Sunday, February 25, 2007

Dream house

Louise is planning her summer holidays and mentioned a house swap. This made me smile when I tried to imagine anyone wanting to swap their house for mine although one might feasibly consider swapping a garden shed for it.

I am fed up of not finding anywhere decent to live in Grenoble. I will spare you the stories of my present lodgings apart from telling you that for nearly six years now, my furniture and books have been rotting quietly in a damp garage three kilometres up the road while the four of us (once it was five) jostle about in our little box like irate sardines.

If you want to rent a house or a flat in France you need to have a job and because it is extremely difficult to evict tenants - even if they don’t pay their rent - you need to be on a long-term contract (CDI). Even if you do have a CDI, landlords will still ask you for all sorts of guarantees and will even go as far as asking that your parents stand as guarantors, which has happened to us several times. En plus, your rent must not come to more than a third of your salary.

As I’m disqualified on all counts, I thought perhaps I could build something myself. Wouldn’t it be fun if I could use my imagination like Ferdinand Cheval? He was an eccentric postman who, between 1879 and 1912, built his own Palais Idéal in his back garden. Facteur Cheval – as he is known – was obviously quite bonkers. As he did his thirty-two kilometre round in and around the village of Hauterives, he was wont to daydream. One day, he tripped over a stone, picked it up and pocketed it thinking it may well come in useful (he really was that bored). The following day, he collected more strangely–shaped stones and decided to build the palace of his dreams. It became an obsession. The locals - and no doubt his poor wife - thought he was mad as he spent every moment of his spare time carting stones to and from his masterpiece. From these stones he made an edifice quite unlike anything you have ever seen – a petrified fantasy of mythical animals, angels, shellfish, Hindu and Egyptian gods, spiral staircases, swirling turrets and secret passages. He was forty-three when he started and seventy-six when he finished.

His desire was to be buried there but French law would not allow it so he promptly set about designing his own tombstone in the local cemetery. It took him eight years and he was buried two years after he had finished it.

It's true that I'm mad but not that mad so actually, I’ve applied for a council flat. I’ve filled in all the forms, photocopied all the relevant documents, begged, pleaded and generally abased myself but I’ll still have to wait two years before they give me one. Still, it doesn't hurt to dream, does it? Or as they say here “bâtir des châteaux en Espagne…...”

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Yer wot?

As if it wasn’t difficult enough understanding my children these days, who take great delight in speaking verlan to me – a slang where words are pronounced backwards – I now discover that seventy-five different languages are spoken on French territory! To be fair, many of these languages are spoken overseas in places like Tahiti, Guadeloupe and French Guyana and the list also includes Yiddish and Berber. However, here in metropolitan France, it seems that there are over twenty regional languages spoken today so it’s little wonder I feel a tad misunderstood sometimes.

The French government is compelled by law to communicate in French, which means it can pronounce as much baffling twaddle as it wants, as long as it is in French. The Minister of Culture admitted in 2001 that France had been suppressing regional languages for hundreds of years in the interests of unity even though up until the First World War, these – and not French - were the languages spoken at home. Under pressure from minority groups, the government is now recruiting bilingual teachers to teach them in schools. Many towns display street signs in both French and the regional language and you can watch television programmes in Breton or Basque, for example.

It was Dante who first talked about the languages of oïl and oc – both words for ‘yes’ in medieval France. Those who said oïl lived north of the Loire and those who said oc lived in the south. Modern French developed from the langue d’oïl (oïl has become ‘oui’ ) while the region in the south is still called Languedoc today. Occitan dialects (or languages – there is much dispute) continue to be spoken by a minority. Provençal is perhaps the most well-known and when the people in Provence speak French, it is with a distinctive accent directly influenced by these dialects. When I arrived in Aix-en-Provence twenty years ago, thinking I was a fluent French speaker, it took me several weeks before I understood what the woman in the bakery was saying to me. In the south, pain rhymes with ‘twang’ and every word seems to have an ‘a’ tacked on to the end.

