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.
This post tells the extraordinary story of Vakhtang Sekhniachvili, and it follows on from my previous post of 11 January in which I visited the archives in Albi on a quest to identify a pair of dead German soldiers.
During my visit, another document caught my eye. Dated October 1944, it listed the names of ten German soldiers killed and buried within the commune of Castres during the Occupation. What intrigued me were their bizarre names and even stranger places of birth: Georgia, Mongolia, Turkestan, Kyrgyzstan and the Caucasus
What, I wondered, were men like these doing in the German army?
I went in search of answers and soon came across various articles about one of these men: Vakhtang Sekhniachvili. Born in the village of Telavi in Georgia in the Caucasus, he was conscripted into a Soviet armoured regiment in 1941. A year later, his tank was hit while fighting in the Ukraine. He survived but became a prisoner-of-war (POW).
More than three million Soviet POWs are believed to have died in German custody – that’s around half of the total. Their deaths were caused by a combination of starvation, exposure, disease and executions. Vakhtang was among the several hundred thousand who chose to escape the deadly prison camps by joining the Wehrmacht. He was drafted into a unit called the Georgian Legion, and he was sent thousands of kilometres across Europe to Castres.
By 1944, a large proportion of the ‘German’ troops occupying south-west France were ex-POWs like Vakhtang. They were known as Hiwis – an abbreviation of the German word ‘Hilfswilliger’ or auxiliary volunteer. They numbered around 600,000 in total, and the entire garrison of Castres consisted of Soviet POWs, apart from some 70 officers.
On 7 July 1945, he was awarded the French Military Cross and offered a post in the 1st Army under General Jean de Lattre de Tassigny. Understandably, he chose instead to return to his home village of Telavi where he proudly displayed his French medals and was treated as a hero. For a while, even the authorities were impressed: he was promoted by the Communist party and put in charge of propaganda. Then came the Cold War and Stalin’s purges. In 1947, Vakhtang was arrested by the KGB in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, accused of being an imperialist spy, and of collaborating with the British and Americans. Pronounced guilty, his medals were confiscated and he was sent to the gulag. Most of the returning Hiwis met a similar fate or were executed.
This period of forced labour lasted until Stalin’s death in 1953. Vakhtang was one of the first to be liberated, and many more of the surviving Hiwis found freedom under a general amnesty granted by Nikita Khrushchev in 1955.
Despite his new-found freedom, Vakhtang yearned for two more things: he wanted to visit France one more time, and he wanted his medals back. His first wish came true in 2003. At the age of 82, he revisited his former area of operations on a trip funded by the French Ministry of Defence and the Conseil Général du Tarn. Then, at a ceremony in Tbilisi in July 2006, he became the first Georgian to be awarded the French légion d’honneur.
Photo credits: thank you, Pierre Kitiashvili, for supplying the two photos. Pierre lives in Georgia, and his grandfather was the man on the motorbike in the first photo.
The historic Château de Mayragues near Gaillac is an ideal place to learn about natural wines. Biodynamic since 1999, organic since 2004, the vineyards are now run by Duncan Geddes, a second-generation Scottish winemaker (his French mother may see things differently).
Marie-Christine Combes is the sixteenth generation of the same family to reside in the château, and this was one of many stories I had heard from her and her mother about the period when the Wehrmacht commandeered their home. I had often wondered about the identity of these soldiers, and no one seemed quite sure of their unit. Some sources said the troops occupying Garrevaques were from the eleventh panzer division, while others claimed they belonged to the infamous second panzer division, also known as Das Reich, and blamed for the atrocity at Oradour-sur-Glane. I had often speculated that this confusion was caused by the French way of abbreviating ordinal numbers: IIeme (deuxième - second) and 11eme (onzième - eleventh) are easy to confuse unless you spot that one uses Roman numerals and the other Arabic.
When I was researching the German Occupation for my book, I felt duty-bound to investigate more thoroughly. Garrevaques and my home lie in the Tarn, and the obvious place to start was in the departmental archives in Albi. But first, I went online to consult the list of dossiers which had not been digitised. From its title, 506 W 230 sounded promising: ‘German soldiers killed and buried in the department. Inquest: instructions and replies from the mayors (November-December 1944).’
TK de Dinatru 61, Sergeant Hilmar Büchner, born 18/2/1917, died 19/8/1944.
FEB 119, Lance-Corporal Alvis Gatuska, born 9/6/1913, died 19/8/1944.
This date of their deaths tied in with what I had read elsewhere. On 19 August, members of an unidentified Resistance group machine-gunned a German vehicle and killed two of its occupants on the road between Garrevaques and Revel. The wreck was towed back to the Château de Garrevaques, and the two casualties were buried in the park by their comrades.
If you want to know how they tried to blow up the château as they left, or read stories about their operations against the Corps Franc de la Montagne Noire, you will find them in ‘Lauragais: Steeped in History, Soaked in Blood’, or if you visit the château’s hotel-restaurant, you may be lucky enough to hear some of these tales from Marie-Christine herself.
Why do Sergeant Büchner and Lance-Corporal Gatuska no longer lie in the park? Between 1958 and 1961, nearly 20,000 German soldiers were disinterred all across southern France and reburied together in the cemetery at Dagneux near Lyon. Most of them were killed after the Allied landings of August 1944.