Lagrasse Caveat venditor

lagrasse“I cannot avoid the conviction that no innate tendency to progressive development exists”

Charles Darwin, 1872
by Simon Pleasance, Ribaute, canton of Lagrasse
The horse-borne traveller coming upon Lagrasse, a century ago, would halt astride the abrupt and draughty promontory called the Bouche au Cers , bulwark against tantrum gales. Before him, spanned by a wide-arched bridge , stout and svelte, the river Orbieu running its course between the mediaeval bourg, confined entirely within its occasionally toppling fortifications, on the rive droite, and a sumptuous abbey on the rive gauche. The whole surveyed by an imposing, if unfinished, belltower . Beyond the village, a riant valley with olive groves, vineyards and wheatfields, worked high up the flanks. Further south, the jostling peaks of the Corbières and, on a clear day, the far Pyrenees.
Today’s car-borne visitor will survey from the same vantage point–and all things being, it is claimed, relative–a similarly pleasing prospect, qualified now by a second elegant bridge, but sundry less harmonious developments, too, residential and infrastructural, east and south of the walls: a new gendarmerie adjoined by a singularly characterless housing estate, a school, barns, wine cellars and homes, the village winery at the southern head of the village, another cramped housing estate close by, and, most recently of all, a decidedly up-market development on the hillside above it. Scattered homes are gradually peppering the immediate environs, here, there and everywhere. The olive-groves have all but gone , the once endless carpet of vines is chequered with fallow–some already reverted to garrigue scrubland–and invasive Aleppo pines [Pinus halapensis] clad the heights.
Lagrasse, at the turn of the century , was still a fairly bustling chef-lieu and administrative centre, though it had already seen better days. It had a population of 1,125, virtually unchanged since the Revolution. It boasted a bureau de bienfaisance or charitable office taking care of the destitute, a rescue and emergency service, and a fanfare municipale républicaine–the village brass band; a tax inspector, a rate collector, a municipal clerk, a postmaster and a garde champêtre ; a justice of the peace, a clerk of the court, a bailiff, and a notary. The Mayor (Calvet) and his deputy (Mailhac) presided over a ten-man council (Camps, Oulé, Toulza, Belly, Castel, Roques, Ferrié, Nouguiès, Sicre, and Falet).
Our equestrian traveller could have had his mount shod and fed, and his saddle mended; he could have put up at the Hôtel parisien or the Restaurant Africain, and sipped absinthe at the Café National, the Café de la Lyre or the Café de la Ville. Around him, artisan, merchant and shopkeeper (see table), going about their business.
Figure I
Services in Lagrasse:
Service 1906 1950 1997
General (novelty) store 1 1 1
Hotels-restaurants, bistrots 2 2 4
Cafés 3 3 2
Groceries 4(?) 5 2
Bakeries 5 3 1
Butcher’s shops 2 2 2
Saddler-harnessmaker 1 1 0
Cartwright-blacksmith 1 2 1
Hairdressers 4 3 (?)
Fodder-seedsmen 1 0 0
Tinsmith-lamplighter 3 0 0
Watchmaker-jeweller 1 1 0
Locksmith 1 1 0
Ironmongeries 2 1 0
Plumber 1 1 1
Garage mechanics 0 1 1
Wine Merchants 2 1 2(?)
Housepainter-glazier 1 1 0
Pharmacy 1 1 1
Carpenters-joiners (?) (?) 2
Craftsmen (?) (?) 9
Shops (?) (?) 5
Estate Agents 0 0 1
Physician 1 1 2
Oil Mills 4 0 1
Dentist 0 0 1
There were three major fairs in Lagrasse 100 years ago: the Fête des Cochons in late January, the Foire de Lagrasse on 12 August, and the Fête des Comportes , in late October. Today, the summer months see an occassional Wine Fair, a Potters’ Fair for the past dozen or so years, and latterly, since 1995, the Banquet du livre, a book fair.
Back in 1906, our traveller would have watered his horse at one of three municipal drinking troughs. For the denizens, a water-mill at the weir 1.5 km upstream fed three fountains. The mill was replaced in the early 1920s by an electric pump. In the 1950s, many smaller private homes still used their own wells, usually sunk within their four walls, from 3-4 up to 10 metres deep. The larger residences in the village were the first to boast running water in this decade. The village lanes and thoroughfares were cobbled and smaller byways took the form of packed earth tracks. The cobbles in the Place de la halle were embedded in sand, and known by local anglers as rich nurseries for bait-worms. Such was the plunder and displacement of the cobbles, that they had to be reset in mortar. Macadam was introduced to Lagrasse in the 1950s, starting with the exiguous Rue des Remparts, behind the Promenade. Vehicular traffic was very sparse in the 1950s, though it had increased since pre-war days, when there was just one camionnette in the village. The streets enjoyed public lighting by electricity back in 1906, and by the 1950s most dwellings were supplied with power.
By all reports, though, there were no foreign foreigners in the village, and only very few French foreigners: just the gendarmes, the tax inspector and the fiscal registrars, the postal employees, the schoolteachers, and other fonctionnaires.
Figure II
Lagrasse: population figures
1789 1936 1954 1962 1968 1975 1982 1990
1147 1006 738 708 665 623 711 725
In the 1950s, so far as Charles Alquier and others can recollect, there were no house-hunting foreign nationals in the village, but there was some incidence of exogamous marriage. Tourism, as such, barely existed. Any visitors there were, tended to be for elderly relatives who were patients in the Abbey. It would seem that the first foreign nationals to purchase a house in Lagrasse were from the Netherlands, some time in the mid-1960s. Another Dutch family purchased an outlying homestead 2 km west of St. Pierre-des-Champs at about the same time. A description of Lagrasse drawn up by an unidentified agency in Béziers, includes the following table for dwellings:
Figure III
Housing stock, Lagrasse, 1962-1997:
1962 1968 1975 1982 1990 1997
Principal residences 218 214 224 251 266
Second/Holiday homes 29 48 55 75 61 63+
Total stock 247 262 279 326 327
——- II ——-

