To Banon with the Sisters

Jacky and Eliane are sisters who were born in the village and have lived here all their lives. They have taken me under their wing somewhat and are endeavouring to educate me about all things Provençal. As well as promising to show me mushrooms in the autumn and teaching me about wild plants, they have lent me books about local wildlife and artists. They speak as fast as gunfire and we laugh a lot as I struggle with my erratic French to keep up. When they invited me to the cheese festival at Banon recently, I said yes, of course.  

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The day was hot, and the streets were jammed with people thronging about the stalls. There were balloons and children and dogs running around. There were horses. Jacky and I entered a competition to guess the combined weight of some kid goats. Neither of us won. There was goats milk ice cream, there were glasses of wine, fried pastries and frites. But most of all there was a lot of cheese. 

Banon is famous for its unpasteurised goats cheese, particularly the one wrapped in chestnut leaves, soaked in eau de vie. I never quite got the point of it until I followed the suggestion of the shopkeeper in the village who sold a cheese to my friend recently. After choosing one that was ripe, he leaned in and told her authoritatively that absolutely the best way to eat it is with steamed potatoes, rather than bread, and to accompany this with a bottle of good white wine, perhaps a Chablis or a Sancerre. We wasted no time in following his advice and found it to be brilliant. Now I eat one a week!

Monsieur definitely knows what he is talking about when it comes to Banon cheese.

Monsieur definitely knows what he is talking about when it comes to Banon cheese.

The woods flanking the windy road up to Banon are full of chestnut trees, so it makes sense that their leaves are used to wrap up the little cheeses. Only twelve or so small dairies make them, but they are sold all over the world. 

A present. Banon cheese wrapped up in chestnut leaves.

A present. Banon cheese wrapped up in chestnut leaves.

People on decorated tractors threw out tiny bottles of synthetic lavender eau de cologne to the grown ups and inflatable balls to the children. The compère shouted at the top of his voice as though he didn't have a megaphone. It was time to go home. 

Jacky and Eliane in Banon.

Jacky and Eliane in Banon.

Later, sitting outside their house in the shade, Eliane went in and fetched me a book of Martine Franck's photographs, Le temps de vieillir. She opened it up on a photograph of three women. 'Do you recognise her?' she asked me, pointing at the youngest one. It was unmistakably Jacky.

'I was out that day, that's why I'm not in the photograph. Jacky had been sunbathing and that's why she was in her bikini,' said Eliane. I looked over at Jacky and I thought I saw a look of sadness or nostalgia. Perhaps she was thinking of her mother and her grandmother. Perhaps she was thinking of a different time. 

Three generations. Photograph of Jacky, her mother and her grandmother taken by Martine Franck in 1979.  As well as being a celebrated photographer in her own right, Franck was married to Cartier Bresson and they lived together in Montjustin, just a few kilometres away. 

Three generations. Photograph of Jacky, her mother and her grandmother taken by Martine Franck in 1979.

As well as being a celebrated photographer in her own right, Franck was married to Cartier Bresson and they lived together in Montjustin, just a few kilometres away. 

Natural Allies

Thinking it might rain this morning, I decided to sow some grass seed in the bare patches in front of my house. I won't call it a 'lawn', as it includes mint and oregano, which send up their scent whenever Betty dog runs across. It is pretty rough with weeds and the daisies are welcome here. It does need a bit of help, so I scattered some soil, seed, then more soil and tamped it down with a rake. Half an hour later, I noticed that the seeds were moving! All over the soil and the grass, the seeds were moving across the earth. I looked more closely: ants were carting it about, carrying the dried seed in their jaws in one direction and returning empty jawed in the other. Following their trails, I saw heaps of seed at the entrance to their ant nests; impressive stores, industriously created within half an hour. With such organised team work, I wonder if any will sprout.

Tiny snails clinging to wild love-In-a-mist  (Nigella.)  They cover many of the plants here like limpets. They also stick to the bonnet of my car and have often survived the long journey to England.

Tiny snails clinging to wild love-In-a-mist (Nigella.) They cover many of the plants here like limpets. They also stick to the bonnet of my car and have often survived the long journey to England.

It is good to keep the grass short here, as a couple of weeks ago, on one of the first warm days, I spotted a baby snake working its way across the ground. I was unsure whether it was an adder or a grass snake as I have never seen such a small one; it measured about seven inches long. A reminder to watch where I step. And then a few days ago, I felt a chill as I saw a scorpion dashing across the floor. I found it remarkable what perfectly straight lines it ran along. 

Bees are swarming around the small pond in the garden. They are drinking there and collecting water to take back to their hives to cool them down. I have to walk past them to go down to the washing line, but they don't seem bothered by me.

