Roofs, ants and cicadas

As Jean de la Fontaine (and before him, Aesop) so rightly observed, some of us are cicadas, chirping away merrily without a care in the world; others are ants, ceaselessly scuttling and toiling for the good of all. When it comes to Europe, the division is clear: the ants, virtuous and dour, are in the north, where they endlessly churn out Mercedes, while the feckless cicadas laze about on the beach down south, piling up debts and paying no taxes. It’s very easy to know which part you’re in because in the north it’s always raining and in the south it’s always sunny. France, which straddles the divide, applies this rule quite consistently, having fixed the Loire as the demarcation line. Few people north of the Loire watch the weather forecast, as they know there’ll be a big black cloud above the spot where they live. In the south, people only watch it in order to gloat.

However, due to the occasional aberration, it has been known to rain in the south. This has to be lived with, unjustifiable as it is. Over and above the trauma, it can cause disorientation, since you’re no longer sure where you are – Antland or Cicadaland? Fortunately, there’s a rough method of knowing, whatever colour the sky is – the roofs.

You might well find a few ants who,  hoping to brighten their existence, adopt a red roof, but the reverse is unlikely. On the whole, it’s slate in the north, tiles in the south. The roofs in Provence, you might think, need no looking after because cicadas, concerned only with singing all summer long, can’t fix a roof to save their life. Well, that may be true enough when the tiles are recent, but after a few decades, they start to crumble and crack. On the left is the roof on our garden shed, built (not by me, don’t worry) in 2012. On the right, the roof over our study, formerly a garage, built circa 1920.

‘Have you noticed,’ said Mrs. B. one day last summer, ‘those patches of damp on our ceiling?’

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I think they might be due to the garden on our roof.’

‘We’ve got a garden on our roof?’ Mrs. B., who keeps up to date with gardening trends, was impressed that we had a living roof. All the same, fearing for the plaster on our ceiling, we decided it ought to be removed. As luck would have it, our friend Bruce was visiting at the time, so after waiting for the roof to be in the shade, we climbed up and scraped the garden away. Then we replaced the tiles that were already broken, plus all the ones we broke ourselves when replacing the ones that were broken.


If you’re doing this, it’s wise to wear gloves, as I found out to my cost when a splintered tile dug itself into my finger. With great fortitude I stitched myself up, just like Matt Damon in The Martian, then donned a couple of Mrs. B’s gloves, which not only protected me but won me the Most Fashionable Roofer Award.


The tiles were the curved type, known as canal, which are very easy to place because they just slide under one another like playing cards. The technique was used in ancient China around 2000 BC, and the Romans adopted it throughout the Mediterranean, so Bruce and I were pleased to be carrying on the tradition. According to Mrs. B., in olden times the tiles were made on people’s thighs. This seemed plausible, since they look the right shape, tapering as they get towards the knee. After a little research, though, I discovered it’s a myth – in fact they were moulded round a block of wood called a gabarit. Which is only logical when you come to think about it: what if you ordered a batch of tiles and got a mix of George North and Cara Delevingne?

Having fixed the roof, Bruce and I retired to the garden (the one that’s where it should be), where we opened a beer and sat back listening to the cicadas. Which was all very enjoyable until I looked up and noticed that the entire house was circled by a column of ants.


This post (again in the nick of time) is part of Phoebe’s All About France link up.

Lou Messugo

Three new pages!

They’re all on my other blog, the one where I get to be a serious indie author posting about writing, promoting and… well, nothing else really, because that’s all indie authors do.

Aware that even the smallest exposure can help, I’ve added an Indie Books Page with bite-sized reviews of books I’ve read. Not many for the moment but I’ll add more as and when.

There’s a One Green Bottle audio page – the first four chapters recorded. If you who don’t like reading on screen, or want to be entertained as you cook, this is for you!

Finally, win a holiday break in Provence! That’s right – a short story competition, first prize being a long weekend in Provence as a guest of yours truly. Check it out!

All a bit fishy

The name intrigued me: poutargue. As a brand name, it would have the marketing team holding their heads in despair. When I asked a couple of French people what it evoked, one said, ‘Quaint and old-fashioned.’ The other said, ‘Disgusting.’

So I went to the Caronte Channel in Port de Bouc, some 20 miles west of Marseille, where every Friday this summer they opened the calen fishing to visitors. Calen refers to the net that stretches from one side of the channel to the other, and when the fishermen raise it, they’ve caught thousands of mullet come to spawn. Well, that’s how it used to be anyway – these days the mullet are more in the hundreds, and calen fishing is very much on the decline. But the ones they do catch suffer the same fate: sliced open for the roe to be extracted, salted and dried. The end result is poutargue, also known as the caviar of Provence.

