At the start of 2017, we embarked on our next chapter in our lives: retiring and moving ourselves and our two cats to Carcassonne, France. We will be sharing notes and photos about our lives in France, and our travels in Europe and beyond.
At the start of 2017, we embarked on our next chapter in our lives: retiring and moving ourselves and our two cats to Carcassonne, France. We will be sharing notes and photos about our lives in France, and our travels in Europe and beyond.
Once we had decided to make a road trip to Venice, we realized that along the route was the Italian Piedmont wine region of Barolo.
We had enjoyed Barolo red wines in the past: lovely rich and aromatic wines, usually pricey, so only for the most special occasions. Maybe they would be less expensive at the source! Since we were going to be traveling with two wine-loving friends, we created a two-night one-day stop in the region. We knew nothing detailed about this wine region and its wines. By pure coincidence, the dates of our visit were the start of the annual white-truffle festival. We arranged to take a day-long wine- and truffle-tasting tour.
Marco was our host and tour guide. His family has raised grapes and made wine in this region for generations. Marco and his brother — both in their mid-30s — are the latest generation to manage the family business.
We stayed at his family’s very comfortable B&B. It is set amid their vineyards and next to their family home.
Marco, being a wine producer himself, overflowed with detailed and fascinating knowledge and experience.
While there are a number of grapes grown in this region, three varieties are prominent: dolcetto, barbera, and nebbiolo.
Up until about a generation ago, dolcetto was the grape most cultivated. The local economy was generally agricultural — not just grapes — and not particularly prosperous. Vintners were primarily farmers and produced wine for their own consumption. Dolcetto yields drinkable wine immediately, no aging needed. Farmers couldn’t afford the time to hold and age wines, and what customers there were couldn’t afford more expensive wines.
So what changed so that now high-quality exportable wines are now produced? In some part, innovative Piedmont vintners saw the rise of Tuscan wines and started to experiment.
Tuscany had something crucial that the Piedmont did not: an aristocracy who owned the land and vineyards. They could afford to travel to see how the French make wine. In the Piedmont, these were just poor farmers, who couldn’t afford to explore and learn. And there was competition between farms and villages, rather than a tradition of cooperation.
With Tuscan marketing and changes in mind, at least one forward-thinking Piedmont vintner ventured out to France to see how the French make such notable wines. The story we were told goes like this: The maverick went to Burgundy. He showed up at a winery, and asked to see how things were done. By chance he met the owner who was in his sports car on the way out to his other house in the French Riviera. The Italian was taken aback by such a show of wealth and fine living. He thought, we aren’t doing this right. These French know how to produce good wine, while also enjoying a fine life.
In the 1980s, a number of these innovative wine makers, including Angelo Gaja, pushed forward. They shifted the focus from the dolcetto grape to nebbiolo and barbera grapes. Nebbiolo grapes are the heart of Barolo wines. Wine from Nebbiolo grapes can be harsh in taste when the wine is young. The innovators developed aging approaches that yield lovely smooth complex wines.
One part of the process is to age the wines in giant wooden barrels from Croatia, sometimes for 6 years and longer. The giant barrels mean the wine has less contact with the wood than if the wine were in traditional-sized barrels. Since the nebbiolo grape starts with tanin and edge, the less wood influence there is, the better. They now use a combination of concrete tanks, stainless steel, and wood barrels. And some vintners are currently experimenting with terra-cotta amphora, just as the ancient Greeks and Romans used.
Barolo wines come from a very specific bit of land in the Langhe region of the Piedmont. Other nebbiolo-based wines include Barbaresco, Roero, Gattinara and Ghemme. We had assumed, ignorantly, that Barolo was a type of grape, when in fact it is a precisely defined region within Langhe.
Among the specific rules for creating and marketing a Barolo wine is that the wine must spend 18 months aging in oak, then 18 months aging further as the vintner wants — wood, stainless steel, concrete, etc.
We visited the Langhe region in mid-October, only a few days after Marco and his family had completed this year’s harvest.
Marco helped us read the land by looking at the vines. These hills are composed of distinct areas of clay and of tufa, which is a kind of limestone. The clay holds more water than the tufa; the tufa is a less nutritious medium, although it drains well. Newly planted vines do better in the clay. Vines planted in tufa have to struggle to grow. They develop very deep roots to find the water they need. The vines that work hard tend to produce grapes that are better for making good wine. You can read the vineyard’s soil through the leaves and density of growth: lusher foliage signals tufa soil.
