Le nettoyage des chemins


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Each year in April, the members of the Aurignac riding club, the local walking club, the tourist office and anyone else who fancies joining in meet up for a day out with a difference. The lovely network of paths on the hills behind the town were originally largely laid out by the members of the riding club, and the tourist office contributed signposts and maps, so everyone feels an almost proprietorial interest in keeping them open.

Before the off.

Before the off.

Although Aurignac has very little in the way of a litter problem, there’s an annual excursion of volunteers armed with gloves and bin bags who walk the paths, collect any rubbish, remove branches and overhanging brambles and generally tidy things up.

This year, we were pleased to be around at the right time and happily joined in with the group of local residents and children. Jean Francois from the local ironmongers provided his four donkeys, to carry rubbish, picnics and any small children unable to last the course, and members of the riding club joined us on horseback.

We set off in the unusually warm Spring morning, eyes peeled for errant rubbish. The children proved the most eagle eyed, and were soon running ahead and coming back with bits of old plastic blown in from neighbouring silage clamps. In the way of actual rubbish there was very little – the odd scrap of paper or plastic bottle – and once a few items had been added to the

Getting ready to go

Getting ready to go

donkey panier there was plenty of time to stroll and chat with members of the group.







Michel, president of the riding club, was responsible for trimming back errant brambles on the paths

Michel, president of the riding club, was responsible for trimming back errant brambles on the paths









The children were very enthusiastic collectors, and were disappointed to be told we couldn't take two discarded car tyres with us (we later collected them by car).

The children were very enthusiastic collectors, and were disappointed to be told we couldn’t take two discarded car tyres with us (we later collected them by car).

Our route took us from the car park Forail, through the ancient stone porte de Benque which leads out of the town from the main street, past the old disused abbatoir, and up to the cross, the highest point of our journey. By this stage, two of the donkeys were carrying tired children as well as supplies for lunch!

We followed the path towards the nearby hamlet of Peron before climbing up towards the ridge, past the Lion rock and down across the main road towards the prehistoric rock shelter that’s a feature of the town’s history. After a three hour hike, during which we did manage to fill four rubbish bags between our group of twenty, we headed to the other side of the hill and up to the Col de Martin for lunch with the feeling of a job well done.




20140413_123548In true French style the rest of our group produced a three course meal from the donkey paniers, and soon wild boar pate, charcuterie and some wicked eau de vie were circulating freely. Our own contribution of lemon drizzle cake attracted suspicious glances at first, but once our French friends had overcome their native reluctance to eat English food it went down very well.

Monty, one of only two dogs in the group, collapsed for a rest and only perked up when it was time to frisk the picnic area for leftovers.



20140413_114046Back at the car park, one little girl was clearly keen to take her new donkey friend home, if only he’d fit in the back of the car.

There was a great community feel about the whole expedition, and somehow it’s hard to imagine such an event taking place in the UK, particularly with such enthusiastic younger helpers.

As we miss out on many of these community events, we were glad to be able to join in this one, although Monty found it all rather hard work and fell asleep in the car going home. Or possibly that might have been due to too much charcuterie.





A French New Year tradition: the ‘galette des rois’, or kings’ cake


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After the festivities of Christmas and New Year comes Epiphany, celebrated on the first Sunday of January. All over France, the tradition is to eat a slice of a galette des rois, or kings’ cake, on or around this date. Baked inside the cake is a tiny ceramic figurine called a ‘fève‘ (bean), and the lucky person who finds it in their slice gets to be king for the day, wear a paper crown and start the new year with lots of luck – if they haven’t accidentally broken a tooth on the fève.


The fève

In origin, Epiphany, signifying the appearance of Christ in the world, was a religious festival celebrating the visit of the three kings. Later on, it became mixed with the Roman festival  of Saturn, held around the same time of year. The bean and the cake were Roman traditions which became incorporated into the Christian festival, with the bean coming to symbolise the gifts offered by the kings. Gradually, the dried bean was replaced, towards the end of the 19th century, by pieces of gold or coins, or little porcelain figurines, enamelled and painted in the image of Christ, or of farm animals. Nowadays, a rare period example is worth hundreds of euros to a collector.


