Deterring bears and wolves
‘The shepherd’s dog must be a big mastiff, strong and stocky with a big head, and around his neck he must have a collar armed with sharp iron spikes or long nails.'
This advice comes from a shepherd called Jean de Brie in a book he published in 1379. In those days, bears and wolves posed such a deadly threat to flocks of sheep, fearsome dogs were bred to protect them. Not that the dogs were supposed to attack a predator. It was more about dissuasion, particularly where the bear was concerned: a couple of large dogs could harass a bear in much the same way as crows mob a bird of prey. With luck, the exasperated bear would retreat in search of an easier meal, and at the very least, the barking dogs would alert the shepherd to the danger.
At around the same time Jean de Brie was writing his book, the inhabitants of Espousouille were writing to their king, John I of Aragon and Majorca. Their tiny village, lost in the mountains to the south-east of Ax-les-Thermes, had a problem with bears. In their letter, the villagers threatened to abandon their community unless the king gave them permission to set fire to all the surrounding forests and flush out the bears. The king duly obliged because, according to his royal edict, these forests sheltered ‘many wild beasts, both bears and wild boar’.
Bringing back the bear
Then, between 1996 and 2018, 11 wild bears were captured in Slovenia and released in various parts of the Pyrenees, eight females and three males. In 2021, a census covering the Andorran, French and Spanish Pyrenees estimated that the population had grown to at least 70, nearly all of them living in the central area to the west of Andorra.
Bringing back the Pyrenean Mountain dog
Understandably, many of the shepherds, farmers and other local people whose ancestors had spent thousands of years trying to banish the bear from their doorstep, cultivated field or sheepfold strongly opposed the reintroduction of such a large predator. To allay these concerns, one of the associations supporting the reintroduction of the bear put in place a breeding programme for the patou and employed a specialist who had worked with guard dogs in the Alps and the Rocky Mountains to teach local shepherds how to make proper use of them.
Equal opportunities in 1669
As many as 12,000 workers
To achieve so much so quickly, he employed platoons of stonemasons, carpenters and blacksmiths, and an army of navvies. His workforce reportedly peaked at 12,000 – although 6,000 is probably a more accurate estimate – and the bulk of it was made up of peasants from the surrounding countryside. A significant proportion were women – perhaps as much as a third – and Riquet even expressed a preference for female workers in a letter he wrote to Louis XIV’s finance minister in 1669: ‘All the women who come to me, I shall hire them in the knowledge that these women working under contract will do as much work as men who are paid by the day.’
If you travel through the gorgeous countryside of Occitanie with your eyes open, you will soon spot plenty of pigeonniers, or dovecotes. There are 6,000 of them, and they are just as much a part of the architectural heritage as the abbeys and the bastides, or the churches and the châteaux. But you don’t have to venture into the countryside to see them. You will find pigeonniers in the cities of Occitanie too, particularly in Toulouse. In the urban landscape, they can be even more striking.
On Saturday, I visited eight of these historic buildings, starting and finishing at Les Arènes metro station. At 22km, this would be a long run or walk for many, but it could easily be split in two. Most of my route followed cycle lanes, cycle paths, the banks of Le Touch or passed through some of the city’s parks: this would be a pleasant bicycle ride in fine weather. Some of the pigeonniers are a little tricky to spot unless you know their exact location. The map and GPX file at the end of this post will help!
The first pigeonnier belonged to the nearby Château de la Cepière, built in the 16th and 17th centuries. Note the multiple lines of defence against climbing rodents which posed a grave threat to the baby pigeons: the band of green glazed tiles, slippery to climb, and the two protruding bands of tiles (called randières) above and below the glazed tiles, difficult for a rodent to bypass.
Parc du Mirail. Located in what was once the park of the 17th-century Château de Mirail, this pigeonnier was classified as a Monument Historique in 1994.
Another pigeonnier belonging to a château, this time the 18th-century Château de Reynerie. In 2013, the pigeonnier was put back to work as a giant contraceptive. The principle is simple: the adults settle in and lay their eggs; once a week or so, someone goes inside the pigeonnier and shakes each egg to mix the white and the yolk; this action stops the embryos forming, but the pigeons carry on sitting on their now sterile eggs and the population can be managed.
The park at Bellefontaine used to belong to a château of the same name, destroyed by the city authorities in 1960 to make way for a housing project. The 18th-century pigeonnier survives, despite its ancient arcades appearing to provide shelter for the odd barbecue.
