26 April 2008
Romo, capital of the Sologne
Soon after arriving in Saint-Aignan in 2003, we drove over to Romorantin and had in a restaurant there. With us were our good friend Ch. from California and the woman who sold us the house we now live in, J., who will soon celebrate her 81st birthday.
J., who was born and lived for many years in the big town of Châteauroux in the Berry province, south of the Sologne, pointed out to us some of the prosperous young (and not so young) farmers she noticed in the town and at the restaurant as we were having lunch. She talked about them in terms that made me think of the descriptions of small-town characters in an old novel by Balzac or Maupassant. You could tell theses guys had gotten dressed up to come into town for the afternoon — they had that "just spiffed-up" look.
Romorantin is the unofficial capital of an extensive farming and hunting region, and the local cuisine is based on game animals and birds, fish, asparagus, and strawberries. It's a rural, old-fashioned kind of place. The land is flat, the local soil is sandy, the forests are thick with pine and birch trees, and there are hundreds of ponds and small lakes scattered over the wide, flat countryside. The Larousse Gastronomique food encyclopedia calls the Sologne "the country of all game animals," and says "its game birds are the finest in all of France. Also, its lakes are full of fish."
But the Sologne wasn't always a healthy place for humans to live. The land had been cleared during the Middle Ages and then given over to sheep farming. The result was land stripped of vegetation and a lot of marshes, ponds, and lakes in which stagnant water supported an important populations of mosquitoes that carried "fevers" and other diseases. One that affected the local people until about 150 years ago was malaria.
In the 19th century, Emperor Napoleon III sponsored a project to drain the marshes, dig canals and ponds, and plant forests that would create a healthier environment. The Sologne has changed greatly over the centuries, but the nature of the land has not. Reforestation brought the region back to life and made it into the attractive hunting, fishing, and vacation area it is today.
The Sologne is a distinct region that contrasts with the river valleys and hillsides planted in rows of grapevines of the Touraine to the west and the wide rolling fields of grains planted over the Berry to the south. There's something dark and mysterious about the Sologne's forests and lakes that just feels old-fashioned.
P.S. Roselyne just delivered our daily bread. She had the local newspaper in the car, and I noticed the headline but didn't understand what it was about. Roselyne explained: there's been a plan to build a new shopping center in Romo to give the local economy a shot in the arm. Evidently, those plans need to be revised because of government objections. Ever since Romo's biggest employer, Matra, closed down its factory there, the economy has been suffering.