no cure although a friend of mine from the nearby village of Le Thor says huge doses of vitamin C have been known to save ammonite victims.

Still - there it was - a sign that autumn arrives in Provence even while the September temperature is still in the high 20s in the middle of the day.

The other current sign of autumn is that the red squirrels are playing wildly in the pine trees. I haven't been able to establish why they do this, but each spring and autumn they spend a few days going crazy in the pine tree canopy, dashing up and down tree trunks, leaping from branch to branch in a frenzy and generally acting like kids at a birthday party. This morning they woke me up at dawn, squabbling outside the house, ticking each other off with cluck-cluck noises and racing up and down the pine trunks chasing each other and turning to be chased.

I tried to go back to sleep, telling myself it was just the crazy squirrels. But it was also, I realised, a sign that autumn's here in Provence.

Grapes and Olives in Provence: Cultivation From Year Zero to the 21st Century

In 2010, there was an exhibition in Arles which displayed 700 wonderful objects found on the Rhone riverbed during a long archaeological excavation underwater.

Cesar: le Rhone Pour Mémoire had as its centrepiece a stunningly lifelike marble bust of Caesar, cut from Italian marble during the emperor's lifetime. The austere and impressive expression of the great Roman emperor had endured centuries on the riverbed. Quite a find for any archaeologist.

In another part of the exhibition there was a map of France and French trade and agriculture during Roman times. Right by the village of Velleron, near home for me, I saw painted symbols marking the ancient cultivation of two fruits: grapes and olives.

Vines and olive trees have been planted and tended, right here, outside my door, for over two thousand years. Which is a lovely thought. All that natural continuity...

On my kitchen work surface right now is a very large bowl of muscat grapes, presented to me yesterday by a neighbour who has more grapes than he knows what to do with. He has vines on his terrace, providing fruit and shade. And he has recently planted 20 new vines not far from his swimming pool, beside one of his olive groves. They'll provide even more grapes next year so he'll need to figure out how to use them...

Outside my back door are 2 vines which I planted in 2004. One is in good shape; the other struggles with the rocky limestone ground. Still, having that connection with people who lived and worked on this same ground 2000 years ago is somehow thrilling.

Also on the kitchen work surface is a litre bottle of olive oil which I fill and refill all year, from our collective olive oil production (with neighbours) and including oil from my own olives.

Outside, there are olive trees which I've tried painstakingly to rehabilitate since they were all but destroyed by the hard frost in 1956. After tending and pruning and feeding with manure-and-straw from a friend's horses, the oliviers are producing olives once again. Just as they did before 1956. And just as olive trees on the same spot produced olives 2000 years ago.

There's something magical about pruning and feeding olive trees during the year, then collecting the olives at Christmas and producing your own olive oil to use throughout the following year. Thanks to those trees, and those of my neighbours, I haven't bought olive oil for years now - they yield the oil we all use throughout the year - entirely natural, untreated, untainted.

Just taking a walk in this area is a bit like time travel. You see the countryside pretty much as the Romans would have seen it in this spot, with the same cultivation taking place. From one neighbour's vines to another's olive trees, and then to my own, I get a sense of historical continuity on this beautiful land which fills me with joy.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Snakes in Provence

This afternoon I was swinging gently in my hammock, tied between two graceful pine trees. Just contemplating nature for a moment, and the beautiful blue sky.

It's the 21st September but warm enough to be T-shirt weather. Last week, staying with friends down near Sète in the Languedoc, the Mediterranean sea was wonderfully warm to swim in. And this last weekend the pool in my neighbours' little hamlet outside Velleron was perfect to swim in.

Feeling rather blissed out by autumn heat and sunshine, I tipped myself out of the hammock and headed for the house to fetch a glass of cold rosé wine. (Listel Grain de Gris - cheap but entirely cheerful.)

On my way, I stooped to pick up a fallen oleander flower and found my hand an inch away from a three foot long snake.

I instantly snatched my hand away and took a closer look. He was a handsome coulevre - an adder - common in the south of France as elsewhere in Europe. His skin was grey green with black and yellow markings. He regarded me cooly, nothing moving apart from his lisping tongue. "Lovely creature" I thought, and went on my way.

However, an image suddenly flashed into my head of a neighbour's cat toying with a coulevre last autumn. Sasha (a contraction of sale chat - dirty cat) was highly entertained to discover an adder in the olive grove near his owner's house. He had fun sticking his claws out and waving his paws in the general direction of the adder's head. The adder, understandably, reared up, looking for a fight. I carried on inspecting the progress of the olives and ignored the pair of them.

But I have a cat myself - Coco - a rather gentle soul, a caramel and chocolate coloured Burmese/Siamese cross, and I wondered if the adder posed a threat to him? Coco's lived here since appearing out of the forest, thin and hungry, in July 2007 and I've seen him investigate a dead snake before.

Glancing into the sitting room, I saw him snoozing peacefully on a bain de soleil that I brought inside during a recent thunderstorm. He would wake up in a while. If he went out for a stroll and found a three foot long snake in the undergrowth he'd inevitably try to communicate with it...

Wondering what the outcome was likely to be, I looked on Wikipedia. It turns out that snake bites - bites by adders at least - are not at all good for pets or livestock. Humans suffer a range of horrible effects from an adder's venom, so heaven knows how a small cat would react. Wikipedia lists the effects in humans as follows:

"anaphylaxis can be dramatic.[Other] symptoms include nausea, retching, vomiting, abdominal colic, diarrhoea, incontinence of urine and faeces, sweating, fever, vasoconstriction, tachycardia, lightheadedness, loss of consciousness, blindness, shock, angioedema of the face, lips, gums, tongue, throat and epiglotis, urticaria and bronchospam. If left untreated, these symptoms may persist or fluctuate for up to 48 hours. In severe cases, cardiovascular failure may occur."