The second or holiday home phenomenon has gathered considerable momentum since the late 1960s, less here than in many or most other southerly parts of France–and far less than on the Côte d’Azur or in the Lubéron, for example– but noticeable nonetheless. It is a factor in the decreasing proportion of born-‘n-raised “lagrassiens” in the village, now estimated at about 20%.
The new part-time population brings with it other side-effects. On the plus side, there has been considerable, and it would seem contagious, investment in the physical fabric of the village, and its often historic bricks and mortar. Prominent properties, many of them tumbledown and some even close to ruination, have been purchased and lovingly–and often expensively–rebuilt, repaired and rehabilitated. Façades have been repointed, arches restored, and cracked lintels replaced. One spin-off seems to have been a renewed local pride in the overall aspect of the village. Tattered parking lots, installed wherever some decrepit old hovel had been demolished, have been spruced up. Grubby lanes have been resurfaced. On the plus side, too, hills and environs have been reforested, and many trees planted (photos taken a century ago show a more or less bald landscape, somewhat depressing by our present-day yardstick). There seems also to be a keener and more visible appreciation of vegetation in general, conveyed by a collective, but in no way regimented, effort to add embellishment by the introduction of a much wider range of flora–an aesthetic development that is certainly not in line with traditional peasant thinking. Not for nothing does Lagrasse qualify as “Un des plus beaux villages de France”.
Sixty some holiday homes [cf. Fig. III] means 200 to 300 extra residents in the summer months. Factor in their exponential families and other visitors, and passing tourists in July and August, and the village’s summer population probably rises to almost twice its wintry 700 souls. All this is, as they say, good for business. And when the merchants are flush, the municipal coffers may benefit fiscally, too.