At one of the wineries we visited, they had just completed construction of new facilities. They had excavated into the hill for one of the buildings. They left exposed the cross section of the soil, including strata of clay and tufa.
Marco told us about his family’s experiences and challenges on their hillside vineyards. Snow in winter is necessary because it gives the water time to soak into the soil. Heavy summer rains don’t help. They need to install drainage pipes beneath the vines to carry off excess water. However, one year recently, heavy rains followed right after they had planted new vines on some steep slopes. The vines and the top soil slid down the hill; they needed to start over.
Climate change is not abstract and theoretical to these wine producers. During the last 30 years, they see the changes. Summer are hotter; winters provide less snow. It used to be that southern and western slopes were best. If the changes continue as they have in the last 30 years, in coming decades, the best exposures may be east. It used to be that vintners would trim leaves away from the grapes so that the grapes could warm in the sun, creating more sugar. Now, they retain the west-facing leaves to protect the grapes from the harsh sun, and instead expose the grapes to the gentler east sun.
As climate change progresses, vintners will need to replant grape varieties on different hill slopes. Zones that currently don’t produce the best grapes may become tomorrow’s stars.
Oh, and we had the pleasure to taste some Langhe and Barolo wines! Marco took us to three wineries: a small one, a medium-sized one, and a large one. That way we could explore some differences.
Funny how wine-tasting leads to wine-purchasing. In our two years in France, so far, we have learned that non-French wines are barely available in France. Our mission in the Langhe and Barolo region was to find some wines that we enjoy, and surreptitiously drive them back home. But we probably will now have to drink them with the curtains drawn, secretly savoring these luscious Italian tastes.
PS: At each restaurant, shaved fresh white truffles were available, priced per gram. We were told that a warm, relatively neutral dish works best for the the delicate truffles. Options included a sunny-side-up fried egg, pasta with a bit of butter and cheese, a melted delicate cheese with artichoke stems, and steak tartare. To our surprise, the one we liked the most (and I mean, REALLY liked) was the steak tartare. While the truffle aroma is in itself strong and distinctive — and fabulous — other tastes and aromas easily overpower it. The clean aroma and taste of the tartare allowed the truffle to take center stage. Each inhale was deliriously wonderful. Sorry, we have another snobbish addiction.
Bonjour! Here, simply, are a few holiday images and a video from Carcassonne and Toulouse. We hope you enjoy!
One evening in Toulouse after seeing a movie (in English, with French subtitles):
A video of the shopping street and its animated lit Christmas tree:
Now on to Carcassonne:
Each year around St Nicholas’ Day, Carcassonne hosts the Marche aux Flambeaux (the march with torches).
People gather outside La Cité, buying wax torches. The proceeds support local charities. Led by medieval reenactors, the festive crowd crosses through La Cité, out the stone gate, down the hill, across the Pont Vieux (old bridge – 14th century), and into the main square of the Bastide (the “new” city from the 13th century). Our friends Jef and Val are leaders of the medieval participants.
Murano is an island in the Venetian lagoon, a 15 minute boat-ride from Venice proper. Its celebrity is tied to a centuries-long history of glass making. Originally, glass foundries were operating in Venice itself, not on Murano. After many fires in the glass district, which spread to other neighborhoods, in 1291, the foundries and operations were sent over to Murano.
Today, you find canals lined with glass shops, as well as cafés and restaurants. The variety and forms of glass objects are delightful as well as overwhelming. Our recommendation is to allocate a day, stroll slowly, don’t hurry, take a wine and lunch break, and enjoy.
We decided to look for some drinking glasses, some door pulls for our new dining area cabinets, and if possible, a chandelier for over the table. Having a mission was part of the pleasure.
A few anecdotes:
We found one shop down a side alley. The displays were more professional and gallery-like than most. Much of what was on offer were heavy geometric vases. But we spotted some solid glass door knobs which led us to ask the woman at the counter if she had any cabinet door pulls. She proceeded to pull out baskets of glass beads.
