Monday 1st January. The hottest on record since temperatures have
been monitored here…
Tuesday 10th January. It is a magical day – hardly winter – we are
expecting 16º. There is not a breath of wind, nor a cloud in sight,
just endless blue skies. I can hear a pic (woodpecker) and the river
rushing past in the valley. There are little rouge gorges flitting
around the garden and a clanging of cowbells floats up from the
I am trying to sew; Mina is not helping as she is glad to have
company – she is sprawled on the trousers I am repairing and
rests her head on my hand. The chandelier crystals on the potted
Christmas tree catch the light and now wave in the breeze that
It is always a relief when the wind drops and the days are still
– the price of sunshine along the coast; the wind that chases our
clouds away has been blowing incessantly and it is nice to feel
tranquil again. The only task that lies ahead is to think about
what to eat…
How good it feels to soak up the sun, and to be out in the air after
resting by the fire, it makes everything more alive, adding a sparkle
and imbuing its warmth – filling us all with power – it is hard to
resist the call to enjoy the day; to bathe in the glow of its rays.
Sunday 29th January. Snowing great flurries of powder and suddenly
our world is white, with an eiree sunset of violet and pink light…
From The Forest
I am getting used to seeing cows in the forest – at first it was strange
to be on a tiny track along the river and find I had company. At times
they are high up on the rocky outcrops above the other bank, or in the
middle of the blackberries, nothing stops them foraging as they roam
freely – up and down the mountain road, finding what they can to sustain
them and their young.
The gift from the forest this month was nothing tangible, it is enough
to see it with a sprinkling of white powder and how the snow clings
to the trees, blown by the wind, completely transforming the landscape
into a ‘Winter Wonderland’.
In The Garden
I wasn’t sure what I would find venturing into the garden during the snow.
Everything has been accustomed to the warmer temperatures and already
burst into bud; the roses have been flowering, and mimosa has appeared
early. Only a few kilometres away, the fruit trees are blossoming.
The chives (ciboulette) seem to love the cool change and the fennel
(fenouille) that was completely hidden, along with the carrots, is
We are about to finish the cabin, enclosing it and building shelves
– as its rear wall is also the garden wall we left it open in summer,
with strawberries growing in the aquaduct – converting it to a hothouse
for seedlings. Frédéric is testing heating systems that can run on
solar energy or harness the wind. The cistern is now in place to ensure
we have water when the river is low – the cows have once again damaged
the ‘tuyau’ or pipeline, and that is another project that waits in
With the arrival of the colder weather our meals are heartier. Our
evening’s apéritif was hot spiced wine and pain d’épices has been the
‘petit goûter’, another custom I wasn’t used to, like a late afternoon tea
– time to relax with a hot chocolate and something sweet as dinner is much
later than in my usual routine. Most nights we sit down at 8.00 – 8.30,
in summer it is later as we finish outdoor activities only when the
light disappears. Films, or TV ‘emissions’ commence at 8.30 onwards and
this can also dictate the flow of things as we settle in front of the fire.
I have to be organised – baking bread, making and freezing pastry
– ensuring we have all the basics as we are isolated and there is no such
thing as a corner shop. We have butter bought in kilo lots (in Andorra),
cut and frozen, and store 5 kilo bags of sugar for conserves. I take my
panier into the forest to the one area where the wild thyme grows and
now have a few plants established in the garden wall. The menu revolves
around what is at hand.
The best spices I have found come from the arab shops (épiceries arabe)
lining the road in the heart of Perpignan’s quartier Saint Jacques,
catering for the mélange of Gitans, Moroccans, Algerians and Tunisians
in its population. Baskets are filled with packets of tajine mixes,
gunpowder tea, chickpeas or batons de cannelle (cinnamon), sesame and
cumin seeds. There are always spice sellers in the village markets
with beautifully arranged paniers but at ‘tourist’ prices, and I am
trying to live like a local – slowly gathering inside knowledge and
accumulating supplies. Sherry and port from Spain flavours many of
our dishes, and now oranges are in season – the menu starts to swing
towards the best and cheapest produce. Such is life here, always
‘in response’ to what is already happening in nature.
