Biographies & Memoirs

Chapter Thirteen

Throughout the winter months in M. Albert’s village, anyone with an hour to spare on a Monday evening has but one choice. Our paper flower-making efforts for Véronique’s wedding pale into insignificance beside the months of industry in this remote place. Tens of thousands of paper decorations are cut out and put together. They are carefully stored in readiness for the great day, the second Sunday in September, when the whole village will be en fête in homage to a simple dried fruit – the prune.

It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of plums to this area. In early spring, the gently rolling hillsides are embroidered with bouquets of white blossom. By the middle of August, the purple fruit hang so heavy on the trees that the branches almost touch the neatly kept ground beneath. For the next few weeks small, crouching armies can be seen beneath the rows. It is backbreaking work for these plums are not picked, but must fall to the ground as each small tree is shaken. When we first came to Bel-Air Raymond harvested in the traditional way, shinning up a little iron ladder and shaking the branches as hard as he could. Now, like many farmers, he uses a machine. It grasps the slender trunk, unfurls a giant inverted umbrella, shakes the tree and collects the plums which tumble down. But before the machine can start, the ground must be cleared of any which have fallen during the night. And if it rains hard the machine cannot be used at all.

They are special, large plums, la prune d’Ente. With a very high sugar content and exceptionally good for drying, they were originally brought back from Damascus during the crusades. The first record of their cultivation in France was in 1148 by monks at the Abbey of Clairac. Les Pruneaux d’Agen, as they were soon called, although never actually grown there, became famous throughout France. Cultivated throughout Lot-et-Garonne it was from Agen that they were exported via the canal du Midi. Whether going simply to Bordeaux or on to England, the customers reading ‘Pruneaux d’Agen’ stamped on the wooden cases soon demanded more under this name.

In 1934 a Banquet de la Prune was held in Paris. The glory of this fruit, was celebrated in verses – twenty-seven of them – by a certain M. Gabriel Tallet from Lot-et-Garonne. He clearly feels it necessary to describe other varieties of plum at length, but finishes with:

‘Tous ces fruits sont bons, les nôtres sont mielleurs.’ All these fruit are good, but ours are better.

He then waxes extremely lyrical about his beloved region:

L’amour? Il est chez nous le maître. Il nous inspire. Il est dans le murmure et dans l’appel du vent. Dans l’arbre qui se penche et la fleur qu’on respire…

And love? For us, it is our master. It inspires us. In the murmur of the wind, the leaning tree, the perfume of our flowers.

There were many in Paris that night who were originally from the south-west. After all twenty-seven verses, I doubt there was a dry eye in the house.

M. Albert’s village of St Aubin is surrounded by plum orchards and in 1985 they decided to revive an ancient tradition. La Foire aux Pruneaux was reborn. It was a great success and each year becomes ever more splendid, attracting thousands of visitors. All the organisation is done by the local inhabitants. Cars must be left in selected fields on the outskirts and each entrance to the village is bright with welcoming banners of paper flowers stretching across the road. Once the small entrance fee is paid, hands are marked with a rubber stamp, and you may come and go as you please throughout the day. It is a scene of great jollity. The garlands of thousands of paper flowers which have been so painstakingly made are strung closely across the streets to make continuous tunnels of colour. There are about a hundred stalls which, as well as selling local specialities, display every conceivable use for les Pruneaux.

There are prunes in cakes, tarts and ice-cream. Prunes made into jam, prunes covered in chocolate, prunes stoned and stuffed with almond paste, prunes preserved in Armagnac or Eau de Vie, and, most spectacular of all, prunes used to replace apples in the local special pie called a tourtière.

This is made with layer upon layer of a local version of strudel pastry which is very carefully pulled out by hand until it covers the whole length of a farm table. After being left to dry until transparent, it is cut into rough circles. The first three cover the bottom of a round and buttered tin. The next are layered with sugar, fruit and alcohol. The last few scraps of pastry are twisted into curls and piled as high as possible like a fantastic wig. It is absolutely delicious when fresh but very difficult to make. It is a skill that is handed down. Both Grandma and Claudette are experts but I’ve tried and failed miserably. One of the highlights of the Foire au Pruneaux is a demonstration by a local expert and people jostle for position to watch every detail.

