Saturday, 27 October 2007

VTT day ... and a half!

Today was the day that Pat and Kevin were going to have a look at the forest tracks route that Kev had identified on the map and which looked, on paper, like it should be around 33km with 700m of ascent. Yep, I'm up for it, I said, sounds like fun, particularly since I had really enjoyed my mountain bike outing with Pat last week. Besides, it would be good to get a feel for some more of the forest tracks in the area so that Andy and I can take ourselves off and explore further in future.

The first part was along a very quiet single track road on the other side of the valley from the Col de Port. Easy riding. After about 50 mins, we reached the point where we branched off onto the forest track. My Garmin GPS training device was showing 12 and Pat chirped up '12km, yes, that's about right'. I remember thinking 'has it really taken us nearly an hour to do 12km?' We hadn't exactly been hanging about! I should have listened to my intuition. Anyway, the turning that we then needed to take off the main track should apparently have been another 4 to 5km further on. We realised after too long that a) we had missed the turning and that b) my Garmin was for some reason showing miles and feet instead of km and metres! We had no idea where we there. The only sensible thing we could do was to turn round and retrace our steps. Anyway, here is a piccy of Kev!
The return route, once we reached the road again, seemed to go on seemed to be one steady incline whereas I didn't remember it being a downhill run on the way out. And to make matters worse, it soon dawned on us that the 12km that Pat had expected from where we had parked was in fact more like 12 miles! I didn't recognise the route back and questioned whether we were in fact on the right road. I kept on expecting the van to be parked over the next hill but each time I was disappointed. I started to suffer from a lack of fuel and bonked in the last couple of miles as the upwards gradient took its toll. There was nothing left in me. I was shattered.

It was only when I got home and downloaded the data from my Garmin and plotted it onto my Memory Map mapping software that I discovered we had in fact covered over 65km with over 1300m of ascent during which I had burned over 2000 calories! No wonder I was dropping. Lessons were learnt from the outing but it was an enjoyable few (4!) hours on the bike. My legs had felt strong and I felt fit. So it's all good :-)

Friday, 26 October 2007

Barn flooring arrives!

The nice man from Mr Bricolage turned up this morning with our load of 'dalles agglomérés', or tongue and groove chipboard panels from which we will create the 1st floor of the barn. The only 'problem' we have is that the barn is not exactly square and the beams are not exactly even, so it looks like we will have our work cut out to get a good level floor laid! Watch this space!

Wednesday, 24 October 2007


We bit the bullet and made the trek up to Toulouse again today. However, instead of just gracing Ikea with our presence (we needed more rugs, cushions, bed stuff), we decided to make a proper day of it and head into Toulouse city itself where we would have lunch and do some shopping - if Andy couldn't find his 'rouleau patissier' (rolling pin) in Toulouse then there was no hope! Besides, I had heard it was a lovely city and well worth exploring.

So, after the obligatory Ikea trip, we got parked up in central Toulouse by 1pm and headed straight for 'La Maison du Cassoulet' for which I had read excellent reviews and which promised quality regional cuisine. We were not disappointed. We both had a very pleasant salad for starters followed by coeur de canard (ducks' hearts), flashed to perfection in a frying pan and I had monchons de confit de canard which just dropped off the bone. Fantastic cuisine and I was so pleased we had at last had a decent meal out, following several previous disastrous attempts to have a proper French 'luncheon'.

Lunch was followed by a meander into the shopping area which was a wonderful mix of the traditional and the modern, with little cafes and brasseries tucked away in old streets but also modern department stores and designer shops. We did find the wooden rolling pin that Andy has been searching for, so no excuse now for not making me loads of yummy patisserie!

Sunday, 21 October 2007

Big stuff and bigger stuff!

