Languedoc village life

November 26, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — Richard Williams @ 23:38


March 18, 2010

Global warming/global warning

Filed under: Uncategorized — Richard Williams @ 02:48

It’s true : this blog has fallen far short of its aim to bring you ‘snapshots of everyday life in the South of France’.

To make up for this appalling dereliction of duty, how about some ‘snapshots of extreme weather’?

This is the graveyard wherein lies buried all your summer vegetables.

These photos were taken exactly a week apart : this one taken today, in T-shirt weather. It’s the garden over at Sue & Steve’s house, that I’ve commandeered for the ArtHoliday hordes.

Everything survived a week of snow and sub-zero temperatures – even without the cloche-tunnel in place.

You’re looking at golden turnips, spring cabbage and beetroot, then garlic & shallots, and in the background broad beans. [OK – there were a few casualties . . . ]

March 9, 2010

stirring from hibernation

Filed under: Uncategorized — Richard Williams @ 16:42

It’s coming up to the end of February – when local lore has it that frosts are past and we can get  planting in the garden. But  winter has blasted back this week and spring looks a way off yet.

In January sunrise was around 8, sunset 17.30 and Isabelle urged me to come out while she was pruning at Lazagal, and see it rise over Montbrun ridge. La taille starts soon after the last leaves have fallen and the sap has returned to the roots, from November until the sap starts rising in March or April, when it can be sipped from the stem, clear & faintly sweet.

Temperatures often plunge below zero – with the Tramontane wind (local name: le cers > say: sairss) capable of 50+kph for days on end. It’s tough work even with electric clippers – that can take off a finger. That’s the heavy red battery-pack on her back.

Isabelle’s daughter Hélène is expecting her third baby anytime now – an early spring baby. Hélène was once the wild child of the village – “bound to come to no good . . . ” – who is now a solid citizen of the République, doing her bit for the country (which was falling behind with its birth-rate).

We’re getting gusts of 85 kph today . . .

La cloche du matin vient de sonner six heures,

À l’âtre le sarment brûle dans cent demeures;

Sur l’ordre à lui donné par Saint-Vincent martyr,

Le rude vigneron se dispose à partir.

Au dehors il fait froid, mais qu’importe à cet homme?

Il a chaud, il a bu son classique rogomme;

Satisfait de son sort, il s’en va tout joyeux

Braver de février le temps dur et pluvieux.

D. Violart 1878

With the woeful state of the wine market, and vineyards being torn up all over the region, the idea of the ‘vigneron content with his lot’ and setting forth at six am ‘joyfully’ is well out of date (if ever true).

More probable is the amount of rogomme or local brandy, he has drunk.


July 8, 2009

Swallows and Americans

Filed under: birds, painting holiday, wildlife — Tags: , , , , — Richard Williams @ 17:52

The swallows have enjoyed their weeks with us, raised their chicks, and flown the nest.

a parent arrives with food

open wide

They make quite a racket, the whole family – shreiking to be fed, or skreeching a warning.

Diane Olivier’s Plein Air art group were equally noisy : full of enthusiasm and energy. The two-week course sped by in a daze of food and wine and hot sunny days. It’s a ‘high’ point in the year for us and for Diane, whose passion for Languedoc is abiding – this was her fifth summer with us, and her ninth in the region.

Her group was a delightful mix –  unfailingly helpful and generous.

This is a  ‘grillade‘  put on by Charles and Isabelle out in their vineyards at Lazagal.

The soundtrack is not a crazed maraccas-player, it’s just the cicadas.

end of course party

Champagne and oysters on the terrace at the end of course party.

gathering for supper

Gathering for supper.

our garden vegetables

Our kitchen garden came ‘on-stream’ during the course : good news for Judith who only eats raw food. She amazed us all by preparing an iced coconut/honey/fruit delicacy for pudding, one evening. No cooking for us!

June 9, 2009

Filed under: sustainable — Tags: , , , — Richard Williams @ 23:47

And while we were away walking in the Pyrenees – our car was stolen.

This was a major tragedy, because we’d just bought a new battery, and filled the tank. We had just doubled the value of the car. We call it the Grey Rat – it’s a 24-year-old little Peugeot diesel runabout.

Crime is almost non-existant in these villages, so we felt particularly unlucky to have been singled out. It was probably a couple of lads who wanted some fun. They were smart enough to hot-wire it, and then take it cross-country and have a bit of a party. It was left neatly parked, a couple of villages away.