They were much too small to be door pulls, but she explained that we could select any style and color, and she could make them into pulls. The price she quoted was exorbitant, but we chatted anyway. She quickly launched into a presentation about authentic Murano glass, as distinct from the increasing amount of copies produced on the mainland and, scandalously, in China. As we were talking, a small group of Asian people came into the shop. She immediately went over to them and explained that this wasn’t a shop, it was just a display, and anyway it was closing time. She ushered them out with a smile. Coming back to us, she apologized for the interruption, but not for the racial profiling. We could feel her passion about unfair competition. It wasn’t clear however why only Asian people would buy her pieces with the intention of counterfeit.
In most shops, when we said that we were looking for a chandelier that was part traditional and part contemporary, the salespeople would eagerly escort us to a display floor above the shop. That’s where they display the serious pieces, as well as more variety. Even if they have only traditional pieces, they are happy to try to seduce us with what they have. We almost always saw attractive and interesting light fixtures, even if not quite what we had in mind.
We specifically sought out a shop that we had visited 8 years ago during our first time in Murano. At that time, we had selected a colorful large vase that we wanted to turn into a decorative lamp. The salesman agreed to drill a hole in its base, for the power cord, and ship it to us. We took a photo of our vase, paid the down payment, and went on our way. A couple of months later, a very well-packed crate arrived in Hawaii. We found an intact vase with a hole in the bottom. But it didn’t quite match our memory. Thanks to the photo we had taken, we could see that it was different, and we decided it wasn’t as attractive as the one we had selected. The people at the foundary back in Murano explained that when they drilled the hole in the vase we had selected, the vase broke. They broke at least one other before they succeeded with the one they sent to us. We weren’t happy enough with the one they sent. They were pleasant and professional, and said that unfortunately they didn’t think they could make this work without destroying more vases. We sent the vase back and received a full refund.
So with this experience, even if it hadn’t worked out, we thought we should see what they had for our current quest. At the door was sitting a very large man, and standing behind him was a very thin man of about 70. We cheerily explained what we were seeking. The thin man and the fat man talked with animation in Italian. Then the thin man said with dour expression, “We don’t have anything for you.” Silence. OK. Rejected, we exited. What they lacked in tact they fulfilled in clarity.
We stopped in a small shop that had only little decorative items and some drinking glasses. We spotted a set of 6 glasses that appealed to us right away. As we reached for one, the young saleswoman called out pointedly not to touch and that she would be glad to help us. Not liking to be told what to do, I was a little put off, even if I knew why she had called out. Chastened, we asked to see our target glasses. They were well priced and we thought they would look great on our new wood dining table.
I chatted with the saleswoman while she wrapped each glass in bubble wrap and tissues. She apologized for the sharp response to our reaching out to glasses. She said that people break items all the time. There had recently been a Chinese woman in the store; she reached for a tall slender sculptural piece, and knocked it over. It fell on a shelf’s worth of small pieces, shattering many of them. Embarrassed and panicked, she ran out of the shop. A big American man ran after her and brought her back. She had broken something like 1000€ of glass, and eventually paid for her mistake.
I asked if this shop was hers. She said, no, she just worked here part time. Seeing that Mike and I were together, she started to share some of her own history. At first I wasn’t quite sure why. She said that she had been working for Fiat in a marketing department. After she had been working there for a while, her boss, a man, discovered that she had a girl friend. He fired her. She took him and the company to court. She said that the court process took six years, and in the end, the man won. The court’s opinion was that she couldn’t prove that the man’s motive was homophobic. She said that this kind of case is very hard to win in Italy. I asked what she was going to do now. With a very nice smile and determined expression, she said that she was going to open her own marketing firm. Terrible path, but fantastic response.
Then she asked how long Mike and I have been together. Impressed with the answer (almost 25 years), she took out her phone. She showed me a lovely photograph of her and her wife of 5 years. Two stunningly beautiful women, viewed from above, embracing, with wedding dresses flowing around them. She showed another photo of the two of them with their parents. She said she came out to her parents just before going to university in the UK. Her parents were shocked and blamed themselves, even though there was nothing to blame anyone about. She went off to London. A couple of months later, her parents came to visit. Her father apologized for his reaction, and embraced her fully. Ever since, her parents have fully accepted her and her wife.
Very warm and open chat just from purchasing a few glasses.