In this respect, however, a paradox rears its head. A century ago, the village was a somewhat autonomous and more or less self-perpetuating hub, where the range of activities had a more intrinsic and organic sense than is the case today. True, there was, then, a layer of existence that was bordering on the feudal (as everywhere in Europe at the turn of the century), but it seems possible that the structure of services offered a wider gamut of real employment, and a more meaningful possibility of fulfilment and integration. Nowadays, the various activities being carried on in the village have a more speculative and artificial character, more to do with consumption than any constructive or contributive spirit . This reality seems clearly illustrated by the nature of the new rash of shops, and the merchandise they offer–targeted essentially at the passer-by, no longer at the resident. In a nutshell, a village that has apparently become considerably more well-to-do is actually functioning less healthily in its viscera–and this tallies with this other imminent turn-of-the-century, where virtuality is a powerful buzz-word, among others…

Another more salient by-product yet of this ‘progress’ is, needless to add, its encroachment on the landscape. I confess, in passing, to a particular bête noire: those who, for their own–often considerable–gain, and with scant regard for the arena of their activities or those unhurriedly inhabiting it, see fit to accelerate the already brisk natural pace of development, progress, call it what you will. In these parts, furthermore, where the stock of available property is now becoming scant–especially in sought-after villages, with a certain cachet, like Lagrasse–it would seem that those involved as intermediaries in the sale of existing homes may now be switching their rapacious attention to land development schemes, pure and simple. That some of these realtors and riffraff agents are foreign nationals with visitor status does not heighten one’s store of affection for their meddlesome doings. When a time-honoured hillside or pleasant riverain lea is earmarked as the next subdivision, and in due course defaced, more often than not, by ill-conceived dwellings , the conversion of the countrysdide is irrevocable: hill and lea will never revert to the natural state (cf. the Côte Vermeille , the Spanish costas, western Eire, Aegean Turkey, and points north, south, east and west the world over).

Second homes offer an illusory populousness. In reality, they have the effect of accentuating the phantom-like climate of places so afflicted in the nine or ten out-of-season months. Houses–often, as we have mentioned, a village’s more salient properties (maisons de maître, and the like) and architectural gems–stand shuttered and gaunt. Shops and boutiques are inevitably spawned (see fig.1) to cash in on the summer influx, but close down in September, as soon as the vacationers have left: more shuttered façades along streets now more lifeless than when once lined with dark-roomed homes.

A somewhat Pavlovian reaction on the part of some second home-owners, often from points north, who think they are perhaps in chic Provence or Malibu, seems to involve the need to install a swimming-pool, come what may. Pools, fancy portals, gardens and yards more manicured than is the local wont, and Toyota Landcruisers… all are so many signals to the ubiquitous larcenous fringe, a new intrusion that affects everyone in the locality, rich and poor alike.
For all the taste, lastly, that is mercifully demonstrated in the restoration of existing, older homes, there is conspicuous evidence of not a little ostentation in certain new homes . Several forseeable look-at-me eyesores now stand on the hill above the Lagrasse village winery. They are owned by Germans, Britons, French from elsewere, and locals, and come complete, needless to add, with pool, some in the mock-Riviera, sun-cult, leisure-in-the-Midi style, others in the spirit of high-design, totally at odds with the environs.


All these factors combined mean that prices are, as they say in realtor-speak, stable, which means they are on the up. This makes it hard(er) for young local couples to set up home here. It is, arguably, in the hands of young(er) residents that the future of places like Lagrasse hangs. If a population becomes too predominantly geriatric and absentee, now matter how wealthy, its habitat will inevitably atrophy. Then the second home-owners will sell up–at a handsome profit if they get the timing right–and run… to another Lagrasse–if they can find one that has not suffered the same fate.

Perpignan market musing

perpignan market

Perpignan market on a Saturday morning is a delightful place. It is in the beautiful  Place de la Republique, a large open square full of bars and restaurants. The stand holders are a mix of organic producers, organic bakers, honey makers, cheese makers and a bunch of vegetable, charcuterie, and cheese resellers, and of course our organic herbs are there. Those of us who don’t sell much before 10, honey, seafood, cheese and plants, have an apperro organised by the wonderful cheese reseller Patric. Red wine and freshly grilled gambas along with pate and cheese at 8.30 in the morning may not be to the taste of everyone but I love it. There is a second apperro at 11.30 for the vegetable sellers and bakers.

There is a friendly rapport between most of the stand holders, with just a few miserable vegetable resellers, who keep their distance. I think they are convinced organic producers are mildly deranged, they are probably not mistaken.

