The Secrets of France

by | Aug 14, 2012 | France, Travel | 3 comments

This story isn’t about food – at least not directly. It’s about experiencing a country and culture, and the origins of its food at an eye level view with nature as my classroom. Europeans love to hike. It goes right along with their lifestyle of walking or riding a  bike to the store. When I was asked to join a hiking group of 15 the day after I landed in Bordeaux last year, I jumped at the opportunity. Never mind that I was jet-lagged. Unknowingly, my education about this extraordinary country was about to begin. And so were the many “secrets” I was soon to discover in a few short hours.

A knock at my door, circa 7am tells me it’s adventure time. Jacques and I leave Villeneuve, pick up one of the hikers, Anne, and drive about an hour and a half to the region of Périgord to a village near Belvès, where we will meet the rest of the group. This particular group has about 30 members and is divided into three categories: “A” for the advanced hikers who do 15 miles; the “B” group we would hike with and travel 10 miles, and “C”, the beginners doing 5 miles. The leader of our group, also named Jacques, looks down at my shoes, shakes his head and questions me repeatedly about whether I was capable of keeping up. No, I did not bring heavy hiking boots along on my vacation but I did have a pair of light-weight Teva-type shoes which were quite comfortable. And yes, I am in good enough shape to complete the hike. I giggle under my breath as I am the youngest member of the group.

Our fearless leader, Jacques, is the man looking back at me.

Our group of hikers numbers about 15. There are slightly more women than men. The women are all small, well-groomed, in good shape, sporting hiking boots, walking sticks, breathable shirts and REI-type pants. Jacques tells me most of the group is in their 70’s and early 80’s. I am amazed. Everyone looks very healthy and young! Our leader, Jacques, is 78 and does not look a day over 62! The hike starts at a brisk pace, on an ancient dirt road, once used by farmers with horse and carts to travel to town or from farm to farm. Around a corner are wild cherry trees filled with small cherry-red fruit, so sweet and tender. Everyone stops for a few quick bites and a drink of water.

Prolific and wild!

A rest for the weary or for those in need of a quick nap!

I don’t think about the miles as we walk past fields of brown cows happily munching on grass, white sheep scattered along the hillsides, orchards of walnuts, then fields of corn and wheat.

Cows enjoying their grass lunch.

Groves of walnut trees prevail all over southwest France. Walnuts are one of the region’s specialties creating walnut oil as well as delicious fine pastries.

Watch out for giant squirrels!

In the distance, grand castles appear between the dips in the landscape. The countryside reminds me of Wales with its rolling hills, marked farmlands and ancient walls of stone.

I spy a chateaux!

I spy a château!

My friend Jacques points out the roofs on some of these old houses made of stone. A grand task back in the day. Thank goodness Jacques, the historian, speaks English so he can describe these ancient fixtures.

Can you imagine being a roofer in the 13th century?

We come upon a stone hut called a borie, where herders could find shelter centuries ago. This is a place you would never see from a road, but only on a hike like ours.

A borie, tucked away off the beaten path for protection.

We also pass a “lavoir,” a small type of pool used to wash clothes, carved from a block of stone. This is most likely Roman from the 1200’s – 1400’s.

Ah, washing clothes in the clean, open air!

This area of the Périgord, and most of southern France, was first occupied by Romans. As I keep pace, I envision walking in their footsteps. Some of the roads are very steep and every twist and turns leads upward. Voices quiet as everyone breathes a little harder. We ascend higher and higher and then around a corner, voilà! Quel view! We are looking across the hillside, but from a level that brings us more eye to eye with a grand home. A castle appears behind a forest of trees. We traverse the tiny cobblestones of this tres vieux château, noting the yellow stone which identifies this area as the Périgord.

Périgord yellow.

An open doorway created with layers of Périgord stone work.

Geranium flowers fill the hanging baskets on the balconies as well as the old worn blocks of stone along the street. This symphony of colors announces it is springtime. The ladies in the group patiently speak French slowly and share the names of the flowers with me. I learn the French and they, the English.

Creative flower pots filled with the season’s color enliven the streets.

I love this visual contrast.

The quiet little villages we hike through are filled with antiquated charm from the unique signage to rustic and time worn doors.

Crepes anyone?

What secrets are within these walls?

A sorbet for every taste. Rose, armagnac, salted caramel? I would like to taste a spoonful of each!

What is this door’s story? The weather-beaten doorways always fascinate me.

Halfway through our hike, we stop for lunch at a picnic area nestled among large trees. Everyone pulls hard-cooked eggs, cheese, sausage and fruit from their rucksack (backpack). Since I have only just arrived, my feeble lunch consists of a few pieces of French bread with a spread of goat cheese and some sliced Niçoise olives, an apple and some California walnuts and almonds. The polished woman sitting across from me has brought a sheet of packing bubbles to sit on – it has drizzled a bit – and a colorful dishcloth to place her food upon. She pulls from her sack, an egg, salami, yogurt, cheese and a smart Swiss Army-type knife. Carefully, she peels her salami, laying her lunch in an organized fashion on the towel. As she peels her hard-cooked egg, the shell adhering vigorously to the white, I think, how proper she is but she did not read Julia Child’s book on how to hard cook an egg! Onward with the hike.

We come across a fortress-type structure I am told is a Museum of War. Note the catapults on either side of the castle.

No time to explore but this is a place I would like revisit.

We pass a lovely castle belonging to “Joséphine.” Everyone knows of her except moi. I ask if this is one of Napoleon’s homes, thinking of “Napoleon and Joséphine.” They all laugh wildly. OK, so now I am humbled. Finally it is explained to me that this was the residence of Joséphine Baker, the famous jazz singer. In retrospect, watching “Midnight in Paris” and seeing Josephine singing and leading a Conga line, I now realize who this famous woman was.

Jazz singer Joséphine Baker’s home, Le Château des Milandes.

Jacques tells me this is “cèpe” country and in the fall, the woods are lush with the mushrooms. Sounds like a good time to return!

Between the giant walnuts and now the giant mushrooms, I realize the French really do have a sense of humor.

The ladies are very in tuned to the edibles along the way and point out some tiny fraises des bois (small wild strawberries) tucked into the ferns and hiding along the side of the road. I squeal with excitement and place one on my tongue. As it gently releases its juice, I am taken back to 1979 in Paris, the last time I encountered these illusive treats. We predict they will be fully ripe and ready to harvest in about two weeks. Such an adventure I am having!

The most delicate fruit sheltered by its wooded home.

The most beautiful surprises revealed along the way…

The hike ends after about five and a half hours and I have hit the wall. Before we left, I was invited to the next hike. I passed the test!

By the way, the photo at the top of this story is of a Pigeonette, a pigeon house. These dot the countryside and house pigeons to take to market. In ancient times, when not used for food, pigeons were kept in their châteaux, where the pigeon “poo” was recycled and used as fertilizer! Lucky pigeons. A gorgeous place to live, isn’t it?

The sun sets on my day in the Périgord.  I return home to Villeneuve to rest up for my next adventure and exploration of the southern countryside.

About Mary Knight

I have always been passionate about food and its origin, all things France and Julia Child. Travel tugs at my heart, luring me to new places where I can feast my eyes and senses, taste local …

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