Monday, 28 October 2013

La vendange

I missed the grape harvest last year, as it was just about this time of year I was diagnosed with cancer. I was cross for a number of reasons, as you can imagine. One of the reasons was that I had been looking forward to seeing my first French grape vendange.

So, it has been sheer delight for me this year, partly because I wasn’t sure I would be here to see la vendange 2013, and partly because it has been so fascinating.
Our vines, earlier in the year
The first thing to say is that it has been late this year. Friends tell me that due to the long cold and damp spring, the grapes have been at least a couple of weeks behind this year. From my limited experience, I would say this is about right. Our figs have been 2-3 weeks behind where they were last year, and the olives seem even further behind.
Our of the 3 that produced some fabulous grapes
We have a few vines ( about 25 ) on our land in Caunes. If all our vines produced as many grapes as the 3 on the right hand side of our little vineyard, we would be swamped. A few weeks ago, I was aware that some of our grapes were shrivelling up on the vine, some had certainly gone mouldy.....but some were spectacular. Suddenly, they enlarged, turned from pale green to a fabulous purple colour, and started to smell beautiful. I was worried about attracting les sangliers ( wild boars) onto our land from the forest land immediately behind our house, so I picked the ripe grapes and made them into some very good grape jelly, and picked the mouldy/ shrivelling ones, and gave them to the very grateful compost heap. I should add that les sangliers arrived anyway, and caused damage to the vegetable patch, foolishly placed (by me) right next to the vines.
some of the harvest from our vines
I made half a dozen jars of grape jelly right at the end of August
Within 3 or 4 weeks of my own grape harvest each drive through the Minervois countryside began to be hampered by the traffic involved with la vendange. The huge grape harvesting machines became a familiar sight, and following tractors, pulling large open wagons, piled high with grapes became a way of life.
The Caunes co-op, where the grapes are stripped from their stalks.
The discarded stalks from the grapes.....used for fuel in some places apparently.
Signs at the side of the roads urged motorists to have patience due to la vendange, and the spilt and split grapes on the roadway made tyres squeak, and made the air smell of rich dark fruity wine. Mark thought something was wrong with his new bike, when he heard a sort of squelchy was the tyres making their way through grape juice. The bike smelled decidedly alcoholic when Mark came home. ( please was definitely the bike...not Mark ).
I should have been thinking about blogging when all this was going on....but for some reason I wasn’t. I wish I had taken more photos of the actual harvesting. It was taking place all around us.

A walk through some vineyards near Caunes
By the time we left the Minervois, for our winter trip back to England, the grapes were “in”, the Co-ops were closing their doors, and the vines had started to change colour. It was almost as if, the leaves knew that once the grapes were picked, they weren’t needed anymore. They no longer needed to provide shelter for those beautiful swelling voluptuous luxurious berries.
The grapes have gone....and the leaves seem to know.
Within days, the leaves started to curl and crisp, to redden and yellow. Vineyards which days beforehand had been lush green with huge bunches of purple hanging jewels, were swathed in reds and oranges, yellows and browns.
Just a few grapes missed by the harvester.
It was beautiful and mellow and gentle.
After the furious activity of the work involved in gathering the crop, the countryside was quiet again. The activity was now taking place in les caves, in the Co-ops, in les chateaux, les domaines and the little garagista’s wine making premises.

I have no idea whether the 2013 Minervois wine will be good or not, but I am so pleased to have been able to observe some of the activity that has been involved in creating it. I look forward to sampling some of it !
Jess, sampling an earlier vintage.

Friday, 18 October 2013

The prize was Pau.

A few weeks ago, when my friend Jan was visiting Caunes, we spent an interesting couple of hours at L'hotel de la cite, in Carcassonne.

Mark had played in a golf tournament in Carcassonne earlier in the day. He had enjoyed it, played reasonably well, and thought attending the prize giving reception at l'hotel would be interesting, as we had never been inside it before.

It was a pleasant evening, wine and canap├ęs were served and the views from the back of the hotel, where the reception was held, were fabulous.

all views in Carcassonne are fabulous, but some are hidden, like this one, from the gardens of the hotel.

