Quick One!

Oh Man! I’ve been a bit distracted recently with Life etc. But just a quick one.

The Tourism Office of Riez has just put on its Facebook Page that there is a truffle Festival in Valensole which is just a few kms away from Riez and certainly worth a look if you’re in the area!

There is a very sweet Christmas tradition in Provence and it is that of the crèche.

While the Christmas trees are sprouting up across France, kids in Provence are looking forward to making most of their imagination in creating a nativity scene as depicted in the traditional narrative of the nativity. This narrative is differs in several ways to the traditional Christian representation. For a start it is set in Provence and it involves a whole range of characters most of which have very little to do with the story as told in the Bible. Those characters are represented by small (and sometimes not so small) terracotta figurines carefully painted by skilled craftsmen and women: the santons.

The crèche is normally started late November. It starts by putting some boxes together to make the skeleton of the landscape. This is covered with paper and then covered with vegetation such as moss, holly, branches of pine or box tree. A few rocks for added texture and some foil for rivers and lakes.

Once the landscape has been set, the buildings go in: the stable of course, the windmill, the bridge, and generally the various buildings that make up a traditional Provençal village.

Then in go the characters. The traditional actors of the nativity: Joseph, Mary, the bull and the donkey. Christ is only added on Christmas morning but the angel Gabriel features of course from the very start

(Wikimedia Common)

The crèche was always a popular representation of the Nativity. As a result in features a lot of the characters that were typical of the life in Provence: crafts men, religious figures etc

The shepherd is always a prominent figure and with him comes his herd of sheep

(Wikimedia Common)

By Timo_Beil via Wikimedia Commons

The miller is another favourite.

By Pernmith, via Wikimedia Commons

The clergy is also represented despite the obvious anachronism of them being there

By dierk schaefer via Wikimedia Commons

The Arlésiene and the Gardian (a lady from Arles on the Rhone and a bull keeper in Camargue)

By Timo_Beil via Wikimedia Commons

The fisherman

By Pernmith, via Wikimedia Commons

The Tambourinaire (flute and drum player typical of Provence who would conduct the dance during the village fête)

By Pernmith via Wikimedia Commons

And a personal favourite le Ravi (the guy who’s always happy) normally represented with his arms in the air

By Daniel Ferrier, via Wikimedia Commons

There are literately thousands of characters to choose from and it always was a pleasure every year to walk down to the marché aux santons and choose a new one for that year.

These markets are a big deal and the various craftsmen travel far to sell their work.

By Véronique PAGNIER, via Wikimedia Commons

By jean-louis zimmermann, via Wikimedia Commons

The result is quite beautiful and if most people make a crèche in their home, villages and communities also take great pride in setting very large ostentatious ones in public places.

By Véronique PAGNIER, via Wikimedia Commons

This one in Avignon.

If you are travelling around Provence at this time of year it’s worth looking for the Santons market and have a little muse around. It’s quite an intriguing, very seasonal industry with a wide range of skills and taste on display. Also worth  popping into the local church or Hôtel de Ville to see the official crèche.

Let’s take a better look at the village. From its medieval past, Riez has inherited its winding streets lined with beautiful buildings. Below we take a walk through those to take it all in.

As we walk through the streets, we pass some remarkable features such as intricately sculpted doorways,


The ancient façades have seen better days but their character remains

Before long a short stroll takes us back to Les Allées.

Concert on Sunday

There’s a concert on Sunday at the Riez Cathedral:

“Gypsy sacred music from Provence” starts at 17h on Sunday the 9th December.

Sounds like it’s going to be a cracking night.

Facebook Page of Riez is Here for all the latest cultural information.

Autumn Foraging

One of my very favourite things to do in Provence at that time of year (well, realistically more towards October), is to go out in the woods and look for mushrooms. There are a few good spots a short drive away from Riez-la-Romaine.

Now before we go any further, picking mushrooms is not something that can be done lightly. There are pretty nasty things out there, in Provence or elsewhere. Some mushrooms will make you spend a very uncomfortable night, some will make you very ill, and some (not many thankfully) will kill you. So before you go out with your knife and basket, you need to learn about these things. There are books of course and there are courses that will run through the basics. Ideally you’d want to go out with someone who knows and can point out the good, the bad and the ugly. It’s also good to know that in France, pharmacists have training in mycology. So if in doubt, you can always bring your findings to the local pharmacy and ask.

Now that we’ve cleared that bit, it’s time to get into the woods.

At that time of year,  the sun is quite low and the colours are amazing. So get wrapped up because as soon as you get out of the sun, it gets a bit chilly, get your reed basket and favourite knife and get looking. It’s quite exciting when you spot them in the undergrowth. As a kid, it’s that time when your wait, heart in mouth for the verdict from Grand-Dad. Is it a good one?

And yes! They are good! Oh the excitement when the basket starts to fill and at the thought of the good frying pan full that we will have tonight.

