This was a week of excursions. Yesterday, we rehearsed and sang in the biannual scratch choir concert in Puycelsi, a hilltop fortified village in the Tarn. As always, it was an inspiring event. The concerts are held in aid of the church restoration fund. The mainly 14th-century Eglise Saint-Corneille has a plain exterior but you are greeted inside by an explosion of colour from the wall and ceiling paintings.
We also visited Bach in the Lot for lunch with friends. I’ve written about its well-known restaurant, Lou Bourdié, but not about the village.
I can’t let this occasion go by without mentioning again Lou Bourdié and its patronne, the smilingly unflappable Monique Valette. Set in the centre of Bach, the main dining room is welcoming and traditional, with its huge cantou (inglenook fireplace) and massive rustic furniture. Through the serving hatch you catch a glimpse of Mme Valette preparing her dishes.
We were the only non-French. The clientele even included two gendarmes on their lunch break. Nobody turned a hair when they came in. I wonder what the reaction would be in the UK if a couple of uniformed bobbies turned up for lunch? Mme Valette greeted everyone warmly and we settled down to her country cuisine.
We feasted on soup, pâté maison and rich, dark rabbit casserole or duck parmentier (duck shepherd’s pie). Our friends had dessert, while the SF and I chose from the plâteau de fromages (this is one of the few places where you still get one and not just a couple of chilled slivers of tasteless brie on a plate). All this for 18€. The local house wine was extra, but reasonably priced and good.
At a crossroads
Bach is small but, like so many villages, was more important at one time. It stands on one of the Saint-Jacques de Compostelle routes and the section from Bach to Cahors is a UNESCO world heritage site. The old road from Rodez to Cahors, once an important trade route, also passes through the village.
Gallo-Roman remains have been discovered in the area and dolmens are abundant, testifying to prehistoric human habitation. The church dates from the 12th century.
Importance of water
What’s the origin of the name? It’s not clear, but it could be a corruption of the Occitan ubac (north-facing site) or the old French bach (reservoir). It’s pretty dry up there on the causse, but there’s evidence that a former stream once fed deep cisterns constructed in the time of the Hundred Years War and named puits anglais (English wells).
Every village had its lavoir (washing place), sometimes several. What interests me is that Bach’s Lavoir de l’Escabasse is about a kilometre outside the centre of the village. This one apparently dates from the 18th century and was excavated from the limestone.
The population figures tell you a lot about rural depopulation. In 1841, Bach had 718 inhabitants. The 2013 census listed 164. The steady decline began in the 1880s and continued to a low point of 124 inhabitants in 1982.
However, Bach was once the centre of a thriving but short-lived phosphate mining industry from about 1870. It was found that the Quercy region was rich in phosphates, used to manufacture fertilisers. Soon, the area was pocked with mines as the seams were exploited. They also contained well-preserved prehistoric fossils, coinciding with late 19th-century fossil-hunting fever and generating a secondary industry in their sale.
By the early 20th century, the seams were exhausted and all that remain are some holes in the ground, now prized for their paleontological interest. A former phosphate mine near Bach, les Phosphatières du Cloup d’Aural is open to the public. Time for a visit, I think.
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