Thursday, 30 December 2010

Eau de Vie

Over the past couple of weeks, I have noticed a strange contraption planted on a verge in the village. It is on wheels, has a chimney which emits varying quantities of woodsmoke but the rest is a mystery as heavy plastic sheeting hung around its structure hides any activity from the curious passerby. A conversation with one of our neighbours, John, revealed that it was the 'bouilleur ambulant', a mobile distillery that transforms the barrels of fermenting fruit that we see everywhere around here in the summer and autumn to that most potent of liquors, Eau de Vie. I just had to speak with the bloke who was operating this strange contraption to find out more about the process and take some photos. I chose a quiet moment at the end of the day, but was very quickly and very rudely brushed away - there was no way I was going to glean any information from him as I was smartly sent packing! "Nothing personal" he said. Hmm. I can however tell you that the contraption looked something like this;Wonderful, isn't it! I have done a fair bit of internet research on the subject, but rather than regurgitate what I have discovered about the process, I will leave you to browse this excellent page that describes this ancient method of production of eau de vie in great detail.

Sunday, 26 December 2010

A mixed bag

So how was your Christmas? Full of good cheer and fine food, I hope? A few words to sum up ours;
Peaceful, relaxed, Christmassy music, Christmassy films, delicious food (think the freshest oysters in the world, local foie gras and quail... that kind of thing), truely amazing wines (the highlight being the 2003 Sauternes that Andy bought to accompany the foie gras.... extravagant but Christmas only happens once a year now, doesn't it) and a bit of exercise in the cold, crispy conditions.

Boxing day was another of those beautiful blue-sky and very cold days so I had the fine idea of a mountain bike outing from the house. It was a great mixture of quiet roads, hardpack tracks and tricky, technical paths which were somewhat challenging in the conditions. We covered 33km and re-heated when we got home with a yummy mint hot choc (part of a box-set of hot chocolates, a very welcome present from my mother!). Lovely! Full stats you know where.

However, come Sunday evening, I was feeling decidedly dodgy and by 7pm I was violently ill. A couple of hours later, Andy followed suit. There then followed a most disturbed night's sleep as the sickness continued. The oysters that we had on Christmas day were not to blame, as the delay between consumption and illness was too great. The only other possible trigger was the ham or possibly the gooey brie that we had in our baguette at lunchtime. Either way, it was one of the most unpleasant bouts of illness that either of us has had for some considerable time. Funnily enough, I would not recommend a bout of the D&Vs as a post-Christmas weight-loss programme to anybody!

Friday, 24 December 2010

A Christmas Eve run

I am already feeling a little bit guilty about the gastronomic excesses that seemingly cannot be avoided at Christmas time, even when it is just the two of us for the Christmas weekend. To ease the guilt and to earn another mince pie or two, I took myself out with the pooch this afternoon for a stormy run on the Forêt de Bélesta loop. The loop formed part of the Trail des Citadelles 70km race this year so I was keen to explore it for the first time. There was a strong chilly wind blowing and snow storms threatening but I reckoned the circuit should be quite well-protected.

The first 5kms was constant climbing but I was on good tracks and paths which made things easier. From the high point, I could see the winter weather on the march and hoped I would make it back before it hitFrom there, it was very enjoyable running but with a 1.5km long tricky, slippy and quite steep descent back into Belesta where I almost came a cropper! I arrived back at the car after 1 hr 59m 57s of running, 15.05km with 600m of ascent. The best thing about the run is that my legs felt great and I could have carried on! Stats on the usual site

I had a very enjoyable visit to Lavelanet market this morning to fetch the fruit and veg for the weekend and managed to pick up a dozen fresh-as-they-come (harvested in the early hours of this morning) oysters while I was there - jackpot! I managed to avoid the stupidmarket today, having done all of the 'basics' shopping during the week so we can now relax and look forward to our gastronomic Christmas blowout tomorrow.

Happy Christmas and best wishes to you all!

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Mud, mud, glorious mud!

Well, as predicted, the rising temperatures have seen off the snow and consequently the tracks, trails and paths are now awash with mud and slush. Oh joy. But I reckoned that by being careful about our mountain bike route choice this afternoon we could probably avoid the worst if it. The no. 15 VTT circuit took us on hardpack tracks initially which was great. But then we arrived at the Lac de Montbel which looks quite bizarre in its drained winter state!Our route took us on the fun woodland path that skirts the lake, but my goodness it was slippy & slidey in parts - I guess that's why it was such fun! The bikes did however get very cacked up with clayey mud and dead leaves which made gear-changing interesting. Then back on a narrow tarmac road before a cracking little narrow technical descent down onto the voie verte which should have been easy going. But the wet gravel and slush made for unnecessarily hard work and we were both pretty tired when we made it back to the car after 21.6kms. The bikes were in a bit of a state
We don't have a hosepipe or jet-washer here, so we had to resort to numerous bucket-loads of water and brushes to clean them down when we got back. But it had been good to get back on the bikes again and I am sure it won't be long before they are once more coated in mud :-)