The great literary renaissance of Provençal was led by the poet and Nobel Prize laureate, Frédéric Mistral, in the nineteenth century. Thanks to him, my children learnt provençal nursery rhymes at school and we could watch television programmes and read newspaper reports in the dialect if we so wished (we didn’t). There is even a band from Marseilles enjoying popularity today, singing provençal lyrics to reggae music. The words harlequin, mascot and, of course, troubadour are all of provençal origin.

The French island of Corsica is closer to Italy than France and Corsican is very similar to the Italian dialect spoken on the island of Sardinia. The language is in danger of becoming extinct although there are movements dedicated to its protection. Corsican is rich in proverbs and colourful sayings, like the very wise Mariteddu tamant'è un ditu Ièddu voli essa rivaritu which means "A husband must be respected even if he is very short ".

Further along to the west, in the area around Perpignan, we have French Catalonia. This was once part of the Principality of Catalonia of which the greatest portion is across the Pyrenees in modern-day north-eastern Spain. My mother-in-law grew up speaking Catalan and still lives in the region although she only speaks French now – speaking Catalan is social suicide, apparently. From the language we have the words paella and perhaps capsize.

Even further west, on the Atlantic coast, is the Basque country. Again, this is part of a larger area that includes north-western Spain. The Basque language is unlike any in Europe and despite copious research, no link has been found with any other language in the world. The people even differ genetically from their neighbours and are very proud of the fact - hence their sometimes violent nationalistic tendencies. From Basque we have the word silhouette and possibly bizarre.

Moving up north, we get to Brittany. There are two regional languages spoken here. In the west, the Celtic language, Breton, is undergoing a revival. The language is closely related to Cornish and Welsh and is taught in schools although not without hostility from various quarters, including the French government. Last year, the president of the Dihun Association for the bilingual teaching of Breton and French in the Catholic schools in Brittany, went on hunger strike for two weeks over the hostility of members of the church establishment to bilingual teaching. We get carol and gaberdine from Breton.

In eastern Brittany, Gallo is spoken, although to a much lesser degree. Signs in the Rennes underground system are written in French and in Gallo and there has also been a revival of traditional music but not to the same extent as Celtic folk-rock, which has entered the mainstream. Gallo is a langue d’oïl, like French, and for many years was considered as ‘French, badly-spoken’ – but it would be advisable not to mention that if you ever find yourself in Brittany…

In north-eastern France – and wide open to a host of bad canine jokes and puns which I will not lower myself to make – Alsatian is spoken. This is a German dialect - Alsace is a region that has passed between French and German control many times during its history. The only words I know in Alsatian are sauerkraut meaning ‘sour cabbage’ and Kronenbourg, meaning ‘It’s your round, mate’ or something like that.

Around Grenoble, the regional language is Franco-provençal. Despite its name, it is neither French nor Provençal but a distinct language and many people refer to it as Arpitan. We get the words avalanche and glacier from Arpitan.

Finally, chez nous, we use mostly Franglais, in which I am fluent, and text messaging which I do not understand at all. Oh, well, I suppose it’s never too late to learn – mdr (‘very funny’)…

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Vroom vroom

I am not a great fan of getting around – getting out of bed is exhausting enough for me and I need the rest of the day to recover. However, there are times when I have to make a little more effort – to go to the supermarket, for example, or take my children to somewhere more interesting than the park next door or the letterbox at the end of the road. For outings like these, I need to take the car.

Watching the French drive is traumatic in itself so joining in could be seen as foolhardy. Fortunately, I have not had to pass the French driving test as I already earned my driving licence thirty years ago, tootling around my home town of Whitchurch in a short-sighted daze. Back then, a traffic jam was anything more than three Ford Cortinas and a combine harvester all trying to get out of the same car park: in those days you could do an Emergency Stop on the dual carriageway in the rush-hour and no-one would notice. Nonetheless, I still managed to write off my dad’s car a few months later on an isolated country road and it was with fear, trepidation and a new pair of glasses that I took up driving again a few years ago.

France is not the ideal country in which to do this, actually. Not only do they drive on the wrong side of the road – their steering wheels are also on the wrong side of the car. This can take some getting used to. At the beginning – provided you’ve remembered which door to open and are not sitting in the passenger seat with a bewildered look on your face – you may find yourself trying to wind down the window every time you want to change gear and vice versa. Believe me, this is the least of your worries.

