You say tomato…

Tomato time! 5 magnificent varieties, merci Fofo!

Today’s blog gets passionate about tomatoes and a Michelin chef.

It’s tomato time in France; kilos and kilos of the delicious fruit are appearing in gardens and on market stalls. They always remind me of an interview I did many years ago in Toulouse with Michelin chef, Lucien Vanel, for a paper I was writing as part of a university course on French culture.  The experience left me as exhilarated as if I’d knocked back half a bottle of champagne.

There’s a great picture of him on the site set up in his honour in 2008, which awards an annual prize (below).

The official site of the Lucien Vanel prize etablished in 2008

He was a man of passion.  ‘To step into the dining room of my restaurant, to see people enjoying themselves, appreciating the food – ‘je suis aux anges,’ he told me in that long-ago interview. ‘I’m in heaven. Cooking is my life. I don’t want to appear narrow-minded (un esprit borné) but I freely confess to preferring the music of my saucepans to that of a great orchestra.’

Marché Victor Hugo,Toulouse. The famous ‘Betty’s’cheese stall

He was an animated talker, jumping out of his chair and waving his arms about, and his enthusiasm and exuberance were mesmerising, even when he was describing the hard work demanded by his metier.  For himself and his team of three apprentices, the day started early and finished late, with a short break in the afternoon. He was up each morning at 4h 30 to visit the famous Marché Victor Hugo, prowling round the stalls, checking out the produce, mentally working out his menus before placing his orders. The true spirit of ‘la cuisine du marché’ – first select your ingredients, fresh from the market, then decide how to cook them.

Was he one of the chefs putting la nouvelle cuisine on the map? He embraced their ethic  of simple, healthy dishes without  heavy sauces,  he told me, ‘but -don’t expect me to banish  butter from my kitchen.’  He talked a lot about ‘l’art culinaire’, the art of cuisine; in his kitchen he would experiment, try out new combinations, expand his horizons.  I was intrigued by his library of cookery books which contained not just the latest recipes from talented new chefs, but went back 300 years to the original ‘masters’. His greatest pleasure, he told me, quoting Brillat-Savarin, was to welcome guests in a fitting manner: ‘Convier quelqu’un, c’est de se charger de son bonheur tout le temps qu’il est sous votre toit.’  (‘To invite someone for a meal means being responsible for their happiness as long as they are under your roof’ – an apt definition of ‘hospitality’.)

‘What do you do when you’re not working?’ I asked.

‘Then,’ he smiled, ‘I like to be the guest. I like to be invited by good friends, who have prepared one perfect dish…’

He pointed at me.

Not quite Vanel standard, but…

Ecoutez- moi bien – (listen carefully), when you invite me to your house, I would like you to make me  a  tomato salad. But! The tomatoes must be perfectly ripe, perfectly red, skinned and de-seeded; the hard boiled eggs for the garnish must be perfectly cooked – the yolks  must remain  ‘moelleux’ (slightly runny), the dressing subtle, but flavoursome. Then I’ll be a happy man.’

This wonderful chef and genial personality died in 2010. If you fancy entering the competition in his honour 🙂 be warned – in 2018/2019,  130 restaurants, 15 hotels and 9 cocktail bars took part in the ‘olympiade gourmande’. 

When I was creating the character of Madame Martin in the French Summer Novels, I had Lucien Vanel in mind.  The housekeeper of Villa Julia – Thérèse Intxausti Martin, to give her her full name – is a formidable lady who has been running things for the Etcheverria family for years. She’s seen two generations grow up; and is respectfully considered  as the true Mistress of the Kitchen, (if not of the entire house- don’t leave your wet towels on the bathroom floor!) In Biarritz-Villa Julia, the final book of the series, her famous tomato salad is the subject of a clash of wills between herself and a newly-arrived guest, Hibiscus (‘call me Hibby’) who is one of those people who has no boundaries and firmly believes her way of doing things is the only way. (Don’t we all know one ?)

Read on for wooden spoons at dawn…

 

Chapter 7 The Mistress of the Kitchen

‘Do you happen to have any honey, chère madame? Honey? You know, bees?’

Caroline stepped into the kitchen just in time to see Hibby stand on tiptoe and start to zigzag round the table, flapping the sleeves of her purple kimono and making a loud buzzing sound.

Madame Martin was backed up against the sink clutching a wooden spoon.

‘Ah, Caroline!’

Hibby stopped in mid-flight, a look of relief on her face

‘Yippee! The cavalry arrives in the nick of time! I’ve been trying out my French on poor chère Madame here. But I’m a bit rusty!’

In the middle of the kitchen table stood a large platter of Madame Martin’s famous egg and tomato salad.

