So I am back, it is the forth time. The first year I just passed through the village, found it charming, checked into a room at the Casino-Hotel for one night (Salomé was still a pup) and absolutely fell in love with Salies de Bearn, a small town halfway between Biarritz and Pau, close to where the Domecq family apparently originated (a tiny place composed of 4 disintegrating buildings called Usquain about a 45 minute drive from Salies). That was in 2007. I decided to come the following summer and promptly found a studio that looked like just the right thing. It was. I stayed two weeks and was so in love with being here that after my lease ran out, I spent two more nights in the Casino Hotel…
Before departing, I learned that I would miss the important fest of the Piperadère and something bearing the pompous title of the “World Championship of <<Espadrille>> Throwing”, ‘espadrille’ being a local sandal with a sole woven from cord (the Spanish alpargata). I promised myself not to miss it the following year.
Therefore, last year I spent the whole month of August here inspired by my Muse (EL MUSO, an old friend from my school days with whom I had reestablished contact on Skype) writing about Salies. It was then, after returning to Madrid, that I continued writing and have ever since.
Last year I realized that, by leaving at the end of August, I would miss the Festivity of the Salt, the one that closes the season around the middle of September, so I promised myself to take it in the following year, which is now, when I am planning to stay until September 13th and be present for that day.
So now I am in Salies again, in the same studio apartment, with the window that overlooks a forested hill. I hear the pitter-patter of rain on the leaves as the storm that has been threatening for hours finally lets loose. Poor Saliesciennes: they are in the midst of the biggest fest of the year (fête): the Piperadère. Piperadère is a local “stew” which can be eaten as a dish by itself or used to garnish a meat like chicken or pork. It is comprised basically of tomato to which are added green peppers, onion and garlic. That is the base, and then each chef adds his or her own touch. According to an Englishman who was explaining it to a friend, the purpose is to cook the best Piperadère while drinking the most alcohol without falling into the cauldron. The judge later will do the rounds tasting all the stews and prizing the best. After that, in spite of the delicate egos of the chefs concerned (who by that time are too drunk to give a damn) all the Piperadères are poured into one giant cauldron to serve the 600 odd townsfolk at the evening banquet.
At this moment, under the multiple tents that have been set up, donned in their inventive costumes and chopping veggies like mad, the teams are being rained on. No doubt they have pulled their cauldrons in under the scanty covering to avoid making a watery piperadère. An announcer strolls around with a hand-held mike animating the fest in terms that are broadcast through the village by loudspeakers strategically placed at street corners. The vendors who have set up stalls all along the Cours du Parc which runs the full block length of the Parc Public display their wares in hopes of making a day’s wages. Several townsfolk have dressed in accordance with the ancient usage and exhibit the various crafts that have been part of the daily life from time immemorial: the gathering of salt, the forging of iron into utensils, the grinding of the corn to feed unsuspecting duck grown for paté, the preparation of strands of long grass for weaving baskets, the delicate carving of wood and intricate stained glass ornaments patiently artisaned. The old traditions are dragged out of the cellar, the back room, grandma’s trunk and exhibited for all to see: homemade bakery, homemade patés, homemade bread and sausages.
Modern crafts join the old along the “rue”. One woman makes piecemeal bags, aprons and jewellery with bright-colored cloths; another paints imaginative figures on pieces of wood that hold clock mechanisms; a third exhibits elaborate rings and earrings forged from rainbow-like plastic that attract youth with their brightness and low prices.
Now the sun has reappeared and in a while I will venture out again. It is my second Piperadère. I do not plan to go to the banquet for last year Salomé and I suffered from the extremely entusiastic band that blasted the happening with extra loud music. But for today, I will enjoy the merry-making and then follow my fancy until bed time leaving this short piece to do the chores of a brief introduction to my writings “In Salies de Bearn, France”.