Unfortunately, we saw none of this, because a boat was due to pass and the nets couldn’t be raised. Instead we saw Raymond, a silver-haired fisherman who explained how it’s done and showed us lots of photos. Rather a swizz, I thought, a bit like going to a concert and being shown a slide show instead. Still, being a good-natured group, none of us complained and those of us who understood what Raymond was saying listened enthusiastically. I too was enthusiastic, but apart from his accent he spoke a bit as if he had a hard-boiled egg lodged in his throat. All the same, I managed to get the gist.

The reason the mullet are waning is not due to overfishing but the water. What they like is brackish water, typically found where an estuary meets the sea, providing just the right level of salt. But in the 1960s, the balance was altered when the Durance Canal was built to bring fresh water to a hydroelectric plant nearby. As a result, there are only five calen fishing outfits left.

It may be, then, that the days of poutargue are numbered. Raymond didn’t appear too bothered, but then there’s not a lot he can do about it. In the meantime, he makes a decent living, as demand for poutargue is very strong. I think some of the visitors had come along expecting to taste some, in which case they were disappointed. If you want poutargue, you’ll have to place your order several months before and pay almost 200 euros a kilo. That’s still a long way from truffle territory, but it’s three times the price of foie gras. It seemed almost hard to believe, as we huddled on the tiny platform where the mullet are brought ashore, but poutargue is sent all over the world, notably Japan (where they know a thing or two about fish).

So what does it taste like? Well, according to Raymond, anchovies. Basically, in other words, just very salty and fishy. I couldn’t help thinking there had to be something else, a je ne sais quoi that Raymond wasn’t revealing. After all, anchovies can be bought for a quarter of the price. But Raymond wasn’t there to give a sales pitch. He was happy enough knowing that the mullet roe he prepares in Port de Bouc will end up pleasing the taste buds of a few connoisseurs in Tokyo. As for me, I made do with a couple of bream sold by some fishermen nearby. They were delicious.

This post is part of Phoebe’s All About France link up, as well as TJ Paris’s French Friday feature.

Lou Messugo

Pic’n’Post n° 26 Where was the picture taken?


Where was the picture taken?

Well, last week’s picture had quite a few people intrigued: Thumbup at The Playground, Rosa, Tammy at tmezpoetry (well worth checking out for some great poems), T.J. Paris (see his site here for haiku, photos and an inimitable style of prose), Johanna (the all-round thoughtfulness of her posts, which you can find here, make them a joy), and Charlie, who documents well both the pangs and delights of writing here) – many thanks to all! Answers fell into two categories, bone or plant. Rosa and Charlie were close, with a piece of branch or bark, but TJ was the only one to mention a pine cone.

IMG_4993     IMG_4994

These cones regularly fall from the magnificent Aleppo pine which leans rather alarmingly just outside the perimeter of our garden. A few years ago, we had a rare heavy snowfall and one of the branches promptly fell off and destroyed the composter we’d installed just the week before. But we forgave it, as it captures the sunset beautifully, and the cones are great for lighting the barbecue. The only thing I have in common with Cézanne is that he also had one in his garden, but history doesn’t record whether he used the cones for the barbecue.

Congratulations, TJ, who wins his first Pic’n’Post badge!


 This week it’s back to Where? at the top of this page. Happy guessing!

Pic’n’Post n° 25 What is the picture of?


What is the picture of?

Just the two guesses for last week’s picture, from Thumbup at The Playground and Rosa – many thanks to both. Thumbup nailed it pretty quickly – it was indeed the château at Vauvenargues, near Aix en Provence, with the Sainte Victoire in the background. (From last week’s snails to this week’s château may seem quite a jump, but both being in Provence, again I’m adding French Friday to the tag list. Check out TJ’s French Friday feature here.) It was a highly mysterious château, even to the inhabitants of the village, until in 2009 it was opened up to the public, though with very restricted and limited access. This was part of a series of events and exhibitions celebrating the relationship between Cézanne and Picasso. They never actually met, but Picasso was in great admiration of Cézanne, declaring him to be ‘my one and only master’ and ‘the father of us all’. And when the opportunity arose in 1958, Picasso didn’t hesitate to buy the château, less for the building itself than for the thousand hectares of the Ste. Victoire, so often painted by Cézanne, that came with it. ‘I’ve bought Cézanne’s Ste. Victoire,’ he declared to his agent, who thought he meant one of the paintings. ‘Which one?’ he asked. ‘The original,’ Picasso declared delightedly.