On Caroline’s first visit to Biarritz she’d spent many a happy moment in the kitchen, absorbing the culinary knowhow of Villa Julia’s long-time housekeeper/chef. Her cooking was deceptively simple, limited to a relatively few dishes, but always, unfailingly, sublime. Madame Martin knew every stallholder in the market, had an unerring eye for the best cuts of meat and the freshest fish, and the happy residents of the villa were treated to the overflow from the kitchen garden she oversaw at her own house, tended by her husband, Pierre.

‘Seven minutes precisely,’ she had told Caroline, stripping the shells off the hard-boiled eggs and slicing them, revealing golden yolks perfectly poised between firm and runny. ‘And the tomatoes must always be peeled, even in summer, even though they have just come off the vine.’

The alternating rows of egg and tomato would be arranged artistically on a platter in an overlapping pattern. Just before serving, Madame Martin would pour over her thick, glistening vinaigrette. The simple starter was a perennial favourite, with everyone cutting extra chunks of crusty baguette to mop up the last of the vinaigrette, tomato juice and bits of yellow yolk.

‘I was trying to be a model guest, make myself useful and give a hand with lunch. Donner une main, chère madame?’

Hibby notched up her voice a couple of decibels, articulating each syllable so as to get the message across to chère Madame whose French, she was surprised to find, sounded a bit funny, probably the local accent.

‘Maybe-it-is-in-here? Ici?

She opened the door to one of the cupboards.

‘Yes! Found it! Tada! Miel de lavande.’

She grabbed the pot with the little bee on the label and advanced on the salad.

‘Lavender honey. Perfect. Just a touch in the vinaigrette to take away the bitterness.’

Madame Martin gave a jerk as though someone had stuck a pin in her.

‘Ah non, Madame! Non non non non non!

With cheetah-like speed Madame Martin sprang from her refuge near the sink and landed next to the table, interspersing herself between Hibby and the bowl of vinaigrette. Her wooden spoon was raised.

Hibby took a step back. Caroline took a step forward.

‘OK, c’est bon, Madame Martin! Tout va bien!’

She reached out to remove the offending jar from Hibby’s clutch, smiling encouragingly at Madame Martin on one side and Hibby on the other, her head bobbing between the two like a nodding dog in a car window.

‘Sorry Hibby, er, we don’t put honey in the vinaigrette, er, it’s Madame Martin’s special recipe, we never interfere, sorry, I know you were just trying to be useful…’

Hibby, crestfallen, peered out from underneath her orange fringe.

‘Oh dear, I do apologise. I just wanted to help, you know? Je suis désolée chère Madame !’

The Mistress of the Kitchen, still bristling, gave a small nod, took the jar from Caroline and sidled over to the cupboard, her eyes never leaving Hibby. She opened the door wide and stood back.

Pe-tit-dé-jeu-ner,’ she said, employing the same syllable-hammering technique as Hibby. ‘Brekkfust!’

She placed the honey next to other jars, an array of home-made jams, all neatly labelled. Apricot, strawberry, mirabelle.

‘Brekkfust!’ she repeated. ‘For put on ze bread, for put on ze yaourt. Yes! Good! For put on tomatoes–’ she sucked in a deep breath–‘Nevvair!!’

Having exhausted her linguistic skills, Madame Martin sagged, turned to Caroline and fell back on the exquisite language of Racine and Moliere.

‘Mademoiselle Caroline, please explain that in French cuisine a vinaigrette is made with olive oil and red wine vinegar. As you know, I use a little mustard–Dijon–to thicken, but that is all. It is however permissible to dribble a judicious amount of honey–’ she stressed the word–‘over a sharp goat’s cheese baked in the oven and served with a crisp green salad. Dressed with a vinaigrette. Not something I care for myself, but allowed, under the rules of la nouvelle cuisine.’

Caroline led a deflated Hibby out of the kitchen.

‘Right Hibiscus, Hibby, why not sit outdoors and relax while I bring you a nice cup of coffee?’

‘So sweet of you, Caroline. As I said, I was only trying to help. Now just let me check I understood back there, no sugar either? In the vinaigrette?’

Hibby’s voice floated into the kitchen. Madame Martin’s eyebrows went up. Sugar? Du sucre dans une vinaigrette? She would have to have a word with Mademoiselle Claudie, take her on one side, warn her what to expect if she got married to Pete and this woman became her mother-in-law.  Claudie was becoming a top-class chef, a natural. Plus she knew all about nutrition and these new techniques, molecular-whatever, personally Madame Martin was not yet convinced that chocolate and caviar were a happy marriage, but that was beside the point. The point was that on no account must Claudie allow that woman into her kitchen. She could turn her back for a minute and when she turned round again her mushroom vols-au-vent would have icing sugar and candles on. How was it possible that Monsieur Pete, such a lovely person and such an astonishing chef, had grown up with a mother who put honey on her tomatoes and sugar in her vinaigrette? Maybe that was why he’d gone in for pâtisserie

The French Summer Novels are all free to read with the Kindle Unlimited scheme on Amazon.