Not posted for a few days as we haven't really been up to a great deal. Only shopping in Pamiers, spending loadsa money (well a bit) on some chipboard flooring for the barn which will be delivered this coming Friday. We have also boosted our wood supplies by recovering and logging various bits and pieces that we have found within walking distance of Pissou. Our woodshed/pig poke is now pretty much full and the overflow is being stored under the tree on the terrasse :-)

But anyway, I digress.... look at the size of these....!

They are 'Coulmelle' or Parasol Mushrooms which have suddenly started springing up around here - the cap on a mature one is a good 6 inches across! It is advisable to only eat the cap, as the stem is very tough and woody. So we chopped up the two big ones and one of the smaller ones and tossed them into a cast iron pot along with a chunk of beef and had it for tea .... yummy! And no funny belly next day either, which is good news. We will be on the look out for more!

The 'bigger' in the title above, refers to this which is 110m high - it will no doubt be awesome in the spring once the winter snows melt. I took the pooch up there this afternoon as we both needed a bit of exercise ... it was a bit of a walk/run thing. I had the intention of carrying on up past the waterfall, climbing another 300m to reach the Etang du Garbet but I had a banging headache and decided instead to retrace my steps. But the view from the falls was lovely, with the autumn colours in all their glory looking down towards the Aulus valley.As a point of information, the path to the falls from Aulus and beyond, up into the mountains and through into Spain was used during the 2nd World War as an escape route for French resistance fighters. I found this story particularly touching. One day, I would love to undertake this route which has loads of historical significance ... you can imagine the trials and tribulations of people following the same route during the 2nd World War when their lives were at stake.

Wednesday, 17 October 2007

VTT day

Well, my mate Pat is still on her own (Kev is back this afternoon) so she emailed to suggest a VTT (Vélo Tout Terrain - or 'mountain bike' to you and me!) ride from the Col de Port. Great idea. The bike hasn't seen any action to speak of since we came out here so she was due for a spin. The route she described sounded interesting with a good descent on forest tracks from the Col de Port to the village of Liers which is in the next valley over from Pissou) and then a fairly steep ascent back up to the Col de Caugnous which may involve some 'portage' or carrying of the bikes. OK, I said, I'm up for it - lead on!

The weather was a tad chillier than it has been for the past few days but that was good. So I met Pat at the end of our road and we cycled up to the Col de Port which took us around 50 minutes (considerably slower than on the roadie!) from where we hurtled ourselves down the forest track. Now, Pat doesn't hang about and we reached a speed of 44.6kph on the descent which was decidedly uneven in places. She naturally reached the road at the bottom ahead of me but then she does know the track fairly well. I was pleased with how my bike was feeling and also how I felt, although the fore-arms had taken a bit of a hammering on that section.

The next section was a short section of tarmac on which we caught up with a 'transhumance' group leading the cattle down from the higher pastures in readiness for the winter. I was wondering why there had been a fair amount of fresh droppings on the road! Fortunately, we turned off fairly soon and started our ascent back up to the Col. It was OK initially but we then took a turn which led us onto a footpath and a steep ascent on which Pat chose to carry her bike. I, however, could not get it into a comfortable position on my shoulder so chose to push it instead. Hard work! After a few breaks, we at last reached easier ground from where the road led us back down the hill to Col del Four from where we went our separate ways. Total for the day? 25.05km, 1030m of ascent and 1454 calories burned :-)

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

Return of the Merens

A month or so ago, I had a chat with a local bloke who owns 5 'Merens' horses which he occasionally pastures down in the woods below Pissou. We had the pleasure of watching them being taken down to the pasture then, and today it was apparently time to move them on again. We watched the same man and his daughter (I think) appear from the woodland footpath in front of the house, two of the horses with halters on, but the other three walking free. They are lovely sturdy mountain horses, not dissimilar to the Fell pony in the UK, jet black in colour, with a long flowing mane. They briefly stopped to graze at the back of the house where the public 'chemin' leads back on to the road. Then they were led off down the road to new pastures. A lovely sight.