Mark, on the right, with another prize winner.
Then....surprise, surprise, as les prix were being announced, I heard Mark's name. He had come second in his particular group. His prize, was 2 nights in a hotel in Pau. We were delighted. I was particularly delighted as this prize did not take the form of a revolting plastic golfer or cup or badge or other monstrosity, the like of which are banished to a hidden corner of a bookcase in Hebden Bridge.

Yesterday, we returned from our trip to Pau. We went by train, from Carcassonne, changing at Toulouse, through Lourdes and onto Pau. It was a brilliant train journey. The Pyrenees looked fabulous, Lourdes looked as bizarre as it always does, and we were able to chat, read and relax as we watched the country side go by.

Sharing a compartment with a young French man, pony tail tied into a stylish top knot, while he read Zola's " Germinal" seemed perfect. ( Note to self: I will read "Germinal" in French sometime soon ).

The free funicular railway, connecting the railway station with the terraced walkway which gives visitors to Pau such a fabulous view of the Pyrenees.

Pau is a great city. We wandered, visited the chateau, (and took the excellent guided French, and coped ! ), ate good food, looked around Galeries Lafayette, spent some time in the hotel pool and spa, saw an amazing sunset, people watched and mountain watched.

Much of the chateau was renovated by Louis Philippe and then Napoleon III in the 19th century, but it had been the birthplace of "Le bon roi Henri IV", from the late 16th & early 17th century.

Spectacular tapestries are found in the chateau, most from the  16th and 17th century.....and we were allowed to take photos as long as the flash was turned off. The colours were stunning.

Henri IV as a boy

Sunset over Pau.

The sun shone, we walked for miles, and I particularly liked the shadow of this balustrading which ran for several hundred metres along a terrace, providing long distant mountain views.

All this would have been good, but the whole experiences was considerably enhanced by the hotel deciding to upgrade us. Instead of the normal ( very nice) hotel room in this 5 star establishment, we were given a suite, with living room and balcony overlooking the mountains, bedroom, with balcony overlooking the mountains, dressing room and bathroom. The bed was huge, and the complimentary cakes, bon-bons, fruit juices, nuts and other little treats kept appearing.

view from our balcony, over the park and to the mountains
We checked on the prices of the stay......the room suite alone would have cost us well over 1000 euros for the 2 nights. So, I continue to be impressed by the quality of prizes at the golf club !

 I have suggested to Mark that he introduces such sponsored prizes at his golf club in England.....where they delight in awarding monstrosities as previously described. I don't hold out much chance. However, if Mark wants to carry on playing lots of golf in Carcassonne, I will continue to approve and wish him luck every time he heads off to play.

Me, wrapped in the sumptuous towelling robe, after a swim and a sauna.....reading on our balcony.

Saturday, 12 October 2013

C'est pas grave.

When we used to have holidays in Provence and we used to dream about having a house in France, I wanted one with lilac shutters.

Then, when we had settled on dreaming about having a house in the Languedoc, I just knew I wanted one with shutters.

The house we bought in Caunes has brown shutters.
Our shutters
Friends in the village told us that a few years ago, whilst painting their shutters, they received a note, from the Mairie, through the door, telling them to stop painting, as they had selected the wrong shade of olive green.
This is apparently the approved shade of olive green that our friends finally used......correctly.
We were told that  if we decided to paint our shutters, we should go to the Mairie, look at their approved colour chart, memorise the colour, as the chart could not be taken from the Marie, and buy the said approved colour. We looked around the village and realised that were a number of so called approved colours and they were all quite muted, sort of "heritage" colours.
We have now spent 2 years considering painting our brown shutters……and yes, we quite like the “approved” olive green colour……So, went to the Mairie to look at the colour chart.

There, to our surprise, we were given a sample colour swatch to take away, to compare with the charts in the shops, and were told that it was “pas grave” if we chose a colour that was not exactly the same…..basically anything that wasn’t bright yellow would be “pas grave”.