Here’s a modern-day fève. (It’s supposed to be a croissant cradling a mug of coffee. No, I’m not sure why either). It’s ceramic with a painted glaze, and it measures less than an inch square.







The cakes

Brioche-style cake
Brioche-style cake

There are two types of cake, the brioche type which is a soft, sweet bread-like ring decorated with glace fruit and sugar crystals, and the frangipane type, a crusty circle of puff pastry filled with marzipan. Round us in the south west, both types are readily available in supermarkets and bakers, but if you’d like to make your own then the marzipan type is by far the easiest.



Marzipan galette des rois recipe (serves 8)


Marzipan cake

  • 2 readymade circles of puff pastry (these are readily available in French supermarkets. Otherwise, buy two puff pastry blocks, roll them out to 0.5cm thick and cut them into circles about 30 – 32cm in diameter
  • 100g butter, softened
  • 125g ground almonds
  • 100g sugar
  • 2 free range eggs
  • Few drops of almond essence
  • A little milk for glazing

In a large bowl, beat the sugar and butter together and add the ground almonds. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well between each addition, then add the almond essence.

Roll out the first circle of pastry onto a baking sheet, and brush all round the edges with water. Spread the marzipan paste into the centre of the pastry, not going too close to the edges. Push the fève into the paste.

Carefully lift the second circle of pastry on top, and press thoroughly all round the edges with your fingers, making the seal as even as possible. Use the tines of a fork to press a pattern into the seal.

Put it in the refrigerator for 30 minutes, then brush the top with milk. With a sharp knife, slice some diagonal slits, or, if you’re feeling confident, a crown or flower pattern into the top of the galette, then bake at 240 degrees celsius for ten minutes. Reduce the temperature to 180 degrees Celsius, and bake for another 20 minutes until risen and golden. For a professional finish, allow to cool slightly then brush with sugar syrup.

Happy New Year!

Summertime in the Haute Garonne


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Forget Paris in the springtime – for the first time, we’ve ventured into the Haute Garonne in the high summertime. We’ve never made it down in August before, partly because we thought it would be too busy and partly as we feared the heat. On the other hand, we’re keen to see the sunflowers in full bloom – so we pack the factor 50 sunscreen and set off.

The roads are indeed much busier than normal, and the journey a little slower, but once we reach our destination things seem much as usual. It’s been a very wet spring, and many of the sunflower seeds have been washed away and fields replanted, with the result that there seem to be far fewer splashes of yellow in the landscape than usual. The rest of the countryside, though, is a vibrant, unseasonal green by contrast. Temperatures are in the high twenties, and Monty copes by stretching out on the cool, tiled floor of the kitchen and refusing to move.

DSC02384Another nice thing about being down in the summer is that many of the little towns and villages around are ‘en fête’, holding their annual festivals.

I love to go to these festivals, as they’re quirky, lively and give a real flavour of village life – they normally conclude with a communal meal and dancing to a DJ with a name like ‘Mister Fever’, but I’ve never been brave enough to stay for that.

During our visit, the nearby village of Boussan is holding its fête, a twice-yearly event. The agenda includes a farmers’ market, rides in a carriage and a vide grenier. I go a bit mad for vide greniers – the French equivalent of a car boot sale – which is odd, because I don’t go to UK car boot sales. The French ones just seem so much more glamorous, somehow – the sunshine, the lack of cagoules, the chance to find nice bits of enamelware and the shortage of chip vans.

20130818_092703Boussan’s fête has a flavour all its own – the street is decorated with lifesize figures, wearing traditional clothes and pursuing suitably rural occupations such as raking hay. As well as these eccentric but delightful decorations, the more normal bunting is strung from every elevated point, and traditional fête music (a random mixture of urgent techno and Take That songs) blares from overhead speakers.20130818_092827


20130818_10032820130818_092907The carriage waits in the middle of the market square, drawn by a couple of huge, light brown mules who seem totally oblivious to the noise, but quite interested in the nearby artisan bread stall.

A nutbrown, sun wrinkled farmer is doing a brisk trade with the last of the season’s strawberries, and there’s even a stall selling tins of escargots.  I stop to buy a brioche, a lovely misshaped pain aux raisins and some bottles of homemade cordial before ending up at the fruit stall, where the farmer briskly sells me twice the amount of strawberries I’d originally wanted, without stopping to draw breath.