Yikes. I had to get that snake off my land before the cat woke up and went outside.

Armed with a long thin branch that a friend's son made into a walking stick last year, I went out to deal with the adder. He was still motionless, lolling in an S-shape under a rosemary bush. I prodded him gently and he moved. I prodded him again, hoping to pick him up and deposit him along the track, and he went completely nuts. He writhed, turned, slithered, raced up to the top of the rosemary bush and turned to face me directly, hissing and flicking his tongue around like a maniac. His head shot out towards me with clear intent to inflict injury.

Standing back, I gave this some thought. If he'd do this with a towering human, he'd certainly do it with Coco. And Coco wouldn't be prodding him with a six foot stick; he'd be using a delicate paw. I went and turned the hose on and treated the snake to a light outdoor shower. He was unmoved. I rattled the stick around a bit and spoke encouragingly. He stood higher in the bush and his tongue darted out over and over again. Those beady eyes fixed me with an uncannily direct glare.

I backed off and after a while he descended from the bush. I beat the ground near him and he slithered away. Unfortunately, he slithered straight into a huge pile of dead vine stumps that I collected from a neighbour's vineyard and will be using for firewood in the winter. There is so much cover for him there that I can quite imagine he'll set up home for the winter and stay.

Which means sooner or later Coco will amble past the vine stumps, hear a bit of snake activity in progress, and stick his nose or his paw in to investigate.

He's already being duffed up nightly by a neighbour's cat who lacks castration. The poor cat now faces adder attack as he takes his evening stroll.

We all understand that nature is red in tooth and claw but Provence generally brings you close to a nature which is comparatively gentle. Wild boar roaming about looking for larvae and fallen cherries. Turtle doves mating discreetly in the pines. Bees out and about, charmingly making lavender honey.

I have nothing against coulevres and wish them a peaceful, painfree life. I just hope the coulevre in the wood pile will take the same approach when, inevitably, he meets my cat.

Friday, September 2, 2011

A Potager in Provence

Although Provence has a reputation for secheresse and heatwaves, much of the land is wonderfully fertile. The markets in most towns and villages - stuffed with fruit and vegetables, oil and cheese, herbs and meat - are testimony to the soil's fertility.

The land is irrigated by free-flowing water - rivers like the Sorgue, by canal water and by the rain which, when it falls, can fall in torrents.

A friend and I started a potager this summer and its productivity has been astounding. To start with, we selected 4 tomato varieties and bought tiny seedlings in the local market at Velleron. Our choices were Coeur de boeuf, then a 'black' tomato and two varieties of tomates cerises - cherry tomatoes. As I was pondering which to buy, I heard a customer tell the stall holder that the tomato plants he'd bought there a few weeks previously were already producing kilos of good tomatoes. A good sign, so I selected my plants and handed over a few euros.

The potager is tiny - around 12 feet by 6. Once the soil was prepared and the plants were supported by canes, we added lettuce, broccoli, aubergines, courgettes and green peppers. We added a modest goutte à goutte system - pipes to water the potager daily - and a little fumier, or manure and straw, as fertiliser.

Within weeks the plants were groaning with produce. The Coeur de boeuf tomatoes are as big as melons. The cerise plants are covered with hundreds of small sweet fruits. The rougette lettuces are astonishingly fresh and crunchy. The batavias are good too.

Suddenly I realise how the paysans in the markets can sell their fruit and veg so cheaply. Before I'd thought it was mainly because the costs of bringing produce into the village or town was so low. Petrol's expensive so it helps if you can limit transport to a few kilometres. Now though, having seen at first hand how productive a tiny rectangle of soil can be, I see why much produce is relatively cheap.

Since I need to be thrifty these days, I've been looking out recipes for the veg and methods of conserving them for the winter. So far, for the tomatoes alone, I've tried tomates farcies, a pasta sauce flavoured with fresh thyme from the garrigue, another with anchovies, tomates provençales, ratatouille, gazpacho and a pizza with tomatoes and jambon sec. The stuffed tomatoes and sauces freeze well.

Add to the potager produce a harvest of sweet and plump figues de Caromb and kilos of hazelnuts and living off the land almost seems possible! The terrace is draped with hundreds of bunches of grapes, almost ripe and ready to pick.

Quite apart from being economical, a potager is simply a joy. It's a real pleasure to go out each morning and evening and see what new crop has progressed or ripened. The cherry tomatoes are coming through so thick and fast that as soon as I pick them, and dish some out to neighbours, another bunch - almost hidden by heavy foliage - are glowing dark red.

Since the manure comes from horses we know, and their owner gives them untreated food and minimises any medication, the potager produce is pretty much non-traité - untreated. It doesn't need any organic labelling as far as I'm concerned. The fact that it's natural is quite enough. In fact, the abundant crops produced every day from soil, sun and water seem like a minor Provençal miracle.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Thunder, rain and lightning in Provence

The thunder started around 3am this morning - low growls in the distance for a while and then one ear-splitting thunderbolt right above the house.

Storms often build and then break during the night in Provence. I could see flashes of lightning outside around the edges of the bedroom's closed wooden shutters. The thunder was deafening but in between bolts you could hear rain hammering down on the tiled roof, pine trees and hard dry earth. I knew from experience that the next sound would be the catflap as my cat Coco, who wondered out of the forest and up to the house 4 years ago and never left, hurtled into the house in protest at the rain.

