Saturday, 6 May 2017

MAY ALREADY

It's May already. Almost one year since we first arrived here, hot and dusty with a van crammed full of tools, bedding, clothes and ourselves.

Spring here has taken on more familiar hues of cloud filled skies and blue light just before rain. Everywhere is washed clean and tracks are filled with puddles. Late frosts have burnt off new fig leaves, peach blossom and entire vineyards have lost the possibility of this years vendanges. Trees have been left patchy, half their leaves crisp and broken. Our garden was not unscathed but I'm hoping for a long indian summer season for plants sown now to catch up and bear fruit before the end of the season. All was not lost, we picked all our frost damaged roses and made rose syrup with the petals.




There is so much to forage at this time of year: Wild garlic flowers for salads and risottoes, the smell deceptively floral but their taste pure garlic. Nettles for fertiliser for the garden and some pesto and soups. Little L was surprisingly enthusiatic picking them in the rain in a raincoat and ski gloves. Dandelion leaves for astringent salads, chickweed and cleavers for a morning tisane tonic.


Little I and I spent a day herding goats and sheep as part of their Transhumances, their migration toward summer grazing. An exhausting day of directing them along the paths and roads with the weight of Little I on my back, screeching with delight at all of the noisier and more frantic moments.
 






My sister and her son visited. We celebrated Easter together and with firends on the hill overlooking the village and had a lucky tour of the chapel with it's rare depictions of the Virgin Mary pregnant with Jesus. There is nothing more rooting than showing loved ones around our new home; the hillsides we pick flowers from, the riversides where we throw stones and wade in freezing water, the paths we walk along. Seeing the little cousins playing together (and fighting...) was magical. There were a lot of tears when we came to say our goodbyes.








THE HOUSE

The work on the house is advancing faster this week with the help of Florent's Dad with his impressive work ethic and appitite for all sort of demolition and construction. The partition wall on the first floor has come down giving us our first glimpse at what will become an open plan living and kitchen area. Also a real glimpse at the work to do before we can live and cook there... We've taken a break on the courtyard to give Flo's back a rest from the excavation of solid clay with the occasional surprise rock buried deep inside.

 

Monday, 10 April 2017

APRIL WANDERINGS


The hillside woodlands are still mostly bare of leaves. Patches of blossom betray the abundance of wild cherry, damson, hawthorns and blackthorns. Along the river the allotments are bursting with pastels; apple, cherry, plum, pear. Pathways are lined with the bright yellow of gorse, buttercups and dandelions. Wild orchids and cowslips grow on the edges of fields.
 




 
A dear friend from England visited for a few days and we showed off the slow life and she bore gracefully our sparse and makeshift home. We cycled, wandered and soaked in natural hot springs, warm water that flows miraculously from somewhere inside the earth and springs from a serrendipitous crack in the rocks.

We sat on the steps of the hilltop chapel that overlooks the village and watched the view, framed by the stone porch. Butterflies danced in pairs and a kite hovered. The burst of hot sun has accelerated the melt of snow on the mountains and the brightness of the blue sky seems too bold for early April.






We ate our first meal from the garden, or at least a meal garnished with early spring bounty: calendular and borage flowers and pea shoots. Little L took great pride in carrying home our harvest and presenting it to Florent.



I've written before about the loneliness I have felt in leaving familiarity, family and friends for what we are discovering here. There are still days, moments, moods which are tempered by a longing to be closer to those we love: From the simple things which we long to share with those living far away to the milestones in our lives, the arrival of new babies who we wish to meet and share in their fleeting babyhood. Now, however, there is also a gentle shifting toward us feeling 'at home' here.


I still feel the contrast between here and where we lived before, where we were constantly reassured by our likeness to the people around us and here it's harder to do this. However, I love the richness in the unexpected meetings with strangers and the new relationships which form slowly and without expectation with neighbours and others in the village. The village fabric is close knit and inhabitants of other, close by villages, ruefully smile at the conservative mentality that is prevelant here. Sometimes I find it infuriating and sometimes I realise the futility and arrogance of trying to rail against it.


We often pick up hitch hikers and there is something fascinating with these snapshots into strangers lives: A short journey shared, brief conversations, fleeting connections.


Lavelant to Foix: two polite teenage boys making their way home from a party early on a Saturday morning, sitting out an awkward forty five minutes on the front seat, hungover and glued to their phones.

Cahors to Souillac: an elderly woman making her way home from the market, sharing stories of 1968 when she was a student at the forefront of a cultural revolution.

Montbel to Mirepoix: a young man holding a staff, on his way to a Rainbow gathering, living the life of a New Age wanderer.

Dun to Pamiers: a prickly hippy who refused to wear a seat belt with her nervous dog at her feet.

Carcassone to Limoux: a man who spoke of the pyramids he'd built which channel solstice light into his chakra and the manual he'll forward to Florent, written without using the letters 'a' 'u' and 't'.

Quillan to Belcaire: a young woman from Paris working a nine to five job and sharing a home with ladies who've lived the streets of Paris and are now adjusting to life under a roof, bills to pay and a bed to sleep in.
 