It took about 5 visits, to-and-from the Gendarmerie to sort out this major crime. The impossibly-young police couple who finally found me at the bottom of the garden watering the raspberries, were visibly having trouble matching this elderly little car with the huge house and pool. Meanwhile the criminals returned to re-steal the car for another little escapade.

The car is finally back – with its new battery, but minus half the tank of fuel. We’re glad about the battery – but sad they didn’t keep the car. It was splattered with mud and grass, like it had completed the Paris/Dakar Rally.

So while the Grey Rat was ‘on holiday’, we set ourselves to sprucing up The Blue Whale. This is an equally venerable machine – well known to previous visitors to Le Cerf Gris. It has taken many a group of artists out into the vines on painting courses, and before that, many a band of grape-pickers during the harvest weeks.

The Blue Whale - our 9 seater Trafic

The Blue Whale getting some TLC, with seedlings and mosaic in the background.

You may be getting the picture now : our house is old, but comfortably so. Our vehicles are old, but serviceably so. We ourselves are . . . not so young. But are comfortable with that – and very much serviceable.

The bigger picture is this : we’d all like a nice cheap new car – but it’s costing the earth.

The Green Party’s national spokesperson on sustainable development, transport consultant Professor John Whitelegg, last week told Classic Car Weekly, a magazine which is running an online petition against scrappage:

“In the Green Party’s view, cars – like most things – should be quality-built to last. They should be capable of being upgraded and retrofitted as technology improves.

“Some years ago a study showed that if a car’s life was extended from ten years to twenty, there were significant benefits in terms of both pollution and employment. Specifically, doubling the car’s life reduced its lifetime energy-use by 42% compared with scrapping it and building a new one, because repair and maintenance were more energy-efficient than new manufacture. And at the same time it increased the labour involved by 56%, because repair and maintenance were more labour-intensive than new manufacture.

“This is a very important factor as we try to tackle both a recession and the climate crisis – we need jobs and we need reduced emissions – so we need to go with the processes that involve more labour and less energy use. And that ultimately means building cars to last, then looking after them.

“Scrapping a perfectly good car is an outrageous thing to do from a Green Party perspective. Some 15% of the total energy associated with the car is in its manufacture – what’s called the “embodied energy” – and when you scrap the car before its useful life has ended, that’s energy thrown away.”

That’s the theory. When it comes down to reliability and ease of maintenance, most women would opt for a new small car. They do not want to find themselves stranded by the road-side, at the mercy of cowboy-mechanics or worse.

Our finances puts us at the ‘green-but-risky’ edge of things. We have 20-year-old machinery that I can fix, but Mary can’t. The Green Dilemma.

May 31, 2009

up and away from the village

We’ve run a number of walking tours over the years – with the groups based in England, and in Ireland – and with those interested in dolmens and prehistory, and wine groups.

There’s a myriad of walks in our corner of the Corbieres – easy ones along the Canal du Midi, and short stiff ones up our own Alaric mountain, just out of the village – with its Bronze-age burial tomb and settlement.

But these are just hills. Their older sisters and brothers lie just 50 miles south – Les Pyrenées. This is real mountain territory – with Le Pic du Canigou for us as its centrepiece. It’s a mountain-peak that is sacred to all Catalans, and at midsummer a fire is lit on its summit : Le Feu de Saint Jean. It is the signal for bonfires to be lit on hilltops throughout the Catalan region.

We’ve been up it, twice. It’s 2,785 m./9,137 ft. The actual summit is a tiny pinnacle with space for a few people, a handful of choughs, and one or two bees. The second attempt was denied us – wild wind and rain sent us all scrambling down a few thousand feet – to the hostel, and its bar . . .

But up there, when life is like an oven in our valley-plains, there is a permanent glacier.

High Ridge and glacier on canigou

Our first trek inspired Mary, co-director and painting teacher at Le Cerf Gris : a series of acrylics resulting from her drawings and photos.

This week we visited friends in the Pyrenees – and were able to revisit spring-time. The abundance of snow up in the high mountains this winter means that the rivers of our region are full – good news for all vignerons and gardeners. We walked up above 7000 ft. – where the streams begin their lives.

This is half-way up the Rialb valley – we’ve seen this valley in three seasons now : the last time we were here it was all snow, and but for one cross-country skier we had it all to ourselves.

Now with treacherous ice-shelfs to traverse, the walk has become serious.

Mary crossing the ice-shelf

At the pass, Port Vell , the view was breathtaking : Andorra to the south, and the frozen Blue Lakes to the north, in France. Trains of young choughs wheeled and keened overhead. Butterflies and bees pirhouhetted over alpine flowers.

