With the help of my fairy godmother, Sylvie Razous, I have learned how to turn pumpkins into a delicious and traditional dessert from the department of the Tarn.
It’s a long process – Sylvie starts work on a Wednesday in order to have her mesturets ready for the Saturday morning market in Revel. This, and the fact that peeling and chopping tough-skinned squash is hard work, explains why today only one other professional in the department makes the mesturet.
But in the home, every ancient family seems to have its own recipe and continues to use it because the mesturet retains a special place in the hearts of the people of the Midi. There is plenty of scope for adaptation to suit one’s personal taste, even though there are only three main ingredients – squash, flour and sugar. Perhaps this is why so many home cooks proudly claim that their mesturet recipe – or the recipe they have inherited from their mother, grandmother, wife or even uncle – is the best in the world.
All the other pigeonniers of this style that I have looked inside were fitted with wicker baskets or clay pots for the birds to nest in. In contrast, the four walls of M. Albouy’s pigeonnier are lined with 300 pigeonholes fashioned from local clay and a bamboo framework. These provided a safe and comfortable environment where amorous pairs of adult pigeons could raise their squabs, or baby pigeons. Safety in this context was short-lived, like the baby pigeons. Before the juveniles reached 28 days and might fly away, the big bad owner came along with a basket and stole them for his supper.
Writing in his seminal work on agricultural science published in 1600, Olivier de Serres tells us: ‘He whose home is provided with a pigeon tower…will never see his household short of food because [it] will provide him with fresh meat as surely as a well-stocked larder.’
During my first visit to Roquefort a few weeks earlier, an abundance of shuttered windows had made me think everyone was still in bed. Then I noticed how few of the houses had letterboxes, and I began to delve deeper into its story. If the mayor has his way, Roquefort will become a more agreeable place to visit, but it is perhaps more fascinating and certainly more bizarre to wander its empty streets today. It certainly merits a chapter in my forthcoming book.
When the assembly learned that I was the famous écrivain anglais who had told the story of the Corps France de la Montagne Noire in his book, ‘Lauragais’, they asked if I would be kind enough to pose for a photo with them outside the crypt. In the interests of Anglo-French relations, I obliged, and then we chatted about Major Richardson, the British agent who had hidden in the surrounding woods and provided the radio link with London during the war.
Travel through the countryside around Lautrec this weekend, and you can’t miss the pungent smell of garlic. The annual pink garlic festival may have been cancelled due to covid-19, but the harvest goes on and the air is rich with odours which make some people recoil and others go ‘yum’. or ‘miam’ if they are French.
Why doesn’t the pink garlic look pink in the first three photos? Because the bulbs hide their charms with modesty. Strip off their clothing layer by layer, and when you reach the last skin, the pink colour will shine through.
The pink garlic of Lautrec also has a milder, more subtle taste than other varieties and it’s easier to digest raw. It carries the European Protected Geographical Indication label and can only be grown in the area around Lautrec, including in my village.
On Tuesday, I had the great pleasure of interviewing a living legend: Laurent Spanghero. At the start of our session, he told me, ‘People often say I should write a book about my life. If I did, it would be called “My Lives” because I have had so many different careers.’
Spanghero is a name that may be familiar to you from rugby, cassoulet, the European meat industry, food scandals (unfairly, as you will discover if you read the rest of this article) or innovative foods that are 100% organic and 100% vegetarian.
Unfortunately for the Spangheros, the new owners carried on using the family name. When the company was unmasked as the main villain in the great European horsemeat scandal of 2013, Laurent understandably took it rather personally. ‘Our name was dirt,’ he said. Unsurprisingly, the vilified company soon found itself with an empty order book and on the verge of collapse. ’For the honour of our family name, I decided to try to save it. My wife and sons thought I was mad. It was difficult, but I rescued the business and sold it again the following year.’
For many years, Laurent Spanghero was a well-known figure in the wider meat industry. In 1996 he became president of the French meat industry trade association and had to deal with the implications of a new disease that appeared that same year: bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease. Four years later, he began a decade as president of the European Livestock and Meat Trades Union, a trade body representing 20,000 meat-based businesses across the continent. But somewhere along the way, he became a flexitarian, and became increasingly absorbed by the question of how our planet is going to provide a balanced diet for a human population that is forecast to reach ten billion by 2050.
