A Day in Provence.
Somewhere within the creamy stone walls of the neighbouring houses, a dog barks. In return, another decides that it too should contribute. And so, in unison, if not harmony, they yap. What they are yapping about or what provocation to bark they experience, is a complete canine mystery. Perhaps it is to scare away a tiny testicle tickling black legged scorpion, or they are barking at their own shadows they mistake for an intruder, or for no other reason that they like the sound of their own gruff. Perhaps it is a call and response love song, uniting the otherwise separated star crossed canine lovers. Perhaps it is merely a gainsay of “Oi! f*ck off over there! ” with “No, you fuck off over there! ”, but in canine French.
The sound wafts over the rooftops, drifting with the wind, weaving its way among the gutters, chimneys and climbing shrubs. It creeps around the stone corners, bounces off gable ends and wends its way through the tiny one car wide streets and alleyways towards an open old rickety wooden framed window, whose shutters have long gone, but whose rusting metal fixings refuse to detach from their deep set anchorages within the stone.
This first floor window overlooks a courtyard of fig trees, stone ornaments reflecting an Asian taste and a small bistro set of table and chairs. Along its windowsill a creeping plant appears with its red bell shape flowers as adornment. The window is open, its two arms swaying gently inwards while its glass is of the quality required to provide a wind stop but no more. It is thinner than translucent lace. How it survives the Mistral is anyone’s guess. As for preventing sound, first the window would have to be closed. I stand at the window listening to the dogs. Opposite stands the wall of the neighbouring house, and the roof, so close I could lean out and nearly touch it, of the house across the tiny passageway that is a ‘street’. Looking up, the stars twinkle down, it is warm. It is about 3 in the morning. I’m half awake and realise that the dream I was having of barking dogs in a Provençal village was indeed not a dream but stark reality. I close the window and miraculously the thinnest of thin glass actually damps down the sound.
There is no other sound to be heard by the somnambulant, or the sleep deprived wine infused *homme anglais au pays etranger*. The pigeons, starlings, sparrows and martins are in bed; olive farmers’ tractors have been long parked. Even the wind has stopped. Cypress trees stand quite still. Cicadas are absent, the clicking and chirruping are no more. Just the two dogs provide the soundtrack to a sleepy town near the slopes of Mont Ventoux.
There is still a few more hours before sunrise, and the comfort of a return to bed calls. A big glass of cold water and a shrug help one towards the renewed peace of what is left of night time. The small bedroom window is open to let in what ever small amount of breeze, or high pitched buzzing mosquito, should bother to turn up. The breeze will have to flow through the old red rust ironwork railings on the outside of the window to make its presence felt. The window outlooks onto another small shaded enclosed shrub shrouded courtyard of the ‘Le Vieil Hopital’, ensuring the bedroom is protected from the sunshine and kept cool (ish).
The sun itself at its allotted hour lights up the sky behind the shoulder of Ventoux, its actual rise hidden from view until it is high enough in the clear blue sky to creep above the land and explode in orange and bright white light to call in a new day. The sky has to be seen. There are not enough English words for ‘blue’ that does it. Not one cloud. Not one. Provence does have clouds of course, often of the thundery sort. Massive, dark, grey threatening, awe inspiring towers of billowing anvil shaped cumulus promising a deluge of biblical proportions, but this morning they have run away over the Luberon Hills and hidden themselves to strike at a more opportune moment. They choose such times as when one might be cycling alone across the unsheltered flatlands with the nearest cover over 5 miles away. But this morning belongs to the sun.
As it is most mornings. The sun drives the country into fecundity and prosperity. It enriches the sap in the olive trees which will in time produce virgin oil rich fruit in the presses. It gives energy to the sugar producing vines and their black bursting grapes, allows the green and yellow juicy succulent melons and the tomatoes to rich red ripen in the fields. High up in the hills of the Luberon to the south, truffles shelter from the sun in the roots of oak trees only to be be discovered by trained pigs, dogs or a peasant with a stick and an eye for the tell tale signs of hidden gastronomic treasure. The taste of the sun is to be found in the wines of the Cotes du Rhône: Beaume de Venise, Rasteau, Gigondas and Ventoux. Lavender fields bloom in their richness in bright blue row upon row because the sun gives them life. Early morning in Caromb in September, the sun gives permission for villagers to stir, for bread to be baked, croissants curled and one last sheet fettling rummage with madamoiselle before breakfast should one be so inclined.
The second floor of the ‘Old Hospital’ is tiled with square red ceramic ‘parquets’, but these sit upon wooden beams underneath. We have a kitchen, bathroom, two bedrooms, a chill out room and the sun terrace. The floors provide the early morning soundtrack of creaking as bare feet pad across into the kitchen to put a kettle on. The kitchen windows are opened to the quiet of a new morning, the night time yapping dogs are silent. Possibly shot, or have had their testicles fed to the wild boars that roam the nearby hills. Our hosts live on the first floor but we do not hear them. No radio, no TV. No shouting neighbours, no roaring traffic. A martin darts past the window cheeping as it does so. A few buzzing insects investigate the interior but on the whole, this morning, they leave us alone. A slight breeze rustles the fig leaves outside.
There are three boulangeries in Caromb. One is closed, perhaps for the owners to be ‘en vacances’. The other two are quite close to each other and are attempting to vie for trade with the cyclists, who will turn up later in the morning, by installing small bistro sets on the pavement and offering a breakfast of coffee, croissant and orange juice for just over two euros.There is always a queue at the boulangerie, a steady stream of beshorted, tanned leathery skinned old men, and few women and a child with a lust for the assorted patisseries on sumptuous display. Despite the queue, no one seems in any particular rush which is just as well as there is only one person serving. They enter the shop, issue their “bonjour m’sieudames” and wait patiently in line to peruse the line of baguettes, pain au chocolate, gateaux, pretty little glacé decorated tartlettes and croissants.
All over France from Morlaix in Brittany to Marseille in the South, from La Rochelle on the Atlantic coast to Lille in the north East, in every town, village and city this little ritual is played out daily. There must be three baguettes to every french citizen in the country. It is no ironic mistake of history that Marie Antoinette uttered her mistaken and ill advised famous phrase about peasants eating cake because the bread has run out. Bread is the very core of life in every French household, bought daily and baked so as to remain fresh for only a few hours. There is no hoarding of old baguette for the next day. Take away a Frenchman’s bread and you take away his ‘raison d’etre’, it would be like asking the Cornish to swap a pasty for fresh air and a promise. Napoleon recognised that his army marched on its baguette filled stomach or marched not at all. Bread is the foundation, the starting point, the ground zero of all french cuisine and indeed of all of french life. Without bread there would be no France. it is nourishment, it is symbol. It is the stuff of Revolutions. Liberte, Fraternite and Egalite could not be established in a bread free France. The libertines of the Parisian Pigalle, the ‘truffistes’ of the Luberon hills, the farmers of the Ardeche and the pastis swigging hairy handed sons of labour in every factory town in France could not function with any hint of joie de vivre without it. God himself and his angels and demons would be called to account should, heaven forfend, a boulangerie run out of the staff of life.
So, the morning starts with the trip to get fresh bread and croissants. The temptations of patisseries, roules de saucisses, and quiche that sit in silent supplications to one’s more gluttonous foibles, are foregone. Meanwhile hot water is required for the almost mandatory coffee. The French often take it ‘espresso’ with a sugar cube so that the quick hit of bitterness is equally experienced with a hit of sweet. Delightful. If you wish anything like an English coffee then you have to ask for a ‘longue’, cafe creme, cafe au lait or americano. The default is the small black tar like espresso.