One of the beauty of mushrooms is the shear variety of them. Some of them are pretty much what you would expect a mushroom to look like.

While other look completely alien to the concept of “mushroom”.

Either way, if they’re edible and good, they’re worth picking. And despite the lateness in the season, the result of this outing was a very nice little basketful.

Back home, you put an open page of newspaper on the table and remove the soil from the mushrooms by brushing it off (no washing of the mushrooms soak up the water and it makes a mess when they cook). When you’re done, roll up the paper and put into the compost bin.

After that, simple is best: a good glug of olive oil in a hot frying pan, throw the mushrooms in and listen to them sizzling. Throw some crushed garlic into the pan, making sure that it doesn’t burn otherwise it gives an unpleasant bitter taste. Then just a  couple of minutes before the mushrooms are nice and soft and the garlic cooked through, add a big handful of chopped parsley to finish off. As an accompaniment or a starter, it is divine.

Couleurs d’Automne

Its that time of year when Provence’s glorious sun takes a back seat and free wheels into winter. As a results the trees don’t feel the need to work overtime and let their leaves down, but not before they set off in a last glorious flurry of colours. So there it is. Few words, just images of the house and the Revesca neighbourhood taken over the last couple of weeks.

From the Chemin du Revesca, approaching the house

On the drive

The terrace under the centenary lime tree from the garden with the old pigeon house to the right

From the grounds behind the house.

The village.

Finishing the tour…

There you go Autumn Leaves.

Black Gold

The black gold we are talking about here is not oil, no, it’s a lot more precious than that. It’s the black truffle!

The reason for this timely post is that the “marché de la truffe” gets on its way on Wednesday the 21st of November in Riez. If you’re nearby, don’t miss it!

Tuber Melanosporum is one of the most sought after fungi in the world, and in Provence it’s not just a very valuable commodity, it’s a religion!

© Dr Michel Royon / Wikimedia Commons

This fungi grows underground on the roots of trees that carry the spores. Truffles grow in the wild but if looking for wild truffles is intensely satisfying for the casual forager, it is not a viable approach for the true devotee.

Most people wanting to collect a significant amount rely on cultivated trees that have been specially treated for the purpose of producing truffles. However, patience is required. It can take 5-10 sometimes 20 years before those trees start to produce any significant crop.

Truffière by Véronique PAGNIER (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Those truffières are jealously guarded secrets with owners going to extreme length to make sure nobody comes and steal the precious fungi.

Then is the small matter of finding the thing. There are broadly speaking three methods to do so.

The first is to walk very slowly through the truffière looking attentively to the floor. If you’re lucky (and I mean lucky) you’ll see a tiny fly coming out from the ground.

© Dr Michel Royon / Wikimedia Commons

That’s the wee bugger, suillia fuscicornis is its little name.

If you manage to spot one and start digging with your hand at the site from which it just flew off, you may, if you bring the soil to your nose perceive the heavenly smell of the glorious fungi. The reason this fly is a pretty good indicator of truffle being there is that it loves to lay its eggs on truffles. Now obviously it’s very small and only really likely to comes out from the soil if it is already in there, so it’s not the most efficient way to look for truffles. This said, the author went out as a boy with his grand father on brisk winter mornings onto the family plot and did manage to find probably half a dozen or so  truffles. The excitement when the reddish soil starts to smell the “right smell” and then your young fingers hit the rough surface of the fungi is not something that is easy to put into words!

Anyway. Second way to look for truffle is with a pig.

By Robert Vayssié (Gignac Lot France) via Wikimedia Common

Now, pigs are the ultimate truffle finding machine. Lean (kind of), mean (certainly), sniffing units that will home in onto the prize mushroom, faster that you can tie your shoe laces. Big problem though, is that they love to eat the thing. So the seeker has to be on the ball at all time, to pull the animal back as soon as it looks like it’s onto something. Some  people carry with them long sticks with metalled end in order to put this in the mouth of the pig and stop it from snuffling their livelihood. So they’re good, but not very convenient.

Third and last method is with an especially trained dog. That’s the best compromise between the empirical approach of fly-hunting and the guerilla-style of pig searching. Dogs don’t eat mushrooms, are pretty friendly and make an easier pet to keep in the house than a pig.

The dog needs extensive training however and very often if you stumble upon a truffle hunter you will see him with two dogs: an older one very skilled and a younger one that is in effect being trained by its elder.

This is where the world of the truffles turns cloak and dagger. A good truffle dog is worth a fortune and the owners have to be very careful to look after it. It’s not uncommon for a dog-owner to have his dog stolen if it’s known to be a good finder.

Truffle are sold through various outlets, ranging from high class delicatessens to private trading. The most spectacular of those is probably the many truffle markets that are organised around the region. There you can buy fresh truffle directly from the producer. Some of those markets work as you would expect a market to work (turn up, choose, pay go home), others are auction markets where deals are being made through winks and whispers.

Click here to see a film from the French National Film Archive (INA) on the truffle trade in Riez in 1958.


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