Thursday, October 27, 2011

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.

1 comment:

  1. Thankyou Cath ! -I used to think that a Persimmon was a Nefle, but now I know that a Persimmon is a Caki and a Nefle is a Medlar.

    There are lots of free Medlar recipés available on the Internet (Medlar 'cheese' , Medlar jam and Medlar marmalade) -but I couldn't find one for Persimmons ; I wonder why ?