Friday 1st April 2016 – not an April Fool’s joke : The cherry trees are coming alive! Spotted in an orchard down below Ménerbes.

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The current view from the Bastide les Amis gardens of the valley awakening in Spring and Mont Ventoux in the background

The current view from the Bastide les Amis gardens of the valley awakening in Spring and Mont Ventoux in the background

Ever presnt in the background, the Giant of Provence - Mont Ventoux.

Ever presnt in the background, the Giant of Provence – Mont Ventoux.

 

Gordes - one of the villages in the Golden Triangle of the Luberon

Gordes – one of the villages in the Golden Triangle of the Luberon

 

The Luberon Region – the Heart of Provence:

“Food is Family. 
Family is Life
. Life is Everything”.

Ménerbes could not be more perfect as a base for exploring the heart of Provence.

Our favourites:

Abbaye Notre-Dame de Sénanque outside Gordes is a 12th Century abbey set amid fragrant lavender fields. Here, you will experience the classic Provençal image of vibrant purple fields, as well as being able to tour the working abbey. Visit www.abbayesenanque.fr for the opening hours as they can vary from season to season.

Gordes is a fascinating village clinging to the side of a mountain. It is filled with the atmosphere and spirit of the region, as well as interesting shops and tiny restaurants. It can get quite crowded so go early. The market day is a great occasion and well worth a visit. Gordes was nearly bombed to the ground by the Allies during World War 2 and has been rebuilt quite beautifully.

Isle-sur-la-Sorgue (the Venice of France) is a village brimming with antique and bric-a-brac shops, where you can pick up an authentic souvenir of Provence. On Sunday mornings, visit their quintessential Provençal market, you’ll find the streets lined with stalls selling mainly bric-a-brac and local produce. Afterwards, browse antique shops along the river bank. Our – and many other locals’ – favourite past time is to buy a delicious poulet roti (roast chicken) along with roast potatoes and onions and a fresh baguette, for the Sunday evening meal. While you’re there, pop into many of the wonderful cafés, but be careful of lunching along the Sorgue River, some of the restaurants are not up to scratch. Howver, there are other decent restaurants within the old village with its seven water wheels. Paradise.

To-morrow, we’ll continue our trip..

Ever present in the background - Mont Ventoux, the Giant of Provence

Ever present in the background – Mont Ventoux, the Giant of Provence

Even the tiniest villages in France have some serious infrastructure. While not the smallest, Ménerbes in the Luberon is also not the biggest.

Here’s some of the facilities..

A Primary school for about 80+ puils - now used by less than 20. Alongside is a Public Library (staffed)

A Primary school for about 80+ puils – now used by less than 20. Alongside is a Public Library (staffed)

 

For a village over just over 1,000 residents, this is some Sports Stadium and Conference Centre. Donated by a kind benefactor of the village.

For a village over just over 1,000 residents, this is some Sports Stadium and Conference Centre. Donated by a kind benefactor of the village.

“You can steal a Frenchman’s wife, but not his wood” so the saying goes. And, running out of wood is no option, either. Fortunately, the many wood purveyors make allowances for these mid-winter ‘crises’ and supply sec and tres sec wood (dry and very dry) – at a price of course.

So it was that coming out of a very busy late autumn and erly winter season, our wood shed had a rather sorry look…..

 

Not much left!

Not much left!

 

However, a quick trip to our wood supplier Monsieur Guillen (who has a wooden leg – no kidding), sorted it out..

 

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Problem is that they don’t pack for you…

 

All waiting to be packed at -2 and a howling Mistral wind

All waiting to be packed at -2 and a howling Mistral wind

 

An hour later…

Bases loaded and locked. Bring on February and March!

Bases loaded and locked. Bring on February and March!

 

sloe gin, sloe bushes in the luberon, sloe gin recipe

A Sloe bush in the mountains near Saint Saturnin-les-Apt

 

Dotted around the Luberon mountains and in relative profusion on our Grande Radoneés  (Big Walks/Hikes), are sloe bushes. From the berry, locals make the delicious tasting Sloe gin.

Sloe gin is made from ripe sloes, which are traditionally picked after the first frost of winter (late October to early November in the northern hemisphere). Each sloe is pricked, traditionally with a thorn taken from the blackthorn bush on which they grow. An alternative folktale says that one should not prick the sloes with a metal fork unless it is made of silver. A modern variation is to pick the sloes earlier and freeze them.

A wide-necked jar is filled half way with pricked sloes and 4 ounces (110 g) of sugar is added for each 1 imperial pint (570 ml) of sloes. The jar is then filled with gin, sealed, turned several times to mix and stored in a cool, dark place. It is turned every day for the first two weeks, then each week, until at least three months have passed.

The gin will now have a deep ruby red colour. The liqueur is poured off and the sloes discarded. Alternatively, the leftover fruit can be infused in white wine or cider, made into jam, used as a basis for a chutney, or a filling for liqueur chocolates. The liqueur can be filtered, but it is best decanted back into clean containers and left to stand for another week. Careful decanting can then ensure that almost all sediment is eliminated, leaving a clear liqueur.

Recipes for sloe gin vary depending on the maker’s taste. The sweetness can be adjusted to taste at the end of the process, although sufficient sugar is required while the drupes steep to ensure full extraction of flavour. When made sufficiently slowly, the alcohol extracts an almond-like essence from the sloes’ stones, giving sloe gin a particular aromatic flavour. However, some recipes use a shorter steeping time and include a small amount of almond essence. Another common variation is the addition of a few cloves and a small stick of cinnamon.