Sure enough - flap flap flap, determined feline shoulder applied to half-closed bedroom door - and I felt him jump on the bed. As I told him to calm down and go to sleep, I felt half-terrified that the roof would fall in or the house would be struck by lightning. It was hit by lightning in 2007 and I was momentarily electrocuted as I tried to disconnect the water pump. The electrics in most rural French houses, as you probably know, are fairly funky and improvised arrangements. In this house, the water pump needs to be disconnected during a thunderstorm or apparently it'll be struck by lightning. The plug that needs to be disconnected hangs on a thick cable half way up a wall. To uncouple plug and socket I have to lie on the tiles with a foot against the wall and tug, using both hands. It works well enough...

Anyway, as well as being half-terrified I was half-thrilled. One of my neighbours, a paysan, Alain Blanc, who has 10 hectares of vines, cherry trees, melons, apricots and almonds just over the hill had told me it would rain during the night and the following morning. I'd been aware that if he was wrong I'd have to lug the hosepipe up to my olive trees to water them. We've had a week of temperatures in the high 30s and though the olive tree flowers have now given way to miniscule olives, they're looking parched and need water.

The lavender round the house and the oleanders look thirsty too so it was great to hear the rain tombant des cordes - "fall in ropes", as the Provencaux say.

This morning the rain fell very lightly and the dawn chorus was beautiful. Little songbirds who've been suffering in the heat must be delighted to find raindrops rolling off every leaf. Even Coco, who could have sat inside in the dry, strolled through the damp garrigue and then settled under an olive tree to survey his land. He doesn't usually try to catch songbirds - he understands that they can take off almost vertically whereas mice can't. He once dragged a beautiful dormouse into the house. Don't know how he got him - they usually stay up in the tree canopy.

There's a beautiful stillness outside just now. Not even a light breeze. Just the revived land, damp and looking much greener after the storm.

I worked with Mr Blanc and a neighbour in his vineyard for 2 days this week. It was sweltering - 37° - and I managed 2 hours in the morning and 2 in the afternoon. It was heavy work in blazing, merciless sunshine. Not a drop of shade either. He'd had a machine uproot the hundreds of vine stumps and needed the field cleared to prepare the earth and plant a new variety of grape. In return for helping him I'd get masses of vine stumps which are a good winter fuel and don't need to be seasoned for two years like other wood. So I can use them this winter. He knew the rain would come today so he needed to clear the field urgently, while the tractor and trailer could move freely on the soil. I asked how he knew it would rain. He'd looked at the meteo in La Provence perhaps? He shrugged. He's been working that land he said since he was nine years old. Sometimes you just know it'll rain in the next 24 to 36 hours.

I just went outside to say hello to a friend riding by on his horse. Wonderful morning isn't it, he said. "Quelle fraicheur!" We talked for a while and then I came back to my desk. I noticed another benefit of the rain while I was outside. My car, perpetually covered in white limestone dust from the chemin de terre, sometimes so heavy that the police have stopped me to tell me the licence plate is invisible, looked like it had been through a carwash. It stood there bright and sparkling and clean, thanks to the rain.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

French health care - great if you can get it

France has a great health system. Everyone says so. Not everyone is entitled to use it freely though. You have to be entitled and in the system - and that means having a social security number. Although I've lived in France for years and have been entitled to a Carte Vitale - the medical insurance/entitlement card - for a year and a half, I've only just succeeded in getting hold of the social security number, or numero secu needed to get one. The reason? France has fiendish administration. Everyone says so.

When I first moved to France I was working for a vast American corporation, spending a lot of my time on planes and in airports. Because I was away from France about as much as I was here I didn't bother too much about the Carte Vitale. I retained UK health insurance and hoped for the best. It was only when I finally registered as an autoentrepreneuse (self-employed) in June 2009, that I decided to apply for a Carte Vitale.

My accountant airily told me it would arrive automatically "in a few weeks" since I was registered as a business and paying taxes.

When it didn't arrive - quelle surprise - he advised me to contact the local tax office in town. The young woman there looked blank and told me to contact URSAFF, the French social security outfit, in Avignon. URSAFF in Avignon sent me to a strange little office in what seemed to be a block of flats where a lone staff member told me to contact RSI in Paris. "You definitely need to deal with RSI," she told me. RSI is the French 'social regime' for independent workers. They ignored me for a year and a half. Or rather, after sending me a registration number, they ignored me for a year and a half.

I emailed RSI in Paris just over 40 times - sad I know, but I started counting after the first half dozen times. I called them countless more times and got personnel who said they couldn't deal with me unless I gave them my numero secu. "That's the problem," I said. "I don't know it." They shrugged, telephonically. I sent them letters. "What do I need to do to obtain my social security number and Carte Vitale?" I asked. I wondered when they would ever reply. The answer, as with the emails, was never.

I lost count of the different numbers and organisations I rang in my efforts to find out that number. "Call this number in Provence," someone in Paris would say. "Call this number in Paris," the person in Provence would say. It was entirely circular. I gave up for weeks at a time.

One number in Provence played an eternal message that the service wasn't available. One had severely restricted opening hours - about 12 a week - and I never got through to anyone there. Another number parrotted the "Contact Paris" mantra. Yet another simply rang out. Always.

After 18 months I finally discovered my secu number. It was by chance really. I spent three solid hours calling everyone in French health administration and eventually someone, somewhere, casually mentioned an organism called RAM-GAMEX. I'd never heard of them. I got their number and called. After half an hour of muzak and the occasional cheery message telling me how much I was being charged for waiting, a woman answered. I asked her, simply, what I had to do to get a social security number. She asked for my RSI number, tapped it into a database and said "Well there's absolutely no problem with it, madame - I can give it to you now. Do you have pen?" A pen? I nearly had a fainting fit. I was euphoric and amazed.

