We are driving on the A64 motorway, spindling south westwards from Toulouse, and, were we to follow it all the way we would skirt the foothills of the Pyrenees towards as far as Biarritz. It is a heat-shimmering, impeccable two-lane highway. But though the Mercedes is travelling, for now, at the statutory 120 kilometres per hour, the BMW 5-series and the Renault Lagunas (Lagunae?) are whooshing past us with occasional toots of sheer contempt for those who adhere to the French speed limit.
André, our driver, honks back with interest, and then, with fulsome Gallic curses, overtakes them aggressively in turn. (I know that most Brits enjoy driving in France, but I have always preferred to be driven. One observes so much more while gazing out of windows).
André, like all Frenchmen, believes that speeding is the inalienable right of a free citizen. We exit on Sortie 18, circumvent the provincial grandeur of Saint-Gaudens and then segue through a web of secondary roads, heading roughly south. Peaks of the majestic Pyrenees now come intermittently into view, though they are obscured by deep wooded valleys and grey-brick villages: Valentine, Sauveterre-de-Comminges, Malvézie, Saint-Pé-d’Ardet.
Saint-Pé is our destination.
Pé is a Béarnaise and Catalan form of Pierre/Pedro/Peter. In these parts, minority languages persisted until the 19th century when the centralising forces of post-revolutionary France stamped upon them, and imposed Parisian French as the lingua franca of the entire French Republic.
As André propels us, still at breakneck speed, deeper and deeper into the serpentine corners of this beautiful, semi-savage country, with its thickly wooded hills and fast-flowing streams, we catch site of the village sign. Saint-Pé.
(No nonsense about how welcome you are, and how This Village Appreciates Safe Drivers). One of the many things that I adore about France is the consistency and clarity of its road signage. You know exactly where you are; even if you don’t always know where you are going.
Kay tells me: Jean-Marc and Josephine’s house is opposite the church. She instructs André to park in the square in her perfect but quaintly 1960s French. We halt beside an etiolated statue of the Immaculate Conception.
Kay was a soixante-huitard – one of the thousands of barely adult Sorbonne students, together with the workers, who poured onto the streets of Paris in May 1968 to demand the resignation of Le General. She was a Marxist then, though never a vulgar Marxist. (Quite the opposite). She, English by birth, has lived in France ever since.
I wonder if she is still of the far left. She lives in a capacious pigeonnier outside Toulouse with a number of geriatric cats; and with, apparently, occasional (male) visitors. But what does that mean? In France, it is very difficult to determine people’s political affiliations, still less their amorous ones. Generally, one doesn’t know.
Our friendship is an odd one. She writes what she calls post–modern feminist fiction, which I call, much to her disgust, erotic novels. I gave up trying to read one of her books long ago on the second page and she pointedly refuses to read any of my stuff. She says that I’m an apologist for The System. Whatever that is.
Jean-Marc and Josephine are there at the porch to welcome us. They make – I feel – exaggerated overtures to André, who is assured of a place at the luncheon table, despite his protestations that he just needs to go off for a smoke.
Jean-Pierre is a sculptor, whose work has been compared to that of Brancusi; Josephine is a poetess, writing in French and Catalan.
After an elaborate exchange of greetings, which the French do so much more punctiliously than the English these days, I was presented to Madame Mère. This is Josephine’s mother: ninety years old, still beautiful and with sparkling green-olive eyes.
How is it, I wonder, that elderly French woman can remain so graceful; even, I hesitate to say, sexy? Her hair is grey, yet fulsome. Her lipstick, an obscure shade of plum, is alluring, and would be louche on a less sophisticated woman. Her eyes radiate inquisitiveness – and yet I am kept, appropriately, at my distance. I am a visitor. I am not of her ancient clan; though I am most welcome.
Aperitifs. A large carafe of chilled rosé is placed on the marble table on the sunny terrace. There are olives and walnuts. English people, myself included, tend to pour wine with abandon as soon as it appears. The French eye the libation, walk around it, discuss its origin, evaluate its colour and then, with a kind of studied spontaneity, raise their glasses with quiet words of welcome. Then they taste. This may last a minute.
The toast completed, I gulp my chilled rosé with more avidity than is correct in France. Madame Mère stares.
Such rituals are social constructs. But mushrooms are real.
