Absinthe Friends

Degas - L'Absinthe

L’Absinthe (1876) by Edgar Degas, in the Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Public domain.

It’s the drink that symbolised the Bohemian culture of la Belle Epoque in late 19th  to early 20th-century Paris. It was consumed by Toulouse-Lautrec, Baudelaire and Satie, painted by Degas and Manet and immortalised in early silent films. This beverage had a harmless-sounding nickname, la fée verte (the green fairy), but came to be demonised for its supposedly harmful effects. What is it? Absinthe. Continue reading

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S.O.S. French Towns

Villefrance - Collegiale de Notre Dame

Collégiale de Notre-Dame in Villefranche-de-Rouergue.

A few days ago, I had coffee with two friends in the centre of Villefranche-de-Rouergue. This Aveyron town, some 25 km from us, is one of my favourite towns in the region. It’s an attractive place, steeped in history and occupying a magnificent site on a hill stretching down to the River Aveyron. The 13th-14th– century collégiale (cathedral) towers over the town centre. But something is very wrong there. Continue reading

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French Flavours: Poule Farcie, a Classic French Dish


This one’s not for stuffing

The ubiquitous roadside posters advertising French fêtes and other social events very often have “poule farcie” emblazoned across the centre. This dish has a number of advantages for large gatherings. It can feed a lot of people and much of it can be done in advance. Chicken is no longer the luxury item it once was, although a Bresse chicken might set you back a bit. And it has the virtue of providing the starter as well as the main course. Continue reading

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A Film Record of an Aveyron Family Post-WWII


Belcastel (Aveyron), not far from Farrebique

Just after WWII, Aveyron was a different country from much of France. It took a long time to get there from anywhere else, people spoke a different language and the way of life had existed for centuries. Change was happening, but it was slow, and age-old customs and traditions clung on. Georges Rouquier, a documentary-maker, captured this world in his film Farrebique, shot in 1946. We saw it at the cinema in Saint-Antonin recently. Continue reading

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Hidden Treasure in Quercy

Phosphatiere - 30 metre gulf

Former mine – what was so precious here?

Imagine yourself at the bottom of this 30-metre deep hole, hacking away at the white rock with a pickaxe and piling the spoil into a wooden bucket.  It’s damp. Visibility is assisted only by the dim light of lanterns. The reddish clay coats your boots, clothes and hands. What are you mining? Precious metals? Gemstones? Coal? None of those but, nonetheless, a kind of hidden treasure that inspired its own “gold rush” – phosphate. Continue reading

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Mushroom Feast

Mushroom season

Mushroom season – I am told this one is edible

I am very partial to mushrooms, but I’m hopeless at finding them – at least the edible variety. This year is a mushroom year. Something about the climatic conditions – a damp September? – has had them popping out of the ground in places they don’t normally grow. Unfortunately, by the time I get there, they are past their best. And countless people are poisoned in France every year by the wrong sort of mushroom. Continue reading

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Well, Well, Well: Finding Water in Bygone Days


Our well, lovingly restored by the SF

Sorry, I couldn’t help the pun. Water has been on our minds rather a lot this year, what with the contamination of our local water supply a couple of months ago. That now seems to be resolved, fortunately. However, our well ran dry yesterday and it will be some time before it replenishes itself. Just as well (sorry, that wasn’t intentional) that the watering season is drawing to a close. Continue reading

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The End of Summer

Autumn colours 10-15 1

Autumn leaves

Autumn is now truly upon us. We have had some lovely, warm days recently, but as soon as the sun dips under the horizon the air cools quickly. Some mornings, the temperature has been close to 0 degrees C already. The walnut trees started dropping their nuts early this year, but we have had a surprisingly good crop, despite adverse weather conditions. And our lawn has been studded with rosés des près, the white mushrooms that start as balls and then flatten out into plates as they grow. Continue reading

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Every Château Tells a Story #15: Le Château de Puylagarde

Puylagarde chateau

Château de Puylagarde

The village of Puylagarde has several distinctions. First, it’s the highest village in our département of Tarn-et-Garonne at 425 metres. On a clear day, you can see the Pyrénées to the south and the Monts du Cantal to the north east. Second, it has two châteaux. Admittedly, one of those is a châteaux d’eau, whose function is to distribute water under pressure of gravity. It is a landmark for miles around. The other is a fortified house, of whose existence I was barely aware until recently. Continue reading

