Paul Jack and his partner Mark live in St-Antonin-Noble-Val in south-west France and they reveal why they love all of the different seasons in France
Spring in south-west France
Spring comes early in south-west France. You notice the changes around Valentine’s Day. Trees depleted of their foliage over winter begin to bud giving an expanding green tinge to the wooded hills and valleys, the promise of a bigger transformation to come. Here in St-Antonin-Noble-Val, Valentine’s Day acts as a starting pistol setting off a frenzy of activity as shops, restaurants, cafés and B&Bs throw open their windows and discard any winter blues in anticipation of another busy holiday season, welcoming visitors from all over the world to our idyllic little corner of la France profonde.
Temperatures begin to pick up as March progresses and as the trees bounce back to life; so does the birdsong that accompanies the return of colour to the countryside. Outdoor cafés quickly fill with people energised by the return of the warm sun and the prospect of a glorious summer ahead.
St-Antonin’s weekly market (every Sunday of the year including Christmas Day) grows as stallholders return from their winter retreats and the first of the new season’s produce tempts shoppers from near and far. The French show far more respect to the seasonality of fruit and veg than the British and early spring means the reappearance of asparagus, radishes, rhubarb, new potatoes and salad greens. Towards the middle of May, the sweetest of strawberries from Lot make a triumphant return which is great news for us jam makers.
At Maison Belmont, we are lucky to have a well-established, large and beautiful garden, and spring with its longer and warmer days means hours spent planting and preparing for the coming season. Regular trips to markets and garden centres become part of our routine from March until mid-May. Late frosts, even as far south as Tarn-et-Garonne, can be a problem so we have learned to do as the locals do and don’t start planting out until 15 May.
Our garden is a very special place. In the summer, it provides an oasis of calm and shade for our guests but spring is when the hard work needs to be done to ensure it is at its best in high season. We have over 20 varieties of rose bushes, all needing pruning and tending, as well as pots and containers to plant and water through the spring.
Summer in south-west France
The village of St-Antonin-Noble-Val springs into life as summer arrives. The arrival of the first tourists marks the change of seasons. Summer brings with it the promise of warm sunny days, apéros with friends and neighbours on balmy evenings, the occasional chilled glass of rosé, shutters closed against the fiercest heat of the day and, for those of us who run businesses dependent on tourism, the welcome arrival of holidaymakers from around the world.
When we moved from the UK we were drawn mainly by our summertime experiences in France, recognising of course that seasons being seasons, winter, spring and autumn would need to win us over with their particular charms as well. Summer in the south of France is, however, something very special.
There appears to be a festival or event every weekend once May Day has passed: garden festivals, night markets, parades and processions (some religious but mostly not), sporting events and, of course, the king of them all, the Tour de France! St-Antonin celebrates the tractor in August with the Fête des Battages, car-racing enthusiasts flock to the town for the Course de Côte (also in August) and the medieval heritage of the village is celebrated early in September with the torch-lit Fêtons St-Antonin, a festival with fireworks in honour of the village’s founding religious figure. Every neighbouring town and village also has its vide-grenier and wonderful local produce market.
Summer means the tastiest and freshest of salads as well as delicious simple fare such as cassoulet, grilled lamb and beef and pink magret de canard followed, inevitably by a cheese course showcasing local specialities. Summer in France is lived outdoors and long light evenings are perfect for relaxing, unwinding and sampling food and wine, all of which lives in the memory long after the holidays are over.
Autumn in south-west France
September brings us the first misty morning and cooler nights that indicate the more significant changes to come as autumn ever slowly turns into winter. As the first autumn leaves start to fall and the summer visitors depart, our village is reclaimed by the locals and a less chaotic, more tranquil and more authentically ‘French’ way of life reasserts itself.
Restaurant owners welcome back, as old friends, those of us whose busy summers have rarely given us the opportunity to dine out and enjoy the rich variety of local produce from a region famed for its gastronomy. If summer is all about chilled rosé and evening apéros, autumn means a slow-cooked cassoulet accompanied by a full-bodied red.
Children return to school and holidaymakers go back to their jobs in towns and cities all over Europe just as the wine harvest begins. Although a welcome calmness pervades village life in St-Antonin, for many working on the land the pace of life quickens as the days shorten and the nights draw in.
Autumn is certainly a season of “mists and mellow fruitfulness” and those words of John Keats are as true for our corner of south-west France as anywhere in England the great Romantic poet was describing. And although the summer crowds have gone, the natives of Tarn-et-Garonne are able to enjoy the abundance of fruit and vegetables – the gift of autumn – sold in our colourful and bustling markets.
The king of the season has to be the cep: the wild mushroom par excellence. Available from late summer through to the muddle of autumn, it suddenly appears on restaurant menus in a multitude of forms. Here in the south-west they can be bought from markets – or better (and cheaper) from roadside vendors, freshly picked that day.
Winter in south-west France
There is a lot that appeals about wintertime in France. There is the food: homemade soups made from market-fresh winter vegetables, roasted meats and warming casseroles of infinite varieties, the smoked salmon and oysters that encapsulate a French Christmas, and chocolate the way chocolate is meant to taste! Festive lights installing in time for Christmas brighten even the darkest January day and remain switched on well beyond Twelfth Night.
In towns and cities all over France there are winter festivals, fairs and events to satisfy any cultural appetite. From the Pyrénées to Auvergne to the Alps, winter sports attract visitors in their millions. In the south-west, a usually gentler climate means that ramblers and other lovers of the great outdoors can enjoy their favourite pursuits at times of the year that northern Europeans can only envy.
To the casual visitor, our village may appear to shut down for the winter. Certainly with the summer hordes long departed, life is a lot quieter. Frost arrives early and late in the day; shutters close before dark as a buffer against the winter chill. The smell of wood smoke pervades the air.
St-Antonin-Noble-Val is situated in the valley of the River Aveyron and the winter fog can be stubborn to lift. People go about their daily business wrapped up well against the cold. But come the short days and long nights of December and January, they also seem to find the time to say hello and chat – with the weather often a popular topic of conversation!
Here is south-west France winters can be chilly – but the air is crisp and clear and you can enjoy France at its quietest. This is the real France and, away from the cities, we enjoy a slower and more civilised pace with less stress and an enviable quality of life. From December to mid-February you chance upon restaurants full of locals eating genuine regional food and can enjoy browsing markets trading in local produce at prices the locals can afford. And, best of all, a cup of oh-so-perfect chocolate chaud is just that bit more special when it is served to you in front of a roaring fire – the ideal antidote to the cold outside.