Sunday, October 26, 2014

Quercy Safran

It's time to celebrate saffron! A culinary spice, saffron is usually associated with countries of the near East such as Iran and Kashmir, but it grows many other places in the world, especially in Mediterranean countries. And it grows right here in southwest France! There are several producers in the area surrounding Cajarc and a total of more than 50 producers in the Lot/Aveyron area overall. This weekend Cajarc celebrates safran in all its forms. Not only are there tours of safran farms on offer, but safran products are on sale at a special market in Cajarc and local restaurants serve unique menus with dishes spiced with safran. Safran colors of purple and red are everywhere as shops and restaurants compete for the best safran-themed decorations.


I elected to tour a safran farm with a friend. We gathered with many others in front of the Cajarc tourist office awaiting our instructions. A producer introduced himself and then announced a change of venue for the tour. There was a mad scramble for the few maps he held. Luckily, the farm chosen for today's tour was just a few minutes away outside Gaillac and right next door to a friend's house. Everyone dashed for his car and fell in line behind our producer-leader. There must have been at least 50 cars in the line that snaked its away across the river and into Gaillac! A bit disorganized, but tres French!



Once everyone had found parking, we lined up along the perimeter of a small field of safran to listen to an interesting presentation about this beautiful fall flower. I'm guessing there were at least 150 people in attendance.
We learned that safran is an extremely labor-intensive crop as the crocus bulbs are planted by hand and then the flowers must be harvested by hand. Each bulb produces up to 4 flowers.
After picking the flowers, the three stigmas of the flowers are plucked out; these are dried and become the lovely crimson/gold spice. It takes 200,000 flowers to produce 1 kilogram of spice....all of them picked by hand!
It's back-breaking work.
But the results are beautiful....and tasty!

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Autumn

Autumn in my neighborhood

After a long spell of Indian summer, we're beginning to ease into fall here in southwest France. Some of the trees have already dropped their brown leaves, but others are just beginning to turn their autumn colors. The days are gradually getting cooler and that morning river fog is lingering a bit longer each day. This weekend France falls back into standard time which means the days will feel shorter and darker. After a burst of color, everything will snuggle into winter-mode for a long rest. But I intend to enjoy the color while I can!


Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Chapel Notre Dame des Graces

Chapelle Notre Dame des Graces
Lacapelle-Livron
If you're a fan of the film, 'Charlotte Gray', you may recognize my second stop during patrimoine weekend. This is the Chapel Notre Dame des Graces. It sits just outside Lacapelle-Livron and was used in one of the last scenes in the movie. (The chapel was the place where Charlotte and Julien met for the last time before she escaped from France) It sits perched on an isolated promontory called Pech Jonquieres overlooking the Bonnette Valley. Built in 1471 by Catherine de Gorsse, its served as a private funeral chapel for the family of her deceased husband, Pierre de Pause, a rich merchant of the village.
It's unusual for its isolated location away from either a parish church or a cemetery. I was surprised as well by its light, airy interior quite unlike the damp, dark Templar church in the village. There are 5 lovely stained glass windows which face the east. Morning light floods the small chapel.
The altar is filled with ex votos
This lovely carved bench and the well-worn prie-dieu offer places to sit, ponder and pray.
Welcoming the morning sun

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

A Templar Church

During Patrimoine Weekend (the third weekend in September each year) I try to visit historic sites which are normally not open to the public. This year both places I wanted to see were in the tiny village of Lacapelle-Livron in the Tarn-et-Garonne. The 13th century Templar Commanderie here is privately owned, but this year the church was open for visitors. The exact date the Commanderie was built isn't known, but we do know the lands were given to the Templars in 1225. By 1268 records show that 16 men lived there...the Commander as well as knights, priests and servants.
The fortified Templar church


The inside of the church was a bit disappointing as there is really nothing left to indicate its Templar origins. As you can see on the right side of this photo (greenish columns), there is a problem with damp mold. Maybe a leaky roof?

The domed ceiling vault is beautifully constructed of overlapping stones.
The church walls, arches and simply carved columns are also quite lovely.