The pigeonnier of the Château de la Mounède has been incorporated into the site of an EDF office complex. The family that built it minted coins, and the name of their home comes from the Occitan for money: la moneda.
The next pigeonnier is built in a style often referred to as pied de mulet, or mule’s foot (when viewed upside down, it resembles an equine hoof). This style was common in the 19th century. Located just south of the airport and close to the old village of Saint-Martin-de-Touch, it has been restored by the developers of this new residential quarter which, as can be deduced from all the cranes in the photo, is still under construction.
Located in an overgrown corner of the Parc de la Flambère, seemingly used by rough sleepers, this is the saddest pigeonnier on my route, the only one falling into ruin, the only one scarred by graffiti. Built in 1670 and later converted into a windmill, it belonged to the Château de Purpan.
Renovated by the mairie, this bijou pigeonnier in the Jardin Yves Bergougnan is now being used as a contraceptive. Most contraceptive pigeonniers are purpose-built wooden constructions on stilts, and you can see one which was installed in the Parc de la Faourette earlier this year.
A castle mound surrounded by wooded mountain slopes. Forlorn sections of crumbling fortifications. A plaque informing any visitor who can read Occitan that the troubadour Raimon de Miraval was born here in the hamlet of Miraval-Cabardès sometime in the 12th century. The sign wouldn’t make anyone stop – unless they know his story.
Raimon de Miraval was a troubadour who truly lived his art. He was a knight so poor he only owned a quarter-share of this insignificant castle hidden in a lost valley of the Montagne Noire. He fell hopelessly in love with the wives of the two brothers who owned the bigger château next door, and in his old age he was tempted to come out of retirement in a bid to save the world, the Cathar world, from destruction by Simon de Montfort and his crusaders.
Divorce and unrequited love
His romantic life was often a disaster. He divorced his wife Gaudairença, allegedly because she composed dances and it was too much to have two poets under one roof. After that, he composed his songs of courtly love for ladies who pleased him.
First came Etiennette de Pennautier. She was reputed to have a voracious appetite for men, and she is better known as Lady Loba, ‘loba’ being the Occitan for ‘she-wolf’. She was the wife of Jourdain de Cabaret who, with his brother Pierre-Roger, owned the eponymous château down the road above what is today called Lastours. In one song, Raimon beseeches her to return his love. Deaf to his entreaty, she chose instead to become the long-term mistress of the Count of Foix.
King Pedro II becomes a fan
After that setback, sometime around 1206 Raimon de Miraval turned his attention to Azalaïs de Boissézon, wife of the lord of Lombers. Azalaïs was a lady in search of fame, or at least notoriety, and she was delighted when such a famous troubadour agreed to write songs about her. Unfortunately for Raimon, he fell in love with her himself, but Azalaïs was aiming higher than a poor knight with a minority stake in a tiny château. She wanted to attract the attention of the King of Aragon. When she asked Raimon to extol her charms in a new song, our troubadour duly obliged and probably wished he hadn’t. When King Pedro II first heard the composition, he rushed hot-footed and hot-blooded all the way to Lombers, situated between Castres and Albi.
The Battle of Muret
When he was in Toulouse two years later, Raimon wrote his final song. Perhaps remembering how one of his previous compositions had brought King Pedro rushing north to conquer Lady Azalaïs, Raimon de Miraval decided, or was persuaded, to write a song with a more political motive. He exhorts King Pedro to recapture the city of Carcassonne from the crusaders, and to make these invaders fear him as much as the Moors whom he had defeated a year earlier.
At the end of August, Pedro crossed the Pyrenees with a thousand knights from Aragon and Catalonia, and they joined up with the armies of the counts of Toulouse and Foix outside the town of Muret to the south of Toulouse.
Did Raimon de Miraval follow King Pedro and Count Raymond into battle? No one knows and it is difficult even to guess because, depending on which date of birth you favour, Raimon was somewhere between the ages of 48 and 78.
Defeat and exile
The crusaders won a crushing victory at Muret and Raimon went into exile on the other side of the Pyrenees. He never saw Miraval again, and if he wrote any more songs, they have not survived.
The mysterious object in the lake
The oldest dam in the France
Before I reveal its purpose, here are a few facts about Saint-Ferréol. The first stone of the dam was laid on Sunday 17 April 1667. When it was finished, it was the largest dam ever built. Today, it is the oldest dam in France. Its purpose was to supply water to the highest point of the Canal du Midi so that the locks could be kept full as boats went up and down the canal.
