Story and Recipe by Kieran Creevy
Images by Cat Vinton
Iron studded wood doors, gnarled and black with age, rise before drawbridge chains: We’re in the tiny fortified village of Villefranche De Conflent, our home for the next few days. Wandering down the narrow streets toward our apartment, we begin to see more elements of ironwork. Shops, bars and restaurant signs all bear the handcrafted hallmarks of forged iron.
Other elements throughout the village give us pause; the prevalence of witches in a number of shops and the flags draped between houses, and from the walls. Not the expected tricolor of blue, white and red, but horizontal bands of yellow and red.
We’re in France, but not the one you’d expect. We’re at the base of the Carlit Massif in the Pyrenees Orientales, historically and culturally part of Catalunya.
From an evening hike on the hillside above the village, it’s easy to see the cultural, historical and military significance of village for the French empire for centuries. Wedged between two narrow river valleys, Villefranche de Conflent held sway over access to the contested border between the French and Spanish crowns.
Inside its walls, light shimmers and dances amid the gloom. The smell of earth, wood and stone dust is ever-present. We can’t help but wonder what it must have been like in the midst of battle; the clamor from hundreds of booted feet, orders shouted and rifle reports.
We move from a cool, monochrome environment inside to one flooded with light, heat and vibrant colors outside.
The next morning, we leave at first light, hiking further up the valley. Though we’re well into autumn, there’s no sign of storms and cold rains here.
When we break for lunch, our plan is to recreate one simple elements of last night’s dinner, Pa amb tomaquet—Catalan olive, garlic and tomato bread.
We discuss our plans for the next few days, wanting to spend a night out in the mountains. We could camp or bivouac in the open with mats and sleeping bags, but here, in the French Pyrenees, we have a third option.
All over the mountains lie a network of mountain refuges. During the summer, most are staffed by a local family or a small team. They serve sensational three-course dinners, a comfortable bed and continental breakfast for less than a restaurant dinner for one at home.
We decide on Gorges de Caranca. Again, we rise before dawn, wanting to be high on the trail before the heat of midday makes uphill progress a sweaty endeavor. We squeeze onto the local bus with loaded packs; a mere €1for a 30 minute journey.
Entering the gorge, our voices are drowned by the flow of water, amplified by the sound bouncing back and forth across the encroaching steep rock walls of the canyon.
Higher up the gorge and on our way toward the summit ridge we come across the cornice trail to Fontpedrouse. Blasted and carved into the rock face by human hand, these overhangs and hollows pale in comparison to the wonders created by water, ice and wind.
Higher still we pause in our first patch of open sunlight to breakfast with a simple spread of water, goats cheese, wild boar chorizo, and some leftover Pa amb tomaquet.
As we near our camp, we start to see and hear evidence of this trail’s history: the movement of people, goods and livestock from valleys to high pastures. The melodic clang of many cowbells start to filter through the forest.
Not long after, the track forks and in the clearing lies our refuge—Dona Pa. The breadth and scale of the serried ranks of ridges, summits and valleys on view stuns us immobile for seconds.
Dropping packs we check out our home for the night. It’s even better than expected; outside the refuge lies a pre-made fire pit. Inside and under the eaves are masses of wood, seasoned to perfection.
Beside a fire, we begin to prepare our meal—a simple fare of chicken, foraged mushrooms and cheese. Morning comes, and with it, a reluctance to leave the peace of our wild home. But descend we must.
Already it feels as though we’ve been away from city life for weeks, even though it’s barely been a long weekend. A weekend, full of surprises in language, history, myth, flavors and high and wild spaces.
Pa amb tomaquet – bread with olive oil, garlic and tomato
1-2 cloves garlic
Handful baby tomatoes
50 ml/ 4 tbsp olive oil.
150 g/ ¾ cup spelt or white flour
¼ tsp sea salt
¼ tsp espelette pepper*
Additional oil as needed
Flour for dusting
SealLine drybag, stainless steel food canister and small silicone food grade bottle
Store the flour, garlic and tomatoes in a dry bag and the oil in the bottle
Slice the baby tomatoes in half, squash and slice the garlic cloves
Heat the olive oil in the pan to medium/hot
Add the tomatoes, garlic and salt, turn the heat down to a simmer and cook for 5 – 10 minutes to release the flavors into the oil
Add the espelette pepper to the oil, then mix all the garlic, tomatoes and most of the oil with the flour in the food canister, combine well until you have a smooth dough, adding extra oil if needed
Break off golf ball-sized lumps of dough and flatten to a thin disk
Turn the heat in the pan back to medium/hot.
Fry in the oil until cooked through
*Available from the mushroom shop in Villefrance de Conflent, on market days in the area, online via good spice merchants or in good supermarkets such as WholeFoods.
Kieran is an expedition and private chef and International mountain leader with more than 20 years experience cooking and leading in a wide variety countries and on vastly differing terrains and climates around the world. Visit his website at http://www.kierancreevy.com