I am presented to Dmitri, Josephine’s elder brother, who is carrying a huge panier (wicker basket) burgeoning with fungi. Josephine explains that her brother, a man of few words, walks in the woods each morning and returns with wonderful things. I contemplate these strange, alien life forms for a moment, but Josephine intuits what I’m thinking.
They are safe, she says. My brother understands the forest. He is alone up there, except for les sangliers (wild boar), every day. And now, if you will excuse me – la cuisine.
Back on the terrace, glass of rosé in hand, Jean-Marc tells me that these densely wooded hills are modern – nature has taken over, as man and beast have retreated. As recently as the War, these slopes were lush pasture for sheep and cows. But, progressively, the local dairy farmers were unable to compete with industrial farming in flatter, more populated, France. And they gave up. The slopes are a jungle now, he says, fit only for wild pigs.
This intrigues me. I ask him: you mean that there is no more agriculture in Deep France? A few beekeepers, plus the odd artisan cheese-maker, he says. But they are all doomed.
At this point the church bells ring. I am a slow-burn Anglican who still responds to bells. It is Sunday, and I ask Jean-Marc if there is a service today. My imagination running wild, I prefigure a polyphonic mass, where the communal wine is administered by a curé in a black soutane.
Hélas, he says, there have been no services in this church for ten years or so. The bells that you hear are electronic, installed by the bishop of Saint-Gaudens. But even he no longer comes here. There will never be another service in that church.
This leaves me deflated; a glass of rosé less happy. I ask: and do you have commodités (amenities) in this village? There is nothing he says; not a shop, not a restaurant, certainly not un bar. But, Mon cher Monsieur, I say, there is a boulangerie. No he says, the boulanger died last month, and his sons have moved away. It is closed now. For good.
Since part of my deep-rooted love of France arises from the remembered smell of morning croissants and good coffee, I am shocked. So, Monsieur, how do you shop? Of course we drive to ALDI in Saint-Gaudens (some 25 kilometres away), what did you imagine?
But, Monsieur, there must be a thriving tourist industry in this beautiful corner of la belle France? The English and the Germans rejoice in this uplifting scenery.
There was a camp site nearby. It was run by Parisians. (In many parts of deep France the word parisiens is intoned with loathing). But it folded. The hotel up the road has also gone bankrupt. The French do not come here anymore, except for a few mad pèlerins (pilgrims – on the Chemin Saint Jacques – heading towards Santiago de Compostela).
The mushrooms were served on platters.
Ceps (cèpes in French, porcini in Italian) are a basidiomycete fungus, of the genus Boletus. They grow in deciduous and coniferous forest across the Northern hemisphere, living symbiotically with trees by enveloping their underground roots with sheaths of fungal tissue. The large fleshy brown cap, which pushes above ground in summer and autumn, is deliciously edible. The Roman poet Juvenal wrote an ode to them.
The cèpes are simply served, fried in olive oil, garlic and basil. They are high in protein, a kind of slightly slimy filet mignon.
Girolles (sometimes called Chanterelles in English – not a good mushroom language) is a fungus of the genus Cantharellus, hence the English name. It is a funnel of orange, fungal flesh. Underneath its smooth cap, it has gill-like ridges. It is aromatic, almost peppery.
There are other varieties, but I am an inadequate mycologist.
The rest of the lunch, is wholesome, copious and traditional. Foie gras served as is the custom, with sweet Sauternes wine; magret de canard; plateau fromages; tarte tatin.
After coffee, with Madame Mère ensconced in front of the television, watching a romance, her beautiful grey hair compressed by a set of burly headphones, Josephine suggests a walk.
André, Kay, Josephine and I head off through the village and into the woods while Jean-Marc retreats to his atelier (workshop). Kay points out to me that every other house is à vendre. The English like these remote village houses, and sometimes the Néerlandais, says Josephine. They come for one month in the summer, and then – pouf – the village is calme (still – or does that mean dead?) again. Some of these houses, she adds, have been à vendre for years.
We follow a track around a woody corner, past some seemingly abandoned beehives and we are confronted by a sign: Miel. Ah, voila l’apiculture, say Josephine, and it is open. We enter a kind of chalet and ring a bell at the desk. Monsieur l’apiculteur appears, almost immediately. (It will not do to translate apiculteur as a beekeeper. I would rather translate it as: he who conjures honey from bees).
If this were England, the purchase of honey would probably be enacted thus:
“Afternoon, mate, got any honey?”