The descent was through a mine-field  : day-glo gentians, massive yellow and purple orchids, eggyolk marsh marigolds – how not to crush this astonishing carpet of flowers.

Safe down at the valley floor, there were other surprises –

some kind of thistle in andorra

– a thistle we have yet to identify.

An hour’s drive will take you to the foothills of the Pyrenees, two hours and you’re up out of the summer heat. Three hours drive, and you’re in the tax-free shopping haven of Andorra, Europe’s richest region for wildflowers and wildlife.

May 23, 2009

undesirable americans in our vineyards

Filed under: organic, vines, vineyard, wildlife — Tags: , , , , , , — Richard Williams @ 05:20

The wine we drink at home and you drink on one of our mosaic courses or painting holidays, comes from Domaine Isabelle in the village. Charles and Isabelle have become our best friends in France – but in all the years we’ve known them I’ve never worked in their vines.

breakfast in the vines

Mid-morning breakfast: Isabelle, her bread, their pâté, their wine – and Miga.

They have always practiced ‘ agriculture raisonnée’ – paying due respect to wildlife and conservation methods, and using the minimum of chemicals necessary.  Now they are going 100% ‘ biologique’ or organic – which involves even more work. And which involves me this week.

The rows between the vines – les sillons, as in Roussillon get regular harrowing,  to keep down weeds and aerate the heavy clay. But the gaps (les billons or cavaillons) between the vine-plants themselves pose a different problem : how to deal with the weeds without damaging ‘ les souches’ .

Up to the ’50’s, the work was done by hand – with the hoe and the horse-drawn décavailloneuse. The tractor speeded up the process – but the work remained the same : careful ploughing around every vine. It was the advent of powerful chemicals in the ’70’s that changed the  ‘nature of the game’.

decavailloneuse and alaric mountain

One man with a sprayer and a 5 euro bottle of glyphosate (initially patented and sold by Monsanto in the 1970s as Roundup) could do the work it took two men a day to do – in an hour. The double-bladed décavailloneuse above was brought out of retirement this week.

Below is a video of Isabelle and me, guiding the handles – with Charles at the wheel.

The trick is to help the curved bars in front of the ploughshare to strike – or stroke – the base of the vine. These guide-bars –  les tâteurs, literally tasters or feelersare linked by lever and spring so that the shares are retracted – just in time . . . But a ridge of earth with tough old weeds has formed at either side which frequently spoils the neat movement in and out. That’s where you see Isabelle battling to push the blade back out, or me yanking the lever back in before it rips out a vine. It’s quite physical – and you really shouldn’t take your eye off the ground for an instant . . .

Isabelle getting physical

The trick for Charles was to keep a steady line precisely down the middle of le sillon – the slightest deviation of the little front wheels makes a big difference 4 metres back at the blades – quite nerve-racking.

Two regional expressions of this work: tirer le régou, from the provenςal rega, a furrow; and tirer le crépis, a wavy line. Where the weeds are thin and le billon not too humped,  le tâteur can be left to work on its own. But our second parcelle were merlot vines – fragile plants compared to the cabernet, which is tough and supple ‘comme le chewing-gum‘ says Isabelle. She hates this particular parcel of vines. It was badly planted from the outset by the neighbour they bought it from : too closely spaced, and not trained to grow straight when young. So now we are pushing and pulling, swearing and swerving around these bent stems – and occasionally ripping them out. Our score was even at the very end – 3 all – when she lobbed her last victim onto the bonnet.

dead merlot

And the undesirable américains? Here’s one we we uprooted –

un americain

It’s a stump of the late-19th. century root-stock that all French vines were grafted on to, to protect them from phylloxera. Its advantage was the thick bark that the insect couldn’t penetrate – its disadvantage the fact that its grape-buds never develope. Its a hardy root with a love of life – but also just another weed that has to go.


By coincidence we both own identical ’80’s-style shades : les Blues Brothers says Charles, or the Gondoliers (from Planet Gondo . . .)

Here’s a link to a short video of a horse-drawn décavailloneuse, from 2006 near Nimes, as part of a demonstration  by Jean Clopes, au Mas de Theyron à Boisseron (Hérault) – and to the blog of Stephan Pz writing about the same work,  up-country en Pays de Layon, Anjou.

May 18, 2009

monday, monday

Filed under: compost, kitchen garden, manure — Tags: , , , , , , — Richard Williams @ 21:55

Mondays are blue-days. Gray-days. Non-days. Un-days.