Sunday, 19 December 2010


Friday evening saw our first proper snowfall here - it was a stunning wintery scene that greeted me as I opened the curtain to the back of the house on Saturday morning!and the pooch's little mooch was snow-tastic!
Up the valley from Fougax, Montsegur in the distance was perched on its frosty rock
What a gloriously bright crisp day it was. We donned our Inov8 Mudclaw trail shoes in the afternoon and headed up the path through the Gorge de la Frau which was decidedly slippy in parts thanks to the light covering of snow on rocks, stones and branches At the top, we took the track to the right instead of heading up to Comus straight ahead. I had no idea where it went, but was pleasantly surprised to see a high peak appearing ahead of usA quick check of the map when we got home showed that it was Pic de Soularac and the ridgeline heading up to the right just in front of us would lead us to Pic de la Frau. With an earlier start it would make a cracking outing in either winter or snow-free conditions. Excellent!

Today, we had to head back to Pissou in the van to fill up with wood - we were literally down to our last few logs, so supplies were at critical level here. We had to don snow chains for the lane to Pissou but otherwise the van managed admirably in the conditions. We have managed to bring back all but a small pile of wood which will be our 'emergency supply', but hopefully we have enough now to see us through the rest if the winter here.

The forecast this week is for milder but sunny weather through to Thursday so I am looking forward to getting out and 'doing stuff' before the Christmas weekend!

Monday, 13 December 2010

Lazy weekends

Our outing on Friday took more out of the both of us than we appreciated at the time and energy levels were very low this weekend. Consequently, on the exercise front, we did diddly squat.... which, despite the gloriously warm weather, was actually rather nice! Well, I say that, but I did take the pooch out for his constitutionals which probably accounted for 5 or 6 miles over the weekend.

It was a clear night last night and this morning, when I took the pooch for his morning doings, nature was glistening in all its glory thanks to Jack Frost's icey touch
This afternoon, the doggins accompanied me on a 12km run from the house, with a steep climb up onto the ridge behind and along excellent forest paths and tracks back down to Belesta, along the river and home. Unfortunately, my hamstrings started complaining as I ran the last few kms back alongside the river, so I alternated running and walking to try and stretch them out. It was a cracking little route though and one that will be much more fun as winter conditions arrive. Stats on the usual site

Friday, 10 December 2010

A bit of a run

It was grey, cold and miserable yesterday, but today was one of those blue-skied, crisp and clear days on which I just couldn't stay indoors. A walk/run was called for. I had spotted a 20km circuit on the map which included sections of the GR7b and the GR du Pays d'Olmes and which would take us from the house, up to Montsegur and then over the hill to join the road from the Gorges de la Frau and finally home.

It was a steady climb up through the woods from Fougax but the paths were excellent. We arrived at la Croix de Morenci....The cross has been restored/reconstructed following it's almost total destruction in 1972 when a hunter blasted its face with his gun .... on purpose or not, I have no idea! It is thought that the cross has links to the nearby Roc de Fougasse which it is believed was used as a sacrificial table in pagan times. Needless to say, the site is the subject of much local legend.

We made it up to the Col de Montsegur which was the half way point. Further on, we had a lovely view of Montsegur village and back down the valley towards Fougax
But we were not heading back down the valley that way.... oh no, that would have been too easy! Nope we were carrying on 'up' for another couple of kilometers, veering away from what felt like the 'right' way home which was disconcerting, but we eventually hit the very welcome 'down' section of the route, through pretty wild, wooded and craggy terrain. But the path was always good which made the running fun. The legs did however take a hammering on the descent and I had to take the final 4kms back along the road at walking/jogging pace to try and mitigate any damage. But after some stretching this evening, my ITBs feel OK and I think I have got away unscathed from my longest outing (20.5kms/850m+) for some while which I am so relieved about! I can now start thinking about maybe doing some proper training for the Citadelles .... I did say 'maybe' ;-) Stats would be on the usual site if my Garmin hadn't played silly buggers and corrupted the data file!

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Christmas thoughts

Time is flying at the moment. Far too quickly for my liking. Christmas is nearly here. I am not ready! I am so not ready. Ideas for presents are lacking, thoughts of Christmas decorations/what to eat/how to celebrate are non-existent. So today, I made a conscious decision to Do Something About It! Result? Pressies for a few more people now sorted, wrapping paper bought and cars ready to write. Now, I need a bolt of divine inspiration for presents for the remaining 2 people, but I'm getting there. Now, has anybody got any fantastic tips for 'getting into the Christmas spirit'??!