On sale this weekend

Book 1, Biarritz Passion, is reduced to 99p/ 99cents this weekend (e-book)  It’s also available in paperback for £7.99/$8.99.

 

 

 

 

 

Bonne lecture, bon weekend, bon appétit – and don’t put sugar in the vinaigrette !

Bon weekend!

 

 

O Toulouse… Gordon Seward at the Espace Bouquières in la ville rose

View from Saint Exupéry’s room, Hotel du Grand Balcon copyright Gordon Seward

The stunning painting above is by artist Gordon Seward, currently exhibiting at the Espace Bouquières in Toulouse. Gordon’s work has been shown at prestigious venues around Europe, as well as in the UK and the US, and has been the subject of glowing articles by critics and collectors. But Toulousains are specially blessed (hooray!) as Gordon, for the last fifteen or so years, has returned each summer like a swallow to his adoptive city, thrilling locals and visitors alike with his latest creations. The fact that it was pouring down on the first morning did not deter devoted collectors from queuing up early in order to rush in and bag a goodie.

Some of the paintings on display at the Espace Bouquières 2018, copyright Gordon Seward

Bursting with beauty and emotion, luminous, vibrant, dramatic, bold, dancing, joyful, fluid, free–these are some of the expressions that spring to mind as you stand before the paintings. Swiss soprano Brigitte Hool, on a visit to the pink city to perform in The Magic Flute, stepped into the gallery one day and looked around. ‘Can I,’ she said to the surprised artist, ‘sing for your paintings?’ Which she then proceeded to do, celebrating them with a Puccini aria.*

What a perfect reaction.

Lacking the adequate tessitura to do a Mme Hool, or the springy calves to convey my admiration through a series of Nureyev-like leaps, I will try to express my own feelings in this short blog. (Obviously, I’d like to write a long blog, a very long blog, but…)

Art critics have described the artist’s work as ‘an ode to life’, ‘a source of constant pleasure’. Seward is ‘a colour magician’, a ‘new Fauvist’, ‘his explosive painting (bringing us) the fearless Mediterranean spirit and freedom.’ Gordon himself, in his autobiography Why I Paint, talks about the importance of first learning the rigorous craft of drawing, then describes ‘letting go’, allowing free rein to his intuition as a way of spurring the paintings ‘to bubble and sing’. He cites Matisse (one of his idols) as someone who ‘determined in contemporary painting the fundamental elements of joy and humility’ which ‘seem to me now more revolutionary and necessary than ever.’

Alors à l’heure, poems by Cécile Toulouse aka La Muse

This year, along with his wife and constant Muse, poet, lyricist and translator Cécile Toulouse, he has been working on an exciting new concept, a limited series of signed ‘Digigraphies’, high-quality lithographs using a technique which allows a dazzling range of colours. The theme chosen for this first series is ‘Toulouse’, in particular the city’s historical connection with some of the most amazing chapters in French aviation.

Readers of this blog will be only too familiar with my own attachment to la ville rose where I lived for many years, as well as my enthusiasm for this period of its history**. In the 1920s and 30s, Pierre-Georges Latécoère developed what was to become one of the world’s most legendary airlines (which incidentally will celebrate the centenary of its birth at Montaudran this year).

Writing desk and window looking out over la place du capitole, room 32, chambre de Saint-Exupéry, Hôtel du Grand Balcon

His aviators and mechanics were a larger-than-life bunch of daredevils, poets and writers, who risked their necks on every mission. Passionate about their vocation, they also had an appetite for life which included l’amour, toujours l’amour, prompting Didier Daurat, head of operations at the airline, to arrange for these ardent young men to lodge at the Hôtel du Grand Balcon on the corner of the Place du Capitole, a respectable boarding house run by the three genteel Marquez sisters. This, he assumed, would keep them in check (it didn’t–the sisters were pussy cats who adored their lodgers).

Both of the Sewards are keen historians, also fascinated by the city’s association with these fluttering starts in aviation. Gordon first set up his easel in Saint-Exupéry’s former quarters at the hotel, Room 32, many years ago, before the place was renovated.*** His canvases show the view looking out from the window towards the famous 18th century Capitole building. In January 2015 he returned to paint the moving scenes as people gathered on the square to hold a vigil after the Charlie Hebdo massacres (this is the subject of one of the ‘Digigraphies’).