Not here! If it’s a Monday on one of our mosaic courses or painting weeks, it’s when the fun gets serious : the saturday-night meet-up is over and people have begun to get to know eachother. On Sunday the course week is mapped out and there’s been plenty of questions asked and answered. The village has been explored for the first time, and the jet-lag has been smoothed-over, with good food and wine.

So come Monday morning, painters and mosaic-makers are hard at work, having fun.

But what are we doing – when you’re not here?

a ton of horsefeathers

We are following our guiding precept of ELP : Economise, Localise and, uhmm . . . Productivise. Mary has left me at the stables – she’s doing the shopping. I’m mucking out a couple of  boxes, and this ton of horse-feathers is going back to fill our new triple compost bins. The fruit of this monday-morning’s work won’t be appreciated until next year, when all kinds of good stuff will blossom from our new kitchen gardens.

The rain has stopped – the sun is out – the birds are singing and the horses are whinneying to eachother : all’s well with this little corner of the world.

three bins of compost

You’re looking at a ton of manure, and half a ton of grass-scytheings, judiciously layered and watered.  What you don’t see is the workman with sweat-streaked face and straw in his tangled gray locks.

I’m fit – but in a few weeks I’ll be 59 : where’s my slippers and my pipe and my pension? I’ll take a couple of hours off to post this up – then help my son Daniel cement in the west-terrace balustrade – it’s only something I’ve been putting off for six years . . .

May 17, 2009

hat trick

Filed under: birds, wildlife — Tags: , , , , , — Richard Williams @ 22:42

The wind came in the night, the clouds flew away, and we had a a rare day of hot sun and still air. It seemed to have thrown us all off course: for in the space of a few hours we managed to save or snap these three –

black redstart

It’s a black redstart (that’s red-arse, but in old english) that got trapped in the barn studio where we run our mosaic courses and painting weeks. It was exhausted and confused, and thus allowed me the chance to get a snap.


Then this little creature turned up in the swimming pool – with no way out. It’s un couleuvre , an ordinary grass snake or water snake (thus its latin name, Natrix natrix). We don’t use many chemicals in the pool – the chlorine level is so low that swifts and swallows swoop to drink from it . . . but I put it back out by the stream that runs through the village anyway. Some holiday visitors might not want to share the pool with this harmless little fellow.


This time it’s the female yellow dragonfly. Mary found one that was so dazed by the sun that it sat on her finger – this one however, was found in the pool, beyond help this time.

We’ve never had weather like this, and have never had visitors like these come so close. They are not rare, but we’ve never had the opportunity to examine them so closely.

Yellow Dragonfly


May 9, 2009

hoopoe lane

Filed under: birds — Tags: , , , , , — Richard Williams @ 13:52


The arrival of the hoopoes in April means that spring has really arrived. They are inelegant flyers:  more flap-and-swoop, and very shy. They like the lane below our house that leads out of the village. And that’s where I ‘filmed’ one calling – buty the time I turned the bend, it had gone ( so that’s why I had to borrow a photo from the web . . . ) The recording is on the Birds of Moux page, right >

Its name derives from the latin upupa, origin onomatopoeic after its call « houp-oup-oup », seen in many languages and dialects –  in Britain hoopoe, in Italy upupa, in Holland (weide-)hop etc. Its formal name  in France is la huppe, but in the centre of France it’s called « bout bout »  and « pue pue » in certain regions – an allusion to the bad smell of its nest.

Then the swallows return – looking for a good nesting spot. It takes them a while to get used to us coming and going below them in the garage (built high to accommodate waggons of hay, and coaches.)


There’s a short video of them fluttering about, over on the Birds of Moux Page.


Some years it’s been the redstarts that get the nesting place first – but for the past two years it’s been swallows – and possibly the same pair.

Every week in April and May brings a new arrival. Last week it was the little scops owl, happy to flit about our dilapidated barns or perch in the daytime in our little parc, or woodland area.


One day I may catch one on camera . . . but in the meantime I can record them at night, briefly calling – for a mate? over territory? You can hear it on the Birds of Moux page – plus nightingales by day and night.

Last week also saw the swifts back – swooping and shrieking round the houses like so many giddy kids. Occasionally there are mishaps.

swift drinking

This one crashed into a window. They rarely perch, and find it hard to take off. Mary found this one exhausted on the west terrace, and guessed correctly that it needed water.


I scooped it up and relaunched it off the terrace.

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