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Vaour and the Templars


Vaour - commandery barn

The ruins of the former Templar commandery, Vaour

Situated on the edge of the former royal Forêt de Grésigne, the town of Vaour conveys a strong sense of history. This is not surprising, since traces of Neolithic tombs and later occupation can be found in the forest. Vaour itself is the site of an important Templar commandery. It’s easy to drive straight through the town – as we have done, to our shame – without visiting this historic site. Continue reading

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Summer’s Lease Hath All Too Short a Date: La Rentrée

SW France summer market stall

Summer sight: the olive stall in our village’s Saturday market

Yesterday, the summer holidays ended in France as children went back to school, people packed away their holiday gear for another year and workers prepared themselves for the routine of métro, boulot, dodo (subway, work, sleep). The eight weeks or so that appeared invitingly long at the beginning of July raced past in reality. In fact, the signs of summer winding down had been apparent in our area for the previous fortnight. Continue reading

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20 Years of la Vie Française

Caylus - view from the hill

Our village

Last weekend marked the 20th anniversary of moving into our house in France. We had arrived in France a few days earlier, but we regard the occupation of the house as the true anniversary. This year I had a long drive home from Charroux in Vienne, where I had been attending a literary festival, while the SF was preparing for a minor medical intervention. So there were no fireworks or bunting, just a symbolic glass (or two). We will make up for it later. Continue reading

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Ma Vie Française #5: Author Olga Swan

Olga’s favourite tree in Gaillac

My latest guest is a somewhat unusual occupant of this slot, in that she had une vie française but doesn’t anymore. More of that below. Olga Swan has had several novels published by Crooked Cat Books, including Vichysoisse, part of which is set in this area of SW France during World War II. Her humorous memoir of her life in France, Pensioners in Paradis, is coming out shortly. Let’s hear from Olga herself. Continue reading

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Bons Voisins – Good Neighbours

Les convives enjoying an apéritif

I’m constantly amazed at French people’s ability to conjure up a social event from unpromising components, whether it’s an apéritif, an improvised barbecue or a full-blown fête. Last night, some neighbours organised a repas de quartier, a neighbourhood meal, which are becoming all the rage. Everyone within a fairly wide radius was invited to bring dishes to share. Continue reading

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Varen: Haven by the River Aveyron

View of the château/deanery

I never cease to be amazed by the new things (to me) I discover in this region, where I have lived for 20 years. We haven’t set foot in Varen for ages and even then we didn’t stop to have a good look around. We rectified that last week when we went for dinner at le Moulin restaurant (more of that below). This small but historic village by the River Aveyron in northeast Tarn-et-Garonne rewards the wanderer with some time to spare. Continue reading

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Un café, s’il vous plaît

Coffee beans, Mark Sweep via Wikimedia Commons

Coffee fuels the French, who have a penchant for strong black espresso-type coffee. Having to use coffee substitutes during World War II must have been a real hardship in that case. A chance remark to that effect during a recent dinner conversation with friends got my blogging antennae going. Continue reading

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French Flavours E and F: Two Aveyronnais Specialities

Villefranche-de-Rouergue market in the shadow of la collégiale. You’ll find both dishes on stalls here

Time for another instalment of my French flavours series. I realise I have only got to ‘E’ and we’ll never get to the end at this rate, so this week I’ll do ‘F’ as well and you get two for the price of one. Both dishes are traditional recipes from Aveyron dating back centuries. You learn a lot about history and culture just by studying what people eat. Continue reading

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Water, Water, Everywhere – But Not a Drop to Drink

Entrance to the Source de Livron, which provides the area’s drinking water. According to local legend, it was once a dragon’s den.

The joys of living in a rural French commune. We currently have to collect our drinking water daily in bottles from the Syndicat des Eaux (local water board), which for us involves a round trip of about 18 kilometres. The tap water is contaminated with cryptosporidium parasites that cause respiratory and gastrointestinal illness, and may not be safe to drink. Because of the drought? Nope. The opposite. Continue reading

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Discovering a Former Railway Line

Former station house at Féneyrols

Do you enjoy travelling by train? I do, except of course when it’s cancelled or held up by the wrong sort of leaves or by vandals removing the copper from the electric cables, as happened to us recently in Sweden. We especially enjoyed travelling on the narrow-gauge, single-track railway in Corsica when we visited once without a car.

Micheline at Ajaccio Station. These trains were still in service when we backpacked in Corsica, but have been replaced by modern rolling stock.