So, it seems that times change.

Approved or not ? Who knows

Wandering around  Caunes during the last few days I have seen some enchanting volets.

We have decided that our house was built with brown shutters, and that it actually suits brown shutters. However, although we have saved considerable time and effort and expense by coming to this decision, it is good to know that should we change our minds, " C'est pas grave". if we don't quite manage to find the exact shade on the Mairie's list.


Friday, 11 October 2013

Just a walk

After the thrills of my trip to Spain, seeing Bibi and Annie, this seems very mundane. However, I have enjoyed walking round Caunes so much this morning.

Mark is off playing golf, the sun is shining and although it is a little cooler than of late, it is a glorious morning.

So, a post about nothing in particular, just a few doors and windows I noticed on my walk. Caunes has an impressive abbey, a well marked "tourist" trail around important buildings.....but I avoided these, and just looked at some of the more ordinary architectural features of the town.




Monday, 7 October 2013

Visiting Annie part 2: Getting to know Casa Rosales....or the importance of Sadler tea-pots.

Who could not love Darwin ?
What can I say ? The important part of my trip to the south of Spain, was not, actually, to see the beautiful Alcala la Real. It was to see Annie, Casa Rosales and Annie’s family, including Darwin.
After our guided tour around Alcala,  where I must tell you, we had to stop at least a dozen times as Annie met  and chatted in outrageously fluent Spanish with a former neighbour, or the parent of a child she used to teach, or a shop keeper she knew, we met Romy from school.  We then  went for tapas in a very unlikely looking bar. It is certainly a place I would have passed by without a second glance.
Annie & Romy at the Tapas bar
The food was incredible. We learned about the different tapas rules in Jaen, Granada and Cordoba provinces. If you are in Granada (or Jaen, but not Cordoba...nothing free there) and order a cold drink….ie, not a tea or coffee, you will get a small plate of tapas automatically. Places that offer tapas will also have a menu to order from. Annie chose for all of us (I thought Romy did - she certainly had a say in it all!)……and it was just amazing. The squid (calamares) and the pork in cumin (pinchos morunos) were absolutely perfect.
The plan was that after a nap back at Sam and Dave’s guest house, Mark and I would then drive out to Villalobos, with Romy guiding the way, travelling in our car, with Annie up ahead. We were to spend the evening at Casa Rosales and eat in the garden later on. All went well, except that the tiring drive, the day before, my shingles, (and my general ability to tire easily !) all  meant that I was not really up to a long evening of chatting and eating.  So, after we arrived at Villalobos, a quick tour of Annie’s amazing house, and a much shorter natter session than planned, I said I thought I should go back to the guest house to sleep ! (It is, of course, just possible, that my incessant talking and huge enthusiasm for my guests and my town could have exhausted you, Janice. I fully understand. I sometimes have this effect on people without shingles…)
When Drs and friends told me to listen to my own body, when I was first ill last year, I had no idea what they meant, or how to do it. Now I know. I can tell when I just need to stop and lie down, or sit for an hour doing nothing. So, despite desperately  wanting to stay, we took note of my inner warning system and left.
It was the right thing to do, as the following morning, after a very long sleep, I felt fine. It is as if  feeling well is perched on a narrow fence, and it doesn’t take very much to tip me over to the not feeling right side. The good thing about that is that if I take note of feeling off balance, I can regain that balance quickly, and all is well again.
We spoke with Annie on the phone after breakfast and planned another attempt at a prolonged visit to Casa Rosales. This time, all was perfect !
Mark and I did a few touristy things in the morning, in a nearby town ( a future blog, I suspect) and then went to Villalobos to see all the family, eat, play games, (but not Charades...Janice doesn’t do Charades) explore a little of the surrounding area and of course, put the world to rights through a considerable amount of nattering.
Romy in front of  Casa Rosales, by the perfectly positioned fire circle.
FR ( more about him later) prepared the chicken on a stone ring barbeque in the garden, that had been positioned safely towards one side of the house…..but his father had visited and determined that the best place for this ring of firey stones  should be right in the middle of the path between the front gate and the house……so that is where it is. (The logic being that where it was, it was a ‘fire-risk’. Now, where it is, it’s a health hazard because every trek from car to house involves walking around the barbeque….and remembering exactly where that is in the dark!)