As I was searching the internet for information about the Commanderie, I ran across this YouTube video. The music is a bit annoying and the beginning and end are a little corny, but it does give you a nice tour of the church and also takes you into the some of the privately owned parts of the building. There are also stunning views of the Bonnette Valley below the village.

The last two minutes show the second stop of my visit to Lacapelle-Livron, the Notre Dame des Graces chapel. I'll blog more about that in my next post.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

C'est quercy rouergue!

Photo from Sue Carter
I live on the very edge of the Lot Department. (Departments in France are kind of a cross between a county and a state in the US). Right across the river from my house is the Aveyron Department. Drive a bit further and you come to the Tarn-et-Garonne Department. This little corner of deep France is sort of no-man's land. There are a lot of things going on, but no one knows much about them. Publicity for French events is notoriously bad, and English sites often concentrate on the bigger events in bigger towns. Frequently a really cool local event comes and goes and I lament...'wish I'd known about that; I would have gone.'

Enter my friend, Sue, who had the brilliant idea to put together a Facebook page, 'C'est quercy rouergue' ('It's the quercy rouergue.' The quercy rouergue is what this geographic area is called) She invited a few of us to follow the page with instructions to invite others we think might be interested. From a handful, we are now up to 54 members and growing! The page is a place to publicize local events, offer things for sale, and share news of our villages. I've already learned about two events I would otherwise never have heard about. Sue will monitor the page for spammers and inappropriate content, but otherwise it's up to us to make it a go. Here's the link if you're interested: C'est quercy rouergue.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

St. Brigit's Cross

The Roundhouse
After wandering through the Celtic seasons at Brigit's Garden, our last stop was at the Roundhouse in its center. This space is used for art and music events as well as a meditation center. Here Jenny spent a few moments telling us about St. Brigit's Cross. The cross probably pre-dates Christianity, but today is associated with St. Brigit. Hanging it in your kitchen protects your home from fire and evil. Crosses are traditionally made on Feb. 1st, St. Brigit's feast day. Our driver, John, remembered making them in school when he was a child. The cross in his house was changed every year when he made a new one. And I have to give credit where it's due....making the cross looks easy; it's not. It is definitely an acquired skill to get it tight and tidy. John was a real expert! His was the best cross of the day!
We laid our finished creations in a circle on the floor, and I was able to snap a quick photo before everyone snatched theirs away. My cross made the flight home tucked in my suitcase and is now hanging on my kitchen door. It's not very pretty, but I hope its protection against fire and evil works anyway!
Crosses on display in the Roundhouse

Monday, October 13, 2014

Lughnasa

Lughnasa Garden
As we complete the cycle of the Celtic year, we visit the Lughnasa Garden (pronounced loo-na-sa). It was my favorite garden because it designates my favorite time of year...autumn. It's celebrated on August 1st with feasting and dancing; it signals the beginning of the harvest. At Brigit's Garden, the area is surrounded by standing stones. Inside are two intersecting circles... one for dancing and one holding a long stone table for feasting. The mounds outside the circle represent the stars of Orion, one of my favorite constellations and one associated with the Celtic god, Lugh. The ancient festival has been Christianized with today's pilgrims climbing holy mountains like Croagh Patrick to honor the saint and the season.

In a previous post, I shared the movie, "The Quiet Man" with you. When I bought that video in Galway, the store had a special on...two DVD's for 10 euros. So I purchased "Dancing at Lughnasa" along with it. This 1998 Irish film based on the Broadway play of the same name features an ensemble cast that includes Meryl Streep. Set in County Donegal in 1936, it's  the story of the five Mundy sisters and their brother, Jack, a priest who has been relieved of his missionary duties and sent home from Africa. Life is hard in these pre-war years and the sisters struggle that summer trying to keep the family together. It's a bitter-sweet story. Watch it for the gorgeous Irish countryside and a glimpse of  the quasi-Christian Lughnasa festival.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Bealtaine

Bealtaine garden
Bealtaine (pronounced Belt-an-a) marks the beginning of the light half of the Celtic year. It's traditionally celebrated on May 1st which is considered to be the beginning of summer. It is a time of fire and light, of love and marriage and the time of coming of age. Cows were turned out into summer pastures and Irish houses were decorated with flowers, many of them yellow to signify the light during this festival time. \ In the Bealtaine Garden, standing stones make a path from a fire source to a bonfire in front of a throne formed from bog wood.

