Saturday, 22 January 2011

111. La France profonde

22nd January 2011. Very cold out on the river this morning in a double sculler with a very strong downstream current.. the temperature must have been hovering around freezing. I came back with hands like a bunch of bananas! We did 10km and that was enough to be honest. (Running total 392km) Note to self: don't forget the gloves next time!

In writing this blog I've made the odd reference here and there to La France profonde (deep France). I think it's worth explaining a little more about this idea before it slowly disappears, submerged by the relentless tide of progress from modern Europe. I exchanged a flurry of emails yesterday with C from Tiens, the new start-up online magazine about SW France. I soon recognised that she and her husband P are a couple of kindred spirits in that what attracts us to this blessèd corner of France is not the glitz of the coast or the bright lights of the ski slopes but rather the timeless appeal of la France profonde

What is la France profonde I hear you ask..? It's difficult to pin down exactly but you'll know it when you see it. It's that moment that stops you in your tracks when you realise that you're seeing something that's been done the same way for generations and that the chances of seeing it anywhere else in western Europe are pretty slim. You could say it was contact with the real France. Or maybe it's the France of our imagination - as we'd like it all to be without it being a pastiche of the France of Robert Doisneau. Certainly in England, the baby was thrown out with the bathwater a very long time ago and a kind of mindless banalisation of life has the country in its thrall. There are two very different connotations to being described as a peasant depending upon which country you are in - France or the UK.

Perhaps a few examples of la France profonde. During a long-ago visit to France (~1970) I stopped for petrol at midday in a sleepy little village in the department of the Ardèche.. I stepped out of the car into a wall of heat, and all was silence apart from the chirruping of the cicadas. An old lady well into her 80s appeared and she proceeded to untangle a strange (to my eyes) contraption which was the petrol pump. It was old and tall with a graduated glass cylinder sitting atop it.  She started pumping a long handle and petrol appeared in the cylinder and began rising up it. When the level reached 10 litres, she inserted a long rubber hose into my petrol tank, turned a tap, and  petrol flowed, as if by magic, into my car. Simple, bomb-proof and effective. While she repeated this process enough times to fill my tank, we had a chat about where I was from etc and in the course of this she revealed that she'd never seen the sea and, what's more, she'd never left her department! That was my first encounter with la France profonde.

Another was the time when Madame and I were en route to the Pays Basque one summer and somewhere in the region around Poitiers we pulled off the autoroute for lunch. We found a small village where there was just the one restaurant and we were the first customers. Sitting down, we chose the 3 course set lunch menu which was ~£11 or so. Things started happening in that wonderfully pre-ordained way that lets you know you are back in France. Everything was comme il faut (as it should be). A generous serving of rabbit with prunes in a rich red wine sauce (I remember it well!) and a couple of glasses of red put smiles on our faces again. While we were sitting there, two young lads in their early teens came in and sat at a nearby table. It transpired that one was the waiter's son. The two of them sat there and ordered their 3 course lunch from the main menu - no sausage, beans and chips from the children's menu for them or whinging with curled up lips that they didn't like this or that.. No, they just sat there and worked their way  through all 3 courses. I remember thinking that there are two Frenchmen in the making there.

Then there was the flyer for the Bingo night I read at the garage while waiting for the car to get through its Contrôle Technique (MOT for British readers).. what caught my eye and made me smile was the second prize: half a pig!

Le porc Pie Noir du Pays Basque
This (left) is the Iberian pig that's to be found in the Pyrenees and northern Spain. Very hardy, somewhat picky about his food, the pig is remarkably well adapted to an outdoor life in the mountains. Its lean meat is a feature of the celebrated Basque ham from the valley of Les Aldudes. Since 1991, a regional chain was established with a quality approach to obtain an Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC).

M and Mme D in the gîte also contributed with their very traditional custom of keeping a couple of pigs for fattening up on corn and killing them in the winter months. The annual slaughtering and butchering is an occasion for friends and neighbours to pitch in and help and the whole process of converting a large 200+kg porker into sausages, hams, joints, trotters, fillets, boudins noirs (black pudding) takes around three days. If you have no idea what a 200kg pig looks like, this picture (right) will give you an idea!

Madame's Tante S and her (now late) husband live in the Jura (close to the Swiss border) and it was their 50th wedding anniversary one summer in the mid 90s. They'd decided to have a celebratory dinner and had invited a representative from each part of the extended family (to keep the numbers down to a manageable level) and so we came to be invited. We'd planned our annual visit to the Pays Basque such that at the end of it we could drive up & across to the Jura to arrive in time..

We wanted to avoid the boredom of the autoroutes so we thought we'd simply "straight-line it" across France - going by the Departmentale roads - thus seeing a bit more of the country. After driving all day on lonely roads through mountains, forests and villages we stopped overnight at a village called Bourganeuf  (between Limoges and Clermont-Ferrand) which is as near as dammit in the centre of France. We quickly dropped our bags in a 2* "Logis" hotel in the centre and then went out for a swift leg stretch before dinner. 

We returned to the hotel and went into the cosy and heavily beamed dining room. Looking around, it was clear that this was la France profonde. After browsing the menu for a few minutes I realised that this was somewhere that took its food very seriously indeed. All the classic dishes were there. Madame often says that food is the second religion in France but I'd go further and say it's the first - as more people go to restaurants than go to church. Looking through the wine list I couldn't believe what I was seeing - most of the wine was priced at somewhere between £200 and £800 a bottle.. There were some fabled wines there that I'd only read about - Château Palmer, Château Gruaud-Larose, Château Haut-Brion and Château Yquem - and this in a un cheval village in the middle of nowhere.. 

Here's a film that captures something of la France profonde:
What does la France profonde mean to you..? Don't be shy - send a comment..!

The circus is in town.. a vast red and white tent, surrounded by a village of colourful caravans, trailers and bright lights, the Cirque Amar has suddenly materialised between the old ramparts and the Avenue des Allées Paulmy. 

I've always been a wee bit intrigued by the roaming life of circus people. They inhabit a slightly blurred and mysterious part of the spectrum - lying somewhere between those of us who live more or less conventionally in houses or flats, and those of a gypsy or nomadic persuasion - from respectable baby boomer retirees with their Camper Vans, through plush caravans towed by slightly dodgy Mercedes vans, to the real thing: gypsies in horse drawn caravans who cook on open fires and hobble their horses on grazing land.. I don't understand how these last two groups survive in the increasingly joined-up world of today. Think car insurance, taxes, health issues, an address for mail - but maybe they don't bother with any of this.    

24th January 2011. I read today of the passing of Major Richard Winters retd.. a truly great American hero.  RIP Sir. 


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