Tuesday, April 19, 2011

A Little Rural Drama in Provence

The local shepherd, Antoine, had parked his sheep down the track among the olive trees that belong to our neighbour, Sebastien, who owns the small local Presse.

A dozen or so sheep gave birth in mid-April and they and their lambs were guarded against thieves and dogs by Babar, a huge white-blonde Pyrenean mountain dog. Babar is a bit prone to wandering it seems, so he has a block of something-or-other, not too heavy, around his neck to discourage him from straying.

Last week as I was getting ready to go to Paris for a few days I drove down the road and saw that the temporary barrier round the sheep was lying flat. Two sheep and several lambs were mooching around grazing by the road.

I stopped the car, got out and tried to shepherd them back into the pen but they just wandered further away. Babar, I noticed, wasn't around.

The sheep and new lambs were in danger not just from cars that might pass on the track but also from the little canal just nearby.

As I didn't have Antoine's phone number, I drove to the village and went to the Presse. Sebastien would have the number. But Sebastien was away for the day and his assistant couldn't help. I went to the small local bar and asked a few of the guys if they knew Antoine. One guy did but had no idea how to reach him. Try the Police Municipale they all said.

I didn't much want to go to the police. For all I know, Antoine's sheep are non declarés and he might end up in trouble for not paying taxes. So I went to the fire station. In rural France, firemen are like a cross between an emergency service, a general maintenance team and social glue. A tall handsome fireman who looked like the American actor James Stewart greeted me. After listening to my worry that the sheep would be hit by cars and the lambs would fall into the canal he explained that his team of pompiers can go out to manage stray horses but not stray sheep. Still, he said, he'd phone his colleague Lionel Toutlemonde because, as his name suggests, Lionel knows everyone.

Lionel, however, didn't have a number for Antoine and I ended up running into a neighbour who did.

We called Antoine and he arrived within half an hour, speeding up the track in his beat-up van.

I hung around in the little hamlet just nearby to see what the outcome would be and he came to find me after an hour or so. Babar had pitched up when Antoine called out for him. He had a bad gash on his neck and had obviously been in a scrap with another dog. His lovely pale fur was bloodied and matted. He looked rather cowed. Presumably he'd chased his marauding rival over the fence, flattening it in the process.

All the sheep were accounted for and Antoine had returned them to the pen. But, sadly, one of the lambs had died. Had it been attacked, I asked? No, he said. It was just lying, peacefully, dead. A percentage of the new lambs will always die, he said philosophically.

I drove down the road today and stopped to have a look at the little troop. It was hot and sunny - a still, calm spring day in Provence - and the lambs were mostly snoozing in the sun beside their mothers. They looked sublimely comfortable in the long grass beneath the still olive trees. One or two were nibbling at flowers and a couple of the sheep were clipping leaves from the olive trees. It was a beautiful rural scene, completely peaceful.

I drove off and spotted Antoine's van arriving further down the road. He stopped and leant out of the window.
"I just passed them" I told him.
"Are they all right?"
"They're fine. Very peaceful. Grazing, dozing."
"Babar still with them?"
"Yes, he's there."
"Good" he said. "Not long now and they'll be off to the butcher's."

Which disrupted my sweet image somewhat. But that's Provence. The people, the animals, the land and the dinner table are strictly and closely connected.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The arrival of spring in Provence

One of the great things about Provence is that the seasons are clearly demarcated and tend to arrive bang on time each year. Now that it's spring, the region is opening out just as you feel it should. For one thing, it's suddenly warm and sunny and the air has that strange uplifting scent that's a mix of optimism, blossom, flowering plants and fertility. There are songbirds everywhere. Leaves have appeared on the vines. The cherry blossom opened for a week and has now gently drifted off into oblivion leaving the very beginnings of fruit behind. My forest garden is suddenly sprouting yards of tangled asparagus, poppies, white and pink thyme and garrigue-y grass. The vines by the terrace are unfolding leaves that I'll use for stuffed vine leave dishes in a few weeks. And the honeysuckle, lazy and dormant all winter, is suddenly rampant and climbing all over the place. It's been desperately in need of pruning.

Yesterday evening I stopped to look at the dozen or so sheep which the local shepherd, Antoine, has stationed next to the canal nearby. They've just given birth so there are about 16 little brown lambs, with white tails and white flashes on their foreheads, jumping around among the olive trees.

Their bodyguard, a large white dog (Pyrenean mountain, I think) was lounging in the long grass, just keeping an eye out as he dozed. I watched the lambs gambolling around for a while as their mothers lay panting with exhaustion. Antoine turned up in his van to fill a tub of water for them and check the lambs. He hopped over the flimsy, temporary fence he'd put up and greeted his dog. I asked what the dog would do if I crossed the fence. "Nothing" he said. "You're with me." "What would he do if I crossed once you've gone?" I asked.