Sanglier marinated for 24 hours in red wine, zest of orange, sage,
bay leaves, rosemary, thyme, onion, carrots and cinnamon, later reduced
and strained to form the sauce. Another ‘vide grenier’ find, the cast
iron casserole was 8 euros.
230 g flour
130 g sugar (I reduce this quantity, or add a mix of brown sugar
250/300 ml of milk (approximately, ‘a full glass’ or ‘verre’ here)
2 tablespoons of dark rum
Cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and ginger (I use a mortar and pestle
to grind a whole cinnamon stick into powder with about 4-5 cloves,
and then add finely grated nutmeg and a teaspoon of powdered ginger,
orange zest also adds flavour)
1 1/2 teaspoons bicarbonate of soda (baking soda)
4 large tablespoons of honey
Butter and then flour a loaf tin. Preheat oven to a gentle heat,
approximately 150-160 ºC.
Mix all the ingredients well, except the baking soda and honey
– stir these together and add last.
Turn batter into the greased loaf tin and bake for 1-1 1/4
hours (until golden or a knife comes out clean, test after 3/4 hour).
Turn onto a wire rack to cool. Serve sliced, with or without butter.
Exploring The Region
This month we have been to Toulouse and Cerdagne, and I frequently
go to Spain, yet it is ‘our peaks’ that have called to be explored.
The range that encircled us beaconed and we now understand how each
track is different, committing them to memory as the signs which mark
all official randonnée paths are not always evident – it takes a
trained eye to spot the more subtle signs – whether a cairn or a
worn rutted path amongst the many made by wild goats (or chevres).
As with everything here there are many layers of history, one epoch
that has overtaken another and tried to hide its existence. The oldest
locals whose lives have seen many changes are the guardians of many
secrets, and as my language skills improve I am enjoying discovering
the past events that have shaped this land.
Each month there is a ‘conference’ or presentation of a subject related
to our ‘commune’ – our immediate neighbourhood or area, which can’t be
classified as just a village or town, always including a town hall
(La Mairie), church (eglise) and surrounding territories and hameaux
(little clusters of residences). A picture is forming; of how the land
was cultivated, how métiers or work habits have changed in relation to
what was available – for once again it was Nature who decided the
fortunes of those who have always lived ‘off the land and from the sea’.
Cork is still cut from the trees in our forest; the chestnut trees were
introduced as ‘pickets or stakes’ to hold the newly planted grafted
rootstock after phylloxéra destroyed the vines.
There is a constant need to adapt to conditions and to find ‘solutions’
– to continue to survive in adversity. The deeper I dig, the more
profound the insights I uncover are. I will always be a gabax
(pronounced gabach – not just a stranger from another country, but the
word used to denote one from just outside the portals of this region)
yet I can dissolve any perceived barriers just by interacting
– by listening, by sharing in the life that we are creating anew
in each moment as we try and make the most of what surrounds us.
The last thing I expected was to ‘talk philosophy’ with a stall holder
at the vide grenier (here they are more like a flea market, marché
aux puces) – he pulled out a tiny volume of mathematical formulas from
his pocket with a thickly gloved hand and explains how he greets the
sunrise lighting Canigou each day, sitting alone in nature contemplating
the universe – travelling beyond daily life to meet the majesty of the
view and the mysteries that remain ‘unsolved’. A metaphor for life here,
each day the mountains challenge us to raise our eyes to meet the skies
– our existence on their slopes, in their valleys or on their plains
can never be an insular one – we are reminded that there is something
beyond anything we might perceive as a ‘setback’ or problem, and look
for a way forward and upward. Adapting and ‘making the most of what
we have’ – the spirit of recovery, récupération or restoration is what
ignites, and roots are deeply formed as family connections bind.
So ‘on our doorstep’ is more important than dreaming of voyages to
other shores – discovering what has long been buried, it is ‘knowledge
through experience’ that rewards.