He only lived there two years: for all his love of Cézanne, the bitterly cold winters of Provence, which he hadn’t anticipated, proved too much for him. But he and his wife Jacqueline are buried in the grounds of the château, which has remained untouched, like a mausoleum, since the day he died in 1973. Inside, the pots of paint are still open, the easels mounted, the brushes laid out as if he’d only been painting the day before. I found the visit strangely moving, giving an intimate glimpse not just of Picasso, but by extension of Cézanne – the two greatest painters of the modern age, imho.

Congratulations, Thumbup!


 This week it’s back to What? at the top of this page. Happy guessing!

Pic’n’Post n° 24 Where was the picture taken?


Where was the picture taken?

Many thanks to Tammy, Thumbup at The Playground and Rosa for guessing last week’s picture. As Rosa saw, those are indeed snails on the left. In the hot summer months, there must be about a million of them in our garden, where they climb up every available post, stick or plant. Or in the case of the picture, a garden fork. The higher they get, the happier they are, though they’re not inclined to travel far for the experience, so a lot of them stay in the grass, getting crunched underfoot with every step you take. Speaking of steps, that’s where they actually come from – the steppes of Asia, I mean (sorry…) The scientific name, as any fule kno, is Xeropicta Derbentina, which is lovely. Like all snails, they’re edible (well, if you’re French, that is) but they’re pretty tiny so it’s a lot more trouble than it’s worth, unless there’s a famine. The picture below gives an idea of their size, and there are lots more pictures here. These snails being inhabitants of Provence, I’m adding French Friday to the tag list, as TJ Paris has just started a French Friday feature which you can check out here. Nice idea, TJ!

IMG_4977  snail

It’s Rosa’s third win, so she gets a champion’s badge.

Congratulations, Rosa!


This week it’s back to Where? at the top of this page. Happy guessing!

Pic’n’Post n° 18: Where was the picture taken?


Where was the picture taken?

Several guesses last week, and everyone figured it was the badge of a car, so the question then became, what make? Many thanks to Rosa, Thumbup at Live Love Laugh, Atthys at Speak More Light, and Matt from the bookblogger2014, but the winner this week is Hogrider Dookes, who guessed it was a Citroën Xsara. You can check out some of his “thoughts and travels of a geezer on a Harley” here, his account of a recent trip through Provence. Unfortunately, we weren’t at home at the time, otherwise he could have popped in to visit (the invitation still stands, Dookes) and taken me for a spin on the Harley. And he’d have seen the actual car which served for the photo, very much in need of a wash. IMG_1012                                                                                                IMG_1013

Congratulations, Dookes!


This week it’s back to Where? at the top of this page. Happy guessing!

Thursday Interview: Simon Retsky


– Now Mr. Retsky, you’re not very well-known. In fact, being a minor charatcer in an as yet unpublished novel, it could be said that you are literally a nonentity. Does that bother you?

– Not especially. I’ve never hankered after stardom. Small as my role is, I’m quite happy not to be centre stage.

– What exactly is your role?

– I run a small supermarket in Sentabour, the village in Provence where Magali Rousseau lives – she’s the main character in One Green Bottle, the detective. She saw I was looking for a part-time cashier and applied for the job, which I gave her. She looked a bit down on her luck at the time.

– So it was out of the kindness of your heart?

– Oh, no, she was clearly a bright woman, quick on the uptake. My fear was that she’d get bored – it’s hardly the most exciting of jobs, after all. But she coped with it very well.

– And I suppose she kept you up to date on the progress in her investigation?

– Not at all. She was very discreet, secretive in fact. Of course, we all found out afterwards she wasn’t a qualified private detective, which explained it. There was quite an outcry. What with that and the murder, it was a story such as Sentabour hasn’t seen in many a year. And hopefully, will never witness again.

– So you contributed nothing to the investigation yourself?

– No, I’d say my contribution was in helping Magali find her feet at a time when she needed to get herself back on track. She tends to have her head in the clouds, and it did her good to sit at the till – she said so herself. We got on well together. I’m a bit of a gossip, I must admit, and she loved listening to my stories. Well, I know everyone in Sentabour, of course. She’d only arrived a few months before and for her it was the best introduction to the village she could have.

– Any plans for when the novel comes out? A celebration, perhaps?

– I haven’t been told when it will be yet. Some time this year, but not for a few more months. When it does come out, I’ll probably just have a quiet drink with Magali and a few friends. And then get back to the shop. I’m happy enough just to have been included. She could have worked in a different shop altogether, and I wouldn’t have been in the book at all then. Now that’s what I call a nonentity!