The stall holders dress in the traditional costume of long skirts, lace collars and caps or, for the men, narrow black ties and a beret. The local band from Monflanquin, in white trousers, scarlet shirts and black capes and berets parade past the stalls. They have a mixed repertoire but I think the young ones prefer ‘When the saints go marching in’.

At nine-thirty in the morning the stands are judged. There will be prizes both for the best display of prunes and the best costumes. At ten o’clock Mass is celebrated by the Bishop of Agen. He is greatly loved because he is a local man and speaks Occitan, the patois which the old people still use to one another. Sometimes he takes a special Mass completely in Occitan. His sermons are directed to those who work the land. He understands and encourages them and they hang on his every word. After the Mass he processes to the centre of the village where the garlands stretch in a giant spider’s web between the church and the Mairie. Surrounded by a huge crowd, he blesses first the tray of the most beautiful prunes and then the two small, costumed girls who carry it. Laying his hands on the children’s heads, he gives a blessing for all harvests and those who gather them. He talks of the duty to share all the fruits of the earth. A choir of old people sing lustily in Occitan, finishing with ‘Se canto che canté’, a very old song of parted lovers, the bishop joining in as loudly as anyone else.

The aperitif, a cocktail of ‘eau de vie de prune’ topped up with sparkling white wine, and with a prune in the bottom of the glass, sustains the good humour. There is no shortage of things to eat. Skewers of hot prunes wrapped in bacon taste especially good and help to sustain one through the somewhat lengthy inauguration speeches by everyone who is anyone in the local hierarchy. At 12.30 the midday meal is served. This year the menu was: Pâté en croûte, pintade flambée (guinea fowl), petits légumes de saison, salade, fromage, mousse de pruneaux. And all for 75 Francs with ‘vin compris’.

In the afternoon they have the judging of the best song about ‘les Pruneaux’ in French or in Occitan, or the best painting. One year there was a race to see who could fastest arrange a large basket of raw plums into a flat tray ready for the oven. The trays in which the plums are slowly dried into prunes are called claies. As the ovens have developed they have changed their shape. At first plums were simply left in the sun to dry. Then, perhaps after a few wet summers, they began to use the family oven. Next, as more plums were grown, came the circular ovens, especially built with very small bricks. For this oven, or étuve, the trays made in the winter from willow, were shaped like the petals of a flower. The whole circle had to be turned to ensure the even drying of the fruit. The oven on Raymond’s farm, still in occasional use, was the next development. Larger and taller, it enables more plums to be dried at a time. An iron trolley with a dozen or more shelves is loaded with the flat trays of plums. It is then pushed along a metal track into the oven which is heated by a wood fire in a pit outside, the heat being conveyed by thick metal pipes which line the walls. When we first bought Bel-Air we too had an étuve. The high narrow doors still have the slot where the thermometer rested. At that time it was home to a family of hedgehogs who shuffled in and out at night. It had not been used for plums for many years and had an old copper built into the end wall for cooking the pig. Having neither plums nor pig, we cleared it out and, eventually, put in a window and made it into a pleasant, small studio.

At the Foire aux Pruneaux the revelry continues until the evening with donkey rides for the children and various entertainments on a rough stage. There is usually a visiting folk dance group leaping about with enthusiasm, often with traditional instruments. The dancers often have a great age-range, grandparents passing down the skills to quite small children.

There is a travelling still, called an alambic, with which a large and bucolic gentleman demonstrates exactly how the lethal Eau de Vie de Prune is officially distilled. You may buy a litre for 100 francs.

At seven o’clock in the evening, just in case anyone is still hungry, long tables are laid in an open-ended barn. For fifty francs you can enjoy a great helping of a daube of beef with – naturally – prunes, followed by cheese and a pâtisserie and as much wine as you can drink. There is dancing as long as there is anyone left to dance but, at the crack of dawn, the more energetic young men and women are already busy taking down the decorations. The Foire aux Pruneaux is over for another year.