"But I've been trying to get this number for a year and a half," I said. "I haven't been able to get my Carte Vitale..."

She sounded rather insulted. "All you had to do was ask!" she said snippily.

I wrote my number down carefully. Then I wrote it down in six other places. Then I called a friend to say I'd finally succeeded. I'd won! I'd beaten the French administration. They'd tried to beat me down but I'd perservered. I felt like a marathon runner, breasting that flimsy tape and brushing it aside.

But I know I'm still only halfway there. I have since received a Carte Vitale attestation and my numero secu but I don't yet have the actual Carte Vitale. When the woman at RAM-GAMEX told me how to apply for it, she added scarily: "It'll arrive automatically in a few weeks." Yes - I've heard that before.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Parasols, philosophy and poetry

Although I've lived in Provence for seven years and visited the region for much longer before I came to live here year-round, I'm still often surprised by aspects of the region's culture. Since Provence, like all of France, has such a rich culture there's a feeling that you never stop learning.

One of the interesting aspects of life here is the way people think. Almost everything flows from what goes on in people's heads and Provence has a great intellectual mix of earthy philosophy and subtle poetry. Or, you could just as easily say a mix of earthy poetry and subtle philosophy.

Over and over I see and hear evidence of this. In contrast I guess that the people of Provence, like the French generally, view Anglo-Saxon minds as pretty clod-hopping and overly concerned with practical matters like money and commerce.

Today I had one small example of local thinking, or maybe just French thinking. I was in conversation with a friend and - I can't remember why - parasols were mentioned.

He said he finds parasols quite interesting. My immediate thought was that I don't find them in the least interesting and haven't ever really given them a thought. They're just things you use, aren't they?, and maybe the extent of any interest in them would be what the material, colour and price were.

But he expounded a bit, as Provencal men will, on what he thought interesting. He talked about the way the rigid structure, the frame, worked with a soft, supple covering. Both were dissimilar, opposites really, but they work together. And neither's any use on its own. He talked for a while about that relationship and I can't describe what he said because it sort of slipped away from me - but it was interesting (and didn't involve any reference to sex or the human form, which it might easily have done.)

Whether from my Anglo-Saxon and Celtic heritage, genes or culture, or just through having a rather rusty brain, I tend to see household objects in a rather practical way or maybe in design terms. I can see symbolism in them easily enough - an empty chair, a dusty photo frame... But this conversation had me thinking about everyday objects in a different way.

When he'd finished describing what he meant, or what he saw, I commented that I couldn't decide whether I'd call what he'd just said poetry or philosophy.

He burst out laughing as if a child had said something funny. Then he said "Why should it be one or the other?"

(Just broke off to go and watch Antoine, the young berger, leading a hundred or so sheep along the track, with his two enormous white guard dogs. We chatted for a moment while the sheep tugged at my shrubs and then he led them down into long grass where they'll graze tonight and tomorrow. They ambled lazily along behind him, a bell tinkling here and there in the middle of the flock. It's wonderful to watch them all on the track and then grazing calmly. That's definitely poetry...)

Thursday, May 26, 2011

From Provence to the Languedoc: Eating Oysters at Bouzigues

I've mentioned before that one of the great things about living in Provence is that the region is so varied. From the Cote d'Azur and the dazzling Med to the wild Camargue, from the villages perchés of the Luberon and Vaucluse to the rugged Alpilles, and from the laid-back city of Avignon to the chic streets of Aix the region is practically spinning with variety.

But the other aspect of living here is the easy reach you have to other areas, regions and countries - to Italy and Spain, to the Aveyron, the Drome and the Languedoc.

I spent last weekend at Frontignan on the Languedoc coast in a little wooden cabin belonging to friends from Le Thor. They spend August there every year while their main home is rented to Parisians but we all go to Frontignan several times a year for weekends as well. The cabin, one of a kind on the shoreline and just a few paces from the sea, is classé by now I would think. It's surrounded by overgrown and elegantly drooping oliviers de Bohème
. The front of the structure is open wooden lattice-work, criss-crossed and with a tropical feel. Friends from Avignon added a wonky wooden-slatted terrace years ago where we eat outside. At the side of the cabin is an outdoor shower.

It's not chic but it's charming - one of the most relaxing places I know. Although Frontignan plage is stuffed with campsites and can be noisy in August, filled with families on holiday from Montpellier, the cabin is a little oasis of calm and greenery. Frontignan town is quite pretty too, with a nice little bar where you can eat and drink in the square outside the Mairie.

This late-May weekend we opened the cabin up for the summer, sweeping away the olive tree leaves that have fallen and drifted inside along with a little sand from the beach. There were cobwebs everywhere on a Hollywood horror-film scale, drifting from skylights, festooned across doorways. You'd think no-one had been in the place for a decade but we were all there just 8 months ago, when it was warm enough to swim in the Mediterranean in late September.

It took hardly any time though to clear up, and the weekend began.

One of the wonderful things about visiting the area is looking around the interesting town of Sète. Another is visiting the Etang de Thau to eat wonderful (breathtakingly inexpensive)Bouzigues oysters sur place.

Sète is right on the sea and still very much a port and fishing town. It's poor and feels very sinewy. You have these images in your head as you walk round, of muscular arms hauling at ropes on trawlers. Not of tall, broad fishermen but of short, wiry men, strong and used to sailing in the Med.

There's a wonderful open air concert venue high on the hill where you can see opera or hear jazz with the Mediterranean as a glamorous backdrop to the stage.

All through the summer, Sète stages a huge number of concerts and music festivals, well worth going to.