Monday, 15 October 2007

A productive day, I would say

The day dawned clear again, blue sky and temperatures up to 20 Degrees - marvellous. We decided that whilst it was still fine, we should get the timbers of the barn treated, as this would entail putting everything outside whilst I was spraying. It has been a job that we have been meaning to do for some time. We desperately need to get a floor down on top of the 1st floor timbers in order to create a workspace in which Andy can do his woodwork and use his boy's toys - the shippon on the ground floor really isn't an ideal environment in which to be using table saws and circular saws! We did however have to remove one visitor who seems to have made the underside of the beams his home. Strange that it was all on its lonesome when we had previously seen quite large numbers of them up in the rafters. They had however been sensible and moved on before being forceably removed!It only took a few hours to apply 2 coats of spray so we are now ready to order the tongue and groove chipboard sheets which will form the base layer of the first floor.

While I was spraying away, Andy took his angle-grinder to the step at the entrance to the terrasse which has been getting in the way since we moved in. However, we ran out of concrete before he was able to complete the new, much more aesthetically pleasing (and less of a liability!) step that is replacing it. So more shopping to be had there.

It seems that Josette is currently letting her goats have the run of the hillside at the moment. We noticed that some of the flimsy fencing just up the road had been pulled aside (we assume deliberately) to let them have access to the road and wherever that may lead. Well, it just happens to lead to Pissou! We were alerted to their presence behind the house by the washing line by the jangling of the bells around their necks. However, a whiff of Taff and they shot back up the road en masse. Shame really, as the area behind the house does need grazing ..... either that or strimming!

For evening meal, we had a rather yummy Portugese fisherman's stew that Andy made with the last of the fish that we bought on Saturday. It was simply scrummy and there was even enough left for our lunch tomorrow!

Sunday, 14 October 2007

Summertime... and the living is..

.... not bad actually! Mid October and I was out on the terrasse in my shorts and strappy top this afternoon, with an air temperature of 20 degrees but an actual temperature that felt considerably warmer! Wonderful!

Anyway, I am ahead of myself as usual. Do excuse me. Back to earlier happenings. I had arranged to pick up my mate, Pat, from Espies this morning at 11.00 to do a walk/run route that I have had my eye on for some time now. Her hubby, Kev, is in the UK at the mo and they had their elderly dog, Sam, put to sleep on Thursday, so she has been feeling rather miserable. I thought that an outing 'up high', in the fantastic weather that we are briefly experiencing would provide a bit of a tonic. So we parked up at the Col de Port and headed up the zig zags on the other side of the road, Taff accompanying us, and reached the top in just under 25 mins (quickest time yet, I believe). We then walked/jogged/ambled along the edge for around 4.5kms from where we enjoyed amazing panoramic views, not only of the Pic de la Journalade, but of Mont Valier and, on the other side, the plains of the Languedoc. Pat very kindly agreed to pose with the pooch so you can at least get some kind of an idea of what it was like.
It was the kind of day when you just want to drink it in, absorb it and store it up for times when life is not quite so good - do you know what I mean? Unfortunately, water was an issue and both the pooch and I were in danger of suffering from dehydration so we decided to turn round and head back down to the Col de Port. What a fab way to spend a couple of hours covering only 8.7km but with ascent of 470m - very worthwhile!

For tea, we had a very healthy Seafood risotto using the shellfish that we had bought in St Girons - very scrummy and plenty left for tomorrow's lunch :-)

Saturday, 13 October 2007

Market Day

Saturday sees one of the best markets in the area take place in St Girons, a 25 minute drive down the valley from here. It always has a tremendous selection of local fruit and veg, tons of local cheeses, saucisson, honey, bread....... a veritable Cornucopia where we are spoilt for choice. We duly filled our basket with quality produce and, once shopped out there, made our way to Intermarché down the road at Saint Lizier to stock up on other essential dry goods. This is one of the few shops that remain open between 12.00 and 14.00 hrs - and how blissfully quiet it is at lunchtime - an ideal time to shop! They have an excellent fresh fish section there and we bought all kinds of bits and pieces with a view to making a bouillabaisse this evening, although things don't always go according to plan. A trip to Bricomarché next door followed where we bought a 'poèle à pétrôle' heater mainly for heating the attic when we have visitors in the colder months ahead.