We’ll be trying out the recipe a bit later in the year!

The water mill at Les Taillades

The water mill at Les Taillades

The Serres Freres Carriere in Ménerbes, Lberon

The Serres Freres Carriere in Ménerbes, Luberon. These old pieces are used as templates for newer versions.

 

The vast majority of Provençal villages have a ‘carriere’. A local quarry which supplies stone to builders, gardeners and local proprietors. It is always good to use ‘local’ stone when building!

We had to visit our local carriere last week and were reminded of this article which appeared in a South African magazine in 2013 –

Les Carrieres de Provence – the Quarries of Provence

The rolling vines, orchards, medieval villages, and spectacular scenery which dominate the world-renowned Provence/Cote dAzur region of Southern France have been a magnet for hundreds of thousands of tourists. However, these attractions are only part of the story. Dotted throughout the area are signs which probably only resonate with the locals but can be fascinating to the visitor.

‘Les Carrieres’.

The Carriere is the local quarry and each village or district has their own.

French law dictates that these enterprises are all family-owned and each family is given a one hundred year licence. The Provence/Cote d’Azur region spans from Mount Ventoux (famed for its King of the mountains leg in the Tour de France) in the west to the Italian border in the east. However, it is in the Vaucluse department comprising an area of approximately 300 square kilometers from Mount Ventoux to Aix-en-Provence where there is the greatest concentration.

There are over 30 quarries in this area all mining the local stone – limestone and the equally famous ocher. Many of the smaller quarries have been mined out over the centuries but still remain as processing points for the stone coming from the larger and more active quarries.

The processing quarry is the hub of all construction work in Provence. Stories are legendary, many movies and documentaries have been made about the challenges of renovating in building in this area – most of them true! Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence is the best example of the hazards of dealing with French artisans. For the more romantic, the movie ‘A Good Year’ starring Russell Crowe is a reference.

 

 

Stone ready to be processed

Stone ready to be processed

 

The Carriere supplies all the stone work for construction. Whether it is paving materials, stone cladding, ornamental pieces or major construction blocks, all roads lead to the Carriere.

Local builders are careful to use the Carriere closest to the building site. Apart from being the most economical (transport is expensive), the local stone is more suited to adapt in the environment.

Provence is an area which ‘should’ be semi-desert – its climate is synonymous with this type of topography. However, superb water management pioneered centuries ago by the Romans and perfected over the years by the locals has ensured that this is a green oasis and water is in great abundance. When the winter strikes, there are great differences in temperature and consequent stress on the natural materials.

In summer, the limestone paving around the pool remains cool under the blazing sun and has the added advantage of being ‘non-slip’ – no additives required. Many locals will nod sagely when they hear their ex-pat neighbour lamenting the collapse or cracking of their precious fountain or pool paving during a particularly severe frost. “Ah yes, but you did not use the local Carriere!” is muttered from behind a large scarf and a wet, well-chewed home-rolled cigarette.

The Carriere too makes copious use of the water. Our Carriere, Serre Freres, maintain that by using large amounts of water, coupled with a firm steel saw driven at high speed by enormous turbines, “we cut through your stone like the knife in the butter”. As family owned businesses, the local carriere is typically managed by a husband, wife, children and parent team. There’s nothing they don’t know about the local stone and how to treat it. A typical discussion is ‘do you treat the beautiful stone staircase which has just cost you 6,000 euros’? No says our local Carriere’s wife, Yes says the Carriere who is 2km away on the other side of the Luberon valley.

Who do you believe? We listened to the local lady – we want to continue doing business with her! Serre Freres have had their licence since 1973 and work with 15 different types of limestone – their descendants have their careers mapped out for them as this licence only expires in 2073.

The products produced are numerous. Even Christmas decorations are created and produced from the limestone – tiny replica trees. Popular are gate posts and the quintessential Provencal fireplace. Each fireplace is cut by hand and then the exact proportions chiseled to perfection. An example of pricing is that a fireplace sells for an average of E4,600 plus a delivery charge of E600. At approximately R11 to the Euro, that’s a hefty price in South Africa but affordable by French standards.

Each person employed at the Carriere as an artisan is just that – an artist. Apart from limestone, the other major product mined in Provence is ocher. This area is the last remaining one in Europe and is situated in the areas of Gargas, Rustrel and Roussillion (a 15km enclave in the Luberon valley). These deposits have been registered by the French government as Strategic and Historical. Ochers are still used to dye the famous Provencal fabrics and clothing. The colours range from pale yellow to intense red.

Like the limestone open-cast mining and processing, ocher extraction at the Luberon quarries is a well-controlled mining process, paying strict attention to the environment. Air pollution is prevented by the use of dust removal devices installed in the factory’s chimneys to clean the smoke before it is released into the air. Once again, water plays a part. A high volume is necessary to clean the ocher. Running in closed circuits allows for cleaning and recycling of this water. The separated sand, when not sold for different purposes, is returned to its original site.

In both cases of mining, extraction is done by machine and employs the technique of terracing to maintain structural integrity. Mined sites are then rebuilt with their original top layer of soil. If you’re travelling in Provence, make a detour when you see those road signs “Carriere” – it’ll be worth it.

Simon and Lovonne Burrow have settled in Menerbes after living in Cape Town and Melbourne. Simon is a freelance writer and marketing consultant. Lovonne is a publisher. They have been renovating their property for the past two years and know their way around the local Carriere intimately. For more information on their property visit: www.bastidelesamis.com

 

 

 

 

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