“Small, medium or large, mate?”
“Large, please mate”.
“That’ll be six quid mate, thanking you”.
In France, however, the transaction is accomplished with infinitely more subtlety and finesse. The apiculteur greets his visitors and enquires how they might have learnt about his humble artisanship. Then he shares with us a little of the long history of beekeeping in these parts. It started with the Iberian tribes who roamed these hills in early antiquity, he says; but when the Romans came, beekeeping became the backbone of the local economy. Something to do with the favourable climate, and the remarkable diversity of flora and fauna.
Then he lines up a row of jars on the counter and offers each of us little wooden tasting spoons. This, he says, is my standard Miel des Pyrénées, which can be creamy or runny. We taste. André makes a kind of kissing sound, which indicates approval. Then, continues the apiculteur, I offer my miel des bruyères (heather honey). Notice how the taste evolves as it moves across the tongue. The next, my personal favourite, is my miel au châtaignier (chestnut honey). You will not find that elsewhere in the Pyrenees. The next is au tilleul (with linden). Et enfin, he concludes, my little miel aux noisettes (hazelnut).
Throughout this performance, Kay gazes at the apiculteur. I have a horrible feeling that she might have conceived the plot of one of her novels. Frustrated English housewife, on holiday in the Pyrenees, encounters a mysterious beekeeper…but let’s not go there.
There is an intense and rather serious exchange between André and Josephine, who evidently disagree about the merits of linden. Kay decides to buy one of each while I pass on the hazelnut (too fierce a competitor for Nutella).
We leave the apiculteur after elaborate farewells and head towards the Afinage, a beautifully restored medieval hostelry which now functions as a pilgrim hostel and conference centre. Inside, it forms a galleried courtyard on four levels, a source (spring) gushing at the centre.
Women for world peace mediation marathon coming soon, a poster announces in English. Kay fingers the coordinates into her mobile, with a look of concentration.
Over many years I have enjoyed countless days of walking France’s network of long-distance footpaths, which, thanks to the country’s majestic geography and the zeal of the Fédération Française de Randonnée Pédestre is without parallel anywhere in the world. Yet it occurs to me that some of the walks I have done are now almost impossible because there is no longer anywhere to buy food in rural France. The Afinage provides an excellent kitchen for those who bring their own sustenance – yet there are no shops.
Perhaps on my next French hike I shall hire a mule, as one does in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco.
Back at the house, we find Jean-Marc outside his atelier fondling an abstract stone sculpture about the size of a football. What, he asks me, does this represent? A mushroom, I reply, uncertainly. He regards me with the studied contempt that a French intellectual reserves for an English idiot. It is not a mushroom, he says, witheringly, it is Jesus.
Over more coffee, Josephine begins to proclaim, in the traditional trilling manner, some stanzas that she has recently written in medieval Catalan. They apparently concern the Chanson de Roland.
One thing that an English education equips you to do is to remain in a state of zen-like calm while bad things happen. I once took my parents to see the four-hour Russian production of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov at Covent Garden. They sat patiently throughout. As we left the opera house they both said simultaneously: We lived through the war, but that was the most horrific experience of our entire lives.
I am relieved when Kay interrupts Jocelyn’s trilling, in her flawless Parisian French. From a feminist perspective, she says, doesn’t Roland just reinforce the traditional paternalistic narrative?
After a shocked pause, Jean-Marc says: Of course Roland is not a feminist narrative; it is about the Marxian concept of Class Struggle.
With perfect timing, André, who has been out the back having a smoke with Dmitri, suggests it is a good time to hit the road.
We depart with sincere valedictions. I make one last observation to Jean-Marc: I haven’t seen any children at all today, only people of a certain age. He looks at me, confirming his thesis that I am a half-wit: Why would there be children in a place with no schools? The only children who come here are anglais au néerlandais.
André’s foot hits the floor and the Mercedes accelerates away. Jean-Marc and Joslyn recede, still waving.
As I fly out of Toulouse Blagnac on the EasyJet flight the next morning, I observe the expanse of the Airbus Industrie (OTCMKTS:EADSY) complex from my window seat. This is now the backbone of a rich, though challenged, industrial nation. A nation that has fought so hard to preserve what is exceptional about itself, and yet which is turning its back on much of what makes it wonderful, and so alluring to the English.
Vive la France Profonde! And if the French can’t save it, maybe the Brits can. Or maybe not.