Vive la difference!

Image not found.To live in the Lot is to be immediately overwhelmed by the sense of space, both public and private. Space to live and breathe and bring up a family; space to listen to music without upsetting the neighbours; space to see the weather before it arrives. Space to feel in a partnership with a nature not yet dominated by man and covered in concrete.

Maybe this also explains why foreigners are drawn to spending vast sums of money on those draughty old stone houses of your grandparents, rather than opting for an efficient squared-up easy-to-heat house of straight lines and briques creuses. It’s precisely because the maison de pays seems so different from what they are used to, growing naturally as it does out of the landscape here with its subtle stone colours and gentle curves echoing the intimate valleys and gentle slopes of the land around. Not only is there space in Quercy Blanc, it is beautiful space too, with more than enough for everyone.

To the lotois who has spent his life in such surroundings all this may be taken for granted, as I used to take Oxford for granted, or as Parisians take La Tour Eiffel for granted. With so much land around, why would anyone need to fence their property or mark out their territory unless it be to contain their beasts. To the foreigner this landscape of Quercy Blanc is extremely special and rare.

Image not found.But of course scenery is not everything. The other attractions of the region are well-known but let’s try to look at them nonetheless through the eyes of an outsider.

Let’s start with the climate. Unsurprisingly the climate in the Quercy Blanc represents a considerable improvement in most respects over the grey skies of the north – including England! Here the variety marks well the passing of the seasons from the cold wet springs, through long hot summers, even longer lazy sunny autumns and sudden short cold winters around the log fire. The English are remarkably unintelligent when it comes to climate, believing that as they go south it will get warmer. This of course is not true!

The gentle Gulf Stream which washes their western shores is not to be seen here, nor on the Atlantic coast near Bordeaux. Despite the southerly latitude the winters here are in fact not very different from those we’re used to. Indeed as previously only summer visitors we still remember the shock when we experienced those days of minus 17 degrees during our first winter here a few years ago, having never felt anything so cold before! Exceptional perhaps, but a big surprise to us none the less. Of course the main difference in winter is the sun. When it shines here you can feel its warming rays drawing up the frost from the fields. In the UK you would never eat out at midday in winter, sun or not!

Image not found.And yet, for the amateur gardener, just like the professional agriculteur, this climate with its extremes needs a lot of patience. Hundreds of plants that can cope with our cold winters, and which one might happily find in a northern garden simply cannot withstand our hot dry summers. Plants like citrus, mimosa, plumbago and bougainvillea – happy enough here in the summer cannot survive our winters and need tractors with forks to put their pots in a frost-free winter barn from which they emerge in springtime looking distinctly unhappy.

The gardener’s palette of species that can tolerate our climate is in fact quite restricted. Add to this our sleepless hot summer nights and the 29 average days of storms or hail compared with an average of 9 days in the UK and maybe the climate in Quercy Blanc, though benign, is not so perfect, après tout! Indeed is there any such thing as a perfect climate anywhere in the world?

And now a word about the gastronomy of Quercy Blanc and le Sud Ouest in general including our wine. Well, of course it’s all truly wonderful. Everyone knows that. From the éléveur, to the traiteur, to the tourist experiencing it for the first time. One hundred things to do to a duck. Wonderful! But there is one thing that for us is even more important: the freshness and seasonality of the produce, particularly in the markets.

Image not found.As every schoolchild knows, traditional country cooking in the UK has never been very interesting. But being an adventurous people, the English have adopted hundreds of cuisines from all over the world, most notably the Indian curry and dishes from the Middle and Far East. And they expect to be able to shop for any ingredient in their supermarkets, no matter how exotic, at any time of the year. But like the Americans, they make the fundamental mistake of putting the beauty of their food before its taste. Food produced under artificial and un-seasonal greenhouse conditions in Holland or Spain or California may look good, but it will never taste as it should.

I remember being stopped on one of our first trips here to a marché simply by the smell of fresh strawberries and saying to my wife that they tasted as strawberries used to when I was a small boy. In California you can buy a breakfast plate of fruit including four different types of melon – a feast for the eyes indeed – but which tastes of………… absolutely nothing! So everything in its season. Which means I have thrown away most of the cookbooks I brought from the UK as they often demand a variety of ingredients that are simply not available here – either at all – or in the same season. And the bonus is food that tastes as it should. A refreshing summer gazpacho ( yes, I know it’s Spanish) made with fresh organic (biologique) tomatoes from the Lot is a good example.

