It is now one year since we arrived at ‘Le Levant’ – part of a converted
bergerie, that once served as a shelter for the animals of the mas that
dominates our view: the garage is still equipped with mangeoires and
a little wooden gate that enclosed the feeding area. The amandier
(almond tree) is again in bloom, yet as I look over the walled garden,
I think how much it has changed. The grass was several feet high and
uncultivated – the terre had lain dormant, a bed for spreading blackberries
and weeds, with a solitary olive establishing its roots in the centre.
We had no idea what to expect and have now cycled through all the
seasons, gaining an understanding of how we can work in harmony
with nature. I have been collecting the piles of dirt left by the taupes
(moles) who aid by airing and turning the earth, as much as they
destroy our plantations – damaging roots and burying growth. The wind
(that everyone complains about) is drying my washing and chasing
away the clouds – giving us the sunny clear days this region is
renowned for. This time last year however, there was rain – a week of
downpours and a swollen river roaring through the gorges to ‘Les Cluses’
below – at the moment the statistics for the region put us at 85% below
the usual annual rainfall. The soil is like dust, and the plants that
should be springing back to life are slow to adjust. Yet in the shade,
there is the beginning of a carpet of violets, and the first daffodils
(miniatures with ruffled hearts) are out.
I am sowing seeds in the potting shed, covering the trays with clear
plastic to keep the warmth in until we can find the best heating solution
– it is 18º in the hothouse instead of the 30º had we last week.
Inside, I am putting the new oven through its paces, seeing how it
performs. As we are renting, we are responsible for installing our
own oven – there was virtually nothing in the kitchen when we moved in,
and now it is homely, with shelving and storage. This way of living is
far from what I was used to; we started with a shell – without even light
fittings – and have slowly filled the space. It is now comfortable; most of
the work over.
Orchids are flourishing in the kitchen window, and I have a little bureau
– a corner by the window that looks out to the peaks above the river
valley and the ‘ramparts’ of the mas. Morning sun streams onto my desk,
and the fire (which is still burning 24/7) warms my back. I watch the light
outside change and the fire of the sunset transform the golden stones
to kiln temperatures. The trees are rarely quiet; they are trembling and
pass loud whispers in waves, that at times during the night wake me as
gusts increase their volume. Otherwise there is only silence, punctuated
by owls, and the daytime flocks, or loners soaring – the cries of buses
(buzzards) or jays disputing. In the height of summer they are far,
and life returns when it is cooler.
At first I was intimidated by our narrow winding road, with surprises
waiting around its blind bends, but now I challenge myself, timing the
route and seeing if I can surpass any previous record (when there is no ice)
– ever on the lookout for cows, cyclists and at the moment, squirrels.
It is always a pleasure to spot something new – to watch the forest change.
If I was to walk to the village below (which I did in the beginning),
it would take one hour at a stroll – and only 8 minutes by car! Very few
friends or family members visit as we are seen as ‘perdu’ (lost). It is
psychological: the distances are not that great, but the space is
– living in the forêt domaniale, without near neighbours, is daunting
in comparison to village life with a boulangerie on the corner.
I wasn’t sure how I would feel here – I was used to stepping out into the
tiny streets of our lively village with my panier, walking to the market
or sitting in a café; cycling along the nearby canal (all flat terrain),
or discovering a new exhibition – here it takes more planning and often
I don’t want to enter the fray, I am happy to stay in the sun, with birdsong,
and don’t feel like I am missing out on any excitement below. It is a
constant balancing act: enjoying the peace of a sanctuary, and venturing
out to take advantage of the wealth of variety in the region. How lucky
I am to have the choice I think, for this is the life I wanted.
When the sister of my best friend (in New Zealand) looked at this site,
she asked her, “but is she happy?” I was amazed by how long it took me
to answer “yes”, because I hadn’t stopped to think about it. Each day
brings a whole new ‘set of experiences’ and I am constantly refining
my responses – interacting with so many things that are ‘outside of my
comfort zone’ that I just ‘get on with life’, and try to make the most
of each day – adjusting to the ever-changing conditions here as I try
to blend in. At times it is overwhelming as I simply don’t understand
(lengthy documents, customs, how systems work here), and at other times
rewarding, as I rise above any perceived limitations due to being an
‘étranger’, and find much warmth in my connections with locals, as they
share their knowledge and traditions.
From The Garrigue
I wouldn’t have recognised the wild asparagus, as I was looking for
another variety (a lovely local woman helped me); shoots were hidden
beneath feathery trailing clusters of foliage – tiny long spindly shoots.
When snipped into sections they are sautéed in butter or olive oil, with
échalotes – eggs are whisked in to make a spring omelette.
Sunday 11th March. After harvesting more wild asparagus in Spain,
I discovered that when it is very dry (as asparagus prefers humidity
and usually appears rain) it is better to leave it soaking in water
for a few days – the stems will ‘drink’ and become more tender.
The water needs to be changed frequently as it becomes cloudy.
I have wild rosemary and thyme drying – when walking their scent fills
the air; the dry dusty slopes of the region covered in thyme and flowering
rosemary, at a lower altitude.
Wednesday 7th March. Post: Forever Entwined
Life and death are intertwined in the dance of Life – from the bed of
shrivelled leaves crunching underfoot, tiny flowers emerge. Shoots break
through, reaching towards the light and bells nod in the breeze as bright
green héllibores appear.
In The Garden
Now we have a new cistern with water on tap we can guarantee our supply.
We are preparing the beds and digging in cow manure (very plentiful).
The groseilles (red currants) and framboises (raspberries) are budding,
and wild chives are invading – they are everywhere.
Monday 12th March. Even though Spring doesn’t officially commence until
the 20th, there is every sign around us that it is early. Although the
evenings are cool, today was very warm, and the potting shed (hothouse)
temperature rose to 36º. The plum trees are now in blossom, and as well
as the wild chives, there are wild spring onions ready to pick – most
unexpected. Fluorescent butterflies now cloud the air, and bees compete
with the river when the wind stops – each bird can be heard when it is
Exploring The Region
It is carnival season, and festivities are in full swing in many the
surrounding villages – confetti is liberally thrown and the parade through
the streets ends with a bonfire (we watched a frog prince go up in flames
Saturday March 17th. The parade during the carnival of Ceret – one of
many events in the heart of the village.
Heavy snow falls in Cerdagne, with a mere 40km seperating this
‘white world’from the our drive through Néfiach – the heart of the
fruit growing region, at a much lower altitude.
Making bacon: after marinating and salting a filet mignon for four days
I am now drying it – wrapped in muslin cloth and hanging outside in the
breeze – it is out of reach of Mina and any friends.
I can now report it was a success – cut into slices and eaten raw or
added to cooked dishes or a salad – we have now eaten our way through
the filet. Cured in cognac, sel de guerande, crushed cloves, thyme,
crushed bay leaves, échalottes, pepper, garlic and quatre épices, it is
fragrant and delicious.
The only hazard while eating outdoors…