This obligation of the artist to keep the flame of art burning more brightly than ever in ‘the heart of darkness’ recurs in his autobiography. He talks of Matisse, refusing to leave Nice during WW2, continuing to paint as bombers roared overhead.

To hold in your hand a brush or a gun. To arm yourself with a pen or a dagger. A choice brought before us every day, as it always has been.

Narrow alleys in old Toulouse

And so it was, dear readers, that this weekend the Maître de Maison and myself sallied forth on our annual pilgrimage to the Espace Bouquières (alas we have missed a couple over the years), treating ourselves to a day of joy and nostalgia in la ville rose, soaking up the dusty heat and southern ambiance, strolling arm in arm through the narrow streets, past café terraces and fountain-splashed squares packed with locals and tourists.

Toulouse has changed dramatically. It continues to change with terrifying speed: the gigantic aerospace industry, the ‘Silicon Valley’ IoT (Internet of Things), the sci fi projects for flying taxis, driverless buses, the Hyperloop tunnel which will shoot trains between Toulouse and Montpelier in 20 minutes. Buying lamb chops at the Maison de l’agneau in the Marché Victor Hugo (opened in 1892), we exchanged reminiscences with the butcher.

Pace du Capitole, evening, cafés under the arcades

Twenty thousand new arrivals each year, he told us, making neat wax paper packets. A far cry from the ‘old days’ when chansonnier Claude Nougaro penned his famous hymn to the city of his birth, ‘a flower of coral watered by the sun’ (have the Kleenex ready as you listen):

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZI2uZPV4fEo

Celebrating the old and the new at the Espace Bouquières, the artist and his Muse welcome visitors, answer questions, talk about art, music, history, literature and  life in general, including the trendy barber doing hipster haircuts just down the street. They are always, unfailingly, ‘disponible‘, at the disposal of all who come to buy or simply to look. And all around, on every wall, is a joyous ‘ode to life’.

What a treat.

The exhibition finishes on June 16th, but the four ‘Digigraphies’ will continue to be displayed in Toulouse at the Magasin Trait, 4 rue Vidal. There are also permanent exhibitions in Marseilles (Galerie Grossi), Lille (Atelier Kolorma), and Montauban (Art et Patrimoine).

Unlucky mortals far from these cities can amuse their bouches at:

http://www.gordonseward.fr

O Toulouse!

The 18th century Capitole building at the heart of Toulouse, la ville rose, Occitania’s capital city

 

Detail from a drawing by Gordon Seward, property of the author, copyright Gordon Seward
Detail from a drawing by Gordon Seward, property of the author, copyright Gordon Seward

PS: For the last several weeks I have been going through the elephantine birth pangs of finishing off Villa Julia, the last book in the French Summer series. In this I have been helped by a kindly fairy godmother who popped up from cyberspace and offered to help. Her name is Paula Heron Phillips(I hope she doesn’t mind me mentioning her in this blog) and she has been reading drafts, wielding sticks and carrots and giving excellent feedback. All through the sheer goodness of her reader’s heart. Every Indie author should be so lucky. I am so grateful. Merci Paula!!!!!xxxx. Anyway, I was happy to escape from the maternity ward for a day, put on my city togs and swan off with the Maître de Maison to see the Expo Seward. Especially as, along with the formal card, there was a more personal (and cheekier) invitation (see below) from the little bird which features in many of the artist’s paintings in various forms.  I like to think this one was the nightingale the ‘light-winged Dryad of the trees’ which had serenaded us in our garden all through May, charming many a magic casement and causing us to hold up the mobile phone countless times in an attempt to record its magic notes (all we got was crackle). Here it is.

O for a draft of vintage! A beaker full of the warm South…

PPS Villa Julia will be out in …the future….

*recounted in Why I Paint (available from the artist’s website)

**

https://laurettelong.com/the-music-of-the-spheres/

http://www.frenchvillagediaries.com/2018/03/lazy-sunday-in-france-with-laurette-long.html

***

https://grandbalconhotel.com

 

L’Autoroute des deux mers, a voyage through history. Part 1

 

engendred flours…

Whan that aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of march hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour…

The Canterbury Tales: The Prologue, opening lines

Geoffrey Chaucer, genial English troubadour of the 14th century, tells us that burgeoning April is the time that ‘folk long to go on pilgrimages’. But for us lucky dwellers in the home of French troubadours, Occitania, March is the month to take to the road and head south, eager to enjoy the first greening of the branches and the spectacle of the almond blossom. The amandier is one of the earliest trees to flower, its shimmering bridal bouquets of pink and white heralding the approach of spring along with the sherbet fizz of mimosa in bloom.

