Every face tells a story

Have you ever walked down an empty street and felt that you were being watched?  Even though there were no curtains twitching nor anyone at the windows?  Disconcerting, until you discover a face, somewhere high up on a building – a face that may have been gazing out for decades or centuries!  Take a walk around the small towns in Southern France, and you’ll be able to find those faces – sometimes well hidden, sometimes very obvious!

Below is a face above a door in Pezenas.

Faces and facades share the same etymological origin.  The facade being the ‘face’ of a building, it projects political, symbolic and social values, revealing all kinds of information about its owner.  A lot of the ornate facades in this post date from the 19th century, when you could flaunt it if you had it and more was definitely better!!

The pictures below are of a building in Castelnaudary – a former department store dating from the 1870s.  There are many faces on that facade!

The face below is high up on a wall in a narrow street in Beziers – it’s almost ghost like!

Atlantes always look somewhat weary and/or bored – I guess I would too, if I had to carry all that weight! 🙂

There are also plenty of animals to be found on facades.  Here is a pair of fearsome hounds guarding a gate:

A ram:

A lion:

More lions:

Here’s a pair of Caryatids, looking vaguely bored…

Someone’s looking out of a window of this tower in Narbonne.  I wonder what the story behind that window is!

Hermes or Mercury?

More caryatids – these adorn a renaissance mansion in Narbonne.

Two faces carved by the Beziers sculptor Injalbert

Green men also seem to figure in some places:

This finely sculpted face was actually on a door knocker and measured only about 3cm across!

I leave you with this beautiful art nouveau sculpture from a building in Beziers.  Raise your eyes next time you go for a walk – you’ll never know what you may find!!

Sounds of summer

I was recently invited to join friends for a picnic out in the countryside.  We were sitting in an idyllic corner of the countryside just outside Saint-Chinian, in the shade of some umbrella pines, and overlooking vineyards and the rocky ridge, which dominates the Saint-Chinian valley.  It was a gorgeous spot, and a wonderful evening, and we were surrounded by the sound of cicadas.  If you have visited the South of France during the summer you will know what I mean – it’s a typical summer sound here!  I recently managed to shoot a video of a cicada in my garden – have a look and make sure that your speakers are turned on!  E-mail subscribers, please visit the WordPress blog site to watch the video.

Cicadas are not the most beautiful of insects, but they are somewhat of an emblem for Southern France.  You can find ceramic versions of the animal, in all kinds of bright colours, in almost all the markets.  Some versions include a small electronic device which plays a cicada sound each time someone walks by! 🙂

Wikipedia has a fascinating article about cicadas here.  The life cycle of the insect is very long, up to 17 years for some species.  Most of that life cycle is spent underground, where the nymphs feed on the sap of tree roots.  The nymphs emerge in early summer, climb up a plant or a tree where they moult for the final time, and turn into the winged insect you see below.





As for the “song of the cicadas” – that sound is only produced by the males, in an effort to attract females for mating.  The Wikipedia article explains the mechanics of the sound production very well.  After mating, the females lay their eggs into tree branches, and at the end of the summer the cicadas die, leaving the eggs to hatch in the autumn. The newly hatched larvae drop to the ground, where they start burrowing and start the life cycle all over again.

Fascinating, don’t you think?  If you haven’t heard the cicada’s song for yourself, think about a holiday in Languedoc.  The cicadas usually sing from early July onwards, always depending on temperatures.

Black diamonds – truffle markets in southern France

On a blustery and cold Saturday I braved the elements for a trip to Talairan in the Corbieres hills for a truffle market.  The weather got worse the closer I got,  and my heart sunk when it started to pour – would anyone be there, would there be a marche du terroir or would it be a total wash-out?  After another 10 minutes drive the sky looked a bit brighter, and the rain slowed to a fine drizzle.


I’d not been to Talairan before, but it was easy to find where the truffle market was taking place.  The old schoolyard proved to be a perfect place, as there was a big shelter by the side of the school building, where the long table for the trufficulteurs had been set up.  A few stalls selling local products (honey, wine, saffron, lavender essences, charcuterie, etc) were dotted about the yard, and those hardy souls were doing brave battle with the elements.


If you have the space and inclination you can buy truffle trees, which might produce some tubers after about eight years!  But I’d come for the truffles and so I bypassed the rest and went to where a few people were huddled around a small table.  And that’s where I got my first whiff and knew we were cooking with gas!   A bare wooden trestle table, an electronic scale, a plastic box, and a man with a knife.  It turns out that the man with the knife is the commissaire, the official in charge of quality control.  The producers bring along their stash, and he carefully examines every truffle.  Cuts off a slice here and there to see if it’s ripe and ready, and gives it a sniff, before placing those truffles which pass the quality test onto the scales.  The white marbling is a sign of ripeness and the smell is a good indication too.  He’ll cut off bits which are overripe or not ripe enough, they’ll end up in the box, and perhaps in the trash?  His adjudication is fair and final, he’s a kind of god of the truffles, sitting in judgement and assuring that the public which come to buy do not get any counterfeit or sub-standard tubers.  For at a mere 1000 EUR a kilo a little bit of unscrupulous dealing could earn a fair bit of extra money!


Once the truffles are graded and weighed, they go into hessian bags, and the bags are then closed with a lead seal and handed to the producer, who takes up position behind the long table.  The grading goes on until about 10.40am.  The sale is due to start at 11am and a rope is now strung about 1m from the table to keep the eager buyers at bay.




Meantime at the other end of the shelter an older gent is standing behind another table, preparing what promises to be a treat.  On a gas burner, the kind usually used for paella, he has a bain marie simmering away.  To the side he’s just about breaking eggs into a bowl.  A little salt and pepper, and then the treat – a generous grating of fresh black truffle!!  All beaten up, and poured into the saucepan which stands in the bain marie, along with a nice lump of beurre demi sel, which has been left to infuse in a hermetically sealed box with a truffle for two days.  The whole is now stirred until the eggs are a creamy scrambled consistency.  And then a little spoonful of scrambled egg is put onto slices of fresh bread and everyone is allowed to have a taste – heavenly!!  I can tell you that the pieces of bread disappeared as soon as they were put down!


Meantime, we’re getting close to the start of the sale. The commissaire and his helper now go along the table, opening the bags and putting the truffles out in front of the growers in full view of the waiting crowd.


The mayor of Talairan arrives and declares the market officially open with four blows of the bugle, the rope is dropped and there’s a big surge to the table followed by a great deal of excitement, money changing hands and happy smiling faces on both sides of the table.


I came away with the small truffle in the bag, which weighed 21 g and cost 20 Euros – it’s been put into jar of rice in readiness for a truffle risotto.  On the way home the whole car smelled of truffle, and every so often I open the jar and give it sniff.  I’m sorry that this is not a scratch-and-sniff post, I wish you could experience that amazing smell!  So hard to describe, but once you’ve smelled/tasted real black truffle you know what I mean.