In the end, we did find a chandelier that met our expectations, both aesthetically and financially. As a condition of the sale, we had to promise not to post any photos of the chandelier. So you will have to come visit next year to see it!
By the way, this is why the title of this post is Chandalier Shoulder. After two days of walking in and out of shops looking up at light fixtures, our shoulders were sore and tight like after a stressful day at work. Much happier reason however!
We recently took a road trip to Venice and back. This post and a few of the next ones come from some of our travel moments.
Chamonix, France, lies in a valley directly below Mont Blanc, which is Europe’s tallest mountain. There is a lookout called the Aguille du Midi at an elevation of 3,842 m, 968 m lower than the top of Mont Blanc. From there, there are purportedly grand views in all directions atop the peaks of the Alps. Alas, the upper portion of the cable car system was closed for maintenance.
On the other side of the valley, a cable car ascends halfway up to the place called Flégère at elevation 1,877 m. In winter, additional lifts can take you higher up the mountain to ski runs. We arrived at the base at 10 am, opening time, with the expectation of a nice ride up, a little time enjoying the views, and a return descent.
Just off the cable car, we found clear sunny views across the valley, to Mont Blanc and adjacent peaks, including the Aiguilles du Grépon, du Chardonnet, et Verte. Our view looked directly south, right into the sun. Very little of the peaks were in direct sun, just silhouettes against the brightness. The cable car terminus was in our way, so we thought to walk up the gravel path a little to get a clearer view.
A little higher, and the panorama was full. But still silhouetted by the low sun. We wanted to see the mountains in full bright light, so decided to stay a while longer. The gravel path continued up the mountain to the next switchback. We decided to go up just one more level.
From here the view was even better. The sun was starting to illuminate the edges of the mountain ridges, as well as to cast rays down across the forests facing us. Maybe just a little higher.
Now we spotted a group of people above us who were pulling on what we realized were paragliders that were lying on the ground. We had already seen a number of paragliders over the valley. We wanted to see them take off. So up another level.
We found a spot just above their launching field. The wind was gentle. All but one person were sitting on the ground amid their piles of colored sails. A leader or instructor was on her radio. She had a very strong voice so we could hear her talking about the wind currents, and relaying information coming over the radio. She helped the standing person spread out the sail behind her. We, and they, waited and waited for gusts of wind. Just as we were about to give up on seeing a launch, suddenly the sail was inflated and the person flew off the cliff and into the sky above the valley. It happened so quickly that we missed filming the launch.
We decided to wait for the next launch, determined to capture the jump into the void. A little higher up the hill for us, of course. Now a man was positioning himself. He earlier had been talking cockily about how to turn figure eights in the air, much to the consternation of the leader. He stood, waiting, with his back to the hill. With a new gust, his sail filled and he ran off the cliff. Instantly, the sail deflated, twisting on itself. He disappeared below onto the steep slope below. We think that the only thing that got hurt was his pride.
Finally, our phone was in position for the next launch. Lovely and exhilarating to watch this person, slung beneath what a moment before was a swath of thin fabric, float away high over the deep valley.
By now, the sun was shining on the glaciers on Mont Blanc and the other icy valleys. The upper air was so still that jet contrails stayed fine completely across the sky.
While we talked about staying up here forever, we knew we needed to descend. Looking down at the cable car terminus, we realized just how high we had hiked, one switchback at a time. On the leisurely stroll down the views continued to shine and awe.
Back at the cable car, we realized we had enjoyed the views, air and walks for 4 hours. The time had slipped by just like the paragliders.
After making sure that our friends Brenda and Aja successfully found their early-morning flight out of Toulouse, we enjoyed a bit of the sunny morning before heading home. It happened to be the first of November, which is the holiday Toussaint. Two fascinating and lovely surprises greeted us.
An immense sleeping minotaur waited for us just outside our hotel on the central square of Toulouse, la Place du Capitole. Even though his eyes were closed, his rib-cage slowly pulsed with his breathing. He looked like some alien-invasion movie CGI come to life.
Some spontaneous internet searching revealed that the minotaur along with a giant mechanical spider were in town for a weekend of theater and festivities. The ambitious people of La Machine created these creatures.
