Welcome to deep, deep autumn in the rain-washed Quercy.
In years to come people will talk about the long hot summer of 2009 and remind one another that it truly lasted from April to October. But it’s November now and the bitter Northern winds have swept across the landscape, turning the shivering vines scarlet and bringing driving rain in their wake. For the first time in my life I really don’t mind. The countryside is parched and gasping, wells and waterholes have been dry for months and the gardens are in desperate need of a good drink. Meanwhile the autumn pruning has been done, winter wood has been cut and stacked and all the leftovers piled high on the bonfire. The last of the wild harvests have been gathered too. Pinecones for the fire – pinecones make superb fire lighters – are piled in six capacious boxes on the lower terrace. Walnuts, still wet and unctuous, wait to be moved inside to dry out for the year, quinces await the preserving pans and bags of fat, glossy chestnuts will be roasted, peeled – what a fiddly job that is – and frozen for Christmas.
In my steamy kitchen, the wood-fired stove (Cruella, for those of you who’ve read White Stone Black Wine) is puffing gently to herself in the corner; a small cauldron of caramelised onion soup simmers slowly on her accommodating hob, filling the immediate vicinity with tummy-gnawing aromas. Rain slaps against the window panes and fogs drift across the hills masking the shimmering vineyards. But in my little corner of the house it is a steady twenty-five degrees; there’s nothing like a good wood-burning stove.
Down in the markets the winds have caused hibernation to set in. Only the hard-core stall-holders remain, well wrapped against the elements and displaying the stalwarts that will see us all through the short, cold winter months. Baby turnips, leaves still on, a vast pile of cardoons, stacks of leeks and endives and boxes of muddy, knobbly Jerusalem artichokes, just nudging the winter pears. And of course there are onions – sacks and sacks of onions. One euro-fifty for five kilos and enough onion soup for a month. ‘Would you like some celery leaves?’ asked the girl at the stall where I bought a slice of pumpkin and a good-looking bunch of turnips, ‘just to help with the stock.’ This is very common. They are selling not only their produce, but their advice, years – centuries – of experience. And if you buy turnips you will of course be making a casserole of some sort, so celery leaves would add just another layer of flavour to the whole. I smiled and thanked her as she snapped some sturdy stalks off the globes of celeriac and stuffed them in my basket. Her hands were roughened and swollen with work, earth driven deep under the fingernails, but her cheerful, rosy-cheeked face and kind eyes showed an inner contentment that few can achieve in these frantic, corporate dog-eat-dog days. Perhaps she was selling not only her wonderfully fresh produce and her culinary advice – but a whole different lifestyle?
© Amanda Lawrence 2009
Author White Stone Black Wine