And there's an unmissable fish market in Les Halles. I'd feel deprived if I went to Sète without going to the fish market. It's largely a local affair with fisherman selling straight from their nets - direct du bateau. There's a thrilling mix of rough-and-ready and refinement in the market. The many stands are highly individual - colourful, painted with pictures of jaunty fish or sturdy boats. The names are French, Italian, Spanish - Raphael, Mario, Julien - reflecting geography and centuries of immigration. Stalls practically overflow with rougets, merlu, loup de mer, daurade royale, crevettes, palourdes, limandes, violets, tuna, oysters, mussels, lobster, squid. There are mixes for fish soup, heaps of whitebait, huge halves of swordfish, crabs, sea snails, sea urchins...

Signs announce where produce is "Fished locally", "From the Mediterranée." Trade is brisk, as they say, and there are long discussions about preparing different fish. Bouzigues oysters are sold in their 3 different sizes for as little as 7 euros a dozen.

Around Les Halles there are bars serving shellfish and chilled glasses of the local white wine, Picpoul de Pinet. The bars are filled mostly with men, drinking and gossiping cheerfully.

There's far more than fish and seafood here. There's everything. Fruit and veg, cheeses, oils and vinegars, hams and saucisses, stalls selling exquisite jams and flavoured honey and lots of stalls selling freshly-made pasta.

To me, Sète is an unreconstructed and mostly unmodernised French fishing town with loads of character, very visibly formed by the sea. Temperamentally, it's a thousand miles from the Cote d'Azur even if it's actually not far from St Tropez. With its poor French community and struggling economy, Sète is a bit of a stronghold for the Front National but you get the feeling that reflects weariness and economic fear rather than aggression. This is a port after all that has boats to-ing and fro-ing from North Africa every day. The Sète economy needs its African links.

Hosting holidays in your home in Provence

OK, I've had it with people coming to stay in summer.

Let me tell you about the downside of owning a home in Provence. The downside is guests coming to stay. Or rather, unwelcome guests. Every summer, all summer. There are good guests and bad guests and it seems there's no escaping the bad ones.

When I first moved here in 2004 I came across an article in French Property News that said "within a few years you'll be sick and tired of people coming to stay in your house in Provence." How very negative, I thought. My home would always be open to friends and it would be a pleasure to have people visiting me in Provence from other countries.

Seven years on, however, I get the point. There are without a doubt friends I like to see and have staying. But there are many other people who rather ruthlessly, or just unthinkingly, take advantage. It's amazing how many people you haven't seen or been in touch with for years will contact you out of the blue once you live in the south of France and say "We're thinking of coming to stay with you."

Really? You won't wait for an invitation then?

And it's only when you live in a beautiful region like Provence that you face the issue of people wanting to come and stay for a week or two. Normally, you invite friends for dinner, say, and after four or five hours they go home. But imagine friends coming for dinner and then moving in for seven nights.

People will contact you with their schedule and their demands and expect that you'll simply be available and on site when they plan to descend.

Unfailingly each individual, family or group assumes that they're the only ones planning to visit in summer and unfailingly each thinks single-mindedly of their own individual holiday in Provence.
"We're planning to come for seven nights" people say. Or "It'll be expensive to hire a car but you'll be able to pick us up from Avignon/Marseille/Nimes, won't you?" "It won't be a problem that I can't eat bread, pasta, cheese, milk, tomatoes, chick peas, bananas, nuts or meat will it?"

Once people arrive it becomes obvious that they expect a taxi service to and from the station/airport, a catering service, information and a cleaning service. Only the good guests (the invited ones) ever seem to realise that they're part of a long line of holidaymakers trooping in and out all summer. To the others, their holiday is the only one. To me, though, they're the sixth, seventh or eighth bunch who've descended with their luggage, demands to be driven around Provence, inability to put their hands in their wallets and reluctance to buy food or cook a meal.

At the end of each visit, I have to clean the place, launder sheets and towels and prepare rooms for the next lot arriving. This year I've already been horrified to return from dropping a guest at the station to find she'd left a huge carrier bag of rotting rubbish overflowing and falling onto the floor in her room. As I cleaned up after her I found myself muttering that she wouldn't have come to visit for five days if I lived in Wolverhampton....

This year I've already changed my plans to fit in with a very old acquaintance I hadn't been in contact with for years who demanded to come and stay over a weekend, then changed his plans to come during the week, then announced at the last minute that the flight was too expensive and he wasn't coming after all. Thanks! By then I'd missed a weekend on the Cote d'Azur. Then another acquaintance arrived, demanded a lift in from the station, announced she was staying for a week when I'd already told her it wasn't possible, required to be driven around the region to sort out various problems with her laptop, insisted on a lift to Avignon so she could buy clothes for herself and presents for her family and firmly refused to contribute even a few centimes towards a bottle of red wine on her last night.

Today I had three different people requesting that I help them with plans for their holiday in my home or in the nearby village. "It won't take you a minute to check out local gites and recommend one" I was told. "Please check the pools are big and the bedrooms are light and airy. Bear our budget in mind too." "How will I get from Nimes to your place? Can you check train times? Maybe it'll be better if you just pick me up." "What's the best low cost airline from my place to Marseille?"

And the trouble is that whenever I get it together to make a suggestion I risk the person being disappointed in which case I invariably get the blame and the guest gets huffy. "Are you kidding? Their flights leave at 6am." Once they're here it'll be: "I don't know why you suggested that restaurant. It didn't have nearly have enough fish on the menu."

I even get the blame for bad weather. "You didn't warn us that the mistral could blow in summer. We wouldn't have come this week if we'd known."