Sorting through my hundreds of photos recently, I came across the one at the top of the post. It’s the station house for Féneyrols, on the River Aveyron. The sharp-eyed among you will have noticed an anomaly: there is no railway track. Continue reading

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Chèque ou Espèces? Cheque or Cash

French cheque book

It often takes a holiday in another country to throw into relief the quirks of the one you live in. We returned recently from 10 days in Sweden (hence the blogging hiatus), where things are a bit different from France. In France, you may well be asked if you want to pay by cheque or cash in a shop or restaurant. In many Swedish establishments, people will look at you as if you have just descended from Mars if you try to pay by either of those methods. Continue reading

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All Fired Up: Bread Ovens

Bread oven in La Piale, near Castanet

Bread oven at Lassalle, near Caylus

You may have seen these small, domed buildings, often tacked onto the back of a house, in French villages. They’re part of le petit patrimoine, not significant enough to merit historic monument status but important vestiges of past times, nonetheless. In the days when popping out to the boulangerie wasn’t feasible, the four à pain (bread oven) was one of the focal points of the local community. Continue reading

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Getting a (Social) Life in France

French gathering

Making friends is difficult when moving to a new country. Twenty years ago, our Brummie removal men asked, “Do you know anyone here?” When we said no, they shook their heads in disbelief. If you move to la France profonde, you’ll find developing a social life is somewhat different from doing it in the UK – the language sometimes being a stumbling block. So here is our experience. Continue reading

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Preparations for the Fête at Teysseroles

Chapelle de Teysseroles by local artist James Burr

I haven’t written much recently about the church at Teysseroles, which we are helping to restore. This is mainly because not a great deal has happened. I have to admit I find the sporadic activity on the restoration frustrating, but this is France and c’est la vie. The wheels of French bureaucracy grind exceeding slow, while Mairie, architects, Bâtiments de France and subsidy providers move forward one step at a time. However, our annual fundraising fête continues and we’ve been preparing the site ahead of time. Continue reading

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Ma Vie Française #4: Janine Marsh and the Good Life

Janine Marsh

Today, I’m excited to welcome someone who not only lives in France, but also has visited every corner of it. Janine Marsh runs a phenomenally successful website, The Good Life France and edits a free ezine, The Good Life France Magazine. She has recently published a book, My Good Life in France: In Pursuit of the Rural Dream, which charts her experiences of her unexpected property purchase, eventual move to France and observations on la vie française. I caught up with her between travels this week. Continue reading

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Restoration of the Lavoir in Caylus

Lavoir in Caylus – current restoration project

Lavoirs, or wash-houses, are features of the landscape around here. In times past, this is where the women (naturally…) did their laundry. They were normally constructed by a spring or a stream, so if the women were lucky, there was one in their village or hamlet. If they weren’t, they had to go some distance to the nearest one. This explains why some of them are sited in places far off the beaten track. Continue reading

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French Flavours: D is for Diablotins au Roquefort

I have been continuing my researches to bring you another in my series of recipes of Southwest France. Here’s one you’ve probably never heard of – diablotins au Roquefort. I certainly hadn’t. Easy to make, with readily-available ingredients, they are composed of products that have been made and harvested in this region for centuries. Continue reading

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Finding Our House in France

Moon…and stars

Today is a very special one on La Lune. It’s 20 years ago to the day since we first saw our house. During our five days’ house-hunting in France, among the legion of properties we saw only two fitted the bill. Here’s the story of our adventures. It’s a rather longer post than usual, but that’s because I have edited and stitched together four posts that I wrote some years ago. I thought those of you who are new to the blog since then might like to read about it.  Continue reading

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#Paris in the Springtime #2

Notre-Dame de Paris

Here’s part 2 of the story of our first visit to Paris in 15 years. We had only three days in the capital, and so we were determined to make the most of it. Our shoe leather was definitely more worn by the end, but central Paris is compact enough to make walking the easiest form of transport. As well as things we had done before, we also made a point of trying new experiences. Continue reading

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Paris in the Springtime #1

View of Montmartre

People often say to us, “You must visit Paris all the time!” Actually, we’ve been there only twice as tourists in our 20 years in France, and I’ve been there for the day (!) a couple of times for work. We live more than 600 km from Paris and the train service is currently slow, although that is planned to change from July. Last week, we rectified the situation. Continue reading

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Tree Pests: Pine Processionary Caterpillars

Cocoon of pine processionary caterpillars

I trained my binoculars on the tree and zoomed in. My suspicions were confirmed. There was no doubt that the beginnings of a white cocoon about halfway up were the work of pine processionary caterpillars. If you look closely, you can even see one hanging off the bottom of it. Their tell-tale cocoons can be seen in large numbers in some pinewoods, and they are among the most devastating of tree pests in Europe. Continue reading

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