We didn’t stay for the weekend’s performances, but of course YouTube showed us what missed:
The City Hall — or mairie — creates one of the walls of the Place du Capitole. Guillaume Cammas, a Toulouse architect and artist, designed the facade around 1750. While Toulouse’s characteristic brick provides some warmth, the regular classicism is severe. Whenever we are in the Place du Capitole, we pay more attention to the arcades, cafés, restaurants and shops along the other three sides of the square. But today, the main central door was open, and people were casually wandering in. Curious, we followed.
No great surprises at first: just a couple courtyards, and more brick and stone and sculptures.
We noticed a few people disappearing to the left within the stone arch on the far side of the courtyard. Might as well see where they were going. Our first glimpse of what awaited us:
To our good fortune, Toussaint is day for an open-house of the City Hall.
This grand stairway, surrounded by immense lush paintings, is part of the complete reconstruction of the City Hall in the 1880s. The end of the 19th century was a time when the leaders of Toulouse sought to express their political, economic and artistic significance, especially relative to Paris. The art and design of the renovated City Hall expresses themes of this southern part of France. Local painters, sculptors and architects transformed the building.
This is the former wedding hall, with the themes of love and happiness.
This is the Henri-Martin room, named after its painter. He chose to showcase scenes from the countryside on one side of the room, and scenes from city life on the other. Lovely evocation of light and nature.
The Hall des Illustres is the grand finale. Twenty Toulouse painters and sculptors embellished this monumental, long space. Each interpreted some aspect of the themes Glorious episodes in Toulouse life, Toulouse city of the arts and culture, and Defense of the Fatherland.
These are the allegorical figures for the Law, Justice and Truth. Apparently Truth has nothing to hide.
We were struck by the contrasts between sober prim depictions of women, and unabashed voluptuous figures. Imagine visiting City Hall at the beginning of the 20th century, accompanied by such sensual boldness. Who was scandalized; who was liberated; who was repressed; who was exploited; who was turned on?
La Cité du Vin (The City of Wine) opened its doors in June 2016. Just this month, it received its millionth visitor. Perhaps we were numbers 1,001,034 and 1,001,035. Maybe I went for the architecture; maybe we both went for the wine.
La Cité du Vin’s raison-d’être and mission are modest (this is Google’s and my translation from the website):
Wine is an inseparable part of the culture and living heritage of our country, but also of many other countries on five continents. It has made possible forging bonds between men, shaping landscapes, and generating myths, rituals and a true culture.
Since 5,500 years before our era, wine has been at the heart of human life. Wine sculpts our landscapes, accompanies our beliefs, our customs, our traditions, our social practices, and it invades our imaginations.
Universal, plural, it crosses the borders, the centuries, imposes everywhere its material and immaterial mark. It constantly reinvents itself in new forms, in multiple uses.
The Cité du Vin’s mission is to share this millennial culture with an international audience, to enlighten its meaning, to help protect and transmit this universal intangible heritage.
The building and its setting
The architecture firm XTU from Paris designed the building. The architects described the building this way:
This building does not resemble any recognizable shape because it is an evocation of the soul of wine between the river and the city… Every detail of the architecture evokes wine’s soul and liquid nature: seamless roundness, intangible and sensual.
We think it looks like a wine decanter, and why not?! The owner of the attractive bed & breakfast where we stayed in Bordeaux said that she sees a sock.
The building is now a monument in a major urban-redevelopment area on the site of the former industrial district of Les Forges along the banks of the Garonne River. The district is one big construction site, full of building cranes and a myriad of new residential and commercial buildings. We had read that Bordeaux is experiencing an exploding real estate market: the high-speed train line — TGV — between Paris and Bordeaux opened in July 2017, making it possible for Parisians to be in Bordeaux in just 2 hours. Now Bordeaux is an attractive outer, albeit upper-crust and increasingly unaffordable, suburb of Paris.
Have a glass of wine in the markets of the world
We selected an hour-long “polysensorial” wine-tasting experience. Along with other English-speaking visitors (from New Zealand, Ireland, Spain, and Germany), we sat at low tables around the edge of a circular room. Seamless photo montages slowly flowed around the room.
From time to time, a spritz of scented air came our way: was that the smell of leather, or barbecue, or tomatoes?