No-one ever seems to realise that it costs me money and ties up my time to host their holidays. It also disrupts my own plans every summer. Each party or group seems to imagine that it's nothing really, using my home, my electricity, my food, my shower, my car and my petrol for a week or so. And they're right. It's no big deal when it's for one week. But it's not for one week! They may only be staying for a week but there were probably people staying for the six weeks before them and people due to come in the six weeks after. My summer becomes one long round of fetching guests from the airport, ferrying them around the sights, helping them organise their itineraries and onward journeys, getting them medical care when they need it, being on stand-by to bring them back from town when they've done their shopping and of course planning their meals from dawn to dusk.

And then there are the breakages. I've rarely had guests who don't break things. It's normal, I know, because they're not in their own surroundings. So they tend to yank at door handles, wrench the shower attachment off the wall, knock furniture against windows as they move things around to suit themselves, break plates and glasses and crack the toilet seat. Invariably, they blame the things they've broken. "Something wrong with that kettle" they'll say sternly. "I just touched it and the handle fell off."

I gloomily add the kettle to the list of broken things I need to replace.

And then there are gifts.

Mysteriously, I have hardly ever had a guest arrive with a gift or leave a gift on parting. Guests can stay night after night, make full use of my unpaid taxi service, help themselves to my rosé wine, elbow their way to my laptop so they can check their email, shower twice a day till all the hot water's gone and leave their sheets and towels in a heap for me to deal with when they leave - and yet hardly one of them has ever thought to arrive with a bottle of wine or leave so much as a bar of lavender soap when their stay's over. In contrast, almost every guest takes great pleasure in showing me the gifts they've bought for their child/mother/husband/boyfriend/self. "I got these terrific sunglasses for Bob" they'll say. "And I thought I'd take this champagne home for dad." "Clothes are cheap here" they say. "I bought myself these jeans, this hat, this shirt and these boots. Bit extravagant but I thought - well - I'm on my holiday!"

Great. Meanwhile I'm standing there cooking the food I shopped for and paid for after they called to say they wouldn't be able to get to the supermarket because they were having so much fun spending money on themselves.

So there you are. That's a snapshot of summer when you own a house in Provence. You can easily end up running a free hotel and working as a full-time, unpaid holiday organiser. I'm not kidding. If I accepted every request for accommodation, advice and help with holiday organisation I would literally be working full-time, for free, all through the summer. And subsidising dozens of holidays out of my own pocket.

I've called a halt to it this summer. I had to. I don't have a 3 to 4000 euro fund spare with which to subsidise other people's holidays. I fear some friends and acquaintances will take offence but, as the French say, tant pis. I've done it for 5 years and I'm not doing it any more. There are certain friends who are still very welcome and they know who they are. The others will have to manage their holidays by themselves because this hotel in Provence is closed!

Monday, May 9, 2011

Cooking classes in Provence - L'Auberge de la Camarette at Pernes les Fontaines

The Auberge de la Camarette is a bit of a hidden treasure in Provence. In open countryside just on the edge of the pretty village Pernes les Fontaines, it's set in its own vineyard with a panoramic view of Mont Ventoux, the 'Giant of Provence'. A former 17th century magnanerie, or silk farm, it's a restaurant and chambres d'hotes full of character where you dine selon le marché - that is, you get what the chef decides to make on the day, according to the best local produce available.

The talented young chef, Hugues Marrec, also gives cooking classes on 8 Saturdays each year and this year, for the first time ever, I took a Provençal cooking class. It was on the 7th of May, my birthday, and a friend offered me the class as a birthday present. Three of us went in the end and it was just one of the best ways to spend a birthday or any Saturday morning.

The idea is that you work under Hugues' expert guidance between 9am and 1pm to create a 3-course meal and then you sit and enjoy it with a bottle of the Camarette vineyard wine. (I don't know how much it cost as it was a present, but around 75 euros I think.)

Now, I've lived in France for 11 years and have picked up some principles of French and Provençale cuisine from friends but I wouldn't claim to be any kind of chef. Nevertheless, Hugues proposed that the eight of us (there were 5 locals as well as me and my two girl friends) would produce the following menu:

Duo de petit pois et l'asperge: soupe froide de petits pois et menthe fraiche avec un flan de petits pois
La caille farcie avec une mousse d'asperge et asperges blanches frites
Un gratin de fraises de Pernes les Fontaines

The first thing we had to do in this well-organised but somehow relaxed restaurant kitchen, was debone the quails. Hugues made it look supremely simple. You plonk the deplumed quail on its stomach and remove the wings. Then you cut a fine line along its back. You hold the knife near the point and follow the bone down to the leg joint. Once you cut that, you turn the bird and do the same on the other side. A nip here and a tuck there and, with the chef's supervision, you have your quail ready to stuff. We made the farce and stuffed the birds, covered them with crépine (a delicate ivory-coloured film of sheep intestine which disappears in cooking), trussed them with string and then set them aside.

We turned our attention to the flan, the soup and the mousse. As we worked, Hugues gave us tips and explained various general principles about working with poultry, cutting vegetables, making meat and vegetable stock. I was pleased to see he worked in a very natural way - no fussy hairnets, no hygiene hysteria. We all washed our hands at every stage of cooking and Hugues washed the work surfaces down as we went along.

It was a hot sunny day, as the 7th of May often is, and a bunch of small kids were playing in the courtyard, peeking in through the kitchen window and giggling every so often.

We made so many lovely sauces and jus for the entrées, main course and dessert that my head was spinning after three hours. The last touch, the sabayon for the gratin de fraises, was simple given the wonderful effect in terms of taste. Throughout, our chef/teacher was relaxed, unhurried and supremely in control of processes and timing.

As it got near to one o'clock, I was a bit stunned to see customers coming in through the heavy old door, heading into the restaurant for lunch. The chef had spent 4 hours teaching us and timing our dishes and he had a restaurant full of customers to deal with too. We took our seats for an aperitif and were called back to the kitchen for the finition, or garnish, of each course.

