Living in a house with its back in the forest creates a feeling of seclusion and protection. In autumn as the leaves begin to turn not only does this feeling pervade but it seems like a place where enchantments are buried deep down into the tips of the tree roots. The colder air releases them from their hibernation and they gradually seep up into the green fabric of the leaves slowly turning them to copper and gold. Every window in the house frames a seasonal painting. Looking out of the large one in the living room, the papery hydrangeas heads stare back at me, rather forlorn, not able to compete with the tongues of fire of the chestnut trees that shoot up behind them into the sky.
Autumn is an undeniably spectacular time of year across all of the Cévennes from the high plateaux, Causses, to the chestnut and beech forests below. A Mexican wave of vivid colours is released across the hillsides, a fiesta of umber and raw sienna interwoven with ever present dark greens. Rivers swell and spill their banks with a few days of epic Cévenol rain, seasonal streams come to life gushing over rocks and stones joining in the party. A molten river of bronze ferns cascade down the valley. Pockets of unstoppable colour everywhere luminate the flattest of grey days.
As the first chestnuts play peek-a-boo from their protected husks, we walk with our heads down, eyes sweeping across the rough paths, looking for mushrooms secretly hidden amongst the leaves that have started to fall. The air is damp, not cold but filled with earth smells, dank and dark, like the woodland at night. I sniff out the Ceps that lie off the track, growing between the pine needles and rotting branches covered in velvety moss. An unmistakeably scent, pungent and smoky. But, I am too late, they have already started to rot, full of insects, falling back to the soil.
Dan comes home with a paper bag of three or four large bought ceps – our treat of the week - Ceps on toast. Gently smudging away soil crumbs from the firm and large mushrooms, I cut them into thick slices. The mixture of butter and olive oil swirls in the pan fragranced with a clove of garlic. When spitting hot I add the mushrooms, decorating them with salt crystals. I keep them moving in the pan watching them turn a burnished brown, gently crisping at the edges, a handful of fresh parsley and tarragon and an extravagant whoosh of brandy. I turn the heat up, just for a moment to let the alcohol burn off, the steam is heady and savoury, they are ready. We eat them on seed flecked toast, adding a grinding of pepper as we go. Each mouthful is savoured - luxurious, full of umami adventure and wholly satisfying.
As autumn takes hold and days shorten we hear the chestnuts crashing to the ground, a sound that echoes through the forest. The earth all around is decorated with glossy brown nuggets and spiny husks, a forest of sea urchins. I manage to entice the girls from their lairs to help collect them. We toss them into our baskets, enjoying the sun on our backs, on the lookout for the shiniest or the largest, calling out when we find a good one. That night we roast some in the chestnut pan over the fire, watch them spit and crack, trying not to burn our fingers as we peel them, enjoying the creamy nutty flavour garnished with a pinch of salt.
I plan a walk with a friend and my sister. Since we are starting at the Cap de Coste which stands at over a thousand meters I begin the day with woolly hat and plenty of layers. In fact, although not sunny, it is surprisingly warm as there is no wind. It’s a walk of Mouflon (wild sheep) and l’aigle royal (golden eagles). We start out on the trail of L’écureuil (squirrel) which winds its way through an ancient beech forest. I had hoped to see the trees in their Autumn colour but in fact they are nearly bare, just dressed with a filigree of coppery lace draped from the odd branch. They have generously cast off their leafy coats and laid them out before us, sequined ones of bright russets.
We pick our way across streams, careful not to slip on the mossy rocks. We pause at a still, quiet pond, admiring the perfect reflections of the straight elegant trees that rise up so high I can’t see their tops. As we chat away it is too tempting not to shuffle through the leaves like kids, enjoying the rustling movement and shushing sound as they flutter in the air. Otherwise the forest is quiet but there is always the feeling that you are being watched by other-worldly creatures, or perhaps just a mouse. As if catching my drift, in between the trees far down the hill we glimpse a deer, for just a moment, frozen in time, I slowly move to raise my camera and she is gone. No chance.
Out of the forests we climb a little and the view opens out into watercolour layers of Cévenol hills. The mountain ridge facing us is like the all-powerful fire-breathing Smaug, with its awe inspiring gigantic proportions silently sleeping, his armour of bronze scales winking in the sun, in-between there are folds of coal-grey skin formed into ancient gorges. I imagine any moment he will waken and the earth will erupt, rocks flying as he unfurls his gigantic tail with its jagged peaks running along its length, wiping out everything in his path. Parts of the mountain side where we are walking has charcoal remnants of tree and shrub, perhaps it was Smaug’s fire that caused the destruction. We find a log to sit and eat our picnic, I keep an eye out.
Back home, I soak the muscle stiffness away in a hot bath, before going out again to run errands. I am lucky to feel the glow of being out all day, immersed in landscapes that invigorate body and soul. During the heat of summer, I had forgotten just how delectable Autumn can be, decorated with fiery leaves and amber sunsets. I wish for a moment time could stand still. I know it won’t last much longer; on breezy days the air is alive with falling leaves like embers sparking as the fire dies down, the colours draining back into the soil. I admit I am not looking forward to bare branches and frosty mornings. Still perhaps once we are there, I will feel the same way about Winter, I will let you know.