It is all the fault of Napoleon, of course. He was a whimsical so-and-so at the best of times – I mean, he was a supporter of the French Revolution, thoroughly approved the lopping off of aristocrats’ heads and then promptly crowned himself Emperor of France and got jobs for all of his family. Anyway - research has shown that the Romans drove on the left and yet today, everyone in continental Europe drives on the right. One theory is that Napoleon had his troops march on the right-hand side because their muskets or pikes - which were slung over their right shoulders - would crash into each other as they passed in the narrow roads and create an awful lot of noise and bother which made everybody late for the invasions, wars etc. Personally, I think Napoleon was just being very French and flouting the rules for the heck of it.

While Road Rage is a comparatively recent phenomenon in Britain, in France it has always been an integral part of learning to drive. Some of the compulsory hand signals might not appear in the Le Code de la Route but they would certainly be immediately recognisable to anyone, regardless of nationality, trying to do a U-turn on a Friday afternoon on a busy main road. The same hand signals may be employed in similarly dangerous situations: stopping at a red traffic light, for example, or slowing down to let a pedestrian cross the road. Zebra crossings are lethal, in fact, because they lull the hapless walker into a false sense of security. As any seasoned driver knows, the idea is to slow down as you approach the crossing, thus allowing the pedestrian to scuttle half-way across, and then you must accelerate, forcing him to leap comically backwards into the old dear with the three shopping bags. Alternatively, he may just stand stock still like a petrified rabbit, in which case you have to screech to a halt, which can be quite impressive if you do it loudly enough.

Other things to watch out for include sleeping policemen – called dos d’ânes – which are to be driven over as if there were thirteen double-decker buses to clear on the other side, STOP signs which are to be ignored and signs for speed limit which indicate the minimum speed at which you should drive. At least, I think that’s right.

French motorways are beautifully maintained and - unlike in Britain, where service stations are so far apart it’s worth installing a Porta potty in the back seat – they have wonderful picnic areas called aires every few miles. Here you can meander through forest glades, stroll around a lake, visit a museum or even jog around an exercise circuit and in the south, you can cool down by walking through a sprinkler contraption similar to a car wash. Bien entendu, all this has a price – French motorways are not free and every now and again you will come upon a toll. You can either pay by credit card or by throwing the exact amount of coins required into a container, placed just far enough away from your car to ensure that you miss (people in right-hand drive cars shouldn’t even bother trying). If you are brave, you get out of the car and painstakingly pick all the coins from off the floor, under cars etc., despite the horn-blowing and death threats. If you’re not, you just scrabble desperately for more change and try again. This latter method may make you look like some frantic, undiscriminating benefactor but it’s probably safer.

At least in France you can park (and I use the term loosely) wherever you like, the only restrictions being physical impossibility and even then, it’s not for want of trying. The pavement seems to be the most favoured place, but slap bang in the middle of the road is quite popular too. I once saw a car parked in the centre of a roundabout, but I think that may have been Art. Otherwise, you have to pay to park, although many people just screw up their parking fines and wait for the amnesty usually granted after every Presidential election. So, not long to wait then…

Friday, February 16, 2007

My daughter is a rock star

In my second year at University, I decided I wanted to drop out and go to Paris to live in a garret and Be A Penniless Writer. Fortunately, I was talked out of it.

My daughter, however, has done just that – or rather, she’s dropped out to become a singer in a rock n’ roll band, or near enough. Psychedelic rock, to be precise.

She begged me to go to her first concert, held in a brewery on a nearby commercial estate. Now, I know that doesn’t sound very cool but it’s a darn sight cooler than the cellar of a fruit warehouse, which is where The Beatles started off.

I was reluctant. After all, the place would be full of students (it’s near the campus) and I am a middle-aged housewife so I would stick out like a baguette in a greasy spoon café…but she is my daughter and I had to go. So I went...