Early March found us setting off down the southern section of the Autoroute des Deux Mers, the Motorway of the Two Seas (las doas mars in Occitan), the road link between Atlantic and Mediterranean. The A62 section goes from Bordeaux to Toulouse, the A61 from Toulouse to Narbonne. During my many years as an adoptive Toulousaine, the A61 was the weekend escape route to sea and sun. Throw a toothbrush and swimsuit into a bag, head off straight after work on a Friday evening, and you could be at the coast in time for an aperitif au bord de la mer in less than an hour and a half.

La Grande Bleue
La Grande Bleue

But the A61 is not just a fast way to get to the waters of la Grande Bleue. It is also a reminder of some of the most fascinating pages in the history of this part of Languedoc. Today’s blog covers the first part of our March journey, through the Lauragais, past Castelnaudary, into the Aude and the beginning of the Corbières.

In 1662, Pierre-Paul Riquet, a man with a head full of projects and dreams, wrote a famous letter to Colbert, Finance Minister for Louis XIV, outlining his idea for the construction of a ‘royal canal of Languedoc’, linking France’s two great ‘seas’.

At the time, he was living in a chateau near Toulouse, known today as the Château Bonrepos-Riquet. One hundred years earlier, another chateau dweller, Michel De Montaigne, had left us a vivid record of the kind of man he was through his writings. But Riquet The Man is harder to pin down. Historians have portrayed him variously as over-ambitious, a dreamer claiming to act through divine inspiration, a misunderstood genius, and a wily player who managed to overcome different obstacles thrown in his path, mostly from Colbert himself who initially approved Riquet’s plans, but who then kept sending inspectors from Paris to check up on him, even considering replacing him for the second phase of work. The exchange of letters between the two men show numerous disagreements, as well as Riquet’s temerity in frequently disobeying Colbert’s instructions.

Photo by FRAMYJO: Riquet’s letter to Colbert 15 November 1662
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lettre_Riquet-Colbert_15-11-1662.jpg

My own picture of Riquet, the 17th century man of my imagination, has taken shape through what is known of his practical achievements, notably his wonderful legacy to inhabitants of successive centuries, the Canal du Midi.

First, there is Riquet the visionary and problem-solver, the man with the ambition, ingenuity and tenacity to bring to fruition a project that had long shimmered like an unattainable mirage in the minds of many before him. The Romans, Charlemagne, various French kings, had all dreamed of a waterway linking France’s west and southeastern coasts. If such a link could be built, as Riquet proposed, in the form of a canal, its economic and political significance would be enormous. Merchandise from the Mediterranean would no longer have to travel by ship on the long, hazardous voyage through the Spanish-controlled Straits of Gibraltar and round the Atlantic coast in order to reach Bordeaux and the west.

When he finally received official approval for work to begin, in 1666, Riquet had already started a series of experiments near his chateau in Bonrepos. He was in his sixties, rich, married with five children. He was at a time of life when most people, particularly in those days, would be thinking about putting their feet up and enjoying the fruits of a successful life and career. A spot of hunting, a nice glass of claret in the evening, banquets and balls at the weekend, leisurely strolls through the grounds to check on the progress of his park and formal gardens.

Pierre-Paul Riquet, French engineer, responsible for the construction of the Canal du Midi. Source: from http://www.canalmidi.com/anglais/paulrigb.htm

But instead he had been messing about in the 17th century equivalent of green wellies, testing his theories with a 300-metre model of his dream project, a prototype complete with reservoirs and channels. Why? Because the most difficult obstacle he would face, if ever work got started, would concern an unbudgeable geographical feature bang on the route of his projected canal.

In 1857, almost two hundred years after the opening of the Canal du Midi, bargemen were able to see trains speeding past on the new railway line from Toulouse to Sète. Today, tourists on barge holidays can also see cars, whizzing along the nearby motorway.

We join the A61 south of Toulouse, at Villefranche-de-Lauragais, and within minutes a sign announces we are crossing the Seuil de Naurouze. This is the symbolic moment the traveller leaves behind the rolling hills and wheat fields of ‘Atlantic’ France to join the cypresses, vines and olives of the Mediterranean. It is the highest point between Toulouse and the coast, the partage des eaux, where the water naturally divides, flowing on one side towards the western ocean and on the other towards the sea. It was this watershed that, in the 1660s, proved the biggest headache for Riquet. If we look to the left, beyond the canal, we see in the distance the looming mass of the Montagne Noire, the Black Mountains crucial to his success.