Towards the end of the 17th century, the king’s great engineer, Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban, decided the canal needed more water and he raised the dam wall by seven metres, thereby increasing the reservoir’s capacity by 50%.
Gauging the depths
The pyramid, or unsharpened pencil, was erected on the upstream dam wall in 1770. Its tip is on the same level as the bottom of the main wall, so it is usually submerged and therefore useless because its true purpose is to gauge the depth of the lake at the glance of an eye. Five marker stones continue the scale up the main dam wall and provide a more useful means of measurement. All this was put in place thirty years before anyone started using the metric system, and the gradations are in fathoms and feet. The highest marker stone, just below the top of Vauban’s wall extension, is ninety-nine feet above the original stream bed.
This autumn, the pyramid’s appearance is testimony to an exceptionally long drought.
Between 1460 and 1560, the merchants of Toulouse became extraordinarily rich thanks to a plant called isatis tinctoria. In the city, they built magnificent mansions, and in the surrounding countryside new châteaux and dovecotes sprang up and village churches were rebuilt or extended.
Toulouse – the most productive region for pastel
Although pastel was grown all over Europe, the area around Toulouse was exceptionally productive. In Thuringia, which was an important area of pastel production in central Germany, there was one harvest a year. Around Toulouse there were up to six, and the quality was among the best, largely thanks to the climate. The brighter the blue of the skies under which the plants grew, the brighter the blue of the dyes they produced.
The cycle of pastel cultivation
Half a dozen harvests between mid-June and early November made it a profitable crop, but an exhausting one for the peasants. They ploughed in the winter, planted in February or March, and then spent the next six months hoeing and weeding and harvesting. Growing pastel consumed huge quantities of labour, particularly those who were cheap to hire such as women, children and paupers in search of daywork.
Harvesting and processing pastel
During each of these multiple harvests, the pastel pickers took their baskets of leaves to the nearest water course to wash them. The peasants then spread out the clean leaves to dry, and within hours they took them to the pastel mill for grinding. Unlike wheat, pastel could not wait for a windy day; the leaves had to be processed immediately or the colour was lost, and the hydrography of the area was unsuited to water mills. Most of the pastel mills used bovines or equines to turn their millstones.
After crushing the leaves, as much liquid as possible was drained from the paste which was then formed by hand into balls called cocagnes. These were placed in racks in a well-ventilated area sheltered from the rain and left to dry for several weeks. Once the cocagnes were dry, they were stored until the end of the season. Until then, everyone was too busy weeding and hoeing and picking the next harvest to have time to work on the least pleasant stage of production.
It took four months of smelly work to transform the cocagnes into a product which could be shipped and sold to the textile industry. Early in the New Year the cocagnes were taken back to the same mills where the same beasts turned the same millstones. The ground-up cocagnes were then mixed with impure water, and the mushy mass began to ferment, usually on the brick-paved floor of the pastel-maker’s workshop where it was easier to stir or turn with a shovel. For several weeks the unpleasant mixture festered away and gave off noxious and revolting fumes. It took skill to control this process. The fermentation had to be lively enough to oxidise the glucose in the leaves and make them release their pigment, but if it went too far, there was a risk of destroying the colour. Adding human urine was the simplest way to speed things up, and cold weather or adding pure water slowed it down. The pastel-maker’s art lay in striking the right balance to obtain a product of the highest quality. Once the fermentation was finished, the paste was left to dry and then it was broken up to form something like fine gravel. The granules were very dark – almost black – and the first sacks of this agranat were ready for sale in May.
Exporting to international markets
Between August and October much of this agranat was shipped down the Garonne from Toulouse to Bordeaux, and in November and December ocean-going vessels took it to England or Holland. Another important trading route led to Spain where pastel from Toulouse supplied Castile’s textile industry.
When the dyers were ready to start work, the agranat was turned into powder and another complex process began, varying with the type of fabric to be dyed.
The renaissance of pastel dyeing
Despite its long history, little was written down about pastel. When, in the 1990s, an American-Belgian couple called Denise and Henri Lambert decided to bring pastel dyeing back to life, they worked with the School of Chemistry in Toulouse to perfect a new process that is over a hundred times quicker than the medieval method. The pigment can be extracted from the pastel leaves in less than a day, but using it to dye successfully is still an art requiring considerable experience and skill.