My next book is about food and drink in the south of France, and my intention is to give my readers a balanced diet of gastronomy, history, legend and local colour. But I also want to explore what innovations of today might become the traditions of tomorrow. This was the theme of the rest of my discussion with Laurent. In recent years, his research has taken him to many parts of Europe, Africa and the United States, and when he was in his 70s, he founded a start-up company called Nutrinat which uses a combination of germinated pulses and grains to produce foods with a protein content similar to the beef steaks he ate with such gusto in his rugby-playing days.
Laurent Spanghero is a man full of energy and ideas, and it was a great honour to interview him a few days after his 81st birthday.
Yesterday, I enjoyed a fascinating encounter with Michel Lucien, the acknowledged expert on pigeonniers or dovecotes. In the 16th century, France had 42,000 of these buildings, constructed in an astonishing range of styles. There are still around 1,700 of them in my department of the Tarn alone.
In the Midi, they had nothing to do with racing pigeons or pigeon fanciers. Their main aim was to produce squabs, or baby pigeons, for the table. A modest pigeonnier with 200 nests could produce 60 a week, making the pigeonnier a reliable and valuable source of fresh meat. The babies spent their short lives (around 28 days) in pigeonholes made of wicker, wood or clay. In addition to their culinary attraction, the pigeons' manure was a highly-prized fertiliser used mainly in the vineyards, and for some owners, this was more important than the meat.
If, like me, you are not allowed to leave your home without good reason, all is not lost. Why not escape on a virtual visit to the Lauragais through the pages of a book? This part of France is blessed with an extraordinarily rich history and, except for the next 14 days, a vibrant present. When you reach Part IV - A Hundred Years of Misery, you may conclude that the current situation is not so bad, at least not from a historical perspective. Here is an extract from Chapter 18 of my book, Lauragais: Steeped in History, Soaked in Blood.
It was during these times of hunger that the first citizens of Revel set to work and began to build their new town around the seneschal’s stake in the centre of the market square. They chopped down trees in the forest of Vauré and erected their timber-framed houses. From the safety of the new bastide they would be able to face the future with more optimism. The consuls had appointed guards to defend the town, and others to protect the crops in their orchards, vineyards and fields from marauders and wild beasts. One day soon they would find time to profit from Article 22 of the charter by raising ramparts and digging moats which they would stock with fish.
I can picture members of the new bourgeoisie going about their business and meeting friends or neighbours at the market or in the street. Life would improve now, wouldn’t it? And indeed, the inclement weather that had so often ruined their agriculture since the start of the century began to improve. The rain clouds became less prevalent and the temperatures began to climb, and people dared to hope the worst was behind them. But there are Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and famine was not the only one who was circling the Lauragais. Death was always close at hand, and the Hundred Years’ War had rumbled away in the north for ten years and would soon come much nearer, but first came pestilence.
In Europe as a whole, the Black Death is believed to have killed a third of the population. The causes of the plague and its calamitous effects on society have been debated and documented elsewhere, so I shall restrict myself to observing that in Revel and much of the Lauragais, the epidemic reached its peak in the summer of 1348 and gradually died out the following year along with half the population. The plague took no notice of age, profession or position. In the space of a few short months, on average, half the mothers, half the children, half the bakers, half the butchers, half the carpenters, half the stonemasons, half the gravediggers, half the town guards were all dead.
Why do I love the Lauragais and the Montagne Noire? Where else can you find a heritage trail that offers so much in such a short distance, not to mention seeing France’s most beautiful tree naked in the sunshine?
09.48 – I burst out of the forest into a clearing at Saint-Jammes where I eat a banana inside the ruins of a church founded in 1131. Next to me in this green forest glade stands the majestic beech tree of Saint-Jammes, 450 years old, voted the most beautiful tree in France earlier this year, and currently competing in the European Tree of the Year 2020 competition (the winner will be announced on 17 March).
There is a good reason why the Tuesday Club in Pézenas meets on a Wednesday, but I won’t explain it here!
Thanks for organising the event, Sandra Jones.