We know that Riquet was both a cultivated man and a man of the country. Born to an upper-class family in Béziers in 1609-ish (the date is disputed), he showed a keen interest in scientific studies. Through his career in the Languedoc salt trade, where he was responsible for transporting and storing the salt and collecting taxes due on it, he travelled widely in the area, settling, in 1648, in the town of Revel, in the Montagne Noire. It was here that he explored the countryside, observing the different mountain watercourses, noting their geographical and natural features and the possibilities of harnessing their power. Fortified by his subsequent experiments in Bonrepos, he became convinced that the water of the Montagne Noire could be used to feed into the canal at the Seuil de Naurouze and thus overcome the problem of the divided water flow.

Photo by Peter Guggerell, Vienna, Bridge over Canal du Midi
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bridge_over_Canal_du_Midi.jpg

We may also surmise that Riquet was an inspiring leader, one who was able to convince others of the feasibility of his theories, imbue them with enthusiasm for the project, while intelligent enough to realise his technical limitations and enlist the help of experts in the field, notably Pierre Campmas and François Andréossy. Once approval had been granted by a king who shared his ambition to leave a mark on history, Riquet threw himself into the project. From now on he would spend the rest of his days working to construct this marvel of engineering, ruining both his health and his finances along the way. In the Montagne Noire a channel system was devised to bring the water from the slopes and into the Lac de St-Férreol, where a huge dam was built, creating a reservoir whose waters were taken to Naurouze along a long supply channel, la Rigole de la Plaine. The first phase of the canal, from Toulouse to Trèbes, was completed in 1672.

The second phase got under way, with Riquet’s debts mounting. The whole project was gigantic, lasting for 15 years, encountering numerous practical and engineering challenges, and involving 12,000 workers, peasants, stonemasons, blacksmiths, as well as technical experts. As an employer, Riquet was in advance of his times, paying good wages, granting holidays and sick leave. Communication with such a large and diverse workforce was vital; Riquet was able to discuss with them in their own local language, Occitan. It’s interesting to note that among his army of workers were many women, some of whom came from the High Pyrenees and whose experience of managing the rivers and torrents in that area, constructing weirs, sluices and other ways of controlling the waterflow, was particularly valuable.

May 19th 1681. The great day of the inauguration of the Royal Canal of Languedoc had finally arrived. In Toulouse, a procession of boats set off, following a magnificent barge carrying various dignitaries including the Cardinal de Bonzi, who would perform the blessing, and Riquet’s two sons, Jean-Mathias and Pierre-Paul II. But sadly, Riquet himself was not with them, having died the previous year, on October 1st 1680, just months before the canal reached its final destination. His sons inherited the difficult task of its completion, along with huge debts.

Photo by Dedounet of the Lock of Fonserannes (Ecluses de Fonseranes à Béziers)
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Beziers_Fonseranes.jpg

A sad end to the story? The last major enterprise in which Riquet was involved was tunnelling through a mountain. This audacious project resulted in the 170-metre tunnel of Malpas. On the other side was Béziers, city of his birth, only a few kilometres from the coast. Did the visionary canal-builder have an inkling he would one day be revered as the architect of this wonderful 17th century monument, largest of all those commissioned by King Louis, and today, the oldest European canal still in use? The Canal du Midi is a UNESCO world heritage site and the many marvels on its 241-kilometre course from Toulouse to the Etang de Thau include Riquet’s last construction, the Malpas tunnel, and almost 100 locks, in particular the spectacular ‘staircase’ at Fonsérannes.

Illustration from French Country Cooking by Elizabeth David
Illustration from French Country Cooking by Elizabeth David

On the A61, we have passed the Seuil de Naurouze. The next motorway sign is for Castelnaudary, home to the major port on the canal. Most people, though, associate the town with its famous local speciality of beans, sausage and duck, le cassoulet. It’s tempting to think this peasant dish played an important culinary role in helping Riquet’s army of workers to keep digging. Mangez! Mangez! In the hands of a local grandmère it offers a marvellous blend of savours worthy of its standing as a classic of provincial cuisine. The three rivals for its invention are Toulouse, Carcassonne and Castelnaudary. In spite of my Toulouse connexions, I have to go along with Elizabeth David when the Queen of Cuisine plumps for the Castelnaudary version. Along with her delicious recipe, she also recounts an equally delicious anecdote by Anatole France, about the cassoulet served at small tavern in 19th century Paris, Chez Clémence.

We know,’ he writes ‘that in order to bring out all its qualities, cassoulet must be cooked slowly on a low light. Mother Clémence’s cassoulet has been cooking for twenty years. Occasionally she throws in goose or pork fat, sometimes a piece of sausage or a handful of haricot beans, but it’s always the same cassoulet.’