The big discovery of the day however has been the wholefood/environmentally friendly shop that we discovered in St Girons. It has been a concern since we moved in that the cleaning products that we use are not doing the 'good bacteria' on the hill much good. We are not hooked up to a mains system here and ALL of our waste is taken by pipes away from the house and is jettisoned off down the hillside where it is washed away by rain or absorbed into the hillside. So today, we were able to secure supplies of very reasonably priced environmentally friendly toilet cleaner, washing up liquid and washing tablets which will ease our conscience somewhat. We were also able to stock up on dried goods like pulses, rice and muesli. I think we will be frequent visitors to that shop!

This afternoon, with the return of some good weather (been 18 degrees, sunny with clear blue skies today!), Andy decided it was an opportune moment to take a look at the chimney stack to try and find out where rainwater was managing to seep in and trickle down the chimney breast in the attic, threatening to damage our newly installed insulation and plasterboard. So he got his harness on, roped up, secured himself to a tree, self-belayed and got onto the roof to take a look. The good (I think) news is that there are very few spots where water can get in, but mastic was applied wherever there appeared to be even the faintest possibility so hopefully we shouldn't have any more 'dripping' occurrences in the attic and future visitors can sleep comfortably!

Friday, 12 October 2007

Culture, dahlink, culture!

I finished Graham Robb's book last night and have now become enthused with a desire to find out as much as possible about our immediate area (the Massatois valley) and, further afield, the Ariege region generally. It is an area rich in culture, history, heritage and tradition which also has a fascinating linguistic background which (as a linguist!) I am keen to explore. All of these factors obviously go towards making the people who they are so by understanding their past, I hope to understand them more fully in turn. So my quest started this afternoon when I popped into the little 'papeterie' in the village where I picked up a copy of 'l'Histoire de Massat' by J-M Servat which covers the history of the valley from the 18th century through to the early 20th century. The book refers to the 'Editions Lacour' website on which I have found many more interesting books on the region which I may well acquire in due course! I also picked up 'le dialecte de la vallée de Massat - grammaire, dictionnaire et méthode d'apprentissage' which looks like heavy but fascinating reading! I spoke briefly with the bloke in the shop who said that the dialect is dying out as it is no longer taught in the local school and families are using it less and less at home. It is a real shame.

On my way back up to Pissou, I popped into Espies for some bread and took the opportunity to tackle Françoise about her quite thick accent which I had rather romantically assumed to be 'from the area' only to be told ''ben non, je suis de Montpellier d'origine!' Montpellier is along the Med coast so Françoise is obviously an 'import' to the area. I was however heartened to know that even Gil the boulanger has difficulty understanding her sometimes!

The other thing that has resulted from my reading of 'The discovery of France' was a rekindling of my A level passion for 'le Grand Meaulnes' by Alain Fournier written in 1913 (I have ordered it today from Amazon!), a book referred to by Graham Robb..... "His tale of boyhood longings set in the rural Bourbonnais, gave a tantalising sense of 'la France profonde' as a distant but familiar place, a little world full of simple things that spoke of another age: the stove in the freezing classroom, the clog-wearing pupils who smelled of hay, the gendarme and the poachers, the beaten-earth floor of the general store, the silence in the countryside". This work was one that I adored as an A level student. I somehow imagine our little part of the world to have once been not dissimilar to the summary so concisely outlined by Robb and I am impatient to read more!