Among us 'students' there was a local couple who were planning to replicate the entire meal for 6 friends that evening. Rather them than me!

There were a number of Americans lunching as ordinary customers and they asked why our table was different. They had waitress service. We kept vanishing into the kitchen and reappearing with our plates five minutes later. We explained the cooking course and Hugues, who has worked in England and America and speaks English, told them a bit about the preparation of each course.

It added so much interest to our meal, the fact that we'd prepared it ourselves (with quite a lot of guidance...) Foolish perhaps, but I think we all felt quite proud of our work. It gave a different perspective, too, to understand just how much talent, skill and hard work a chef puts into the preparation of a good 3 course meal. Somehow it made a very good lunch taste even better.

L'Auberge de la Camarette has space for just 30 diners and seems to rely on reputation and word of mouth locally for its business. The week before this cooking course I'd never heard of it. The owners do very little advertising and the vineyard is simply signed on the route out of Pernes by a tiny signpost.

It's a blissful spot though and well worth visiting whether you want to stay, dine there, take a cooking course, or all three. The website is:

The nearest towns are Pernes les Fontaines, Isle sur Sorgue and Carpentras. I'd really highly recommend the place.

Friday, May 6, 2011

The sheep who make Roquefort cheese: From Provence to the Aveyron

One of the many good things about living in Provence is that so many other places are also easily accessible. Fancy a weekend in Spain or Italy? They're in easy reach. Or a quick trip to Paris by TGV? Equally, the Cote d'Azur, Chateauneuf-du-Pape, the Dentelles, the Alps, the Drome and the Cevennes are all close to home.

One region I didn't know until recently is the Aveyron, which lies about two and a half hours away from here (Isle-sur-Sorgue, near Avignon). I took a trip at Easter to see friends who have bought an old ruin over there, under the foolish illusion that it won't turn into the Money Pit of Tom Hanks film fame.

François and Christie have a thing about restoring old ruins. They first bought a property near my home, back in the 80s. It was part of the local hamlet, an old plaster factory with homes for the workers, and François restored his property stone by stone and beam by beam.

The couple then sold to a couple of charming American Provenceophiles and bought a 12th century chapel in Avignon, the Chapel of the Miracle. I won't go into the 'miracle' here which involves sodomy, a young priest, burning at the stake and a dramatic escape but you can find it online (with apartments to rent if you're not troubled by gay young ghosts.)

Having made a fantastic job of restoring the ruined chapel, they've now bought their small ruin in the Aveyron for what the Provençaux call a poignée de figues and what English speakers call peanuts. Just 9000 peanuts to be precise.

With a chambre d'hote quickly booked online, I set off to Viala in the Aveyron. The region is quite different from Provence. There's far more in the way of empty rolling countryside, forest, and sheep dotted about on lonely hills. I was astounded to find the chambre d'hote - Le Tondut - which turned out to be a huge farmhouse on the scale of a chateau.

It sits alone in wonderful farmland and features 400 sheep who supply milk, daily, for the locally-made Roquefort cheese. When I arrived the flock was drifting peacefully across the hillside in the sun, nibbling the grass to within a centimetre of its life.

The owners, Nadine and Dédé Malaval, were instantly welcoming, relaxed and friendly. It was like arriving to see friends. We went into the old farm kitchen to chat and have coffee. My room was huge and light and airy with fantastic views of the countryside. The 400 sheep were right below the window.

That evening Nadine showed me la traite - the milking. I don't know if you've ever watched a traite but I found it pretty fascinating. We stood in a space around which an old wooden carousel turned. The sheep rattled up onto the platform, a door shut them into a little stall, they promptly stuck their heads over the door into a bucket of grain and there they stood, feeding, as the carousel turned. Nadine attached the milking apparatus to each sheep as it passed her and, 3 minutes later, the grain was finished, the milk was taken, the door nearest the exit would open and the sheep in that particular stall would rattle back down and off into the barn to eat hay.

The sheep all knew the drill and did just what they were meant to. They weren't the slightest bit bothered by the presence of the huge Le Tondut family hound, watching proceedings closely, one large ear up and one large ear down. In the huge barn on the other side of the milking room, Dédé was forking hay into troughs. Having given up their milk, the sheep were onto their next course. The milk meanwhile was filling a large tank, ready to be collected by the food company, Papillon, which makes Roquefort cheese. Roquefort is strictly controlled, has its own AOC and is aged in local caves. Personally, I find it too salty. I asked Dédé why the makers put so much salt in it. He laughed and said: "Weight." What? "Roquefort's sold by the kilo. Salt's heavier than milk. And it's cheap."

He and Nadine don't over-salt the products they make with the milk they retain though. At breakfast the next day, we had a wonderful farm-baked flan and home-made yoghurt straight from the sheep I now knew personally! It was lovely to sit watching the flock, eating breakfast made with milk they'd produced from that rich green Aveyron grass.

Le Tondut also features ducks, geese, dogs, donkeys, cows, calves, an immense glowering bull - and rabbits. I'm a sucker for rabbits (the soft eyes, the floppy ears...) and this lot included a couple of dozen day-old rabbits. They were nestling in luxurious rabbit-fur nests made by their mothers generously pulling out bits of their own fur. You could barely see their little pink heads. One litter was a few weeks old though and they were well into the hopping-around-looking-pretty stage.

I can thoroughly recommend Le Tondut. It's just outside Viala du Tarn in sublime countryside.

