Being out in the countryside with my dogs gives me time to think. I’ve learnt the pleasure of solitude without being lonely, and that’s a good feeling for me.

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This is my countryside diary which appears each Saturday in the Dundee Courier newspaper.

A French land of plenty

August 1st, 2015

P1040299RETURNING TO old haunts can sometimes be disappointing but the Doyenne and I are back from a marvellous week’s holiday in south-west France, staying with her niece Jane and partner Emma.

Lauzerte, in the Tarn-et-Garonne Département, is a mediaeval hilltop bastide, or fortified town, with 360° views and is considered one of the prettiest villages in France. The whole area is an elevated limestone plateau of foothills and valleys with rivers running through – like Scottish glens, but many times larger.

Half-timbered houses are commonplace and the older buildings are roofed with terracotta pantiles, an even earlier legacy from Roman times. The honey coloured local stone turns drowsy golden in the hot sun as afternoon stretches into evening. We were blessed with temperatures in the high 20°C, so we suffered a bit of a culture shock when we landed back in Aberdeen on Tuesday.

The first evening we were entertained by house martins hawking high in the sky above the village. In the mornings we watched them from our bed, starting early and flying into their nests under the eaves of the houses opposite, with beakfuls of flies and beetles for their endlessly demanding chicks.

French doocots
A common sight is the pigeonniers, or pigeon lofts, which were an essential part of almost every older house, either built into the roof space or as a separate building in the garden. Unlike our Scottish doocots which were built to supply fresh meat, the pigeonniers principal purpose was to provide pigeon manure to fertilise the grape vines.

Vineyards are everywhere, growing in the white, limestone-rich earth of the uplands and in the brown, alluvial loam of the valleys, each having a distinct effect on the taste and quality of the wine.

We drank the rosé wines, which are a speciality of the district. Not to any excess, you understand, but it should surely have seemed tactless not to show appreciation of the of the farmers’ skills. The Auld Alliance is not forgotten.

We visited two vineyards – Chateau Lamartine and Chateau Haut-Monplaisir. It’s not the place of this column to recommend a particular wine – one Doyenne’s appellation could be another’s vinegar – but should you come across either label it might be worth investing in a bottle to see what you think.

We noticed rose bushes growing at the end of rows of vines. The roses act as a barometer of the vines’ health as they warn of the presence of mildew before it appears on the vines.
Richly diverse agriculture
The countryside is high, dry and wild and supports little livestock which explains why there were hardly any fenced fields – there’s no need. But it’s a richly diverse agricultural area and butter mellow stubble fields dotted the landscape where wheat and rye had been combined and baled a month earlier.

There’s maize too, and millet and tobacco and beans and tapioca still to be harvested. The area is famous for melons and we tucked into glorious, sweet cantaloupe melons at breakfast.

And orchards – plums, damsons, peaches, nectarines, apricots, greengages, apples. As if that wasn’t enough, we passed nut orchards of almonds, walnuts and hazelnuts.

Everything appears at the open air markets, or marchés, that almost every village except the smallest have each week. All grown, ripened and picked in season and on sale loose and ready to eat. And I haven’t even mentioned the cheeses………

France is enormous compared with Scotland and is well wooded mostly with what seems naturally regenerated broadleaf trees. I saw no evidence of formal woodland management such as we have with the Forestry Commission.

Predominant are evergreen holm oaks but there are wild cherries and damsons and sloes and nuts. Mediterranean pines, reminiscent of Scots pines, make occasional surprise appearances. Too early – or too late – for truffles, sadly; their season is November to February.

There weren’t many opportunities to see wildlife. We passed a pair of roe deer grazing amongst stubbles. Kestrels are common and we saw several honey buzzards which have a longer tail and lighter plumage than our Scottish version. Kites aren’t unusual but I saw only one that I could definitely identify, sitting on a post.

We found a lavender hedge well populated with butterflies. There were small whites and I hope I correctly identified the handsome swallowtails and white admirals and hummingbird hawkmoths all of which I had never seen in the flesh before.

Enduring memories
There are enduring memories – the cockerel that chimed up each morning around 5am to announce another sun drenched day. Pain au raisin, a round breakfast pastry with raisins and custard in the middle; croissants and chocolatines and baguettes. Warm enough for breakfast outside and lingering late with a glass of wine before bed; walking barefoot, throwing away my watch.

Shuttered windows, cicadas stridulating in the undergrowth; boy racers speeding down the narrow main street on their 50cc 2-stroke motos sounding like demented sewing machines.

Field after field of sunflowers, tournesols in French because their golden-rayed flowers turn towards the sun, following its course throughout the day.

Little wonder we’re suffering France, food and wine withdrawal symptoms!

Written on Saturday, August 1st, 2015 at 5:28 pm for Weekly.