I have a wonderful bunch of clients, ranging from students to mad old girls. I usually start yabbering at 9am and barely draw breath until about 1.30.  A friend wheels by every week to collect his bottle tops from me, apparently for every two tons of plastic bottle top the producers buy a new wheel chair. I had a vision of my mate living in an apartment stuffed with plastic bags full of bottle tops but it turns out there is a collection point at the foot of his building.

A couple of events recently have been a bit disturbing. Firstly there is the case of my “Little Mistress”. Every two weeks this woman comes to our market in her totally illegal bashed up car. She sets up her speaker and microphone and proceeds to sing, solidly, for 4 and half hours. She is not busking, she does not solicit money, she is simply singing for her pleasure and allegedly ours. She is known as my Petite maitresse by my mates because she usually sets up close to my stand and gets me to lift up her speaker and place it on its stand. Now there are a few issues with her, not least is that she can’t really sing, and the longer she goes on the worse it gets. This fact is not helped by her tendency to turn her loudspeakers up a bit too loud. Four hours into this racket your ears do start to ring and at times you lose the will to live.

But live and let live, she has been in the market as long as I have been, which is now six years. Yes there have been a few incidents, she does get shouted at if she is too loud. She does turn her music down if asked politely. She has rushed off in tears to call her Mum if the request is not so polite, which has happened a few time.

Recently we have a new organic vegetable producer/reseller that has migrated over from the Place Belgique market. She has taken real exception to our singer, about three weeks ago she started screaming at her. She rounded up our local Frontists, a couple of over muscled under brained bullies, and between them they decided to make the singer’s life unpleasant. Constantly shouting at her, reducing her to tears, playing with her mixing kit, and generally bad mouthing her to their clients, fellow stand holders as well as the guys from the Mayor’ office responsible for our market.

And now they have got their way, our singer has been thrown out the market.A great victory that they are very proud of.

The problem is the market is a poorer place for all their bullying. A fragile old woman has been needlessly upset, yes she was a pain but she was our pain. If we can’t find a place to support a mentally unstable person who got immense pleasure from singing once every two weeks then we have lost a bit of our humanity.

The second event that pissed me off a bit was a new organic cheese producer. They came down last week with their paper work and were reluctantly admitted. I suggested to the man from the Mayor’s office that they could go next to me, after a bit of huffing and puffing he agreed.

His partner came down again yesterday, and, after numerous phone calls between the Perpignan officials, she was turned away. So she had come down all the way from Soulage, a village even more remote than us, only to be told to await proper authorization. This is the first time I have seen a seller turned away when there are places available. Yes I have seen people turned away from markets before. The usual reasons are not unreasonable, either they do not have the correct paper work, company details and insurance, or there simply are not any free spaces.

One of the fore mention muscled morons, who happens to be a cheese reseller was quick to get in with the officials to try and ensure that the producer was permanently turned away. Some of his arguments were not unreasonable, he sells cheese, Patric sells cheese, the Italian stand and the Spanish Catalans also sell cheese, Will sells cheese from his truck, and we have two other organic cheese makers, there are two cheese shops just off the square and a mini market a few streets down also has a cheese seller. Just how much cheese do the people of Perpignan eat?  Well yes but the difference is that these were producers that were turned away, from a producers market. If we need to start limiting the number of cheese sellers lets start by looking at the poor quality cheese resellers, particularly those that will leave our market and do the beach markets once the tourist season starts.

Now that I have that our of my system I can get back to enjoying my Saturday mornings in Perpignan, and the last glass of rose I have with Janet, George and Patric at the end of the morning’s work.


What a Spring

Well Spring started well, by mid February we already had basil germinating in the polytunnel. In March the tomatoes, cucumbers and courgettes were pushing through. Then April arrived,a bit grey, a bit wet all normal. Then the frosts hit, -5C again and again. Tropical plants such as basil and tomatoes do not like -5C, hell I don’t like -5C. Luckily nothing died, but unfortunately nothing grew either.

Our approach has always been that we do not heat our polytunnel. The idea is that our plants, while smaller than our colleague’s  are strong “montagnards”, mountain plants. When planted down on the plains they are already acclimatized, and often over take their larger cousins who are use to a more pampered life.