I got off at the wrong tram stop somewhere near the Halls of Residence. It was 9pm, eerily quiet and deserted. None of the streets had the right name so I decided to follow my instinct, which under normal circumstances is not a good idea but for once it served me well. Half an hour later, I stumbled (literally – I was wearing silly pointy boots in order to look young and trendy - ha!) upon the Brasserie Mandrin where students were milling about looking suitably laid-back/angst-ridden/moody/drunk. Oh took me back a bit…until my daughter emerged to rescue me from the impending time warp and, beer in hand, I slunk into a corner and hoped no-one would notice me.

The beer was wonderful. Mandrin is a Real Ale and at the brewery, everything is done by hand. I was drinking hemp-flavoured beer but I could have chosen walnut, fir, honey, liquorice or mountain herbs. I am going to do a bit more research and will post an article about the brasserie once I’ve sobered up…

Back to the concert and my daughter began to sing in that sultry bluesy voice of hers. She wrote most of the songs with her friend. Unfortunately, a couple of the band members had had too much to drink and were suddenly under the impression that they could sing too. While they were shouting raucously into the microphone, the guitarist decided he was a punk rocker and started pogo-ing into the audience, knocking a few beers over in the process. It was a bit of a shambles to be honest.

Still, I got to relive a part of my youth and as I hobbled happily back to the tram stop humming Hey Joe, I realised that I had, in fact, fulfilled a part of my dream too: I may not live in Paris and I don’t live in a garret…but I am a Penniless Writer. Cool!

Monday, February 12, 2007

Amour actually

Put the word “French” before a perfectly innocent noun, like lessons or maid, and suddenly we’re all nudging and winking, know what I mean? Although the French didn’t invent love, they could be said to have invented romance. In the 13th century, romanz was the word for vernacular French (as opposed to the more literary Latin) and a romance was a work composed in the vernacular tongue. These romances were the poems of the Troubadours, the poet-musicians of France, who wrote essentially about the ideal of fin’amours which we now think of as “courtly love”. In theory, this “pure” love was a noble and aesthetic affair, requiring the suitor to revere his adored lady – ideally cruel and aloof - from afar. In practice, it was simply a bit of extramarital hanky-panky, usually with an aristocratic woman whose husband had gone away on the Crusades once too often.

The origins of Saint Valentine’s Day are more obscure. The ancient Roman festival of Lupercalia, dedicated to the god Lupercus, had long been celebrated here on the 15th of February. At Lupercalia, a young man would draw the name of a young woman in a lottery and would then keep the woman as a sexual companion for the year – a sort of Ancient Roman Postman’s Knock, only ruder. In the fifth century, Pope Gelasius the First decided to put a stop to this immoral behaviour and he changed the lottery. Henceforth, both men and women would draw the names of saints whom they were expected to emulate for the rest of the year. And what a barrel of laughs that must have been.

Instead of Lupercus, the patron of the feast became Valentine, after the saint – or saints – whose feast day was celebrated on the 14th of February. Again, no-one is sure which saint is concerned: at least three martyrs with that name are mentioned in the early martyrologies under the date of the 14th of February and all of them lost their head - a fitting end for a patron saint of lovers. As for the tradition of sending cards, the very romantic Charles, Duke of Orleans, could be said to have sent the first one. Imprisoned in the Tower of London in 1415, after the Battle of Agincourt, he wrote and sent love poems to his wife in France - although he probably would have been better off asking her for a file-in-a-cake or a cunning disguise.

Saint Valentin is the name of a small village in the centre of France. It normally has a population of two-hundred and eighty-five but at this time of year it is overrun with hordes of soppy couples strolling hand in hand through the “Lovers’ Garden”, visiting the “House of Loving Sentiments and Marriage”, having their names engraved on a brass, heart-shaped leaf attached to a ‘tree’, or renewing their wedding vows. The Post Office does a roaring trade too, as people from all over France come to post their love-letters or wedding invitations from the village: the postmark and stamp are appropriately sentimental and the letterbox is heart-shaped.

