07 Jul Les Grands Causses: France’s wild side
The last time I’d felt so at one with nature was visiting the Saharan desert in Niger. This time I was in the Grands Causses, the southernmost part of France’s Massif Central.
For 5 days this June we walked across wildflower-carpeted limestone plateaux, down and up rocky ravines, & along narrow, windy roads under the light of the moon. And we saw NO ONE!
No, that’s not me in the main photo, that’s a friend.
The Grands Causses are made up of 4 main Causses. They form a UNESCO-protected national park, together with the Cevennes mountain range, famous for its sweet chestnuts and for being Protestant, to the east.
The Cevennes is also home to one of the highest peaks in the Massif Central, Mount Aigoual, at nearly 1,600 metres.
We stopped at Mount Aigoual on our 3-hour car journey from Uzes to the Causse Noir, or the black ‘Causse’. The nearest big town to the Causse Noir is not Uzes but Montpellier, 90 minutes to the southeast.
In the Causse Noir, we stayed in an old stone cottage overlooking a wheat field edged with poppies and cornflowers… not all fields used pesticides; in many of the fields, the wildflowers weaved their way through cultivated varieties to form a natural tapestry.
Early June is the best time to visit the Grands Causses. It’s wildflower season; the strong summer sun is yet to arrive & the cold damp winters have passed
No cars, no people, just nature. The sounds of bees, birds & sheep bells, as well as the wind and the rain, which fell more than normal this June.
Wildflowers in the Causses
People travel from around the world to see Japan’s cherry blossom, or sakura. For me, a trip from London to capture the wildflowers of the Grand Causses was well worth the travel; the flowers were on display in a spectacle to surpass a Monet painting, and just for us.
We picked mushrooms, yes, mushrooms in June given the uncharacteristic amount of rainfall, as well as thyme for drying, dandelion leaves for salads, and the tips of wild hops for omelettes.
Sheeps’ milk for Roquefort
In all that time, we met one person – a lone farmer harvesting a field of pink-flowered legumes. After a brief chat over the fence, he bounded back to his tractor, eager to harvest the crop before the flowers had faded & the next rains began. The crop would be used to feed to the sheep, whose milk produces the world-famous Roquefort cheese in caves about an hour west of where we were staying.
Low prices for sheeps’ milk have meant that many sheep farmers have branched out to make their own cheeses. This is especially so in the neighbouring Causse de Larzac – the ‘militant’ Causse, as described to me by a farmer in the market town of Millau.
Symbolically, Larzac is home to José Bové, farmer, activist & co-leader of the European Greens; he shot to global fame in 2009 after dismantling a McDonald’s under construction in Millau… and yes, there is a McDonald’s now in Millau.
A harsh farming life
Life here can be as harsh and variable as the winds that blow across the plateaux; 600 farmers committed suicide in France last year, & my heart was torn asunder when the day after I arrived back home, I received the news that there was one more in the nearby village to where we were staying. Everyone knows everyone in these parts.
A trip to Millau market is a great way to spend a Wednesday or Friday morning. The town, on the banks of the river Tarn, was under English control in the 14th century, during the Hundred Years War.
This is a real French market… little glitz here, just real, ‘slow’ food brought down from the surrounding plateaux and neighbouring valleys.
After buying our supplies, we stopped for coffee at Les Colonnades, so-called as it’s ensconced in the colonnaded arcade of the mediaeval square.
The coffee turned into wine as soon as the clock struck 11.
The sun came out, just. Les Colonnades was my kind of place – a hive of activity, with the locals perched at the bar watching pétanque on TV and the tables stretching out towards the market.
Food shopping in Millau
My favourite purchases:
- A poulet fermier – a farm chicken & the best I’ve ever eaten. Bought from a young farmer with a local accent too strong form me to understand. Not much breast – all in the thighs. Firm, flavoursome meat. No deluge of water seeping out when cooked. Food does not have to be organic to be good. Although this chicken was probably organic all but in the label.
- Dried saucisse – the best address is Charcuterie du Viala, in the covered market. Shrink wrapped it lasts for 6 weeks or so. Nothing artificial.
- Broad beans to go with red wine as an aperitif. We dipped the raw beans in herby Guérande salt accompanied by bread & butter. Simple but delicious!
- ‘Violet’ garlic from the Tarn valley – more bite to it than what I buy back in London.
- Pain d’épices – the spiced cake so popular with French people, especially at Christmas. We bought this one at the Marché des Paysans, a farmers’ store, with parking, on the town outskirts. The cake was made by the Miellerie des Grands Causse; only honey, no sugar.
- Also from the Marché, a rillettes de canard from Ferme de la Bastide, at Trèves, near where we were staying. Rillettes is like paté, but less smooth, made up of shredded meat.
Now a few decades ago the Millau region was renowned for its bad wine. This journey to Les Grands Causses was not about wine, but I came across one I liked – a Côtes de Millau, the Cuvée Isaie from the Domaine du Vieux Noyer.
The vineyards are on the slopes of the Causses, above the river Tarn, around the ruined mediaeval Château de Peyrelade at the entrance to the region’s most popular tourist site – the ravine of the Gorges du Tarn. A mix of Gamay, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon, Cuvée Isaie is matured on oak, just enough to give it a round taste.
It’s 12pm now, as I am writing. Just time for a glass!