It is a good story, and most of the time it works, both the sales pitch and the plants. This Spring however has shown up a few holes in our approach. Take the parsley and coriander, these we germinate in the polytunnel in small pots, then when they start forming their adult leaves they are separated into bundles of 5-8 plants and up potted into 12 cm round pots. The re-potted plants are then moved out of the polytunnel onto tables outdoors. This slows down their above soil growth, while allowing them to establish a strong root ball. This is particularly important for coriander which has a tendency to bolt if hot, and being an annual plant the moment it starts to flower it gives less and less leaves as all the energy of the plant going into forming seeds.

So far so good. Then on Friday we had a storm, usually we love storms, the water that falls out of the sky is full of nitrogen, just wonderful for the plants, much better than the calcium charged water we get from our source on Tauch. But then the hail started, and what hail. a solid wall of ice fell in the space of 3 minutes. It was falling at such speed that it was bouncing higher than my head. Three inches of half centimeters round hail fell in that three minutes. The rosemary and other garrigue plants shrugged it off. The parsley and coriander were flatted, the tips of the tomatoes were snapped off, the leaves of the comfrey, borrage, courgettes and cucumbers were shredded. It was heart breaking.

Faced with this we had only one option, get out the parsley seeds and start soaking them. Luckily we have a few trays of coriander pushing through in the polytunnel and most of the basils have no being brought out yet. Sunday and today we have been re-potting like mad and sowing the next wave of annuals. The sun is back and most will germinated in a matter of days. Amazingly the parsley and coriander that only days ago looked like they had shuffled off this mortal plain have sprung back, yes we have had loses, but nothning like we feared.My heart goes out the wine makers of Tuchan and Tailran, who’s vines were three weeks in advance of usal and who’s flowers were killed by the frost, and those that remained battered by the hail. Unlike them we can always re-start. This week the temperature has risen, the sun is shining and everything is growing. All is well, but it may be time to think about putting up a second polytunnel with fine shade netting to protect plants from the sun and from the hail. What ever it is it is never boring down here in the Haute Corbieres.

Sorry about the quality fo the photos, my wonderful brother gave me his old smart phone last Christmas, turns out it is smarter than me.

The man from Ecocert calls

Today was our annual control from EcoCert, our organic certifying body. Every year they come and check out that we are using the correct, that is organic, products. In our case this involves handing him a whole load of bills for seeds and soil, and the organic certificates of the suppliers, as well as the bills and certificates from any plants we may have bought from other suppliers. This is followed by a walk around the out door growing area, in other words our garden which is a mess of plant covered tables, half barrels filled with the mother plants for our the mints, tarragon, and verbena. Then down to the polytunnel to check out all the germinating seeds and the small selection of vegetables we grow in Spring. As we wander round you get a grilling about any fertilisers you may use, none in our case, and how you control pests, luckily squashing them seems to be a perfectly acceptable approach. That is it, we have to prove a negative, that we don’t do stuff rather than we do. It all has a rather sureal quality about it, we have to prove we don’t do things while the industrial producers only have to show, that no matter how much herbicides, pesticides and fertilisers they use, their produce does not poison people.

We usually sit and have a chat about what is going on on the Occitan and Catalan organic scene, it is a good chance to catch up with the wider organic picture. I have got to say that EcoCert has a skill at employing very likable, intelligent young controllers. It is always a pleasure chatting to them about our lives and work.

As well as  controlling our production we get an annual or bi annual check up in the markets to ensure we are actually selling the products we are certified to sell, that often leads to some rather heated discussions with a few of my colleagues who resell others produce in times of shortages, and a few that have been known to put non-organic produce beside their organic stuff and ‘forget’ to label it as such. Luckily down here the producers are pretty honest, the same cannot be said of certain resellers, though our lot in Lezignan, Perpignan and Narbonne are a pretty good crew. A survey was once done of ‘organic’ resellers in markets in the Parisian region, the results were not pretty, over 70% of produce resold had been mislabeled.

There are nine certifying bodies in France, EcoCert and Quality de France are the two largest, a complete list can be found at the Agencebio site here We publish our EcoCert certification here


So, as always the best people to buy organic products are certified local producers and transformers, but then I would say that.



