IF YOU'RE looking for material for kitchen worktops, granite is the answer. It has all the advantages: it resists great heat and cold, it's virtually indestructible, scratchproof and unstainable, it's decorative and lasts for ever. It's massively
IF YOU'RE looking for material for kitchen worktops, granite is the answer. It has all the advantages: it resists great heat and cold, it's virtually indestructible, scratchproof and unstainable, it's decorative and lasts for ever. It's massively heavy and not cheap, but we'll let that pass.
To one who has spent a good slice, indeed a doorstep, of his working life not all that far from Aberdeen, the Granite City, the notion of granite as an indoor feature isn't all that comfortable: all those stern unsmiling grey buildings, matching the leaden skies, a metaphor for the supposed Aberdeen character of craggy tight-fistedness and rugged rectitude. Could granite really reflect the light, the colour, the variety, of a Mediterranean kitchen?
But there are granites and granites. We needed worktops for the kitchen in the house we're building, so we took time off to explore the heart of the Midi granite industry and discovered an unsuspected world, based in a hilly area to the east of Castres, in the Tarn département. This area, an enormous undulating spread of immemorial granite, is called the Sibobre. It's known for several curious geological features: the most bizarre is a massive gravity-defying lump perched on a hour-glass-thin base called the Peyro Clabado, the nailed stone, so called I suppose because only nailing can explain how it remains in position. The top of the Peyro Clabado is covered in smaller rocks, where subversive spirits have supposed that just one more stone chucked up there will finally upset the balance and send the barrage balloon-sized boulder crashing down the hillside in a cataclysmic swathe of destruction.
The Sibobre is a curiously secret world, heavily wooded, full of unexpected twists and turns, hollows and hillocks, where every bend in the lane reveals a granite works, often anonymous, as though sporting a name board would betray the secrecy of the place. The local granite is grey and mostly featureless. In the past and to a lesser extent today it was blasted, quarried and worked to make lintels and door jambs, thresholds and keystones, but more particularly to make family tombs.
I wonder which bright spark first thought eh bien, why not use all the existing cutting, polishing and heavy lifting gear for imported granites? Was it fatigue from turning out endless polished slabs for Midi cemeteries? Imports of exotic granites are now commonplace. We sometimes find ourselves caught up in slow files of traffic moving inland, and holding everybody up is a truck laden with a single massive cube of granite. In my innocence I used to think some monumental up-country sculptor had ordered these blocks in order to execute commissions for life-size statuary, but after visiting the Sidobre I know better.
These are granites from India, Brazil and elsewhere, and very beautiful they are if you slice them like a loaf of bread and polish them. Our granitier, M. Séguy, who will eventually cut and fit our chosen worktops, directed us to a sort of granite supermarket run by some people called Sablayrolles, a local name, where sliced blocks, like so many pieces of toast in a toast rack, stand on display for customers to choose from. You wind your way between the blocks, as struck by the beauty of their names, Juparana, Shivakashi, Amarelo, Icarai, as by the gleaming bejewelled spreads and whorls of blood-reds, golden ochres, deep magentas and shimmering blues of tropical skies. Irresistibly seduced, we booked some 3-centimetre slabs of Juparana gold not only for the kitchen but for the bathrooms too. Folie de grandeur?
Down to earth. Along the valley, in the mairie at Panassiers, there's a room they call la salle du troisième age, the seniors' room, where framed hand-lettered lists of all the village maires and councillors since the Revolution of 1789 hang round the walls. At the far end of the room there's a loo. Inside the door there's a notice saying (in translation): Gentlemen, you flatter yourselves. Please stand nearer the bowl.
Over the hills and into the Minervois, a region north of Narbonne and Carcassonne that gives its name to a range of wines chiefly remarkable for their diversity and unpredictability. We arrive in a village called Caunes Minervois, where we succumb yet again to one the great pleasures of living in the south of France, stopping for coffee at a terrasse, a pavement café. There's a fountain nearby, where water pipes embedded in an obelisk spout into a bassin. There are inscriptions on all four faces of the obelisk, mostly reminding us of the here-today-gone-tomorrow nature of our life, but the most unusual is almost a historical document:
Cette onde qui jaillit
Et si pure et si belle
Nous promet de nombreux
Mais inconstants bienfaits
Le temps peut la tarir
Moins périssable qu'elle
La bonté de nos rois
Ne tarira jamais
This wave (?) which gushes forth
Both so pure and so fine
Promises us numerous but unreliable benefits.
In time it will dry up.
Less perishable, the generosity of our kings
Will never cease flowing.
You don't expect to come across publicly such abject monarchism in a land which sent Louis XVI to the guillotine, and you wonder which kings the inscription refers to. First thoughts might lead you to Louis XIV, the Sun King, a man of unquestionable generosity towards himself but not best known for forking out for public fountains in remote Languedoc villages. Look closer and there's not only a date, 1825, but the name of the king then reigning, Charles X, one of those inglorious French kings who slotted awkwardly into the period between the downfall of Napoleon after Waterloo and his nephew Louis Napoleon's coming to power in 1848.
Charles X is now plunged in the deepest oblivion, but time hasn't yet dried up the fountain. Whoever called the its intermittent spurt une onde, a wave, had binged on poetic licence. Or maybe he came from Panassiers?