The other evening I had an encounter with a flying praying mantis. I felt something large land on my shoulder. I gave a loud squeal and brushed it off. My friend visiting me from Italy helped me put it outside into the night. It was about three inches long and it really startled me. But it was only praying... 

Friends and guests come and go, but it seems I am never really alone! 

Buddha unperturbed by the bees. They fly around him all day. Some of their reflections are visible in the water.

Buddha unperturbed by the bees. They fly around him all day. Some of their reflections are visible in the water.

Last weekend my mission was to plant the tomato plants I had bought from François in the market. Christophe, who helps me out in the garden, had rotivated a strip of ground and dressed it with goats manure. When I went to prepare the soil for the plants, I found it was completely infested with couch grass. I took a fork to it, but soon had to admit defeat. And so it was that I started digging a new and small vegetable patch down by the washing line, working under my straw hat to protect me from the heat, listening to the poet David Whyte speaking with Krista Tippett on the 'On Being' podcast. I heard him talk about how, 'we have so many allies in this world, including just the colour blue in the sky.'

Betty lying amongst the young tomato plants

Betty lying amongst the young tomato plants

Being here, I am so aware of the presence of those allies. The cuckoo calls in the distance. The hoopoe bird softly replies. The nightingales sing day and night, cleansing the air, with each sweet phrase of their liquid song different to the last. Frogs start up in the evening with their alien, sonic sounds reverberating throughout the valley.

Dark brown eagles wheel about in that blue of the sky. The great rocks have been here longer than any living thing.

The air is alive with juniper and warm pine resin, blended with the sweetness of broom and roses, spiced with aromatic wild thyme, mint and oregano. Having spent my first couple of years of my childhood inland from Malaga, I have been longing for those southern scents my whole life.

Many of those creatures are considered enemies: the snake, the scorpion, the bees, the spiders I find in the house. So is the couch grass. When I went to the local garden centre and somebody asked for weedkiller, he was told that no, it was no longer available without having a licence. He was directed to a flame gun. I am loathe to kill any of the creatures, and I definitely don't want to use poisons. I throw spiders out of the windows and even the scorpion was put out of doors with a piece of card and a glass. The ants are everywhere and they come in all sizes. If a crumb of food is left out, they are there. They help motivate me to keep the place clean. If not, it will be the flies coming in. The bees, well they are essential. There isn't much water around, so I will share the pond with them. I hope we can all get along. I'll let you know how it goes.

Liberté, Fraternité, Égalité and Sentimentalité

Robert and his free range eggs

Robert and his free range eggs

Sunday is market day in the village. The sun was out after the thunderstorms and heavy rain of yesterday, and the cafe overlooking the square was filling up. First stop was with Robert, the egg man. 

'These eggs will make you feel happy,' he said, smiling broadly. Only two days ago, I had been reading that eating eggs increases dopamine in the body, which makes one feel more happy and motivated,

'And are the chickens happy?' I asked. '

'Absolument.  They peck about outside in the grass all day. Please come and visit them and the ducks anytime.' As he picked out twelve eggs stuck with straw, he explained where he lives in the village. He did look piratically happy as he kissed the regulars on both cheeks. 

My friend, Elizabeth and I had another invitation from François, who grows organic vegetables, to visit his farm next Saturday. His stall was loaded with vibrantly healthy vegetables, including broad beans, beetroot, radishes and frilly lettuces, as well as vegetable plants for the garden. My neighbour, Josie, had already warned me not to plant anything out until after the 13th May as tomatoes and other tender plants are not safe until after the last of the Ice Saints days, les saints de glace, has been and gone. François scribbled complicated directions to his place on the back of my shopping list. I hope I can find it!

François' vegetables

François' vegetables

As I was taking photographs of the market, a voice behind me pronounced, 'photographs are sentimental, Madame.' I turned around. A man, well dressed in tweed, was smiling wryly at me. I smiled back. 'Not always,' I said. But I have to admit that he has a point. It can be tempting to edit Provence down to garish lavender fields and sunlit hills. And yet those things are there. Just know that in the moment I pressed the shutter on these delicious olives, the stall holder cried out, 'merde!' as the pesky wind blew over the canopy. As my mother says, (she lived here for over fifteen years) 'Haute Provence ain't the Riviera!'

When I went to join Elizabeth at the cafe, I spotted this shopping on a neighbouring table. Sentimental? Maybe. Posed? Non! 

France goes to the polls today. Provence is solid Le Pen territory. Reillanne and Forcalquier are rich with artists and creatives and have a vibrant counter culture. These three beauties sang Italian Resistance songs at the top of their voices in the market. I'm crossing everything for Macron.