Monday, September 20, 2010
We have been filling our weekends with French country experiences since our return from Canada. I suspect it's partly because we know our days here are numbered, so want to fill them with the best of what the region has to offer. The weather has been spectacular, and we have enjoyed driving through small French villages and the lush, green pastures that lead up to the Pyrenees mountains.
Last Sunday we headed deep into Basque Country to pick up some pork. We have purchased customized pork packages from this family before with our friends, and this time it was our turn to make the trek to the farm. They raise an ancient breed of pig that is unique to the area. It is mostly black, and has huge ears that hang in its face. They roam freely, and this time of year they munch on the acorns and chestnuts that fall from the trees. They are fairly active, so don't grow very large, but do have a very high fat content, making it ideal for making cured legs with. It leads to a product less like a prosciutto, and more like a good jamon iberico/pata negra-if you are lucky enough to have tried this Spanish delicacy, then you know what the fuss is about. Anyway, this time we filled our freezer with fresh cuts, sausages, and the best boudin we have ever tasted. The pork is delicious, and well worth the two hour drive to pick it up.
We were given a tour of the beautiful and ancient farm. The farmhouse is almost as rustic today as it was 250 years ago. We were welcomed in for coffee, and it was humbling to imagine such a simple life. But the young gentleman that runs the farm loves the life, and is so passionate about his animals and land. This is not factory produced meat, and you just know that the product he sells benefits from the love and attention that he devotes to it.
Yesterday we attended a festival in a small village closer to home. The highlight of the weekend's festivities was a sheep herding competition. There were several thousand people in attendance to see which shepherd and dog would prove to be the best herding team. The shepherd stood in one spot, and directed his dog to herd the sheep through gates and around a huge field, often just by whistling. It was very fun to watch!
Next weekend, Provence to stock up on fresh olives, olive oil, and wine.
Sunday, September 12, 2010
Now here is a word not found in most people's vocabulary: transhumance. It means the seasonal movement of people with their livestock. A historical practice in many places, it still occurs annually in the Pyrenees Mountains. Shepherds bring their animals, most often sheep but also cows and horses, into the high mountain pastures in the spring. There, the animals roam freely and munch all summer long on fresh fields of grass and alpine flowers. The shepherd usually stays with them, residing in a very rustic hut where he makes cheese from the collected milk. This summer cheese is coveted because the milk produced while the animals feed on the high altitude grass and flowers has a superior taste to that produced from a diet of hay. In the fall the shepherd and his flock return to civilization and the farm for the winter.
This ancient practice has been modernized a bit, and the majority of the animals are transported by truck into the mountains, and back down again. But in our region, there is a shepherd that still makes the trek on foot. He, his herding dogs, donkey, and flock of sheep make the 300 km trip between mountain pasture and farm...on foot! Because this traditional practice is a rarity, the trip has become a bit of a celebration. The shepherd and his crew end each day in a different village that celebrates his arrival with a bit of a party: kids' games, and the French version of a BBQ. The animals spend the night in a village field, and rest up for the next leg of the journey.
On Friday we attended this celebration in a neighbouring village. We met the group on the outskirts of the village, and stood aside as the sheep streamed by us. Then we walked behind the flock as it entered the village and their rest stop for the night. They use the regular roads, which makes things interesting when cars meet the traveling group! There is no warning truck signaling their arrival, just one dog at the front of the pack, followed closely by the shepherd. It was quite a sight! And as you can see from the photos, the shepherd certainly looks like someone that spent the entire summer in a mountain hut!
Monday, September 6, 2010
Wow, where did the past two months go? When we returned to our home in France last Thursday, it sure didn't seem like two months had passed since we packed up the family and headed to Canada. But here we are, home again. Gilles returned to work today, and for the first time in many weeks, it was just Xavier and I, playing and reading books. Surely he must be bored of me already, after weeks of receiving constant attention from grandparents, cousins, friends, aunts, uncles, and anyone else that could shower him with affection.
We had a wonderful two months, and lucked out with fabulous weather. It was a hot and humid summer in the maritimes, and we took full advantage of it and enjoyed the beach, the outdoor pool, and the little kid pool. We spent August hanging out in several coastal areas, where we ate seafood, had beach fires, combed beaches for sea glass (an obsession I share with several other family members!), fished, watched whales, and enjoyed the salt air.
But summer vacation must come to an end, and it was inevitable that I would have to give up my babysitters. But it's not all bad: we visited the marche on Saturday and filled our bags with food that can only be had in France. And as we picked fresh figs from the tree down the street, we mused that it is good to be back.