Salut mes amies, and welcome to the hot, arid Quercy autumn!
We’re not quite as far south as the Sahara, but if you lived here you’d be forgiven for thinking you might be on the edge of it! We have just had a most welcome and hugely dramatic thunder storm, but the last significant rain was a two day downpour at the very beginning of July and the countryside is parched. I’m thinking of investing in a camel train. On my way out the other day, I came across a group of battered old cars at the end of our long drive. They were parked – well abandoned really – on the verges, in the vines and in nearby stands of oak. More cars than this isolated little corner of France usually sees in a week. There are only three reasons for such vehicular camaraderie and, like everything else round here, they are seasonal. In summer it means a fete. In winter it means a hunting party. But at this time of year it can only mean one thing – the vendange.
It was early this year and most of the grapes have now been picked. On every bend of every country road little purple smudges reveal the presence of laden tractors. The distillery at Castelfranc is beginning to assume its fruity autumn fragrance, as the newly pressed grapes are stored there, waiting to be made into Eau de Vie and Brandy. I noticed it particularly the other day, as I was inspecting the walnut trees on the other side of the road trying to second guess the timing of the next harvest. It’s an unexpected aroma and as it matures and the year draws to a close, there’s really only one thing that can possibly compare. Christmas pudding. Odd, but true.
Meanwhile the markets have changed their colours completely. Gone are the bright apricot, peach and strawberry reds of summer and a more subdued palate has appeared. Enormous, dark orange pumpkins adorn most stalls. A large curved and rather dangerous looking knife sits alongside the open ones, because of course, pumpkins and squashes are sold by the slice. But it wasn’t the pumpkins that grabbed my attention last week as I hared into Cahors market just after midday, late as usual. At the very first vegetable stall, an old favourite, I pulled up in amazement. This is where I buy my winter cabbages, cauliflowers and chard, but I have never seen this vegetable for sale in a French market before. It was Curly Kale. I stared in amazement, and drew nearer to verify the situation. The stall-holder, recognizing me, picked up a stalk of Kale and held it on his head. ‘C’est un chapeau!’ He grinned, sparkling with wit, that morning. He told me they were ostrich feathers, how many would I like?
I love Curly Kale, I love its deep, dark green colour and bitter flavour – and of course it’s indisputably good for you. But this was being sold by the stalk and one stalk of Kale would probably feed at least twelve. I bought two. Well it was nearly 12.30 and he sold me all that Kale for a euro… As I sauntered off into the rest of the market other stall-holders asked me where I’d bought it. One of them was quite astounded, he’s German and he too is very fond of Kale, but it seems he doesn’t actually grow it himself, though his wonderful organic stall sports some fantastic vegetables and herbs. ‘It’s very rare in France,’ he told me, as if I didn’t know, ‘and it’s early too. I must go and see if he’s got any left!’ I gave it away to friends, served it in various ways at every meal except breakfast for six whole days and we’ve finally, finally finished it! I must admit I wouldn’t mind if I had a Kale-free few days now, but oh, it was well worth it.
© Amanda Lawrence 2009
Author White Stone Black Wine