In the evening François and Christie arrived in what they call their camping car. It must be one of the first camping cars ever produced. Full of character is the best way to describe it. We ate at a terrific restaurant, La Vigne Gourmande, which is perched all alone on the side of a hill at Candas.

The views were stunning. The husband and wife owners were welcoming and relaxed. There was meat cooking on a huge open fire for a table of ten locals. The food was ridiculously cheap and really good.

All that remained was to see the newly-bought ruin the next morning. It's tiny, has no roof, no electricity, no water, but it has character and potential. It's in a tiny mostly-abandonded hamlet situated in beautiful countryside. The sun was shining, birds were singing and we set up a table and sat down to eat salad and drink a bottle of celebratory champagne.

This was my first visit to the Aveyron and I feel it's well worth returning to for its beautiful countryside and warm and welcoming people. Having a look at local farming was a bonus. So were the rabbits.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Treating cancer in Provence

Cancer seems to be everywhere in Provence, as in the rest of the developed world. The French, though, seem to have good results in treating cancer and I keep hearing of friends and acquaintances who are cured or in remission.

Last week I was chatting to a guy of 82 who was diagnosed with throat cancer six years ago. He's a bit of a character who was a builder and an ardent socialist. These days he and his wife, who has battled breast cancer, focus on their small vineyard in Bollène, their potager - which supplies fruit, veg and the best salad leaves I've ever tasted - and their chickens and rabbits which supply eggs and meat. (The rabbits had just had their young and I was totally charmed to see half a dozen rabbit-fur nests of tiny baby rabbits lying on their backs, or jumbled in a heap, with their 4 or 5-day old tummies rising and falling gently as they slept. Their ears lay flat against their heads and they looked a picture of bliss.)

François told me about his cancer diagnosis.

"It was the dentist who discovered my cancer" he told me. He elaborated that he hadn't bothered seeing a dentist for many decades: "Moi, je m'en fou des dentistes" he said. In his view, if you eat healthy food, drink good wine and brush your teeth, you can do without seeing a dentist.

However, one day he had a toothache and it didn't go away. His wife forced him to go to town to see the dentist. The dentist told him it wasn't actually a tooth aching and referred him to a cancer specialist. Within days he had started radiotherapy and chemotherapy for cancer of the throat.

The visit to the dentist saved his life.

Breast cancer seems particularly prevalent around here. The woman I bought my house from died of breast cancer a year or two later. My neighbour's wife also died of breast cancer. Both women were young; one in her 40s, one in her 30s. Another friend, Denise, died last year after a two year fight against breast cancer. My neighbour, Sylvie, a dance teacher, has had more luck. She battled breast cancer for years and it returned in 2007 after a period of remission. The diagnosis was terrible and she wrote her will. The news that the cancer had metastased and was widespread in her bones seemed a certain death warrant. And yet the French health system continued chemo and radiotherapy and, against all the odds, she is in remission again and currently strong and healthy.

Another pal who lives in Avignon had colon cancer in her 40s and recently had the all clear after ten years without the cancer returning. Another friend told me recently that his father, 82, had prostate cancer but had drug treatment and now has no trace of cancer cells in his blood. "His results show he's healthier than I am!" his son said. Another friend with prostate cancer, in his early 50S, immediately had the offending prostate surgically removed and has had treatment to prevent the cancer spreading.

The French health system can be a maze for those, like me, who haven't grown up with it. But from what I've seen of French doctors and surgeons at work they're extremely well organised and very highly skilled. Their diagnosis and treatment of cancer is world renowned and although none of us relish the idea that one day we may need their help, I for one have greater confidence in the French health profession than in many others.

Impregnating sheep in Provence

It's early May and sheep and lambs are still much in evidence. My neighbours in the nearby hamlet woke one morning this week to find all the sheep had trundled over the string barrier around their grazing land and, followed by their lambs, had wandered into the hamlet where they were busy devouring flowers and greenery.

"I was making coffee, early" one neighbour told me "and I was still half-asleep. I glanced out of the window and saw about 30 sheep right there, eating my plants at one end, fertilising the ground at the other."

He called the shepherd, Antoine, on his mobile, and said "The sheep escaped again. What shall I do?" Antoine said "Take a bucket, wave it at them and make a sort of clucking noise to get their attention." The neighbour did.

"I've got their attention" he said. "Now what?"
"Start walking back to the pen" Antoine said.
He did.
"Are they following you?" Antoine asked.
"OK. Now you're at the pen, right? So lift the string-fencing up and duck under it. They'll follow you. They think there's grain in the bucket."
My neighbour followed the instructions and the sheep duly filed back in under the string. Once it was secured, again, they settled down to bask in the early morning sunlight.

Antoine appeared the same day with a new troupeau. This lot number about 100 and around 8 are rams. The idea is - surprise surprise - that the rams impregnate the unsuspecting sheep who are just moseying about hoovering up the grass.

I stopped to look at them yesterday and this morning and noticed something quite bizarre. A ram will approach a female from behind and try to mount her. Quite often the female simply moves away. What I noticed is a peculiar little routine that precedes a successful mating. Sometimes a ram approaches a female and appears to lean forward towards her right ear. She turns her head and it looks for all the world as if he then 'says' something, she bows her head - and he mounts. Call me daft but I saw this numerous times and where the little exchange took place, the ram mounted and mated. Where it didn't, the sheep walked off.

I told neighbours about this and one of them said the ram was tricking the sheep. "He calls her from behind" he said "and she turns her head round. Then he says 'Look at that. Look at that lovely daisy down there.' The sheep bends down and, oop, he mounts. It's courtship..."

I don't know what it is, but I certainly saw it numerous times. I'll tell Antoine next time we cross on the track that he should have a successful sheep pregnancy rate. The rams are typical French males - sexy and seductive.