Maybe FR’s father was perfectly right, as the chicken could not have tasted any better. It was accompanied by an exotic potato based salad that had a name I can’t remember, (ensalada rusa - or Russian Salad - happy to supply a recipe!) but FR declared it was the best Annie had ever made. We had tomatoes doused in out of this world olive oil, and life was good. We all, Annie, FR, Mateo, Ruy, Romy, Mateo’s friend who has been at college in Granada for a few weeks and was visiting, Mark and I sat around the table and enjoyed a veritable feast. Annie’s children were lively, amusing, delightful dinner companions, and we could clearly have sat there for several hours chattering away.
My favourite collection of moulds....just waiting to be framed
However, there were serious things to be done. Annie and I went upstairs and we considered a few matters that had been concerning us for some time. We looked at Annie’s chocolate moulds and discussed the best way to frame them. I had noticed a very interesting old frame just sitting out in the “ruin” ( stone out building that has so much potential, but is currently a woodshed come storage place)…….I am hoping to see the results soon. We looked at various bits of wall in the beautifully haphazard nooks and crannies that is Casa Rosales and identified a few spots where these pieces of Annie’s family history could reside. (FR isn’t convinced about the frame...I shall have to go ahead and convince him. Just trying to find a bit of ‘spare’ wall!)
more moulds
The house is eccentric, and fabulous. It is on what seems like several different levels, in that the ground floor seems to (does!) go up and down in places between rooms, and then there is a main staircase taking you to the long white walled corridor upstairs, with more rooms and a few more nooks and crannies. In Annie and FR’s room, where she famously managed to install her hand made gothic bed, there is what I can only call some organic shelving. The shelves look as if they have emerged naturally from the stone walls and now accommodate many of Annie’s treasures. It turns out FR made them and they had not grown naturally over centuries. I was impressed.
Annie with her treasure laden organic shelving
After considering the importance of zentangling, and whether  there is scope for organising a bloggers get together in Barcelona we eventually returned downstairs to discover what everyone was doing.
Mark and FR were putting the world to rights. FR is called Free Radical for a few reasons. It describes him perfectly, and Mark wallowed in enjoyment as they discussed the world’s problems, and particularly, education’s problems through both their perspectives. I imagine their values varied little, but possibly, their means of attaining their goals would be different. I had no need to fear that Mark would be bored whilst Annie and I continued to talk non- stop. (And don’t forget, sometimes, he’s a ‘Dangerous’ Free Radical! Not at the moment though, he’s being an absolute sweetie...hmm!)
Mateo, who from photos I have seen, has grown so much in recent months, went for a walk with his friend ( and Darwin). He wore a beautiful black leather jacket, and looked every bit , a handsome, young man, nearly ready to take on the world.
Romy and Ruy were keen to play a game, and after I explained that I was not a charades sort of person, we agreed on a card game that involved some memory work. We were about to start playing, when Mark came and saved the day. He played the game with Romy and Ruy, whilst Annie and I continued our important discussions. (Mark was a star, wasn’t he?)
My eyes had already darted around Annie’s house and captured some lovely images. In a way it was, as she said, a bit like finding a book you know. I had already heard so much about the house, and seen all the photos. So now, I was just filling in the gaps, and getting to know it better.
The  bakelite telephone, the already mentioned organic shelves, the 1920s/30s tea set on the kitchen shelves, and a particularly good looking Sadler tea-pot all caught my eye.
Annie's wonderful Sadler tea-pot. I love the colours.
When I asked about the tea pot, Annie was delighted…she didn’t know she had a Sadler tea pot and when the children came into the kitchen she told them with great joy,
“I have a Sadler tea-pot”. (I still have no idea what this actually means but it felt right to be jolly pleased to have one!)  To which the bewildered children responded by suggesting we have a cup of tea. So we did…. We had a tea party, and Romy supped her rather milkier than is usual version of a cup of tea with her little finger fantastically arranged in appropriate fashion. The tea pot belonged to one of Annie’s grandmothers and was full of memories, as was the hand painted tea set, which was so delicate and perfect for our posh tea party.