Laden down, I head for the vide grenier at the back. Browsing junk stalls is one of my favourite ways of passing an hour, and I quickly add a pretty enamel jug to my haul. I’m briefly tempted by a big gilt mirror, but remember in time that my antique mirror collection is quickly outstripping the amount of bare wall space available.

As I head back to the car, swollen carrier bags bumping uncomfortably against my knees, I realise I’ve forgotten to take a photo of the vide grenier in full swing. Retracing my steps, I’m accosted at the gate by a man who’s urging everyone to fill slips for a free tombola. As I write down my French address, I notice that the prize is live chickens…and resolve not to answer the phone for the rest of the trip.


The market at Montbrun Bocage

French markets are justly famous worldwide for the range and quality of their produce. In smaller, rural areas, the farmers and artisans sell their produce directly, so the stalls change according to the season.

During our time in France, we’ve been to many markets, as I love them – armed with a shopping bag (I do have a wicker basket, but am a bit self-conscious about using it), I like plunging into the medley of stalls and coming out with all sorts of surprises – white peaches, black radishes, homemade soap or honey, fresh eggs and raw milk. The stallholders are all extremely knowledgable about their products, and will advise on the best area and method of planting your newly purchased plants, or how to prepare and cook any type of foodstuff. I also love discovering the surprises of the area, from walnut products such as oil and cake in our part of the south west, to the apple juices and Calvados of northern France.

Some Dutch neighbours of ours have always been enthusiastic about a particular market at Monbrun Bocage, about an hour’s drive from our house. “It’s really different, and there’s a lovely atmosphere,” they promised us. The market’s on every Sunday morning almost without fail, and they told us stories of going on Christmas Day to find a happy community atmosphere of hot coffee and festive cheer.

Montbrun Bocage

The market stocks organic and handmade products, from food and plants to pottery and wood carvings. In the summer, it’s a popular tourist destination, with coachloads of people coming from as far as Toulouse. Although it’s raining on our chosen Sunday, we decide it’s high time to check it out for ourselves.

Montbrun Bocage market

The village of Montbrun Bocage is a pretty place, set by a river and full of attractive old buildings. The market takes up the whole of the village square, with some stalls set up under the medieval covered marketplace and the others huddling round the edges. There are several stalls selling plants – mainly vegetable plants, but a huge range of herbs and flowers as well. One lady is selling handmade earthenware pots; I buy a little round plant bowl for three euros, with the intention of planting it with herbs.

One stall is selling joss sticks, and despite the drizzle the scent rises and mixes with the smells of coffee, pizza and other hot food on sale at the little kiosks.

The food stalls are mostly under cover. Honey, dried herbs and gourmet coffee, baked goods, jams, charcuterie, fruit and vegetables, olives, cheese, even sushi…..I buy a pack of dried verbena leaves for making tea and some dried oregano, and Mike adds a jar of mango chutney – the first time I’ve seen it in France – and a selection of little cakes. I have a long conversation with the stall holder as I select some white violets – as they apparently like shade, I’m going to plant them under our acacia tree in the garden.

Montbrun Bocage market

We spot our Dutch friends and stop for a quick chat, before heading over to a trestle table that serves as the market’s coffee bar. Everyone here knows each other – there’s much shaking of hands and exchanging of news going on around us as we sip our drinks.

There’s a bit of a hippie vibe to the market as a whole – as well as the more usual market fare, there are also stalls selling embroidered clothing, embellished with little mirrors; incense and essential oils; and intricate silver and turquoise jewellery, and I think this is what contributes to the market’s reputation as ‘something a bit different’. There’s a lovely, friendly, community atmosphere, and we see several stall holders joining forces to mind each other’s stalls.

Montbrun Bocage

There are several dogs roaming happily under the crowd’s feet – all seem to be on their best behaviour, but with all this lovely food on offer, we’re glad we’ve left Monty in the car. Next time, we plan to make a day of it, and visit the market for picnic food before walking with him alongside the river.

For more information on the village and the market, visit www.montbrun-bocage.com.