Otherwise, the past couple of days have been all about vehicles, which has been a mixture of satisfaction and frustration. The frustration is due to the insane ongoing saga of trying to get Sadie's documentation sorted so that we can finally get her registered in France. We made the 2 1/2 hr round trip to Carcassonne yesterday in order to get the Mercedes garage's written confirmation that the lights and speedometer do indeed conform to French road regulations. 5 mins in the workshop, I thought, they will see that they have been changed... I mean, it's obvious! Plus, she has passed the French equivalent of the UK MOT which she could only have done if the lights had been changed. Logical, non? NO! This is France! I need to see the invoice for the lights that you bought, Madame. The invoice?! Yes, Madame, the invoice. I cannot give you the certificate that you need without seeing the invoice. But can't you switch on the lights and see that they are pointing in the correct direction? Non, Madame, I must see the invoice. Oh for feck's sake!! Of course we didn't have the invoice with us, so we will have to make the trip again sometime soon, when we can face it. Gah!

On a brighter note, I collected the Rav from the little local garage here this evening. The very amenable chappy has done a fantastic job on the underseal which should protect the car for some years to come. He also serviced her & replaced all the filters and she is running so much better ... and he didn't cost the earth! Hurrah!

Sunday, 5 December 2010

More local history gubbins

I was out for a mooch with the pooch this afternoon when I spotted this, abandoned in a field by the riverWhat vehicle could it have been? WW2? Who drove it? Fot what purpose? Just the cab remains. The imagination goes into overdrive, n'est-ce pas?

More history further down the lane at Camp Redon near Lesparrou. Alongside the river, there is a water channel and a series of sluice gates and weirs. For what purpose? Manufacturing, surely, but what?Research this evening shows that the village of Campredon was a centre for the production of horn products from the early 18th to 19th century. The machinery was surely water-powered at that time and local horn was undoubtedly used to produce combs and other horn products. Today, a single manufacturer remains in Campredon. They import their horn from Africa and South America. Their tools and equipment are generally electrically powered. Progress?

Yesterday, a walk from Comus to Prades up on the Plateau de SaultThere was surprisingly little snow up there at 1200m. The warmth of the sun ensured that southerly and sun-exposed terrain received the full 'melt' factor. It was however still below freezing in the shade. It was a nice little 6km walk, punctuated by a very welcome hot chocolate/coffee at the very amenable restaurant/cafe in Prades where the dog was made to feel especially welcome! We must return for a lunch appointment sometime soon.

Temperatures are set to rise dramatically this coming week, reaching the high teens by Wednesday. More bike action is in order, I feel!

Friday, 3 December 2010

Nearly a week...

... since I last blogged! I'm not sure how that happened, but I seem to have been rather preoccupied with other stuff and suddenly Friday is here again. So crikey, what have I been doing for the past week? Well, car stuff for one thing.....I finally managed to get onto the small matter of sorting out the Rav's power loss issue. It is pretty disconcerting and well, pretty dangerous when you put your foot down to overtake or to get up a hill and the engine simply doesn't respond and appears to lose power! The computer at the Toyota main dealer in Pamiers failed to pick up a power management problem and they suggested that we should start by giving the car a comprehensive service because, quite frankly, these filters are in an appalling state and, oh, the timing belt should be changed along with the water pump which appears to be leaking and HAS to be changed when you do the timing belt and we'll have 1300 euros from you for the pleasure, thank you very much. To coin a French expression.... pffffft, not on your nelly matey! I took the Rav into the little garage down the road in Belesta yesterday. A quick look at the water pump circuit and ....what leak? There's no problem with your water pump, Madame. The timing belt? Yes, you should consider changing it within the next 6-12 months but no urgency if you are doing low-average mileage.... this is a Toyota after all. A quote for a service and also for undersealing the Rav (which, it is true, must be done this winter as the underside is in a pitiable state and decaying rapidly) came in at less than the service at the Toyota garage alone! Result! The Rav is booked in for Tuesday.

Today, we had planned on heading down to the Mercedes garage in Carcassonne in the van to get a certificate for the lights and speedometer that is required by Mercedes before they will give us a European Certificate of Conformity which will then enable us to get her French registered. Bloody paperwork. But the arrival of the snow put paid to that plan. Next week it shall be, then!

Whilst the UK has been struggling with exceptionally snowy conditions, it is only today that we have seen snow below 1000m in these parts. But yesterday, we went in search of snow just up the road, above the Col de Montségur
There was enough consolidated snow to warrant the deployment of crampons but not snowshoes from 1300m upwards
The clouds were building quickily and our plan to gain the Cabane de la Taula at nearly 1700m were thwarted when we were engulfed by the clouds that heralded the arrival of the weather front that brought us snow today. Tant pis. It was nice to get out for some good local exercise anyway and the pooch thoroughly enjoyed himself too, coping well in the snowy conditions.

The forecast for the next few days is good and I could really do with an outing on the roadie if road conditions are OK. It would also be good to get up into the mountains again. The Mont d'Olmes ski centre opens this weekend and a visit with Pat is on the cards for sometime next week ... I can't wait!