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A Summer in Gascony

"Nostalgia for a traditional France, soused in Armagnac, sunshine and young love, brought vividly to life."


"This is one of the most charming books ever written about the South of France. A Summer in Gascony – Discovering the Other South of France, to give it the full title, is all about south-west France, the opposite side of the country to the trendy and much more expensive Nice and the Côte d’Azur.
I know this part of the country very well and I can vouch for the quirkiness of the region that Martin Calder documents so well. The language IS still French but with a difference. The name Martin might seem simple to pronounce for us Brits and indeed the majority of the French population, but he became Martaing to Martin’s local friends. (Should have rechristened himself with an easy Gallic name like...er, Vercingétorix.)
Martin spends a summer working in Gascony and encounters characters who are warm, hospitable and full of humour. It’s a different pace of life from that of Paris or other big cities and Martin’s experiences were richer for it. Yes, the natives were friendly and there is even a hint of romance in the shape of a lovely German lass called Anja.
Jacques-Henri, a farmer and Martin’s employer, and his family are welcoming and give Martin a home for the summer. Even the stray dog Pattes (paws) is pleased to have him around. They, together, provide the backdrop to the season’s adventure.
There are wonderful food-filled interludes with plenty of paing et du vaing (bread and wine) but also Cassoulet, cornichons and the Méchoui which is a North African whole roast lamb so often the centre-piece of large gatherings and celebrations. There is an evening of Pastis and Peanuts and many encounters with live livestock and dead livestock. This is still France, where food is pivotal.
A Summer in Gascony offers a realistic look at southern French life. Martin describes the authentic French Market Day as not just resplendent in peppers and garlic but also seriously big knickers. This is a book filled with scenes that will make you smile.
Martin Calder has managed to capture the flavour of Gascony. It is independent and coulourful. Its people embrace outsiders who appreciate its unique history and heritage. This is a lovely holiday read or a book to inspire next year’s tour de France."


"Richly descriptive and insightful, A Summer in Gascony is a delightful travel read."


"Entrancing... the reader soaks up Gascony like a thirsty vine."


"This engaging recollection of an unforgettable summer... replete with regional culinary delights, smells, sights and sounds of Gascony, is a sensory feast. Highly recommended."


"A charming and nostalgic account, written in an accessible and down-to-earth style, this book offers an insider's perspective of Gascony. I felt entirely satisfied with this read and keen to sample Gascony's rural pleasures for myself."


"A Summer in Gascony accurately describes what it is like to live in this wonderful part of France. Characters like Jacques-Henri and Madame Parle-Beaucoup can be encountered in many of the small villages and hamlets scattered across Gascony – proud, warm-hearted people who welcome visitors into their hearts and homes. Martin’s experiences and vivid descriptions allow his readers to travel, eat and drink their way through a summer in Gascony from the comfort of an armchair."


"One of the most absorbing reads I’ve had in a very long time. Martin... burrows deeply under the skin of French rural life to present a gently written picture of a way of life the like of which all but vanished here a couple of generations ago. Here is a community steeped in its own traditions, its own way of doing things, embodying the very Gascon spirit that has made this region, lying roughly between Bordeaux, Toulouse and Biarritz, one of the most spiritually independent in France, despite centuries of subjugation by Paris. Here are descriptions of the finest food France has to offer, so vivid the smell of cooking almost wafts off the page. For those who already know France well, there is still a huge amount to laugh over as [he] recounts the eccentricities of village life and, in bitter-sweet fashion, recalls his affection for his lovely German co-worker Anja. For those who don’t know France – let alone Gascony – this will come as a compelling invitation to go there. This is a charming book. It’s a well-told yarn – a hugely enjoyable trip abroad, and without you having to leave the comfort of your own armchair."


