We live on the southern slopes, the first mountain range that you eventually come to if you drive north from Montpellier and the Mediterranean Sea. Five hundred metres up, our typical Cévenol house sits sternly and remotely on top of a rocky outcrop. It is built on the spot where all three of the local stone converge – granite, limestone and schist, so naturally all three types of stone can be seen in its construction. Built to endure it has stood here for the last four hundred years. Our water is from the underground source which pops up a few hundred metres from the house. We drink it unfiltered; clear and sweet, our most precious commodity. The house sits with its back to the surrounding chestnut forest and its front is open to a glorious sweeping view with a continually shifting display of light and shadow.
Famed for its unctuous deeply-perfumed honey; sweet, floury chestnuts and traditional pélardon frais – perfect pats of fresh white, creamy goats cheese or older pélardon sec, hard and tangy, just right with a glass of red wine and a dried fig or two; both are delicious. Another favourite also with an AOP Appellation d’Origine Protégée are the large sweet oignons doux, grown on the southern slopes on traditional rugged stone terraces, planted and harvested by hand. They are best eaten raw to appreciate the surprising delicate flavour and are strangely addictive.
It is known for its infamous apocalyptic épisodes Cévenols when it rains harder and faster than you believed possible and where rivers rise at an alarming rate and bridges are swept away. Also known paradoxically for its long hot lazy Languedoc days when wild swimming keeps you from succumbing to summer torpor.
However, this is not true of January, when it’s not so rainy and certainly not so warm.
It is a capricious month, entertainingly spiteful, howling winds blowing in from the north. Whipping up a tempest. It becomes volatile and dangerous outside with furniture blowing across the terrace and loose branches flying. We stay inside thankful for the thick granite stone walls. Stuffing tissue into the gaps in a vague attempt to block the freezing draughts, though the wind somehow always feels its way through. We are eternally grateful for the open fire and even for the not hugely efficient central heating which we put in at quite some cost when we renovated the house. We go to bed listening to roof tiles rattle.
When we wake it’s quiet and nonchalant outside and we still have a roof. What was all the fuss? The winter sun is strong and confident, the sky a bright cheery blue. Calm is restored. We take a tentative walk to see what damage has been done. Last week a huge chestnut cross beam, above one of the terraces, had collapsed during a tempest, but since no-one was under it, no harm done. We add it to the ever-growing list of spring jobs. Taking the dogs for a walk we are soon peeling off layers and admiring the first of the zingy lime green hellebores that will eventually cover pockets of the hillside. I make a mental to note to return with my camera.
Another day and it’s cold and quiet grey. The high mountains to the west of us have a sugar dusting of snow, glittery and effervescent. We take the dogs for theirs and our daily exercise. We climb and stop for air admiring the deep bruised purple and violet hues of the hills, endless layers turning into shadows of themselves eventually melding into the sky. Breathing in the isolation, it’s a joy not having to wear a mask.
As we reach home the sky has become expectant and wary. Sitting down to lunch we watch through the glass doors; the first snowflakes fall, delicate and silent but with resolve. We ohh and ahh, excitement abounds. By the time we finish our seconds, we are treated to a full-blown spectacle of whirling swirling flurries. Magically fancy and thoughts of Winter Wonderland take over, until someone mentions the drive back to Montpellier. It’s Sunday and my turn to take the girls back to town for school in the morning.
In a split second it’s decided we should leave right NOW just in case it settles and I can’t make it up our notorious long windy drive. Thirty minutes later, (that’s super record speed for us) we leave feeling intrepid, gingerly driving through the snow. We reach the bottom of the mountain to the village at its foot and inevitably there is no snow at all, just a disappointing flat, slippery, grey. I can’t help feeling let down and a tad foolish.
Still. Winter is not over yet.