Sunday, January 29, 2006

Digging Out

Front Gate
I dug my way to the front gate to get out to visit the bakery (fortunately open on Sunday mornings). Just over a foot of snow has fallen, more than the locals can remember since 1964. The kids are having a ball. It's quiet, as there is still very little traffic on the roads. I am very popular with the birds, now that I have hung up boules de graisse (seeds and fat). As the snow begins to melt, small avalanches slide off the roof.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Snow Falling

Snow Falling on Cypresses
It may not actually be warm in the house, but it's definitely warmer, with snow covering the glass roof and sealing the doors. The new paraffin stove came just in time to give the electric heating a badly needed boost. I'll skip the walk to the market today.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Black Truffles

Tuesday is market day in Lalbenque, the black truffle capital of France, a few miles South of Cahors. Each Tuesday in winter, several dozen individuals converge on this small town, each carrying a small basket of truffles wrapped in a cloth. The streets have been closed to vehicles. Benches are set out in the main street for sellers to rest their baskets on.

Truffle MarketMost of the sellers are old men and women with secrets, both where they found the truffles and what they make from selling them. This is serious business: with the price around 800 euros per kilo, the tax man isn't welcome.

La mairie, however, requires sellers to be licensed and to display evidence of identity. Perhaps this ensures the authenticity of the wares. In the past, white truffles have been dyed black to enhance the price and we don't want that to happen here. But who is that man in the side road selling truffles from the back of a car?

Some of the buyers are local restaurateurs, but one guesses that most of the others are resellers. Tourists are discouraged from handling the goods, but are generously permitted to sniff the aroma. No one minds the flash bulbs: the vendors are celebrities and they know it.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Bush and the Axis of Evil

I braved the cold yesterday evening and attended a talk in Cahors on "Bush et l'axe du mal" by Bernadette Rigal-Cellard, a professor of American studies at Bordeaux University. If I understood her machine-gun-fire French correctly, she gave an accurate history of the hijacking of the Republican party by the evangelicals and the repackaging of the cold war rhetoric on Evil as a battle cry for God's Chosen People in the 21st century. She downplayed the stranglehold of Mammon on American politics, but focused on the way that Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell, Ralph Reed and their ilk had enabled the religious fanatics to become credible in Washington.

There were a few chuckles. She likened religion in America to food in France (ah! that got the audience's attention). Religion is regional and you can have it a la carte. Fashions change. The consumer can choose the ingredients and the chef. I'm not sure that a French chef would take kindly to being asked to change the ingredients of a dish, but perhaps that's the point: there is full disclosure and you can always change your allegiance.

Rigal-Cellard didn't mention the Rapture specifically, but she noted that once the Puritans had given up on fixing the rottenness of American society themselves and had decided to leave the clean-up to God (knowing that they themselves would be saved), it didn't really matter how many human beings died in the process.

The mood changed radically during question time. (A subject of particular interest was the perceived rapprochement between the evangelicals and the jews). There was not a trace of anti-Americanism, merely a theme of "what on earth can be done about the situation?" Actually, the French way apparently is not so much to ask a question, but to have a rant, which then enables the presenter to have a rant of his or her own.

Rigal-Cellard eventually calmed down and said that America was a democracy and that things would sort themselves out within a decade or so, although she noted the problem of lifetime appointments to the Supreme Court. It's nice to be reassured by a European that democracy is still alive in the U.S.A.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Another Drought Year?

I was patting myself on the back for having had the idea to pave over a wild garden that included muddy turf over the basement. In previous years, the basement had been wet in winter and a former owner had installed a fan that ran non-stop to vent damp air to the exterior. This winter, the rain has been diverted by paving and gutters and, without benefit of fan, there is no sign of damp in the basement at all.

Then a friend pointed out that this has been one of the driest winters on record. Cold, but not very wet. The locals are already talking of water restrictions being imposed in April: that would finally put paid to what remains of the lawn. Cahors has its own water supply, which has never been known to run dry or even falter. Nevertheless, in true socialist solidarity, Cahors imposes water restrictions when the surrounding countryside does. I wonder if the city fathers would let me drill a well.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Happy Anniversary (almost)

A British travel blog says that 2006 will be a great year to visit Cahors, as this is the 700th Anniversary of the city's mediaeval fortified bridge le Pont Valentré. "There will doubtless be many festivities to mark the occasion." Hold your horses. It seems that the consuls made the decision to build the bridge in 1306, but the first stone wasn't laid until 1308. The bridge was completed between 1355 and 1378 (depending on when you declare it finished).

