So much has been going on in this area during the past few weeks that I scarcely know where to begin. This is typical summer in rural France. For a couple of months there is a plethora of cultural events, concerts, fêtes and jumble sales taking place. On 1st September, someone flicks a switch and normal life resumes. Le Figaro magazine is already carrying features about la rentrée.
Personally, I won’t miss the sheaf of leaflets that appears under the windscreen wiper every time I park somewhere for five minutes. But it’s always a bit sad when the fête season is over for another year.
Celebrating rural life
It’s quite common for local fêtes to celebrate rural life in times past. I’ll describe two of them below.
The agricultural revolution came late to France, but it swept away the old way of life in less than a century. Scratching a living from the poor soil here was a thankless task, made even harder by the extremes of climate and the lack of water. Farmers therefore welcomed inventions such as harvesting and threshing machines and fertilisers that enabled them to increase their yields several-fold. Few people foresaw that this would accelerate rural depopulation and lead to the decline of the old cottage industries.
Our friend Claude told us that, among other innovations, tractors now use GPS to identify the parts of the field that need more or less fertiliser and automatically regulate the dose.
‘My parents ploughed with oxen,’ Claude said. ‘I can’t believe how much it’s changed in 60 years or so.’
Fête des battages at Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val
This fête is held in early August each year in the riverside town of Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val. Local producers sell their wares and a parade of old tractors and other ancient vehicles draws in the crowds. The highlight is a demonstration of how threshing was done with the early machines.
There is also a demonstration of walnut oil milling in the 19th-century oil mill, installed in a 15th-century building. This method of pressing oil dates back to Roman times. We crammed into the tiny space to watch a horse drawing the huge millstone over the shelled walnut kernels. In the absence of olive trees, walnut oil was widely used in this region for cooking and flavouring dishes.
However, we didn’t see any oil: it was the wrong time of year. The walnuts are not ripe until early October and the oil is pressed in the late autumn. Our friend Jacques has promised to take us to an oil mill on the Lot – but we will have to provide at least 10 kilos of shelled walnuts if we want to take away our own oil. Apparently, it takes 35 kilos of whole walnuts to produce 12-14 kilos of kernels, which in turn produce about 5 litres of oil. We’re going to have our work cut out.
Fête de la fenaison à l’ancienne at Espinas
Espinas, about which I have written many times, is a small hilltop village. It welcomes thousands of people to its fête every August when the villagers dress up in ancient costume and demonstrate the old métiers. Life-sized figures dressed in old clothes, representing the former inhabitants, are stationed around the village with explanations of the tasks they are engaged in.
Espinas also has a vintage tractor parade and there are demonstrations of harvesting and haymaking using machines pulled by oxen. I actually took the shots of oxen below at Saint-Antonin but I wouldn’t be surprised if they were the same ones that appear at Espinas later on.
I have to admit that we didn’t go this year. It was nudging 40°C last Sunday and we have seen it a number of times before. Apparently, a lot of people kept away because of the heat. However, more than 600 people sat down to the traditional repas campagnard in the evening.
I wrote an article about the French tradition of country fêtes in the July issue of the now sadly defunct The French Paper. I included Espinas as an example. Nadette Curato, who runs the Syndicat d’Initiative and organises many of the local events with husband René, kindly agreed to be interviewed for the article.
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