Aromas of the South

Swidden FieldWe had come to the oak and sweet chestnut forests of the Haut-Languedoc, steep hills of small farms and villages strung along the top roads. Most of the wheat was long in, but sunflowers still hung darkened heads in the tiny fields. Mostly the lands are pastures and maize strips for dairy sheep and cattle. We stay in a swidden, a clearing in the forest where the garrigue grassland has thankfully remained unimproved. On surrounding slopes are sunken drovers’ roads and even-age stands of trees, signs that abandonment of those farms came at one time. In one high clearing overlooked by a stone farmhouse, I advance into thin maize, and a wolf pretending to be a dog sets up such a howl that we grab up sticks from the forest and quickly slip back along the track. We find walnut and apple trees heavy with nuts and fruit around mounds of ruined farmhouses. The Parc naturel régional du Haut-Languedoc was created in 1973, incorporating about 90 villages and some 80,000 people. In the second world war, these lands were refuge for many French freedom fighters.

Haut-LanguedocThe garrigue is full of aromas. I walk a late-August survey, counting 56 species of flowering plant, and another ten of grasses. I kick up the richly evocative horse and corn mints, and find clumps of pink marjoram that when crushed smell of Mediterranean foods. Clouds of butterflies rise from mallows and thistles, the trefoils, mulleins and brooms. Lavender, sage and rosemary emit their aromatic oils too. Mound-building ant colonies have left their marks on the land. Surprisingly there is no thyme, and I suggest to the owner bringing in some of the lemony varieties found out on the hills. I do find wild eryngo, neon-blue relative to the sea holly of our coasts. Upslope, a neighbouring farmer is trying something new. On one side of the stony track, the forage maize is cut and drying for silage, but on an upper pasture electric fences have been set out for intensive rotational grazing, a more effective way of getting food from the land for cattle, but one that requires twice daily inputs of knowledge and decisions, and moving of both fences and cattle.

On a day when grey rain sleets across the black mountains, and headlamps reflect on glassy roads, we go in search of mid-day crêpes. But the restaurant in the village is empty, and a bloodless man wrings his hands and stares at us with surprise. No, he says, we are not serving. Back at the cafe, we try the toughened brioches, condensation running down the windows. In the evenings, we eat hardened sheep’s cheese, and salad doused with olive oil and balsam vinegar. Rich red and cold white wine stand on the table while steak hachés crackle and bubble above charcoal. At night, under the dome of glittering stars, two tawny and little owls contest he shadows.