Sunday, December 15, 2013

Cornfields, Cows, Cats

Florence has said that I have Sundays off, so even though there was approximately a kiloton of sausage to make today - we only had time to do the salami yesterday afternoon - I stayed at home in Agnos and logged some billable hours. Or at least completed some work that I can bill for; it was all per-project-rate work today. The plan was that Flo would be able to finish up this morning and then come back in the afternoon, and we'd head to the Christmas fair at the public garden in Oloron-Sainte-Marie, so after I ate some lunch (pig's-head pâté mixed into some leftover lentils and tomato sauce to make a sort of chili français) I took a shower and then went out to sit in the sun and write Christmas cards. Yes, sun! In mid-December! It was about 20C/68F here today, with no wind (there usually isn't any wind in these valleys, for some reason), and it was marvelous. And I could look up and see the snow on the high hills at the edge of the plains, less of it now than last week, but still there.

It turned out that there was more work at the pig farm than expected, so I decided to take a walk instead. I wasn't sure where I was going to go, and hoped that I wouldn't get too lost in the maze of tiny roads that criss-cross every square metre of France, but the sun was still high and I set off up the driveway optimistically. And my optimism was repaid immediately, because two people in exercise gear and tennis shoes were walking briskly towards me as I reached the road, and I asked them where they liked to walk and how to get there. "Follow us!" the woman said. "We're doing a 5k circuit down to the next town and back."

Of course, since I was stopping every five minutes to take pictures, they quickly decided that it would be easier to give me directions. And so I did follow them, just rather far behind, through Agnos with its huge stone granges still attached to their farmhouses, though not many of them have cows inside any more. Many people convert the granges into extended housing, or use them for storage, or let them start falling to pieces. This house is a renovated farmhouse - you can still see the huge stone lintel holding up the beams over where the fireplace was, and the old iron door that used to open up into the bread oven. Florence has visions sometimes of repairing and renovating the two-story structure that connects the house to the barn and being able to rent out rooms to travelers, and there are a lot of similar gîtes and chambres d'hôtes in this area as farming is being replaced by tourism. There are still plenty of farms of many sizes here, though, and most of the valley floor is covered in cornfields that feed the cows and the pigs, and the geese and capons that have been fattened for the upcoming holiday feasting.

I was directed to go to the church in the center of Agnos, and then follow the road that leads to the right, past a field of cows and then off through the fields towards the town I can see from the house, whose name I didn't know until today. I thought that the man said "Jurançon" when he was describing the route, alternately agreeing with and contradicting his wife, which was a little worrying in terms of the validity of the directions, but it turns out that the town is called "Gurmençon." The two names are pronounced, to my American ear, almost identically. They're not the only similar-sounding village names in this area, either. Escout and Escou are just up the road, followed by Buzy and Buziet. Lasseube and Lasseubetat, Artiguelouve and Artigueloutan, Lons and Laruns and Laroin. Mailys and I were driving to one of the farm visits for a class a few weeks ago, halfway up the side of a valley to the north on a switchback road through a stone-walled village obviously built well before people used anything other than feet to get around, and I asked her how drivers in France coped before the GPS was invented. "They didn't," she laughed. And she was born here.

The helpful walking couple was always in sight, though they continued to increase their lead, until we got to the town, and then I lost track of them, but that was okay because there were road signs back to Agnos. Gurmençon is positively bustling when compared with Agnos, as there is a hairdresser and a hotel with a restaurant there, and possibly more businesses in the part of town going back up the N134 to Oloron. I checked out the menus posted in the restaurant window, and am considering walking back over there for lunch one day next week. I'm taking Wednesday and Thursday off to do some voice recording, and a midday walk would be a nice break. They advertise les spécialités gastronomiques et traditionnelles de nos grands-mères featuring trout (apparently the rivers around here are big draws for fishermen) and the vegetable soup garbure (though I have that every day at the farm) and of course duck in various forms. And local farmstead cheeses, which I would have to pass on, regretfully.

There's a dairy less than five minutes from the restaurant, in fact, which is probably where they get at least some of the cheese. I walked up to the store built onto the barn but they weren't open until 6pm, and it's all cow cheese at the Ferme de la Porte d'Aspe in any event. The cows are very friendly, however, and came up to nose at me over the fence, which leads me to believe that the people are probably quite friendly as well. I might try to contact them and arrange a visit to see their setup; they just started the cheesemaking side of the business in 2009, and I'm interested in their operation. And it's just down the road, so I don't need a GPS!

There are a lot of feral cats around here, as well as regular barn cats. Near the pig farm there's a whole troupe of them, I was told. They used to belong to a man a few houses down who kept dozens of them, but he had some problems with his lifestyle and health and is now in a supervised care facility, and his brother has not taken over the care of the animals, so they've scattered and started foraging in the surrounding fields. Dogs seem to be more popular as pets, at least as far as I've seen in France, with the cats relegated to the barns. But there are chickens everywhere.

The walking couple had pointed out another loop of road that leads up into the hills above Agnos and back down again, and I was tempted to make a figure eight, but the sun was sinking lower and I didn't want to get lost. Anyway, that gives me a new route to explore the next sunny Sunday. Instead, I came back to the house and made a salad of chopped oranges and hearts of palm in a garlicky dressing with balsamic vinegar and lemon juice and salt, which I found delicious but which Florence eyed dubiously, murmuring, "Original ...," which isn't exactly a compliment in French, as it translates as "unusual, odd" - especially when said in that tone of voice. I've saved her a spoonful, in case she wants to try it after she gets back from visiting her cousin this evening.

Time to clean the kitchen and go to bed - we need to get to the pig farm by 7:30am tomorrow to start melting fat in big copper kettles to make big jars of pork loin confit. À plus tard, mes amis!

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