Our charming French host introduced four different glasses of wine for us, without telling us what each one was. Each of four wines was introduced by a seductive stream of images, sounds and smells from different places around the world. The first was Mediterranean areas (Provence, Greece, Italy). Another was scenes from Algeria. Our charming French host invited us to imagine the foods, tastes and experiences of these places as we sniffed and tasted each mystery wine. She did not tell us anything about the wines before we had some time to experience them on our own. She was splendid in assisting us to identify aromas and tastes. I loved it when she said that we come to each glass of wine with our own scent and taste memories and associations. So if I say the nose evokes pineapple, and you say banana, then that is just because of each of our own specific past experiences. Our host made it safe for everyone in the room to share their own associations.
The wines that we enjoyed, and their world-market contexts were:
The permanent self-guided tour
At the entrance of the main exhibit area, the staff presents you with an iPhone-like device and headphones. Throughout the exhibit areas, you just point the device at a dot symbol and the audio connects you to the exhibit. You can wander in any order and pace that you want. The exhibits flow in all directions beneath the organically shaped building shell.
The interactive displays helped connect scent experiences with their sources. We liked the refined steampunk aesthetic: The shiny glass covers and the brass tubes captivated us. The offered scents were clear and accurate (which is not always the case in this type of olfactory exhibit).
One section was entitled The Art of Living. Three long tables were set with virtual items, and surrounded by big chairs. We visitors were invited to sit at the table — along with two animated conversationalists in tall bright monitors. As they talked about experiencing wine and food at the social table, the table top animated and morphed to illustrate their points.
Other exhibit areas explored wine in cultures through history, highlighted vintners from many wine regions of the world, visited different terroirs, and helped new wine experiences to understand why wines have the colors, textures and aromas that they do.
At the end of the tour, we took the elevator to the Belvedere at the top where we were offered a choice of wines from which to select one to taste. Unlike so many places we have visited in France, here there were wines from around the world, not just from France. I selected a red wine from Armenia, because, well, have you ever had an Armenian wine? It was light, slight of aroma, and not very deep. But now I’ve tasted a wine from Armenia. Mike selected a Rioja from Spain, and was rewarded with a rich complex glass.
While it was inevitable to have wine bottles in the decor, the ceiling of the Belvedere was attractive anyway.
A few of the wines for sale in the “wine cellar.”
For us, the polysensorial wine tasting was the highlight. No big surprise, because any time we have the opportunity to explore wines, especially with a good guide (or salesperson), we enjoy ourselves. The collection of exhibits was very attractive and engaging; they were extremely well designed and made. But, at the end of the day, smelling, feeling and tasting wine is far more satisfying than just talking about it!
PS: A foodie dinner
We went to Restaurant Côte Rue for dinner the night after our Cité du Vin experience. We had selected the restaurant because of good reviews, the work of young chefs, and the fact that it was only a few-minute walk from our B&B. Each dish was beautifully presented, all were tasty, and a couple were notable. Here’s today’s food porn for your enjoyment.
This was our favorite. Complex when we explain it, but all the textures and flavors cooperated very well. The rose-red sauce at the right is a tomato-beet mousse. Beneath it is a layer of a creamy white cheese. And beneath that were three pieces of white fish, ceviche style, with a bit of caviar. To the left is an arrangement of slightly pickled tomatoes, beets, and radish slices. Neither of us is a fan of beets, but in this dish, the beets were gentle, and the combinations of beet, tomato, vinegar, creamy cheese, crunchy radish, and ceviche fish kept delighting our tongues.
Dorade (a white fish), with a verveine foam.
Roasted beef with young zucchini and carrots, and dried black olive bits.
The cheese course was just goat cheese. We have discovered that in many restaurants, if there is a cheese course, it can be just three or four slices of unremarkable cheese. Here, the chefs cannily chose a single creamy goat cheese from the Bordeaux region. They decorated it with tiny flowers and herb sprigs; this was not just to be pretty: the tart herbal field flavors complemented the cheese. Little fresh figs, simple almonds, and a delicious slightly crystalline local honey charmed us.
PPS: Our B&B
Our B&B was beautiful, and its owner / host, Béatrice, was full of life. Highly recommended: Bordeaux Wine Lodge. The breakfast table for just the two of us:
We knew the synthetic putting green needed to turn into a vegetable garden.