Getting married in France is not as romantic as it sounds, unless you’re marrying a rich aristocrat with a Château in the Dordogne, in which case it probably is. As usual, the French want you to fill in numerous forms and provide documents proving that you’re not a serial bigamist (four different certificates needed), that you are who you say you are, that you have no nasty diseases and that you are not an illegal immigrant. When you have managed to gather all this information, you have to get it translated into French, just in case you were thinking of fobbing them off with your Go For It Guides certificate or the instruction leaflet for the camcorder. Then you have to wait ten days while the banns are published and finally – if you’re still in the mood – you can get married.

Only civil weddings are recognised in France, so the first stop is the Town Hall where the Mayor pronounces you man and wife in front of witnesses (so you can’t try to deny it at a later date...) and then hustles you out because there are other brave couples waiting outside for their turn. Wedding photos are usually taken in a park, which is more romantic than having them taken on the Town Hall steps and there’s no danger of getting the bridal parties mixed up. Some couples go to church first, for the optional religious ceremony, where they sit on velvet-covered chairs beneath a silk canopy, called a carré, and exchange rings, if they haven’t already done so. Then everybody drives to the reception in a convoy, making as much noise as possible by sounding their horns all the way there.

The traditional wedding cake, called a pièce montée, is a pyramid of cream-filled chocolate profiteroles, often shaped like the Eiffel Tower or some other monument. It is easy to cut, when the time comes, but not so handy for putting in those little boxes to send to friends. Finally, after an evening of champagne and disco-dancing, the jeunes mariés drive off for their lune de miel and hope that nobody has put fireworks in the exhaust pipe. As the poet Alfred de Musset put it, On ne badine pas avec l’amour: you don’t mess around with love…

Friday, February 09, 2007

Just nuts

Walnuts have been around in France for a long time…a fossilised nut dating from the Tertiary era has been discovered in Ardeche and fragments dating from the Neolithic period have been found in the lake dwellings of Charavines in Isère. The image of Stone Age man cracking nuts around the fire is comfortingly familiar, even without the paper hat and the cheap sherry…

The walnut was sacred to the Ancient Romans. They thought it looked like the human brain – the outer husk was the scalp, the shell represented the skull and the crinkly nut inside, the two hemispheres of the brain. This is interesting because my own brain, judging by its performance these days, probably looks and functions exactly like a walnut. It was the Romans who brought walnut trees to France after having successfully cultivated them on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius. They established plantations in the Narbonne area, in Perigord and here in the Dauphiné where they thrived.

During the Middle Ages, the walnut was used to pay rent and for a little farmhouse in the Dauphiné region you would have had to shell out a few sétiers (just over a pint) of walnuts. They were so important in mediaeval life that a new profession was created, that of ‘walnut measurer’, although it was a limited career choice as only two posts existed for the whole of France. However, up until the nineteenth century, the Dauphiné peasants’ main income came from silk worm farms and vineyards. It was not until disease killed off the silk worms in 1858 and grape phylloxera wiped out the vines in 1870, that they turned to walnut cultivation. It was a good choice. Walnut orchards demanded far less work than vineyards and the new Grenoble to Valence railway line made export easy. Certain species of trees were more prolific than others – legend has it that one in particular was brought by a young demoiselle as part of her dowry, for her marriage to a local lord. These trees were nurtured and protected so that today, Grenoble produces the finest walnuts in the world. Over fifty percent of the total French production comes from this region while France itself is the third biggest exporter behind The United States and China.

In 1938, the Grenoble walnut was awarded an Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée and - just like fine wine - it meant that the quality was strictly controlled. To qualify, the walnut must be one of three varieties: the franquette, the mayette or the parisienne. These are only three of many. All walnuts look the same to me but to those in the know, each variety has its peculiarities: they are elongated or round, pale or deeply coloured, bland, sweet or bitter. Their names are sometimes bizarre and – like roses – they are often named after events or people: Oswald, Lent or Conference Souvenir; Big John, Fat John or Distaff.

Harvesting is mostly done by a harvester these days but in some places – particularly on the mountain slopes – it is still done by hand. Back at the farm, the nuts are sorted, washed and dried then packed up and sent all over the world. Technology has replaced the veillées of old where the whole village would get together in the evenings to shell walnuts and tell each other stories by the fireside, sing songs, play games and eat together. Now computers bleep, machines whirr and business booms while the ancient nut presses and dryers are quaint ruins left to crumble quietly in the shadow of the Vercors.