Thursday, 11 October 2007

Rain, Rain .... at last gone away

Since Jackie and Steve left on Sunday morning, the weather has been awful. We have had torrential rain and temperatures below 10 degrees. But guess what... we don't care! Our little house is snug and cosy and warm when the elements do their worst. We get the woodburner going and snug up on the settee to read our books. Mine is currently 'The Discovery of France' by Graham Robb which is a fascinating take on the history of France since the 17th century. I haven't read anything like it since I did my degree some number of years ago. Great stuff.

This morning, when I awoke, I glanced out of the window expecting to see us surrounded yet again by low cloud but was greeted instead by clear blue sky, snow on Mont Valier and a fantastic cloud inversion down the valley. Just beautiful.
Andy was not feeling fantastic this afternoon, so I took the pooch back up the zig zags to the Cabane de Roses (see post of 22 September for the last time I did it). I reached the cabane in just under an hour last time, but today I was there in 41 minutes! The cooler temperature probably helped and I tried to stretch out as I went, so I was altogether more comfortable on the run. Must make it a more regular thing!

Monday, 8 October 2007

Visitors come, visitors go

Steve (Andy's dad) and Jackie left yesterday morning after spending 4 days here at Pissou. It was lovely to have visitors again and Andy really enjoyed coming up with culinary delights which certainly succeeded in tickling the tastebuds! I think the favourite dish (at least as far as Jackie was concerned!) was the wickedly rich chocolate pud, which was simply divine, but they also enjoyed a yummy rabbit in cider recipe and a special pigeon dish on their last evening. Mmm! I also introduced them to another local aperitif called Hypocras which is very much an acquired taste but which Jackie took to very quickly! It actually goes very well with lamb apparently so watch the recipe blog for some interesting new recipes!

The weather held out for their stay so we took the opportunity to introduce them to one of the very important tasks for us, which is the recovery of wood for the wood burner. A small fruit tree had fallen onto a power/telephone line just above the house and although it is not on our land, we decided that we should do the right thing and remove it so that the line is not pulled down when the first snows arrive. So Andy and Steve donned chainsaw gear and set to.

The tree yielded a good supply of both large and small sections of wood which have certainly bolstered our supply for the winter. Claudine is back next weekend so we will take that opportunity to clarify what other wood we can recover from the surrounding area.

Whilst it was still fine, we drove up to the Col d'Agnes, 20 minutes from the house, from where you have amazing views of the mountains which border Spain. The clouds were accumulating rapidly on the high tops, but it was still spectacular and I think Steve and Jackie were suitably impressed!
Whilst they were at Pissou, it became apparent that we did indeed have mice in the house. This was confirmed without doubt when Steve was using the little boy's room and a cheeky mouse appeared from under the door! What can you say! Andy also spotted one scuttling across the living room floor one evening so we decided we had to take action. I bought four traps from the shop in Massat and Andy melted some chocolate onto two of them and wedged a lump of cheese onto the other two. 24 hours later, the trap in the bathroom presented its first victim to us and then yesterday, we caught another one in the living room. I had been talking to Gil, the boulangerie about the meeces and he happened to mention that he has a snake who is quite partial to the odd rodent. So I duly presented yesterday's victim to him in a plastic bag, for which he said the 'serpent' would be most grateful! We have talked about getting some kittens which would turn into evil mouse-killing machines in due course but I think we have decided that they would be too much work in the short term. So that idea is temporarily on hold.

I bought a tray of greengages (prunes Reine-Claude) from St Girons market on Saturday with the intention of making some plum jam. Jackie ploughed in with stoning the fruit (9kgs of it!) and I used 2.5 kgs to produce some very tasty greengage and almond jam. The rest of the fruit, we bagged and froze for use in cooking during the winter. I also made some apple chutney on Wednesday which we have to leave for 2-3 months before we can eat it - darn! But the wait should be worth it. Today, we will hopefully be making the sloe gin from the sloes that we collected last week. Next, we hope to gather some big juicy chestnuts from the woodland below us - I love this time of year!