The previous owners of our house had installed a long narrow putting green below the living room window. On-site golf didn’t particularly resonate with us, but the idea of growing our own vegetables — in moderation — did. (Is this a retirement stereotype, or what?) It was easy to visualize a raised garden on the footprint of the putting green. A bit more challenging to make it a reality.
Mike had come across a garden approach called the Square Foot Gardening, so we bought the book and studied it. Among the advantages of this approach is cultivation of a variety of plants in a small accessible area. I, who have a disturbing affection for spreadsheets, loved the idea of a gridded garden. The organizational concept is to make all the one-foot squares easy to reach; the garden areas are no more than 4 feet across. Perfect for our long thin putting-green.
Life is too short to be bending over all the time to weed the cabbage patch, so elevated was a necessity. That the raised garden surface would be visible from our living room was an added benefit.
I pulled up the synthetic green and its concrete barrier. I refined the layout with string and stakes, and made sketches and calculations for the raised garden frame. The design required large thick wood planks, wood anchor stakes, and waterproof lining.
Next step was to find materials. In the two local big-box stores like Home Depot — TriDôme and Brico Depot — we inspected our way through the outdoor lumber racks. Inscrutable labels: the French have a different word for everything! So we needed to walk slowly with phone translators in hand to figure out types of wood and their properties. It was all pretty overwhelming.
We then tried another place called Union Matériaux. It looked like a building supply company for contractors, but they were happy to talk with us. We sat at a desk and explained our project. The young man worked on his computer with us, drawing up the garden frame, and figuring out all our supplies, down to quantities of screws. Within a half an hour, he presented us a detailed proposal. Even though the Union Matériaux solution was a bit more expensive that what we think TriDôme would have cost, the ease and collaboration made it an easy solution. A few days later, all was delivered to our garden area.
We are fairly handy around the house, but we realized we needed someone more capable — and stronger — than we to build our garden box. One of our expatriate friends here recommended a multi-talented fellow named Owen. He is South African originally, but has lived in this part of France for about 30 years. He is a charming, enthusiastic man. He attacked the project and delivered our garden box in a day.
Now we needed to fill the box with soil! Soon after moving to this house, we learned that the soil around us is mostly clay. Our little neighborhood was built on former vineyards. Grape vines may be able to grow in this type of clay, but flowers and vegetables won’t. Therefore, we needed to import all the vegetable garden soil.
Geometry told us that we needed 2 cubic meters of gravel underlayment, and 5 cubic meters of soil for the raised garden and other plantings we anticipate.
We could buy bags of vegetable garden soil at the big box stores. We would need about 100 50-litre bags. In addition, we needed the two cubic meters of gravel underneath the soil. That seemed too cumbersome and expensive.
Union Matériaux had already said that they only offered decorative gravel; not construction gravel nor garden soil.
We found online only one local source for bulk gravel and soil, a company called Posocco. I studied up on French vocabulary about dirt and rocks, and we headed out in search of the place.
I called to get directions, but could only discern the equivalent of “the road to Limoux,” and Le Chapitre, which could mean “the chapter.” We know the road to Limoux, but the Le Chapitre meant nothing. No worries, we have Google Maps, right? The first place Google Maps took us was a house in a residential neighborhood. There was indeed a sign at the front gate with the name Posocco on it. But this was obviously not a gravel and earth distribution yard. I called the phone number on the sign to ask again for directions. A woman answered; we could hear a child practicing the piano in the background. Must be a family-owned business. Again: Road to Limoux, and Le Chapitre. Sigh.
Google Maps again: near the road to Limoux, but on the other side of the Aude River, was another pin for Posocco. Not exactly on the road to Limoux, but let’s try anyway. We found a Posocco sign, and at the end of a rough road, an opening full of piles of rocks and gravel, and a small building. Inside the building, a good-humored man agreed that we were still not at the correct place. He, fortunately, explained in detail how to get to the main location. He counted out the number of round-abouts and turns needed.
Of course, we miscounted the round-abouts. Halfway to Limoux, we agreed that we needed to turn back. At the first round-about we encountered (again), there was a small sign for Le Chapitre Bed & Breakfast. This felt very small-town: like, “Turn left where the steak restaurant used to be.” There was a Posocco sign facing the way we were then going, but invisible from our original direction. At the end of another pot-holed little road appeared more mounds of gravel, big trucks, and signs for Customer Parking! At last.