The decline of Maisons and the Hautes Corbieres

The economic decline of the Maisons and the Hautes Corbieres has been in progress for over a hundred and fifty years, the final nail in the traditional rural economy was the post War industrial boom, but the decline has deep roots back into the mid 19th century. Today the Aude now ranks as Metropolitan France’s second poorest Department, with the Hautes Corbieres as one of the poorest parts of the department.

Understanding how this happened you need to take into account  the impact on the people of Maisons of  the opening up of the local economy to a larger market and the impact that had on local agriculture, the changing nature of the French labour market, as well as technological advancements.

Maisons is a relatively isolated village, today situated in the Canton of Tuchan on the border with the Canton of Mouthemet. Maisons sits at the foot of Mont Tauch with the Hautes Corbieres massif to it’s back. At 320 metres, the commune’s 1215 hectares stretches from the top of the 800m summit of Mont Tauch, down the mountain’s western slopes and up the Mouthemet massif.

At the start of the 19th century Maisons’s, then 266, inhabitants existed on a mixed subsistence agricultural economy, aided by the continued exploitation of small mining concerns that had continued from their start in Roman times. The land between the village and the La Valette, the stream that descends from the Hautes Corbieres, was used as market gardens growing all the vegetables and fruit consumed in the village. The 1835 cadastral plan shows three mills situated along La Vallette who ground the cereals, such as wheat, grown  around the village and at Montrouch. Roughly half the land worked was used to grow fodder for animals, primarily work horses, cattle and pigs. the same cadastral plan also shows 27  bergeries, shepherd’s buildings, in the commune highlighting the importance of sheep and goats to the local economy.

Forestry, represented one of the few hard currency exports of the village. After the devastation of the forests of the Corbieres following the French Revolution ( See History of the Garrigue) the Second Republic instigated a massive tree replanting programme across the Languedoc, one of the principal consumers were the naval yards along the coast.

The last part of the local economy was of course the mines. Discovered in Roman times, gold and silver were mined on the massif between Maisons and Palairac until the Middle Ages. Reopened in the early 19th century a handful of mines yielded some more silver, but primarily copper and lead.This reopening probably accounts for the population high point of Maisons in 1846 when the village boasted a dizzy 339 souls.  The last mining concession, La Mine du Canal opened in 1838 and can still be seen today, although all the others have now  been sealed off.

The late 19th century saw the gradual replacement of cereal production with vines, however the total land under production started to shrink rather rapidly. By 1913 the worked land had fallen to 288 hectares, this was to drop to 133 in 1947, 98 in 1949, 87 in 1985 and 51 in 2001.

The replacement of subsistence crops with revenue crops, which is what the transition from cereals to vines represents was made possible by the extension of railways. The railways made transportation of wine both possible and affordable, a crucial factor particularly for the rough and ready down market wines like the Corbieres AOC of the epoch. By the early 20th century there was a train line that connected Lezignan Corbieres with Tuchan Mouthmet (1902), and a second line  ran to Mouthemet  (1905). Both railheads were in reach by cart from Maisons. (This is an interesting history of the Corbieres trainline from Thezan Corbieres ).

However vines did not prove the saving grace many had hoped for. Although the number of vines grew, from 110 hectares in 1913 to 143 in 1949 so did the size of fallow agricultural land, from 562 hectares in 1913 to 718 in 1949.

In 1946 the 64 vignerons of Maisons worked an average of 3.5 hectares of vines with only one working 8 hectares and another 11. The small size of these grape growers, although aided by the village Cave Cooperative for transforming the grapes into wine and marketing meant that for most growers, vines represented an additional income and not a principal revenue. A family cannot live on the income from 3.5 hectares of vines.

Animal husbandry also suffered a massive decline, from 27 shepherds in 1836 by 1898 the herds had shrunk to 900 sheep, 40 pigs and two cows, 50 years later this has dropped to 18 pigs and 80 goats.

From its high point of 339 in 1846 the population of Maisons has been in steady decline ever since. In 1901 the village stood at 221 souls, in 1946 it had dropped to 157.  The most important drop however has been post war. In the last 60 years the village population has plummeted to less than 30 inhabitants, with the majority of our population aged over 70 years old.

