When you live in a place for long enough, you start to take the landscape a little for granted. But if you stop and look a while, you ask yourself how it would be without all those trees clothing the hillsides. Around here, it’s oak (chêne) country. We are in the Rouergue here but are only a short hop from the ancient southwest province of Quercy, called after the Latin name for oak, ‘quercus’.
Some 600 different species of oak exist worldwide. It’s a remarkably versatile tree that can live in a variety of habitats. An evergreen oak, the ilex or holm oak, even exists around the Mediterranean. The most common variety in France is Quercus robur or pedunculate oak but there are various hybrids. Even my less than practised eye can pick out several different varieties in our neighbourhood. They are distinguished by their leaves, or their different sized and shaped acorns or by their girth and height.
Up on the arid causses (plateaux), the oaks are scrubby and stunted. They never get very tall and are often dwarfed and twisted from lack of water and withstanding the prevailing winds.
Oak roots are the favoured habitat of that elusive, pungent fungus, tuber melanosporum, the truffle. If you see what looks like an ordinary oak wood surrounded with swathes of murderous-looking barbed wire, you can bet it’s a truffière (truffle wood). Our neighbour says that truffles grow in the area around our house, although he’s careful not to say where.
Oaks have traditionally been indispensable to the French wine industry. The bark of cork oaks provides the bouchons to seal up the bottles. Wines have conventionally been aged in barrels made of oak that give them a more or less oaky flavour. Using oak chips to help flavour the wines is legal in Australia but not generally in France.
Because oak wood is so dense and hard, it’s long been favoured as a building material or for ships’ timbers. The ancient Fôret de Grésigne, mostly in the Tarn about 50 kilometres from here, is the biggest oak forest in the Midi-Pyrénées and now belongs to the French State. The forest became the property of the crown in 1271 on the death of Alphonse de Poitiers. Its wood was used extensively for the French navy, especially during the 17th century. From the 15th to the 19th centuries, glassmaking thrived in the forest, producing a blue-green glass, the secret of which is now lost.
Around here, along with the local stone, oak wood was the principal building material. All the beams and roof timbers in our house are of oak – as is the beautiful charpente (woodwork) that holds up the massive roof of our barn, above. When we bought the barn, we found several redundant beams lying on the floor. They appeared riddled with woodworm but, when we tried to saw them up for firewood, we realised they were like reinforced concrete inside.
Personal oak wood
I’m also rather proud of our own little oak wood, which contains some nice specimens. It has other species of tree too but the oaks lord it over them. I cleared a lot of the undergrowth by hand myself to allow the trees to thrive. But I did leave a big swathe untouched as a refuge for the birds and animals. The best example of all is right at the top of the hill, a majestic oak tree with a girth of 2.4 metres or almost eight feet. We estimate that it’s probably 200-300 years old. If only it could tell us what it’s seen in that time.
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