Path to the throne with embedded stones representing fire
And yes, we all took a turn sitting on the throne!

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Imbolc

Basket swings in the Imbolc garden
As we continue through the Celtic year, the next garden we come to is the Imbolc (pronounced 'i-molk') garden. It represents the Celtic festival celebrated on February 1st which signals the beginning of spring. In Old Irish, imbolc means 'in the belly' and the festival honors all things bursting forth from the Earth's belly...bulbs beginning to bloom, lambs being born...birth in general. February 1st is also St. Brigit's day honoring the pagan goddess Brighid who was Christianized to become St. Brigit.


Our pilgrim group loved these hanging basket chairs! Everyone took a turn nestling in the cozy seats. They even  became the frame for a sister act....
Shelby and Pam pose for the camera

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Samhain

Winter garden
We began our wander around Brigit's Garden at Samhain. Pronounced 'sow-inn'  this festival in the Celtic calendar marks the end of harvest and the beginning of winter. Here in France we are fast approaching this time; harvesters are busy late into the evening combining corn and the vendange is in full swing in other parts of the country. Samhain is celebrated from sunset on October 31st to sunset on November 1st and is said to be the basis of Halloween. In France Toussaint or All Saint's Day on Nov. 1st is an important holiday as the French remember their dead ancestors and fill the cemeteries with flowers.
This garden is a large reflecting pool that cradles this sleeping woman made of autumn's fallen leaves  She's curled inward to sleep and rest during the dark of the winter months. The pool is surrounded by birch trees and the embankment below....
Sleeping Earth Woman
If you study her closely, you'll be able to see half the face of Earth Woman. She is lying on her side. The line of white stones on the left mark her hairline. Below you can see a half circle of white stones; that's her closed eye. Continuing to the right, her face slopes to her neck and then lifts up to her shoulder. She's too long to fit into a camera frame, but if you saw her in person, you'd be able to discern the rest of her body and her breast. She's sleeping peacefully until spring, protecting her garden and gathering the strength she needs to burst open into flower when spring arrives.

I love this technology that allows me to re-visit the Garden from a whole new perspective. See if you can spot Samhain in the 5 minute video below taken from the Brigit's Garden website.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Brigit's Garden

Jenny Beale explains the Gardens to us
I spent a lovely afternoon in Brigit's Garden with my small group of fellow pilgrims during my stay in Ireland. It's one of several places that I'd like to spend more time at during my next visit to the Galway area...a brief afternoon just whetted my appetite for more! After a great lunch at the Garden Cafe, owner Jenny Beale introduced us to the beautiful gardens and their history. Jenny was inspired to create Brigit's Garden in 1997 and opened it to the public in 2004. It's meant to be not only a peaceful and pretty place for visitors to wander and reflect in, but also serves as an environmental educational center.

Designed by Chelsea gold medal winner, Mary Reynolds, the gardens reflect the four great Celtic festivals of the year: Samhain, Imbolc, Bealtaine, and Lughnasa. Here the visitor can enjoy relaxing settings, wonderful sculpture, beautiful plantings among natural elements and wander an additional 10 acres of nature trails. Named after Brigit, Celtic goddess and Christian saint, Brigit's Garden is further explained on its website...do click over to read more.

We'll explore each Celtic festival garden in upcoming blog posts.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Yuccas


I have three large yucca plants in my back garden. Yuccas are NOT my fav's; I find them rather unfriendly with their pointy and very sharp leaves. In fact, I think they are probably bad feng shui. I rather dislike them for 50 weeks out of the year, but for the two weeks each fall when they are in bloom, they are really quite pretty and I forgive them for all the times they poke my arms when I mow the grass!