Just look at Romy's little finger. The girl has style.
Annie, Mark and I, then took Darwin for a walk. We didn’t go far as the weather was not particularly good. Rain threatened and we needed to dress for warmth. The land surrounding Casa Rosales is covered in olive groves as far as the eye could see. This use of land is comparatively new and has been developed over the last 20 years due to EU subsidies available for farmers who turned their land over to olives. We had noticed that for the last 100 kms of our journey south, there was nothing but olives planted on the hill sides. We wondered how some of them could ever be harvested as they were in such precarious positions on the sides of hills that were practically mountains. Apparently, the subsidies are given for olives planted….not necessarily harvested. (I might be pretty rubbish at dates and history, but I made it my business to understand a bit about the local economy…and well remembered, Janice!)
Casa Rosales, with the "ruin" with so much potential on the left.
Casa Rosales,with rows of olive trees all around.
We saw the mysterious shrine near the house, probably linked to the blue stone cross that is built into the walls of Casa Rosales. As yet Annie hasn’t been able to find out exactly what the shrine commemorates, but I have no doubt that she will !
Although the shrine has this date on it, it also seems to commemorate something that happened in the 1950s. A puzzle for Annie to solve.
We walked by the vegetable patches developed by some of the villagers…..more tomatoes than seemed possible, and squash starting to swell, lying on the ground. Darwin scampered off, returning,  usually when called.
The beautiful crockery that caught my eye.....and a few olives.
I can now visualise Annie in her home, hurrying the children out of the door in the morning to get the school bus, sitting with her coffee, or possibly now with tea now that she knows her tea-pot has a name. I can see her amongst her jars of olives, oil, jams and chutneys. I can see her sitting under the pergola, zentangling. I can see her planning the garden developments and walking with Darwin, stopping to chat with her neighbours.
Some of Annie's zentangled stones
I think I can also see something of the future. Annie will be sought after. Her language skills are excellent, her networking skills have always been impressive, her interests, in art, music, science, the world in general are so varied and her knowledge about most of things ( except for dates) is well grounded. However, it is her approach to her new life that is completely infectious. Her curious mind, always questioning and learning, her passions and her delight in the different ways her family have adapted to their new life have been a joy to observe at close hand.
I suspect that by the time this blog is published, Annie will have been hunted down by various groups to work with them. Although she quite reluctantly withdrew from working last spring, in order to be there for the children……..I know she will find ways to continue to pursue her own interests, organise the family, be there for them in all the different ways they need her to be…..and be part of the larger community of Alcala, that she has come to love so much. (Amazing foresight, Janice. I have indeed been tracked down by a new language school...I am pondering taking on some work but will wait til I’ve been to England before making a decision. So far, no one has asked me to start up Zentangle classes but I’ve been working on my mother during her visit...)
It seemed ridiculous that we then had to part. The hugs that we had promised each other were too short. I was decidedly tearful as we drove back though Villalobos and towards Alcala. (Stop it...I am getting all emotional again as I read this.)We have said that reflecting on our time together would be rewarding, and writing this has made me feel very emotional again. (What is absolutely staggering is that you have written something that is so similar to what I too would have written about our time together - only, of course, I would saying wonderful things about you, your bravery, your incredible engagement with everything, your cheerful good sense and being a person I really enjoy being with. )
Thanks for a wonderful time Annie…..and the next time needs to be soon.  Certainly does - and again, so many thanks for coming.  Soon, soon.

Sorry..... I have had to add these 2 photos, of 2 of my Sadler teapots. The over the top 1950s one, shown here, with its gold swirls was won by my mother at sea side Bingo hall in 1953. It isn't as stylish as Annies.....but the Sadler shape is unmistakeable !