Elizabeth David, French Country Cooking
Elizabeth David, French Country Cooking

He goes on to explain that only in this way can the dish acquire its unique amber colour, similar to that found in the paintings of the great Venetian masters. One can only imagine what a European Union Health and Safety Inspector would have made of La Mère Clémence and her 20-year-old Venetian-hued cassoulet.

The kilometres pass, the scenery changes. In this increasingly stark landscape, fortified villages huddle on hilltops, church spires echoing the sombre lances of the cypresses below. Stunted bushes and leaning pines are whipped by ferocious, rampaging winds. In the distance, hills stand out in profile, impressive masses of stone and granite contouring the sky, the bleakness of their treeless slopes reminding us of much darker pages in the history of Languedoc, the bitter wars of religion and conquest that lasted for two centuries and would end, in 1229, with a re-drawing of frontiers in which the independent lords of the Midi would be brought to heel, replaced by conquerors from the north. Languedoc would henceforth be ‘royal’, a part of the kingdom of France.

 

Vous êtes en pays cathare...

Carcassonne, evening
Carcassonne, evening

To be continued…

On the link below you can find more information about the Canal du Midi plus a list of books written on the subject:

http://www.riquetetsoncanal.fr/pages/biblio.html

 

The Music of the Spheres

Cité de l'Espace, Toulouse
Cité de l’Espace, Toulouse

Visitors arriving by car in the city of Toulouse in south west France may be disconcerted to see a rocket ready to blast off just next to the motorway.

This is a replica of Ariane 5, rising 53 metres into the sky. Next to it is the Mir space station and Soyuz capsule, capable of withstanding temperatures of 1800°C as it re-enters the earth’s atmosphere-remember the perils of Sandra in the last blog?

Toulouse, affectionately known as ‘the pink city’ and ‘the city of violets’ in homage to its brick architecture and floral emblem, acquired a third epithet in 1997 with the inauguration of its theme park: City of Space.

It all started at the end of World War 1.

As Toulousains sat on the place du Capitole, the main square of la ville rose, savouring the new peace and admiring the glowing geranium colours, something was happening at a small airfield just outside the city. Pierre-Georges Latécoère was dreaming: of a new airline, new pathways through the skies, and an air postal service which would link France to its colonies in Africa and South America. The authorities scoffed at the idea. Latécoère said: ‘I’ve done the calculations again, the experts are right, our idea won’t work. There’s only one thing left to do–make it work.’

In December 1918, in a plane that looked like a flying matchbox, he flew across the Pyrenees from Toulouse-Montaudran to Barcelona. In March 1919, he flew from Toulouse to Barcelona, then to Alicante and Malaga before arriving in Morocco, at the city of Rabat. He was welcomed by General Lyautey, to whom he presented a copy of the previous day’s newspaper, Le Temps, and to Madame Lyautey, a bunch of Toulouse violets.

The future of civil aviation had begun.

At the ‘Lignes Aériennes Latécoère‘, later known simply as ‘La Ligne’, then ‘l’Aéropostale’, the pilots became heroes, risking their lives on perilous missions transporting the mail to Dakkar and Casablanca, and finally to South America. One of the most well-known aviators was Jean Mermoz, ‘the Archangel’, whose pioneering flights in Africa and South America made him a legend. His wavy swept-back hairstyle, ‘la coupe Mermoz’, became the No 1 hit in barbershops the length and breadth of France.

Mermoz lodged at the hôtel du Grand Balcon near the place du Capitole. It was a small establishment, the unofficial boarding house for the Latécoère crews. Another regular, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, is probably better-known to English-speakers as the author of ‘The Little Prince’. In his novel ‘Night Flight’ (‘Vol de Nuit’, published in 1931 and dedicated to Didier Daurat who directed operations at Montaudran) Saint-Exupéry wrote unforgettably of those lonely flights through the dark skies of South America, where pilots braved the shadowy, unforgiving peaks of the Andes, racing to deliver the mail between Buenos Aires and Patagonia, Chile and Paraguay, yearning for the dawn ‘like a beach of golden sand’.

Back at the hotel in Toulouse, the three genteel Marquez sisters who ran the place tried their best to keep the returning young adventurers in check. Female visitors were strictly forbidden so the pilots would smuggle their girlfriends up the creaking stairs by the simple expedient of tossing them over their shoulders. The story also goes that the sisters had a soft spot for their penniless lodgers and often ‘forgot’ to charge them for their dinner.*

The hotel (http://www.grandbalconhotel.com/) has been carefully re-modernised in keeping with its historic past. You can spend the night in Room 20, former quarters of the Archangel, or, like Saint-Ex, lean on the balcony of Room 32 and look out towards the place du Capitole.

