Thursday, 3 September 2009

17. Noël

I was just saying to Madame the other day that so far we’ve seen no reference to the approach of Christmas in any of the shops – no towering displays of marzipan or jars of mincemeat or John Lennon singing “So this is Christmas”.. or Easter eggs in Woolworths. (now - unbelievably - closed for good in the UK I heard)

So imagine my surprise this morning when I heard on the radio the unmistakeable sound of 'Jingle Bells'…! It made me think – well here we are with less than 2 months to go to Christmas and still no Christmas Lights.. The French just don’t have a clue do they.. (irony!) I would guarantee that, for the last few weeks, supermarkets back home will already have been fully set up with dedicated aisles for such traditional English Christmas essentials as German Stollen bread, French marzipan, Belgian chocolates, Turkish delight, Italian panettone cakes and the like (we contribute the spuds!).. and deep freezes full of turkeys the size of small boulders..

One afternoon we went into Bayonne to a “Depôt Vente”. This is where you can take things to sell – mainly furniture.. The Depôt Vente sets the price and then takes a percentage of the proceeds. We went there looking to see what they had in the way of armoires. There were some in stock and while they were certainly cheaper than we’d seen in antique shops, it was fairly clear why. I think these are the kind of places that you need to drop in every week to see the new stock as it arrives - except that, like stuffing mushrooms, life is just too short for some things.

After this, it was starting to feel like evening so we came back. Madame had bought some chestnuts so we had these roasted with a cup of tea (living dangerously!).

For the French holiday on 1st November, we planned on going to Les Aldudes - a village buried in the Basque mountain country that straddles the entrance of a valley that, while it runs deep into Spain, is still French. The valley's chief claim to fame is that it produces arguably the best Jambon de Bayonne in the area. And, of course, many of the other products that the Basque cuisine is famous for.

There is a saying that some lofty Parisian food critics are fond of quoting that the only implement needed in a kitchen in the South West is - a tin opener! While this was meant as a clever put-down, nevertheless I think it does hit on a truth. Much of the great products of the South West can be preserved.. Think of confit de canard, foie gras, haricot beans in graisse d’oie (goose fat), rillettes, cassoulet and pipérade (though personally I have some doubts about this last one) et al... There isn't much that can't be put in a can or a jar - but it's none the worse for that. It's possible to buy all these products via mail order too!

Post visit report: Well, we had a great day out today high up in the Pyrenees.. First of all, the weather was supposed to be 3C in the morning warming up to 12C in the afternoon. Anyway, we set off and as we climbed up and up the skies cleared and we were gradually able to see the start of the high Pyrenees in the distance – the mountains near us were only about 2-3,000‘ high – further east, I think they go up to about 9,000’ or even higher. As we climbed, the full extent of the Pyrenees started to unfold in front of us.. and just when we thought we’d seen one high mountain, in the distance behind it, we’d see another even higher one - and in the blue misty distance behind that one, another one..

and yet another one beyond that. And all the time, the valley sides were getting steeper and steeper as we wound our way ever-upwards.. It was difficult to keep one eye on the driving with all this magnificent mountain scenery around us and at one moment, I thought I saw the pale outline of a snow-covered white peak that was higher than the rest, way way off in the distance and I thought, surely not, a snow covered peak so early in the season but on the regional news when we returned home they featured it too. First snow of the year in the Pyrenees..
Les Aldudes
Stirring mountain scenery and it was difficult to keep my eyes on the road as the country opened up before us. We ran up the valley on an old single track smuggler’s road that climbed up towards Spain and near the top we pulled over to eat our lunch.. I opened my window and looked out across the expanse of a great deep valley – white farmhouses with red roofs were dotted across the valley floor. It was through rugged border country like this that the men and women of the wartime Comet Line (organised by 24 year old Andrée De Jongh, a brave Belgian woman) famously helped Allied airmen to escape down from the Low Countries, through the occupied zone in France, across the Pyrenees into neutral Spain and home via British-controlled Gibraltar. In fact, in Sare, a Basque village close to the border, I recently discovered a newly placed memorial (below) to Victor Ithurria, a highly decorated and legendary figure who served in the SAS with great distinction during WWII before being killed on 25th August 1944..

I saw some large birds flying around in circles and I realised I was watching vultures (griffon vultures..) circling around in the air currents.. As I watched, I saw one furl its wings and dive down to the ground, followed by another, and another. Soon, there must have been 20-30 of them down there. Whatever was down there under a tree was getting a good pecking. Another British pensioner who won’t stop for a snooze after lunch again! We first saw them here a few years ago when we were up high in the mountains.. I remember thinking at the time, if I didn’t know better I’d swear they were vultures. When we got back to the hotel, they told us that, yes, there were quite a few vultures up in the hills.. Certainly makes you think twice about falling asleep in the sun after a good lunch..

We next came to a small village, ie, about 5 houses together, and one of them was a hotel with a restaurant. Out of interest we stopped to look at the lunch menu… it was £8 for a 4 course lunch…! (these are 1960 prices!) Next time we go up there, we might just try it. Anyway, we continued higher up the valley and soon we came to the border. There was no border as such – just a garage and a smoky café.. (smoking still being allowed indoors in Spain)

The countryside looked spectacularly good in its burnt copper autumn colours under a cloudless deep blue sky. After this, we went to St Jean Pied de Port. This is a very old town in the heart of the Pyrenees where Madame’s father’s family originated.

It’s on the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain. People still come from all over the world to walk the route. It was getting really warm now and after blocking various pavements for a while we found a tea shop and sat outside in the sun. Madame couldn’t believe that she was still wearing her sunglasses on 1st November..!

Main street of St Jean Pied de Port

St Jean Pied de Port
At the moment, there’s still that holiday feel to life down here because we’re still "camping out" in the gîte with a minimum of our belongings. I just have the one English book and that’s “Out of Africa” - which I’ve read twice since we’ve been here - as all our books are in storage. As a compulsive reader, forgetting to pack a box of books in the van was a major mistake.

This is "Tarantella" by Hilaire Belloc.. (try reading it aloud)

Do you remember an Inn, Miranda?

Do you remember an Inn?
And the tedding and the spreading
Of the straw for a bedding,
And the fleas that tease in the High Pyrenees,
And the wine that tasted of tar?
And the cheers and the jeers of the young muleteers
(Under the vine of the dark veranda?)
Do you remember an Inn, Miranda,
Do you remember an Inn?
And the cheers and the jeers of the young muleteers
Who hadn't got a penny,
And who weren't paying any,
And the hammer at the doors and the Din?
And the Hip! Hop! Hap! of the clap

Of the hands to the twirl and the swirl
Of the girl gone chancing, glancing, dancing,

Backing and advancing,
Snapping of a clapper to the spin
Out and in
And the Ting, Tong, Tang of the Guitar.
Do you remember an Inn, Miranda?

Do you remember an Inn?

There is another verse but I like this one.

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