The post war transformation of the French economy spelt the end of the Hautes Corbieres, with ‘marginal’ agricultural land that was not easily worked with mechanical farm machinery. The farmers of the area were unable to compete with the increasingly mechanised agriculture of the plains. In addition to this ‘push’ factor of low and variable income was the massive pull factor of readily available work in the factories of the North that offered an easier and more reliable revenue. The young of remote villages such as Maisons migrated towards the towns of the plains and the cities of the North leaving their parents to work the vines. As the parents retired there were no new arrivals to take over their farms and vineyards and the land slowly fell out of production. In Maisons there now remains one sole vineyard.

Link Maire du Maisons

Bears in the Ariège Pyrenees

Bears in the Ariege Pyrenees is an interesting, and balanced, history of the reintroduction of wild brown bears into the Haut Pyrenees by author Julia Stagg.It is well worth a read. My own thoughts on this have changed, initially I was generally in favour of  the re introduction of top range predators such as wolves and bears. However the mountains are not used as they were, shepherds no longer live and work alongside their sheep, goats and cattle. Often living in the valleys and visiting their herds on quads. This means the flocks and herds are left unprotected for large periods of time.  Also the general use of the mountains have radically changed, walkers, climbers, cyclists, pot holers, white water rafters, canyoneers and skiers, in other words tourists, have replaced agriculture, mining, and smuggling as the regional primary sources of revenue. While these seasonal visitors may like to look at a bear in the Park at Les Angles they are less likely to be impressed with meeting them in the wild. Yes we need to support biodiversity, yes re wilding projects are innovative but banning the use of pesticides and herbicides in the Pyrenees would be hugely more beneficial to a whole range of wildlife than introducing a handful of bears. Start with the small things, like pollinating bees and leave the big things like bears and wolves for later. But I have changed my mind once and could be convinced to do so again.


The full article Bears in the Ariege Pyrenees can be read on the wonderful site. I hope they don’t mind but I copied the photo from them.


Journée BIO des Corbières

Journée BIO des Corbières



It is that time of year again, the lovely organic festival at the Chateau de Bonnafous is this Sunday, 5th June from 9am all day. It is a great little showcase of the organic producers in the area. However it would be great to see them add a bit of other local production, there are now at least six other plant growers in Les Corbieres, a Safron producer, three herb transformers, who make essential oils and dried herbs as well as more and more vegetable growers. Most of the above try and follow a near organic approach but for various reasons cannot describe themselves as organic. Normally they cannot afford the three year transition that it takes for an existing small holding to become organic, or they resent paying 700 euro a year to prove a negative. I mean it is a bit ridiculous that we have to pay a certifier to say that we don’t use chemicals, pesticides, fertilizers and herbicides. Instead of resellers of ‘magnetic rocks’ that apparently help you lose weight as an obese reseller explained to me last year(1)why not open the festival up to the many new producers that are arriving in Les Corbieres. We really have a new groove going on let’s celebrate it.

That is the rant over, it is still a great day and the weather is looking good. Best time to get here is around 11, that way you can have a good look around, buy some plants and be in place for the free appero/wine tasting of the organic wine producers then settle down to some serious eating.

Hope to see you there.

Stands de producteurs bio et artisanat, conférences, animations, musique

à 9h : Ouverture au public

à 10h: “Viande bio ou pas bio ? pourquoi ?” conférence par Marie Paule Nougaret ;

à 11h45 : apéritif offert – dégustation des vins des producteurs présents – Lâcher de pigeons ;

à 14h: “Le Jardin écologique” conférence par Hélène Hollard ;

à 15h30 : “Échappées sauvages ” divertissement pour les enfants avec la Cie “Les Baladins du Rire” ;

à 17h30 : tirage de la tombola

(1)Nothing against obese people or resellers, as someone who does not have any ‘truc’ with the mumbo jumbo aspect of the organic movement it just struck me as vaguely ironic

journe bio Corbieres

Journée Bio 2016

It is not all work at Montrouch

A belated posting, Giles my organic snail growing friend has just given me a copy of some photos he took at my birthday party back in September. It was a real pleasure to see so many people from all over the Aude and the PO get together. Thanks for the 22 bottles of wine I got given as presents, along with all the other gifts, a huge thank you for all the food but most of all thanks you for coming and having such a good time. A really greatDSC00387DSC00383DSC00380DSC00375 afternoon with 40 or so friends.DSC00371