Mariage au Capitole
Mariage au Capitole

 

Artist Gordon Seward painted this view of the place du Capitole from inside Room 32, before the hotel was re-modernised. Long-time and future fans of Gordon have a chance to see his latest work at his annual exhibition in Toulouse (l’Espace Bouquières, 25 May-13 June). Less fortunate mortals will have to be content with feasting their eyes on his dazzling talent on line:

http://www.gordonseward.fr/

 

From those early beginnings at Montaudran, Toulouse developed into Europe’s foremost city of aviation and space. New and revolutionary planes were dreamed of and brought to life. The first European rocket launcher, Ariane, was developed. Streets in the city bear the names of the early aviators; road signs direct you to aviation giants such as the Airbus group and Europe’s largest space centre at the CNES.

On May 8th the Cité de l’Espace threw open its doors to celebrate ‘Le ciel en fête’. The festival opened with two special events, a show in the planetarium and a piano recital.

That’s how I found myself, along with a couple of hundred fellow passengers, setting off on a journey into space, and beyond. Semi-recumbent, transfixed, we gazed up at the planets as they sped across the giant 600-square-metre-dome above our heads. Saturn and its rings, Titan, the biggest of its myriad moons; Jupiter, largest of the planets, a Fabergé egg decorated with a Great Red Spot, Venus, swathed in clouds, Pluto, the to-be-or-not-to-be planet.

The wonder and magnificence of that ‘other’ above our heads was overwhelming. The earth wheeled, the music swelled, we shot to the southern hemisphere, became Australians looking up into their night sky at the fabled Southern Cross and the Magellanic clouds.

The show ended, the lights came on. We moved like sleepwalkers into the Imax cinema for the piano recital. In front of a very large screen was a very small stage with a piano. From the whirling immensity of space we descended to one person and eighty-eight keys.

Oliver Mazal was our pianist.** He came on stage, bowed and in a quiet voice announced the first piece, Beethoven’s Sonata No. 14, ‘The Moonlight’.

The first solemn notes fell on the air with a weight and intensity that were a perfect counterpoint to the firework show that had just ended. The music guided our imaginations:  to Pascal’s ‘eternal silence of these infinites spaces’, to the mystery of our origins. On the giant screen the pianist’s hands appeared, gently and precisely touching the keys, drawing us back to the reality of a live performance in all its singular beauty.

But that was just the beginning of this second journey. As the audience called him back again and again, Olivier took us further, recreating through the genius of each composer-Beethoven, Brahms, Fauré-and the empathy of the interpretative artist, all of the passion, the drama and the joy that we had experienced in the planetarium.

Saint Exupéry said that it is only with the heart that one sees the truth of things. (‘On ne voit bien qu’avec le cœur. L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.’) That evening our hearts saw many things, many connexions. What links us space, to the universe, to exploration and the quest to go further. What links us to artistic creation, music, literature and painting. How imagination fires both science and the arts. How the past is important for the future. How we are linked to each other, all ‘children of the stars’.

The last word goes to a poet, connecting with us from two thousand years ago:

 

‘………………………………………..Then Iopas,

The long-haired bard, took up his gilded lyre-

Mighty Atlas himself had been his master.

He sang of the wandering moon and the toils of the sun;

He sang of the making of man and of the creatures;

Of rain and fire; of Arcturus and the Hyades

That bring the rain; he sang of the Twin Bears.

He sang why the suns of winter make such haste

To dip in Ocean, and why the nights are long

And move so slowly.’

Virgil: The Aeneid (translated by Patric Dickinson, Mentor Books 1961)

 * The story of the early aviators and the hôtel du Grand Balcon was first told to me by Laurent De Caunes. When I checked with him about the veracity of the ‘free dinners’ bit before posting the blog, I got this reply: ‘si la légende est plus belle que la réalité, c’est la légende qu’il faut imprimer!’ In other words, if legends are more beautiful than reality, go for the legends! The maître’s knowledge of la ville rose is vast, and he knows absolutely everything about opera, as you can discover on this link:

http://blog.culture31.com/2015/03/24/plaidoyer-pour-la-critique/

** Olivier Mazal at the Cité de l’Espace:

https://www.facebook.com/events/942740232444750/

 

PS: Oh yes–‘Hot Basque’ is out! You can download it from Amazon at:

http://www.amazon.fr/Hot-Basque-French-Summer-English-ebook/dp/B00XK2II3G

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Hot-Basque-French-Summer-Novel-ebook/dp/B00XK2II3G

 

Ouf!