Both the tree and its fruit have many uses. The nut is a fertility symbol and in parts of France walnuts are mixed with onion soup and served to newlyweds or they are thrown at them instead of rice – presumably shelled beforehand. Biting on a green walnut is said to relieve toothache and a poultice of crushed walnuts and pork fat cures boils. Walnut oil was once used in lamps or as axle grease, which is hard to believe when you see the price of a tiny bottle of the stuff today. The husk was used to dye hair and clothes and stain furniture and was even used as a self-tanning lotion as recently as the 1950s.

The tree itself was considered cursed: people believed that witches held their meetings in its shade and so they would rip off its branches and throw stones at it as punishment. French folklore warns against falling asleep beneath a walnut tree for fear of waking up with a fever or pneumonia – or perhaps, quite simply, a face full of walnuts. It would serve them jolly well right, too.

The wood is of superior quality – it doesn’t split, it is fine-grained and easy to sculpt and polish. It is highly resistant but also beautiful to look at. Unfortunately, it fell victim to these very qualities during the First World War, when all the trees were cut down to provide wood for rifle butts. New trees were planted when the war was over so one catastrophe at least was averted – although not the most important one.

The walnut is omnipresent in Grenoble. Eat it as it is or candied; in the form of sweets, nougat or jam, or made into wonderful tarts and cakes. Savour walnut bread or walnut-covered cheese with a salad tossed in walnut oil. As an aperitif, drink eau de Noix or ratafia, both made from walnuts. I cannot think of a better way to find out if la noix de Grenoble is really all it’s cracked up to be…

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

System Restore

You know that thing you can do on a computer called System Restore, where you can go back to a previous state in the event of a failure? Well…do you think it could work on humans?

You see, I’ve had a horrible two weeks. If I could go back in time to, say, 21st January and then just not do this bit again, I would be very grateful.

It started with the legal separation that I did not want…not only did I have to fork out money I didn’t have for the train fare and the hotel in Perpignan but I also got to watch the man I love walk away from me yet again while, at Perpignan Station, I sat down and wept…

It wasn’t quite like that. We had a nice day out really, having lunch and doing a bit of sightseeing… I think I should have at least tried to strangle him or strangle the lawyer or throw myself into the river Têt…but no. He bought me lunch and I bought him a book at the FNAC and then he walked me to the station and said goodbye.

And that was that.

A few days later I flew to England with my three girls to see my little sister get married. It was lovely and I cried buckets although whether they were for her or for me, I’m not sure. I took lots of wonderful photographs and then someone erased them all from my camera…all I’ve got to remind me of the day are a couple of close-ups of somebody’s thumb and a picture of a light fixture. Actually, I think that I’m jinxed where romantic photography is concerned. The only picture I have from my honeymoon is of a seagull on Snowdon…

Back home, things were not about to get better. On Thursday night, the water heater exploded. I was in my bedroom listening to that scary bit from Carmina Burana – you know, this bit:

...when I heard a loud bang. I thought it was part of the music so I didn’t investigate. However, when I went to the kitchen an hour later there was - to paraphrase Coleridge - water, water everywhere…and none of it in the sink. A veritable Niagra Falls was gushing from the boiler and into my bathroom, living room and hallway…

I managed to mop it all up and I called the maintenance people the next day. They sent a raving lunatic who talked to himself and the boiler incessantly and seemed dangerously upset when he realised he would have to do more than tweak a screw or push a button to get it going again. He left muttering threats (I think) and said someone would phone me when the required spare part was in stock.

So, here we are, shivering and smelly once more and fighting over the hot water bottle (I really must buy a couple more of those). A friend did lend me an electric heater which I joyfully plugged in and around which we all huddled... until after a while, something began to smell. Unplugging the heater, I saw that the socket was turning brown and the plug had melted (why, why??)…

I imagined things couldn’t get worse…could they?