Lezignan Corbieres market musing

Going to the Lezignan Corbieres market for the past three years has got me musing about the changing nature of markets and town centres.marche

Public markets and town centres have taken a huge hit over the past 50 years. It all really started with the spread of that beastlie energy gobler- the domestic fridge. Perishable and fragile foods no longer had to be bought on a daily basis. A weekly shop could be kept in good condition in the home. Profiting on the spread of the fridge the idea of a single stop shop for all the home’s needs came into it’s own, the super market was born. As it is difficult to carry a week’s shopping parking, not often found in plenty in town centres, became a necessity. So the supermarkets moved out of town centres onto the ring roads where land was cheap and access by car easier.

Markets struggled on while the town centres in which they were traditionally held slowly died, local shops slowly close down unable to compete with the single mass buying power of the large supermarket chains. The character of town centres and indeed town life changed.

The change is not just economic but social as well. Thriving town centres and their markets play an important part in fixing the social glue that hold communities together, it is not just about talking to producers and resellers who understand their wares and produce, they are also meeting points to catch up with friends and neighbours. A brief hello over a charged trolly in Tesco’s is not the same as a good gossip over a cup of java or pint in a local tea shop or pub. Not that there are many tea shops left, just loads of franchised coffee chains.

The empty town centres of traditional market towns are sad reflections of the shift in consumer patterns. Thirsk town centre where I grew up is a ghost of its former self, the hand full of shops and market stand holders is a sad memory of the bustling chaos that was my happy youthful memories.

I was reminded of the changes I have seen in Thirsk a couple of weeks ago in Lezignan Corbieres market. I arrived as usual at 6.30am to find my spot covered in blood, apparently there had been an altercation between a group of lads and a kid, the kid ended up the worse for the encounter, upon finding out what happened to his son the father, I was told, came into town and stabbed three of the group. Lezignan Corbieres, when we arrived in 1999, had one friendly shabby old Champion and a badly run, dirty Intermarche. We now had a Lidl, Aldi, Dea, Netto three new ring road shopping centres and a virtually dead town centre. More and more of the local businesses are closing up, some taking space in the commercial centres but increasingly just giving up as sons and daughters have no wish to take over, or revenues have dropped off to such a low level that the business is no longer sustainable. Evenings are apparently a tad hazardous at times, while official business is on the decline unofficial tobacco sales and heavier drugs are becoming more open and bring with them the associated turf disputes.

Some of my more elderly clients tell me they leave the house rarely, to visit the doctor (Nothing bar a nuclear war, or rain, will stop the French confirming their deeply held belief that a painful and unusual illness is just around the corner) and to come down for the market. On Wednesday’s market day they can combine buying their veg with discussing with friends in minute detail their latest terrible symptoms and show off the small haversack of various medicines the Doctor has prescribed in perfect security. We stand holders have a vested interest in a safe market place.

The irony is of course is that while the town centre is slowly decaying the town itself is rapidly expanding, as well as the new commercial zones, an extension of the college, the new lycee, the building of a new media centre the walled bungalow lotissements are reaching out into the vines at an amazing rate. When we arrived back in 1999 Lezignan Corbiere had 8, 266 residents, by 2012 they had swollen to 10,866 according to  Lezignan Corberes Wikipedia page so I reckon they will have passed the 12,000 mark and be racing towards the 13,000 record in the near future

The political response has been muted, the new Socialist/Communist administration as well as holding off a resurgent Front Nationale were elected on a programme of town regeneration have got it half right, the new lycee being built will help a little, the plans to re furnish some of the centre will have some benefits if they are properly instituted. One great initiative was the launch of the Lezignan Corbieres local producers market on Saturday, Wednesday’s market will remain the largest but it is great to see some support for local farmers and an acknowledgement that producing and re selling are different activities. The former creates local sustainability, employment and keep money local; the latter exports money to distant suppliers and does little to create a vibrant local economy.

Right rant over time to sort the plants out for the market in Lezignan Corbieres tomorrow

More intelligent people than me at the new economics foundation have done a lot of work on revitalising local economies- Clone Town Britain is definitely worth a read.