"Fields of sunflowers, flocks of squawking geese, fragrant pine woods backed by the jagged white peaks of the Pyrenees, the melting goodness of a long-simmered cassoulet and the mellowness of a vintage Madiran—Martin Calder’s memories of a summer spent in Gascony are enough to make any Francophile eager to explore what the author calls “the other south of France”.
One of the country’s most remote and rural regions, Gascony spent three centuries as an English rather than French province, thanks to Eleanor of Aquitaine’s 12th-century marriage to Henry II of England. Only belatedly, and with reluctance, did the independent Gascons accept French nationality.
Englishman Martin Calder discovered the region when, as a 22-year-old university student, he worked as a summer stagiaire at a farm and auberge in the isolated village of Péguilhan. Now, years later, he describes with gentle humor his “abrupt culture shock” when, straight from studies of civil engineering and French, he found himself feeding cattle, watering crops, picking plums and herding sheep with bilingual (French and Gascon) sheepdogs. And then there was the moonlit night when four wolves loped up to the inn’s back door...
Much of the book’s charm comes from Calder’s acceptance into a hospitable French family: the genial farmer (“In Jacques-Henri Cazagnac I’d found ... a descendant of those stubborn, unruly, fun-loving Gascons of old”); his kindly wife Marie-Jeanne, whose skill in the kitchen was bringing the auberge renown; and their three sons who worked alongside Calder. Villagers such as the chattering bar owner “Madame Parle-Beaucoup” enliven the pages, as does a summer romance and the highlights of rural life—market day, a weeklong religious festival, Bastille Day festivities, the passage of the Tour de France.
Calder, who went on to get a PhD in 18th-century French literature and now teaches at the University of Bristol, gives readers much more than a memoir. Skillfully weaving centuries of history and culture, including anecdotes of famous Gascons such as the real-life D’Artagnan, into his tale, he transforms “what I did on my summer vacation” into a fascinating glimpse into a relatively unknown and happily unspoiled corner of France."


"If you don’t know much about French rural life, this is a very entertaining way to learn."


"[A Summer in Gascony] offers an engaging recollection of a summer spent working at a family-run Ferme-Auberge in the tiny hamlet of Péguilhan, whilst providing a unique insight into the turbulent history of the region that has shaped the character of this beautiful land and its people. The humour and sunshine of the locals and their village seeps from every page of this charming memoir."


"Nowadays there are a number of books written by people who have decided to leave all things familiar for the lavender scented land of the South of France. Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence is probably one of the more well known examples. It is remarkable that a number of them concentrate on this particular part of the South of France. What distinguishes Martin Calder’s A Summer in Gascony from all the others is that his sojourn took place on the other side of the more famous one. As he humorously points out, it is the Other South of France.
A Summer in Gascony is a paean to the pleasures of life in Gascony. It is a retelling in the most dulcet of terms a wondrous summer spent working in an isolated farm located in the tiny town of Péguilhan, itself is lost between the mountains and rivers of Southwest France’s Gascogne region. The author arrived there as a young student, looking for a different kind of experience. And so, he immerses himself completely in farm work as well as the inn connected to the farm. In the process, he comes to have a real and lasting appreciation of living closely attuned with nature. It is also during the course of this summer that he meets and falls in love with Anja, a fellow stagiare.
This is a well written and engaging book. The author takes pains to acquaint his readers with the storied history of the region and we come away with a much better understanding of it. Of much more interest than plain history however are the quirks and characteristics of the Gascon, of which Jacques-Henri, the genial owner of the farm is a good example. He likewise reminds us that the most famous son of the region is D’Artagnan, our favorite swashbuckler!
The book is also replete with charming descriptions of village life such as the memorable Market day and nights spent at the convivial atmosphere of the auberge. As this is a book about the South of France, the importance of food cannot be over-emphasized enough. The fact that the family runs an inn with a (now) well regarded local restaurant gives us enough descriptions of hearty Gascony food to make our mouths salivate. The inn’s magret de canard sounds especially enticing! And let’s not forget that for every memorable food served, a memorable wine always accompanies it. The local vintage is almost always served and the ubiquitous Armagnac is ever present. One can almost taste and smell the different aromas as we read. Sweet, gentle and quietly funny, this is a great read for armchair travelers. And if like me, you need a bit of prodding to explore a little more the less famous South of France, this is all the prodding you’ll ever need."


"Reading this, anyone who took a gap year at any time may well wish that they had spent it in Gascony. Drenched in sunshine, wine and the sheer vitality of youth, this is a delightful memoir of the author's enduring romance with the area, that began with a summer working and living on a farm/guest house in this south west area of France. The author discovers hard physical work, the bountiful culinary heritage of the region, romance with a German student and most of all the unique and independent character of the Gascons themselves. A delightful read."


"This region of France, from Toulouse to the Atlantic in one direction and from the Garonne River to the Pyrenees in the other, is the heart of what is known as France profonde, deep France. Calder spent a post-university summer working here on a farm/auberge, before the Channel Tunnel opened, when the region was indeed deep and isolated. The book examines this region and Calder's discovery of it: it's about learning to drive a two-horsepower Citroen, the medieval wine fleets that plied the divide between Bordeaux and England, village male voice choir Les Chanteurs du Comminges, Moorish history, and Bastille Day. It's also about croustade aux pommes, watermelon jam, lime blossom honey, wines, armagnac, pastis and daube d'oie. To sum up, this is daily life in Gascony, not presented as a curiosity but delved into with a good swag of past profonde."



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