Well, it depends on what you think of mice. Both headless ones on your kitchen floor and noisy ones hiding somewhere behind the loo. Oh gosh, that’s worse…much worse…

So, what about this System Restore? My hard drive has definitely defragmented - I’m already freezing…and I don’t want to crash!

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Magic mushrooms

The word ‘mushroom’ comes from the French mousseron, which today refers to a particular type of mushroom but which once was a name for all kinds, including poisonous ones. The French word for mushroom, on the other hand, is champignon, derived from the Latin word meaning ‘of the fields’.

Perhaps the most famous of all mushrooms is the truffle. The only truffle I have ever eaten has been a chocolate one: this is because truffles are among the most expensive foods in the world and is not the sort of thing you’d find at your local supermarket, although truffle-flavoured pâté might be affordable. A white truffle from Italy recently sold for £62,000 which is quite a sum for what is basically a fungal tree parasite. They are expensive because they are rare and cannot be easily cultivated. They grow underground beneath certain kinds of tree, often oaks and it takes about forty years for a wild oak tree to grow to a stage where truffles will appear - then they have to be sniffed out by specially trained dogs or female pigs. Pigs are better than dogs because they love truffles and have a keen sense of smell – and there is another reason. Truffles give off an aroma similar to male sexual hormones so the poor old sow gets quite worked up thinking she’s in for a fun afternoon (this only works for pigs by the way). You’d think she’d be disappointed when all she unearths is a warty fungus but she’s easily pleased and the real problem is to retrieve the truffle before it’s gobbled up. If the truffle hunter manages to wrench it from her, it is in his interest to give her a piece as a reward otherwise the stubborn sow is perfectly capable of disobeying her master the next time. Sows are not light on their feet either and as hunters have to cover a large area of land, dogs are also used – although they tend to get excited about anything and will dig up old boots or rotting vegetables indiscriminately.

Many hunters look for truffles on their own these days and some even claim to be able to sniff one out hidden a foot beneath the ground. Other indications of their presence are characteristic cracks in the soil and a patch of dead leaves or a bare spot caused by a truffle releasing a chemical that kills all foliage around its host. Sometimes swarms of small brown flies can be seen hovering just above the ground where truffles are growing. A special metal-tipped cane called a cavaillon is used to dig up the truffle – a delicate operation, unless you are a pig. The truffles are sold in special markets from mid-November to mid-March in the principal truffle-producing regions of the south-east (Provence) and the south-west (Perigord) but you really have to know your mushrooms if you are serious about buying.

Truffles are considered to be aphrodisiac which may have something to do with the effect they have on sows. In the seventeenth century, the renowned gastronome, Brillat-Savarin, claimed that truffles rendered ‘women more affectionate and men more amiable’. But other mushrooms have the same reputation. In the eleventh century the Normans traditionally prepared a wedding dish that contained a pound of mushrooms - to be fed to the groom only. Mushrooms have been known to push up paving stones and it is this strength and vigour that is believed to give them their aphrodisiac qualities. You get the picture…

France is considered to be one of the first countries to formally cultivate mushrooms and it is said that Louis XIV was the earliest mushroom farmer. Button mushrooms are known as champignons de Paris and they were grown in the quarries beneath Paris during the reign of Napoleon. When the Metro was being built, cultivation was moved to the Anjou region which still produces most of the country’s mushrooms. Champignons de Paris are grown on compost made from horse dung: this thought may put you off your soup but at least the mushrooms are cheap and plentiful, unlike wild mushrooms which are only cheap if you gather them yourself.

France is a nation of mycophiles and many people do pick and cook their own mushrooms. Of course, if they then invite you to dinner, this can be quite unsettling in more ways than one and you can only hope that they checked with the local pharmacist - usually trained in mycology - before tossing the mushrooms into the pan. I am too much of a coward to gather mushrooms for myself. Some poisonous ones are easily confused with edible ones and some edible ones have names like ‘Trumpets of Death’ which is hardly reassuring. I play it safe and buy them pre-packed, frozen or dried. At least that way, nobody’s going to get ill eating my food. At least not because of the mushrooms anyway…