In the building, we found a man sitting behind a counter at a desk, and next to a little window at truck-cab height. We stood patiently at the counter as he dealt with one truck after another, presumably delivering and picking up rocks. While we waited, two other men came into the room, talking animatedly. When the desk man looked over to us and I tried to explain what we were there for, all three started discussing our project. They debated what type, shape and size gravel would be best for us. We just watched quietly as they figured it all out. At last, the desk man pulled out a laminated price sheet. He noted what we were asking for and the unit prices (per ton!) for soil and gravel — on a post-it note! Apparently we weren’t yet at the right office. He gave us a number to call to place the actual order.
We felt that we had made progress, for sure, but that we hadn’t found the end of the corridor yet. Time to give it a break, go home, and have a glass of wine.
We were visiting with our friends Georges and Michèle the next day. We told them our Google-Maps fueled adventure in search of gravel. Georges said that he knows someone at Posocco and would be glad to make the call for us. Yes! Merci beaucoup.
The next day, Georges texted that he had talked with his friend. He learned that we needed to buy the gravel and soil from Union Matériaux (!) rather than from Posocco directly. We could expect a proposal (devis in French: a very useful word it turns out) in the next day or so. As promised, the devis arrived by email, and it was much more expensive that what our post-it note showed, and the quantities were all wrong. But at least it was now from our new friends at Union Matériaux. I visited them again the next day, which was a very rainy day, and we sorted it all out easily. It turns out that Posocco had just partnered with Union Matériaux to be able to sell to individuals rather than in bulk to construction companies. The added cost came from packaging the gravel and soil in meter-cube bags and delivery to private residences.
Some days before, we had brainstormed delivery strategies with Owen, who had built the garden box. Mike and I had envisioned delivery of the bulk materials either in front of the garage or in the side yard by our cross street. Both locations would have required our transporting gravel and soil one wheelbarrow at a time to our new potager. Not a lovely prospect, but at least a lot of healthy exercise. Owen had looked around, and said we could arrange for the delivery truck to drive into the adjacent vineyard, and then deposit the bags over our wall and directly on the garden. It hadn’t even occurred to us. He asked if we knew the farmer; we said that we see him from time to time, and even occasionally wave, but that was all. I said that I would ask his permission the next time we saw him. Owen had just finished his work for the day, so he drove off. Five minutes later, he texted to say that he had seen the farmer, explained and asked permission, and the farmer had easily agreed.
At Union Matériaux, with gravel and soil purchased, we discussed this delivery strategy. It was still raining. In fact, we were in the midst of the wettest spring and early summer in about 50 years. It was all that anyone around here could talk about. All that rain meant that the dirt paths around the vineyard were muddy and far too soft for a heavy delivery truck. Now we needed to wait for a few sunny days and a dry vineyard. That wait turned out to be about a month. We kept looking out our living room window at this ark-like wood box. Spring became summer, and we didn’t have any soil for our garden.
At long long last, biblically, the rains subsided. Union Matériaux agreed that delivery was possible. The delivery truck driver skillfully backed into the vineyard, avoided the ditch between our wall and the vines, and lowered each cubic meter over the garden. Mike and I scrambled to rake out the gravel as it fell from the opened bags. We mounded the soil on top, and had the deliverer place the remaining soil cubes. Never before had we celebrated piles of rocks and dirt, but we did this time.
On to the good part: planting a square-foot-style potager. Happily, I marked the garden area spreadsheet with strings. We scoured the garden stores for plants: Chinese cabbage (Mike is going to make kim chee), lettuce, peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, strawberries, fennel, thyme, rosemary, chives, shallots, leeks, sage, and mint. We interspersed marigolds, petunias, and nasturtiums because they naturally repell some destructive insects — and they look great from the window. I added a drip-irrigation line.
While we aren’t ready to host a produce stand at the Saturday town market, we have at last started enjoying some lettuce, peppers and fennel from the potager. More produce to come as the summer progresses. The cucumber plants were so prodigious that we needed to replant them elsewhere. Who knew that some good soil, lots of sunshine and water, plants — and perseverance — will give you wonderful things to eat! Amazing.