He started laughing. "He'd tear your leg off" he replied.

Hard to imagine, since the dog looks like a great big softie but I didn't test the claim. And I suppose the sheep dogs are capable of aggression since they do need to confront sheep stealers. I have friends in Le Thor, a local village, who recently had two sheep stolen and then a lamb. In their case they have two Dobermans but both dogs were in the house that night.

I asked Antoine if he can bring the sheep up to my place to graze in a few days and he agreed. He'll lead them and their bodyguard up the white limestone track when the grass runs out by the canal. I've only cut the lawn twice in the last 4 years because I seem to have a lawnmower made for men. You need to pull a stiff cord out very quickly for some reason and I don't have the strength to do it. The sheep are a much nicer lawnmower, pleasant to watch, don't make a horrible noise, don't require petrol and fertilise the land as they mow.

Since everyone in Provence is now outside for the next six months and leaf, bud and flower are breaking out everywhere I decided to get outside too and prune the honeysuckle. Yesterday a neighbour gently reminded me that it was high time. So this morning I took the secateurs and made a start. I have a general idea that I need to remove the dead wood and select the branches that I want to retain. But mostly I tried to cut confidently and decisively, as if somehow that would help. Clearly it didn't because another neighbour, out for a stroll in the forest, trundled over to give an opinion. With a rueful smile he said: "You haven't really got green fingers have you?" (The French use the same phrase.)

Never mind. I stopped for a coffee and we watched riders go by on horses, followed by a couple of fit-looking guys on bikes. There was that spring scent again, the one that brings just about every Provencal man, woman and child outside. We'll live outside now, mostly, until around the end of September. And just as the leaves and buds and flowers appear, so do the the bare arms and legs. Summer clothes are suddenly everywhere. People are flirting outside bars and in the street. Pretty young girls drift past the village boys, casting a backward glance or striking up conversation. There's a kind of pulse beating that beats here every spring. And everyone and everything feels it, from the honeysuckle and the cherry trees to the horseriders and cyclists to the new lambs jumping blissfully around in the long grass. Finally, after the long cold winter, the beaux jours are here.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Falling in love in Provence

Since 2004, I've lived along a white limestone track in pine forest near Isle sur Sorgue in Provence. I wanted to live in Provence since I woke up on the sleeper train in Avignon in 1975 and stepped out onto a platform suffused with fabulous sunlight. It wasn't my first visit to France but it was my first time in Provence and it was love at first sight.

Now that I do live here, I fall in love over and over again each year. Usually in spring and summer. This morning for example, I took my coffee up to the far end of the forest garden and sat among the rehabilitated olive trees, wild asparagus plants and wild Provencal orchids and soaked up the sun. There were two elegant turtle doves flirting delicately in a tall pine tree. My chocolate-tipped Burmese cat, Coco, was by turns rolling around with his paws in the air then stalking the first small lizards to appear this year. The black-white-and-blue jays were bouncing around at the edge of the forest looking for grubs. They have a wonderful prehistoric squawk that I can imagine they were making when the dinosaurs were around.

The garrigue-y terrain is full of wild flowers including the first brilliant red poppies and those gothic (rather gloomy) purple-pink orchids native to Provence. Large dark and blonde morel mushrooms have started popping up in the last week. And yesterday I gathered about a kilo of fine wild asparagus spears that spike up beside the prickly whorls of asparagus plant and make a great addition to salads and omelettes.

Just looking around at the forest, the clearing and the house and feeling the sun beating down so early in April was bliss. It was tranquil, beautiful and idyllic.

True, the turtle doves decided to mate noisily, flapping about like two umbrellas, and watching the cat reminded me I need to renew his anti-tick treatment. But that didn't matter. I still had all the feelings that you get when you fall in love - that sensation that your eyes are dazzled, the desire to fling your arms round yourself as if you were hugging the object of your affections, the silly grin that fixes itself on your face. Yep, it's love all right. And I felt it again when I went into Isle sur Sorgue this afternoon and walked along the medieval streets, stopping to chat to acquaintances here and there, gazing into the beautiful clear Sorgue river with its emerald-green weed waving in the current, trout steadying themselves against the flowing water and ducks swimming by the riverside restaurants oblivious to the menus offering magret de canard.

I'm now looking out of my window at the white track, pine and oak trees, and a perfect blue sky, planning a cheap and cheerful dinner outside with friends this evening. Prawns and salad, a bottle of red wine from Sablet, big chunks of pain pavé, goats cheese from a little troupeau nearby at Mazan, and black olives from our own oliviers here in the forest.

The spring and summer in particular make you want to grab Provence and hug it. For me, it really is falling in love, again and again. This region never lets you down.