The lotois can be justifiably proud both of their cuisine and of their produce and I continue to marvel at the dedication of those who tirelessly work on the land in all weathers and who also contribute so much to the beauty of this landscape. Is there a downside? Perhaps. The pride in local dishes can sometimes smother individuality and experiment both in the fields of our region as well as in our kitchens and restaurants. What may be a very satisfying variety of dishes to the visiting tourist here for two weeks in the summer, can seem more restrictive to the year round permanent resident. I well remember when asking for piments in a Cahors supermarket being curtly informed by the chef de rayon that ça ne fait pas parti de la cuisine ici, monsieur. Maybe not, but this is the twenty-first century after all!

Image not found.There are of course many little things that add to the quality of life here that you wouldn’t appreciate until you don’t have them. In no particular order, here are just a few: being able to make an appointment to see your generalist doctor within a day or two instead of having to wait three weeks until you’re either feeling much better……… or dead; being able to telephone your bank agence without having to press phone buttons and listen to Vivaldi for half an hour, after which time you are normally asked to call ultérieurement. In the UK I changed banks and insurance companies many times trying to avoid this practice when all I wanted to do was to talk to someone but in the end I gave up. Unfortunately in the time since we arrived here the same syndrome is also beginning to spread across our region like a virus.

It may occasionally be irritating trying to guess what the opening hours of a shop are. Is this a 12.00-14.00 lunch time or a 12.30-13.30 or 12.15-15.00? I even managed to arrive panting to an enterprise in Cahors recently at 11.50 to discover that it closed for lunch at 11.45! For English tourists used to a one hour lunch between 13.00 and 14.00 particularly those with young children to get ready and a slow and lazy start to the holiday day, arriving in town around 11.30 with just 30 minutes or so before everything closes can be a frustrating experience!

Those of us who live here quickly adapt of course. Different opening and closing hours are in any case a very small price to pay for the quality of shopping. Here in the Lot – and in much of France – shopping is a richly rewarding experience with privately owned shops choosing their own stock so that as the customer travels from rue to boulevard and from ville to ville, he or she really does have a surprise a chaque pas.

Image not found.Of course despite this praise all of us foreigners have the potential to be hypocrites. We may adore the lifestyle in the Lot but we can still become irritated when no mobile phone signal is available, when a fast internet signal seems light-years away, and in our case when the electricity supply is so antiquated that in our lieudit we don’t have the right to cook with our oven at the same time as our neighbours!

De-stressing is also difficult when – with three shops still to visit – one is standing in the boulangerie at 11.50am with six other people in the queue listening to madame describing in detail le mariage de sa fille le weekend dernier. To the foreigner there is also an incredible lack of personnel in most enterprises. Only here would the receptionist to the public also be the telephone operator so that anyone waiting to be served is obliged to wait while any telephone caller is accepted. And why does the gentle lotois accept a situation where there are many checkouts but only one hôtesse de caisse and a queue halfway round the store?

In my bank there is a notice saying that one counter position is unoccupied momentanément, yet no one has ever been seen at that desk in living memory! And why does every third customer at a supermarket caisse seem to have an article with no price or which requires attention from another member of staff who has to be summoned from the other side of the store. So you see, we are hypocrites and much as we’d like to, we find it hard to abandon our old stress-filled ways entirely! I’m often asked about what I perceive to be the difference between our two nations. Controversial stuff this! My only response (even when I see my huge pink countrymen summer shopping in Cahors) is that we are far more similar than we are different.

But at heart all French people are still Jacobins still preferring to say ‘non’ politically unless they can see a good reason for saying oui. It is this which explains the motorways and ports blocked by lorries at the slightest provocation even by an elected government. Perhaps this attitude can best be summed up by watching the French when confronted by a Route Barrée sign or a temporary traffic light controlling road works. An Englishman will wait patiently for the light to change or find another route. A Frenchman will pass the Road Closed sign to find out why or whether it is really closed. Good for you! Vive la Difference!

©Ben Lenthall

Ben is resident in the Lot and runs a business called Quercy Récupe – the premier source for reclaimed building materials and imported stone in SW France. Find out more by visiting the Quercy Récupe website.

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