Thursday, June 15, 2006

from Pierrerue: longing for the smell of ewe

If I am going to set destinations that are hours away from Pierrerue, I should not leave Pierrerue after 3:30.

But the sun doesn’t set until ten and if I can pick up a highway, I can get to the northern-most edges of Languedoc in a flash.

Truly, the new superhighways that have recently linked cities in this part of the country are remarkable.

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near Millau (my destination point for the day)

Once close to where I want to be, I defer to the country lanes, often so narrow, that second gear seems too fast.

But the reason for going further afield at such late hours is, well, stubbornness. It's not that I care deeply about getting to Millau. The books like it, but I happen to think it’s not worth a detour, let alone a destination. Big-ish city, nice enough in a ho hum, seen one seen ‘em all sort of way. But if you follow a narrow road some twenty kilometers to the side of it, you enter this little town:

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painted house, at the entrance to it

I not only like Roquefort cheese, I once taught a class at l'Etoile on French cheeses and the story of Roquefort filled a good one-fourth of class time, so I owe it a big thank you.

It’s a great story of a long dedication to quality in food and drink. You would think that name protection (Roquefort, Champagne, they all have it) is a modern concept, but no! Roquefort first came to be protected, both in name and cheese, back in 1411. [So when you ask -- why are the French so fussy about their foods, the answer I think has to be that it's in their make-up – they can’t help it, they’ve been fussing for centuries.]

Of course, by the time I actually got to Roquefort, there was no way I could do a big inspection of the caves. I made do with a little inspection and a lot of cheese sampling. Predictably, the caves are cool, humid and apparently perfect for the penicillum roqueforti to do its blue magic. The smell of ewe’s milk ripening into cheese is everywhere. You have to wonder if, living here, your nose shuts down in protest.

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houses with caves

And as I am on the subject of protest, outside the village, I saw signs of another type of protest – on boards posted along the road, and even harvested into a design on fields, the words “pas d’OGM dans ma commune” (standing for Organisme Génétiquement Modifié). We have GMO-free shelves of milk in some stores. Here, they have OGM-free farming regions. A quick look at this website shows how widespread the movement is in France.

I toyed with the idea of heading back to Pierrerue when I noticed that even food stores were closing by the time I reached the city of Millau. Food stores are the last to shut down. The typical bakery bakes up a fresh hot batch of baguettes in time for the evening meal and stays open until 7:30 so that every last French person can pick up one or two on the way home (after a pause at a café, of course; they will have stopped working long before that).

But there I was, so close to the land of gorges – some of the most beautiful in Europe, I hear. Was I to turn my back on them? Of course not. It’s eerie, in a beautiful sort of way, to drive along in the shadows of the receding sun, down through ravines, past cliffs above and gushing waters below.

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looking up

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looking down

I have a newfound healthy respect for those rushing streams and kayaks that attempt to navigate them. At this hour though, I pass only an occasional fisherman. The narrow roads are (thankfully) empty. I do have a goal. I read somewhere that one of the most interesting villages in France (there we go again, the most) is around here. Cantobre, built right into the edge of one of the cliffs.

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It’s a small place and I can’t think why anyone would have built it up there to begin with, but I’m fascinated by it, especially now that it stands in the shadows of dusk. It calls for a pause. I had forgotten to eat lunch, forgotten to make plans for dinner, but no matter, there is a café up there in the rocky cliff and I am able to revive myself with this:

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It's not quite midnight when I finally drive up the hill to Pierrerue, but awfully close to it. Dinner? Well, there are the tomatoes, and this, picked up in the land of the Roquefort.

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