In February, while the villagers of St Aubin were busy making garlands, Philippe, the Bertrand’s son, was with us in London, struggling with a course in commercial English. It was paid for by the sugar company for which he works. He would come home exhausted every night, still with hours of homework to complete. His English has always been quite good although he has few opportunities to practise it, but this was a new language both to him and to us, full of business jargon, and I’m afraid we weren’t much help to him. It was interesting to contrast this serious young man, missing his wife and baby son, with the carefree young teenager who had first come to stay with us so many years before. I think that by the end of the fortnight he couldn’t wait to get back to France and by the middle of April, neither could we.

London was cold and grey but Bel-Air was like another world. The sunlight was brilliant and everything was leafing so fast you could almost see it happening. The meadow was lush with buttercups and yellow trefoil, honesty flowered around the well. Leaves on the ash and the fig trees were uncurling, the reprieved roses were all in bud and the wisteria already had a tinge of lavender. Anaïs’s white irises under the window were especially beautiful this spring and unobscured by burgeoning thistles – the last minute weedkiller on the terrace had worked a treat. Only the miner bees were scurrying about, forever tidying up their neat cylindrical holes. Five bits of mallow that I had just pushed into the soft ground the day before leaving in September had all rooted. The syringa was in bud. The flowers on the viburnum opulus, in their disguise of pale green to match the leaves, were waiting to gradually change to the spectacular white which gives them their common name boule de neige.

There was such a charge of energy in the air, and a house and garden which are completely neglected for seven months can really make use of it. We had a call from Jack and Bess, our friends from Scotland. They were thinking of coming. Would it be all right? This was to be very much a working holiday but as they were the sort of people who change houses every few years in order to start renovations all over again, we had no qualms about their arrival.

One of the tasks we had decided to tackle this holiday was the outside woodwork. We had at one time considered painting our shutters the very pale grey which is traditional in the villages. But having done one, it looked wrong. Most of the old shutters one sees have not been repainted for many years, and it is this very bleached powdery look which is so attractive. The new paint was much less so.

Now we had three pairs of shutters on the new room which M. Parges had treated with a very sympathetic product which, as well as preserving the wood, gave it a rich, slightly oily look. We decided to sand off what remained of our old woodstain and re-do all the remaining shutters. While we were at the Bricomart, the local DIY store, we saw some very attractive, large, off-white floor tiles. They were on promotion at 68 francs a square metre. We knew they would be perfect for the new room in the chai, making it much lighter. We rushed home to measure up and were extremely lucky as twenty-one square metres was all they had left. We had done all the previous tiling of the bedroom floors ourselves but we felt we were past tackling this one. Once you have tiled three floors there’s not much of a challenge left – or so we told ourselves. In any case we were too busy in the garden, building a rockery, devising a way of moving heavy stones as though bulldozers had never been invented, and dividing clumps of perennials.

The cows had come up for the summer but were still in the lower field so we were able to shovel barrow-loads of last year’s dried manure from the hard stand on the other side of the barn. We spread as much as we could. We have found that leaving it in a pile is hopeless. It is impossible to find in the summer under its waist-high cover of flourishing weeds.

The seeds which I had collected from the previous year’s morning glories and planted on our arrival had already germinated. Before we left we sowed nasturtiums, and cosmos, yet more morning glories and cobea scandens – a plant I have never succeeded in growing – and we just hoped it would rain before too long.

Raymond, a piece of the first lilac of spring tied to his tractor, came up to inspect the wheat which patterned le grand champ with stripes of brilliant green.

‘You’ll miss the sunflowers this year,’ he said.

It was true. Unfortunately they can only be planted every three years as they take so much out of the soil. By the time we arrived in the summer the wheat would be harvested and the straw made into those great round bales which make such wonderful shapes as the sunlight sinks lower across the wide field.

