I’ve been getting out and about a lot recently, interviewing people for various magazine articles. This gets me away from the computer and the internet and introduces me to places I might not otherwise have visited. On Tuesday, my mission was to go to Beaumont-de-Lomagne to interview garlic growers.
It’s an easy and pleasant 90 kilometre drive from us, on the other side of the département. Tarn-et-Garonne is one of the smaller French départements but the landscape is surprisingly varied. The countryside around Montauban is flat and not very interesting. But further southwest you come to the rolling hills of Gascony and the area known as the Lomagne. The bastide of Beaumont is one of its main towns.
Beaumont is a compact, well-preserved example of a bastide, the medieval new towns that sprang up during the 13th century throughout the south west. The streets are laid out in a grid pattern with a large central square, dominated by an immense market hall.
Beaumont was founded in 1276. Four years later, work started on the huge church but was not complete until 1430. It has a massive bell-tower, not unlike Saint-Sernin in Toulouse. The town contains good examples of half-timbered medieval houses and 17th/18th-century mansions.
Like many towns in the region, Beaumont was taken and re-taken during the Hundred Years War, suffered from the plague in the 14th century and was a pawn of both sides during the Wars of Religion in the late 16th century. It was involved in the fronde rebellion against Louis XIV, played a minor part in the French Revolution and was finally attached to the new département of Tarn-et-Garonne in 1808.
The celebrated mathematician Pierre de Fermat was born at Beaumont in the early 17th century (date not certain). He contributed to the early development of calculus, probability theory and number theory. He claimed to have solved and proved various theorems but many of his proofs have not survived, including that of his famous Last Theorem (don’t ask). When I went, his statue was being re-cast, so I saw only the empty plinth.
Nowadays, the town and surrounding area are particularly noted for the cultivation of garlic – l’ail blanc de Lomagne. I went to meet Céline Fresquet and Alain Sancey, leading lights in the association that promotes garlic and runs a huge fête every July in celebration of it. Céline took me on a tour of Beaumont, I interviewed them both over lunch and then we went out to Alain’s farm in the hills west of the town.
There, I met other members of his family, who progressively emerged from the fastness of an inner room to inspect this strange-accented person. Once they realised I speak French quite well, they all started talking at once and it took some time to get away.
Alain’s mother presented me with a large bag of aillettes. These are young spring shoots of garlic, not unlike spring onions to look at. The bulb does not develop until later.
Alain showed me how to peel and separate the white part.
‘Then you chop it up, not too finely, and fry it in oil,’ he said. ‘Drain off the oil and use the fried aillette to flavour an omelette. It’s delicious. Or you can use it in a salad or with sliced tomatoes. The flavour is less strong than mature garlic.’
Céline and Alain couldn’t have been more helpful. They spent a lot of time explaining how garlic is grown and conditioned and told me about the annual garlic fête, which attracts 15,000 people.
As Céline and I prepared to drive off, Alain leaned through the car window and wagged his finger at me.
‘We expect to see you at the fête on 20th July.’
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