No one seems to know what this year's festivities will be. In fact, la Mairie has just posted a Web contact form for all and sundry to make suggestions, so the real fireworks may be a couple of years off. Nevertheless, the bridge itself has been lovingly restored recently and is definitely worth a visit, even if you don't buy the stories about the pact with the devil which was required to get the job done (all but one stone of it).

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Pruning the Vines

After a drive through the vineyards, I can report that about 20% of the vines have been pruned. It will probably take until March to finish the job. Only new growth provides fruit and so the vines are pruned back to one main shoot with about 9 buds and one for next year with a couple of buds. The clippings are burned to prevent the spread of disease and what remains of each vine is secured to a horizontal wire. Frosts don't seem to worry the vignerons during pruning, so I'll tackle my few vines this week. No, there aren't enough of them to make a barrel of wine and yes, it's still freezing butt cold.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Les Allées Fénelon

Cahors could, one suspects, happily continue to watch the world go by. It's the capital city of one of the poorest départements of France, with a population of 20,000. But the cabal currently in power at la Mairie has decided to drag the city struggling into the 21st century. Various civic construction projects have been lauded in the glossy magazines dropped in the mailboxes of all residents, the latest being the construction of an underground parking garage in the centre of the city.

Les Allées Fénelon used to be a large central parking lot, almost entirely free. Now, at great expense, the site is to be converted to a parking garage underneath a new green space. There will be about 40 additional parking spots, but no free parking any more. None of the residents I have spoken to thinks this is a great idea (particularly as the entire parking lot will be out of action throughout 2006); cynics note that construction companies with connections to local government will no doubt do very well from the project. Maybe a few of the many local unemployed will benefit too.

At present, all we have is a huge hole in the ground. Archaeologists have been called in to document the discoveries: a 12th century fragment here, a 14th century fragment there. When you consider that there are Roman walls and arches casually standing around within the city, you might feel that this is simply time for a work break during cold weather.

Friday, January 13, 2006

La Galette des Rois

Although Santa Claus visits most children on December 25th these days, religious tradition dictates celebration with a big meal on or around Twelfth Night. The traditional dessert is une Galette des Rois, a frangipane tart made with puff pastry. A charm is usually baked in: la fève could be almost anything and symbolises maybe fertility, maybe good luck, even the obligation to buy the first round of drinks.

Breaking inI bought a nine-inch-diameter galette in a local bakery for 8 euros. It came with a gold cardboard crown. Looked identical to the one in Carrefour for 6 euros, but they say that if you pay more, you get a better charm: mine was a ceramic Scoubidou Glacier. Who knew that the old dog sold ice cream from a cart?

By the way, Santa Claus can frequently be seen climbing up the outside of a house at Christmas in this area. Chimneys aren't as common as they used to be, as they are the principal sources of heat loss from houses. Thank you, Science.


Much as I love France and try to adopt French ways, I am not a fan of the continental breakfast. Eggs and bacon work better for me and I like my morning coffee strong and black. Lardons (thick chunks of streaky bacon) fry up nicely with a mushroom or two; then add a couple of the tasty local eggs and you have a meal to start the day.

It was really freezing cold last night. The car refused to start today at 10 a.m., unsurprisingly as there was ice on the path next to it. Half an hour's sun revived the battery, but trouble could lie ahead.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Winter in Cahors

Just opened the house up for the New Year. It has been freezing on and off for the last month, but no pipes have burst and all seems to be well.

Didn't feel up to walking to the market yet, but visited the corner shop for iron rations - eggs, cheese, butter, fruit and vegetables. Bread from the bakery on the way home.

Milk is unfortunately of the everlasting kind: you can only get fresh milk at the larger supermarkets, oddly enough. The French hardly use milk except in cooking and (warm) in their breakfast coffee. The politically correct local bakery doesn't make the crusty white-bread baguettes that foreigners associate with France. Their white bread is grey (sourdough); you can buy wholemeal baguettes too. For old-style baguettes, visit the supermarket or the chain-store bakery la Panetière (derided by the locals as sellers of factory bread).

So peaceful here.