Before we left we called M. Duparcq. He came up in his old van, pronounced the tiles chouette – great – and promised to have the floor finished before we came back in July, and also to tidy and point the outside wall where the door and the window had been cut. I went down to the farm to give Biggles’s cage a last-minute clean. We hadn’t moved him up to his summer quarters as the nights were chilly. Véronique was in the kitchen having a lesson in making a tourtière. Claudette was giving her usual brisk advice. Grandma said very little but I could see she was both pleased and proud that the ancient skill was not to be lost. I watched Véronique. She had a dignity about her and was clearly happy. Jean-Michel, who seemed to have had a variety of jobs before he was married, was now helping Raymond and attending agricultural college one day a week. No one said anything but clearly the new son-in-law was going to be the answer to a great many problems. How very clever of Véronique to have chosen him.

It is always hard to leave when the weather in spring is as wonderful as it was that year. We went for a last drive and came home by yet another small and winding road that was new to us. As we turned a corner we stopped in amazement. All along the edge of a wood, on the bank, in the ditch and on into the wood itself were row upon row of a tall elegant plant that I had never seen before. The flowers, on long slender stems, were white above shiny pointed leaves. They looked like bleached red-hot pokers. There were hundreds as far as the eye could see and yet, at the edge of the wood they stopped, and in the next copse there were none. I ran back to pick a few and took them to Claudette. She had no idea what they were and I had to wait till I got back to London to find that I had seen a wood full of rare asphodels.

Early summer in London was unexpectedly hot. All my thin, cool dresses were, of course, in France. I spent a great deal of time in the Theatre Museum in Covent Garden doing research for a play I was writing. Although the staff are unfailingly helpful it was no weather to be working indoors, let alone underground.

We finally packed up and left for France and on the way down made a detour once more into George Sand country. This time, not to the Château of Nohant, but some thirty miles east to the village of Gargilesse. George Sand, at the age of forty-six, fell deeply in love with a young friend of her son, Maurice. Alexandre Manceau was an engraver who exhibited regularly in Paris. Maurice had first met him at the studio of Delacroix and invited him to spend time at Nohant. Intending to stay for several weeks in fact he remained there for fifteen years. He had the same fervour for work as she but always put her first. He was neat, graceful and above all, totally devoted to her.

As her literary and political fame grew so did the crowds of admirers to Nohant. Even when in Paris, she was constantly besieged by devotees. Elizabeth and Robert Browning were among those who asked to meet her. Eventually Manceau saw the need for a bolt-hole for them both.

In June 1857 they went on a trip to the valley of the river Creuse. The countryside was remote and wild, like a miniature Switzerland. They came to the village of Gargilesse and found there not only a microclimate with rare butterflies, but a simple, hard-working community and, best of all, a small cottage for sale, tucked away down a winding lane. Manceau bought it for her – a rare treat for George Sand who worked all her life to provide for a great many dependents – and he decorated and equipped it. There she wrote in perfect peace, completing thirteen novels, as well as many essays and several plays.

‘The weather is wonderful, hot and bright,’ she wrote. ‘Manceau has gone catching butterflies. I’ve stayed here to finish my novel. 620 pages in 24 days! I have never worked with such pleasure as at Gargilesse.’

Sadly their happiness together was not to last. Although much younger than her, he died of consumption. Only too familiar with the symptoms of this scourge of the nineteenth century from which Chopin had also eventually died, she nursed Manceau devotedly until the end.

Gargilesse is still remote, even today. That morning it had been raining since breakfast but as we got nearer the sun appeared. The village is very sheltered and ferns and stonecrop grow out of the old garden walls. We asked the way at the shop.

‘Just up the street, you can’t miss it…’

A young student sat reading a book as we entered and, apart from her, we had the place to ourselves. It is very small and left very much as it used to be. I gently touched George Sand’s little button boots which lay on the simple bed, and thought about the girl who wore her first boots with such relief and delight so long ago, as she bounded along the Paris pavements.

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