One of the few surviving examples of a traditional dessert from the south of France is the mesturet (locals pronounce all the letters). It originated in the department of the Tarn, but its principal ingredients were introduced from the Americas: pumpkin and maize flour. What happened to other Occitan pastries such as the rauzel, the feuilleté or the autrichien?
Death by sugar and cream
In the 17th century, Britain, France and other colonial powers began to establish vast sugar plantations in the Americas. In the space of a couple of centuries, sugar went from being an expensive luxury to a commodity available to all. The dessert menu blossomed as chefs and cooks accidentally or deliberately created French classics such as mousse au chocolat, tarte Tatin, poire belle Hélène and crêpes Suzette. In the takeaway sector, Parisian patisseries conquered the world and many Occitan desserts were overwhelmed. Most of them were solid peasant fare, often based on bread dough, and they had little in common with their sugary, creamy cousins from the north.
Secrets from the kitchen
Today, it is rare to find the mesturet on the shelves of a boulangerie-pâtisserie or on a restaurant menu. This is a traditional dish made almost exclusively at home, and every ancient family seems to have its own recipe and continues to use it. In many cases, the recipe is a closely-guarded family secret, but after a lot of searching, I found an old lady who allowed me to sit in her kitchen for a couple of days and watch her at work. This experience inspired me to create my own version. It’s a lot quicker to make, and my recipe uses something I have seen in no other – oven-roasted butternut squash.
The most surprising feature of the mesturet is that its flavour lingers in the mouth for a good ten or fifteen minutes, making it unusually satisfying. Unlike many desserts, one mouthful does not quickly lead to the next and irresistibly onwards towards sugar-fuelled gluttony.
Recipe – Butternut Mesturets
Ingredients: 1.0-1.2 kg of peeled, raw butternut squash, 160 g of brown sugar, 100 g of plain white flour, 30 g of maize flour, 35 ml of Armagnac, the juice of one lemon (approx. 35 ml), vanilla essence, approx. 200 ml of water, a pinch or two of salt, sunflower oil.
1) Chop the peeled butternut squash into cubes with sides of around 1.5 cm. Place in a baking tray, drizzle with sunflower oil and roast at 190oC until they are soft enough to squash (ha-ha!) with a fork. This should take 35-40 minutes in a fan oven; turn them every 10 minutes or so to stop them burning.
2) When the squash has cooled, weigh out 600 g and blend it with the sugar, plain flour, maize flour, Armagnac, lemon juice, a few drops of vanilla essence and salt. Slowly add the water to obtain a puree that will just fall off your spatula or spoon (the exact volume of water will vary with each squash and how well you roast it). Note: for a smooth, non-fibrous mixture, you may need to run your blender for around five minutes.
3) Spoon the mixture into muffin cases (I use a silicone tray with 12 cups each holding 75 ml, and the quantities given in this recipe make enough mixture to fill them all nearly to the brim).
4) Bake in the oven for 40 minutes at 160oC. Turn down the thermostat to 140oC and bake for another 40 minutes.
5) Remove from the oven. When they have fully cooled, turn them out. Traditionally they are eaten cold, and this seems to accentuate their taste. They will keep for several days in an airtight container.
A black day for French Protestants
On 16 October 1685, Louis XIV dispatched four companies of infantry to the town of Puylaurens, 45 kilometres to the east of Toulouse. Their mission? Demolish the Protestant temple and force the townsfolk to convert to Catholicism (in French, the word temple is commonly used to describe a Protestant church).
The end of religious freedom
A week later, the Sun King signed a new order that revoked all the freedoms that had been granted to the Protestants in the Edict of Nantes of 1598. In brief, his new edict decreed the destruction of all Protestant churches and academic establishments; outlawed all forms of Protestant worship; gave pastors a fortnight to choose between converting to Catholicism and going into exile; and banned all other Protestants from emigrating, on pain of the galleys for the men and prison for the women.
Despite the dangers of trying to flee the country, this triggered an exodus of biblical proportions. How many people fled is uncertain: estimates range from 200,000 to a million. Most sought asylum in neighbouring countries including England, Holland, Prussia and Switzerland, and four thousand fugitives found sanctuary in New York and Virginia.
For a much longer exploration of the role Puylaurens played in the Wars of Religion, see Section VI of my book Lauragais: Soaked in Blood, Steeped in History.Lauragais
Colin Duncan Taylor
"I have been living in the south of France for 20 years, and through my books and my blog, I endeavour to share my love for the history and gastronomy of Occitanie and the Pyrenees."