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.