The girls seem to be as buoyed by Spring as we are. Little L has spent hours playing the role of a nesting bird. A nest of all our cushions and pillows sits in the corner of the room and she sits there, incubating her 'eggs' while reading books. When she's distracted from her task and I cannot answer another of her thousands of 'why's I cruelly remind her that eggs need to be kept warm and she flutters back to the corner, tweeting and sits back down to her duties.


 
 


THE HOUSE


The courtyard is beginning to take shape. The most anticipated of all the renovation. It's a lot of masonry, creating raised beds and repairing the walls. Florent has used terracotta tiles which had been used previously as dividing walls inside, to line the tops of the walls adding an earthy red to the grey stone tones. I have seedlings and cuttings covering all available windowsills, ready, awaiting transplantation into the beds. While Florent builds the girls stand at the bathroom window calling out to him, offering encouragement or imaginary cups of coffee. Sometimes they join him outside to 'help' and Little I hurls stones around, much to the dissatisfaction of Little L who has a much more disciplined aproach to 'helping'.




Monday, 20 March 2017

SUGARED VIOLETS



SUGARED VIOLETS

At the moment we are lucky enough to have banks of violets creating seas of purple along footpaths. I've had a childlike delight at finding them and breathing in their scent. It's a perfume that takes me straight to Parma Violet sweets, I cannot quite believe that these delicate little flowers smell so potent. The girls have enthusiastically joined in spotting them, sniffing them like rooting pigs, the way small children do, and then begging to pick them. So we've become Victorian and have learnt how to preserve them by sugaring them, and inevitably it's the sugar bit that is the most inspiring for the children.
 
 
We chose some violet flowers in perfect condition and picked about twenty which left enough for the bees and were few enough for them to be real treasures.
 
Once home they need to be washed very carefully so as not to damage them.
 

Each flower needs to be coated either in egg white or a cooled sugar syrup (1/3 sugar to 2/3 water) with a fine paint brush.
 
Then each flower can be sprinkled with caster sugar until it is finely coated all over. The flowers are then left to dry on baking paper.
 

Once completly dry they can be kept in an airtight container for up to three months.
 

These were made with Little L's heavy handed assistance; if you want something looking more professional, perhaps it's something to wait to do until after bedtime...
 
If you don't want spend the time preserving them, a lot of edible flowers are beautiful in salads eaten straight away.
 
We take care to only ever pick wild flowers where there is a true abundance and away from roadsides and other sources of pollution, especially pesticides, herbicides etc.

Some other edible flowers suitable for sugaring are borage, primroses, nasturtiums, rose petals, cherry blossom...


 

 

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

A CABIN IN THE WOODS

Spring has really arrived here. There is not the lushness of green that I am used to, but instead a brilliant blue sky and warm afternoons. Banks are covered in a haze of violets and blossom is spreading amongst the hedgerows. We're out in the garden or spotting wild flowers in the woods and back to paddling in streams again (although the freezing water takes our breathes away).





 
At the end of last month Little L turned four years old. For the days either side of her Birthday I felt very emotional. Her birth and babyhood suddenly felt so long ago and infront of me is this little girl who surprises me each day with her own ideas and such a force of independence and strong will.


On her Birthday the weather shone bright and warm, not something I ever expected for a February babe. We had a little gathering with friends by the lake with coffee and cake and the children played at throwing rocks and sticks into the stream.





Then we packed up for a weekend (the amount of stuff we take with us on even the most short of trips will forever baffle me) and drove across Ariege to the Vallée du Biros, south of St Girons for a short stay in a mountainside cabin.
Although we live with relatively little and few comforts all of the time, this cabin, made of just wood and stone and without electricity was still a welcome retreat. A ten minute woodland walk to arrive there. Breakfast and dinner by candlelight. Evenings cosied up around a wood burner and quiet moments watching for wildlife from the windows.
 




 
This area of the Pyrennes is bear country although there are only twenty or so living in the mountains and they remain, for the most part, away from even remote human habitation. We very much wanted to find their foot prints and even disected some poo, hoping it may be evidence that one had passed by, but, alas, it was only foxes. The shouting and scampering of small children, seems one way to avoid seeing anything other than the most bold of wildlife. Little L was a champion hiker and managed some difficult and steep climbs whilst Little I sat like a queen on my back, sight seeing the streams, trees and sheep.





 
We've returned refreshed and so in love with this part of the world : Excited by the many valleys left for us to discover and humbled by the idea of the many more we won't. The vastness of this relatively small mountain range puts into perspective our own very small existances.
 
 
THE HOUSE
 
The girls have helped tiling the bath, heralding a very almost finished room! By the end of today there will be a cupboard and the sheets and clothes which have lived in boxes for the past nine months will no longer be piled in corners of our bedroom. I won't write too much about how exciting the prospect of 'storage' is for me because it may just betray how domesticated my life is right now and it's not always something I am too comfortable with (that's a subject for another blog post one day...).