The weather appears to have deteriorated somewhat, with heavy rain and very low cloud. The forward forecast is looking decidedly dismal, so time to get on with the indoor jobs, I reckon.

Tuesday, 2 October 2007

Just a normal day....

.... ish. We have visitors arriving tomorrow (hi Jackie and Steve!) so we 'popped' down to St Girons at lunchtime to do a supermarket shop. We had intended to have a civilised lunch in St Lizier before doing our shop, but the cafe that does ace sandwiches was shut! Our plans to eat out at lunchtime seem to be thwarted each time that we venture out. So we ended up (yet again) with a yukky sandwich from Intermarché instead :-(

We left the supermarket to be welcomed by a temperature of 27 degrees according to the car! What is going on?! By the time we had made our way back up to Massat, it had mercifully cooled down to a bearable 22 degrees.

Today, we also collected more apples and also the sloe berries that we discovered yesterday. I will be starting work on the chutney tomorrow and may also make a tarte aux pommes or quelque-chose.

Yesterday, we started to recover some of the rocks/stones that Claudine's workmen had left in a pile outside her new back door. I decided that I needed some physical activity this afternoon, so spent an hour lugging the rocks from the pile that we had created there, up to the area outside our rear 'window', a distance of only 10 metres or so but it IS uphill and some of the rocks were very heavy... honest! It was nice to feel like I had actually exerted myself for a change!

Then this evening, we heard the stag in the woodland again - rather too close this time!

I could hear him making his way through the woodland, so he can't have been more than a couple of hundred metres away! The pooch was not happy!

Monday, 1 October 2007

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness

Ok, we are still waiting for the mists (although low cloud we have had aplenty), but the mellow fruitfulness seems to be going in the right direction. We raided the apple trees around Pissou this afternoon and this resulted in a basketful of fruit for which we now need to come up with some ideas! A rabbit with apple and calvados dinner this evening is the first step and I think I may wander into chutney territory before the end of the week too. We can always par cook and freeze whatever is left....

Just before lunch, we ventured back into the woodland across from the house (the guns have been quite for a few days, so we reckoned it would be safe!) in search of the elusive shroom and found a few paltry specimens which made us seriously wonder about the credibility of some of our neighbours who insist that there are girolles and ceps aplenty to be had in them there woods. This afternoon, we followed the advice of I can't remember who, who insisted that there were plenty of ceps to be had up in the woodland above the Col de Port. So, reenergised by lunch, we headed the 10 minutes up the road to the Col and from there off into the woodland. The pooch thought all his Christmasses had come at once.... TWO outings in one day! We found plenty of specimens, particularly as we got higher up into the woodland, away from the well worn path but still no ceps. Doh! But at least we had had some exercise and we saw some really pretty crocus like flowers which seem to have sprung up all over the place, but which I thought were usually a spring flower....?Our other discovery of the day has been some sloes around Pissou which we will be collecting tomorrow and which we hope to transform into sloe gin before Christmas

Other news of the day;
Had a call from Claudine following my text asking whether she had indeed received my email about the wood, to which she answered yes and indeed she had replied! Time to check the spam folder :-( Anyway, no problem for us to 'recuperate' (a bastardised, overused anglicisation of the well used French word 'récupérer' meaning to recover and use) the wood on her land which is great news! I am so pleased we have asked permission and can quite categorically say to Josette or anybody else who may question us 'yes, we have for permission from the landowner to take it'! Looks like our winter log pile fears have been allayed.

Claudine also told us we could take some of the big stones which had been piled in a heap where her builders had opened up a new doorway to the rear of her barn conversion. These big stones/rocks will be invaluable when we come to reinforcing the wall of the barn which is currently just standing in parts on the hillside with no foundations! Nothing unusual in this part of the world! She will be back at Pissou on the 13th so we are looking forward to having a good chat with her then.