Vignettes of an Early Gascon Summer

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Written By Clare Wadsworth

“Summer was our best season: it was sleeping on the back screened porch in cots, or trying to sleep in the tree house; summer was everything good to eat; it was a thousand colours in a parched landscape.”

Harper Lee: To Kill a Mockingbird 

There were times this spring when we thought there would never be a summer, especially when there were hailstorms during the ‘Ice Saints’ in mid-May, the feast days of Saints Pancras, Boniface and Servatus (or sometimes St. Mamertus instead of Boniface.) The nurseries always say not to risk planting geraniums before the Ice Saints — and they are usually right.

But now skies are blue, swimming pools are clean, the sun has finally come out and temperatures soared for the Royal Wedding, which all of France watched. One sometimes wonders why France is a republic and the United Kingdom is a monarchy instead of the other way around —             although France now has ‘Jupiter’, or rather Monsieur Macron, who is occupying the international stage rather more successfully than the domestic one.

Property prices are soaring in Bordeaux though, thanks to the new non-stop fast train, which only takes two hours from Paris — when it’s not on strike, of course. Air France is paralysed by strikes, too. Tourists are outraged, and even the French are starting to lose patience.

This year there are hardly any cherries due to the late frosts, but the vines look fine as heavy machinery patrols them spraying, and the first melons are delicious. There are green asparagus for the British and white asparagus for everyone else, courgettes, early tomatoes and lots of different mushrooms. No flies yet and no mosquitoes. The wheat will be harvested in June and the maize planted.

 There are poppies in the verges by the side of the road and the grass in the meadows is shoulder-high, with butterflies alighting on the flax and clover, buttercups, marguerites and pyramid orchids, just like a Monet painting. Although the irises, wisteria and banksia are almost over, and acacia petals have fallen in the wind like white confetti, all the roses look wonderful and the honeysuckle smells even better. Birds are chirping, woodpeckers are tapping, frogs are croaking, and herons are spearing carp out of the ponds.

 Most of the Gascon villages are advertising their weekend flea markets on big posters. They are called vide-greniers – ‘emptying the attic’. Unfortunately, nowadays the town centres are mostly populated by banks, estate agents and hairdressers, but suddenly antique shops are popping up in the expectation of an influx of tourists. Weddings are a new industry here — three-day-events of feasting and visiting vineyards and Armagnac distilleries.

The restaurants have changed spring for summer menus. The best by far is still Le Florida at Castéra-Verduzan, where the third generation of Ramounédas has taken over the kitchen, but La Halle at Jégun is good, and for traditional duck and more duck there is the Ferme de Flaran outside Valence-sur-Baïse.

It is a joy to sit outdoors again and the long, light evenings cheer up everyone except the Moslems who are observing Ramadan. A month is a long time not to be able to eat or drink from sunrise to sunset — and longest at this time of year.

Closer to home, I have rescued another dog — this one is a sort of long-haired basset in shades of grey, which had been kept in a cage for five years. He is a delight, although he is still cringes when you reach out to pat him and refuses to come in the house because he is terrified of being shut up again. He and the other four dogs play though, and he loves walks — and his name is Haddock!

 “If it could only be like this always – always summer, always alone, the fruit always ripe…”

Evelyn Waugh