Not far from Lauzerte is Moissac in the Garonne valley, France. I do think my Rough Guide is a little unkind when it says ‘there is little historical interest left in the modern town’. In 1930 Moissac was affected by a horrendous flood which destroyed 617 houses. Miraculously, the Moissac Abbey, famous across the art history world, remains despite wars, sieges, the Revolution and the railway.
The Benedictine abbey church of St. Pierre and its cloisters are ‘a masterpiece of Romanesque sculpture and a model for dozens of churches throughout the region.’ Legend has it that the Frankish King Clovis first founded the church in 506, but more likely its origins were established in the seventh century – a boom in monastery establishments across the Aquitaine region.
Mossiac’s importance was cemented when it became a stopping point for the Santiago de Compostela pilgrim route. It survived a siege by Simon de Montfort in 1212 during the crusade against the Cathars. During the Revolution, the cloister was used as a gunpowder factory and billet for soldiers, who damaged many of the carvings. Standing there, in front of the serene cloisters, where Benedictine monks lived for over 1000 years, it’s hard to imagine such a space as gunpowder factory. It’s also quite an awkward shape for that sort of operation?
The red brick belfry is dumpy but it’s really the great stone arch and the impressive tympanum (completed in 1130) that draws the wondering crowds. It depicts Christ in Majesty with 24 elders of the Apocalypse; each figure is different, as described by St John in the Book of Revelation.
But it is the cloisters that adorn many a postcard in Mossiac. Stepping from the modern tourist office onto the cloister’s flagstone floor, one is immediately transported back in time, falling through an invisible time portal like Claire Randall in ‘Outlander’. Immediately your attention is drawn the majestic cedar tree which looks like it was planted at the beginning of time itself.
In total 76 alternating marble columns support the pantile roof. Each is crowned with an inverted wedge, depicting a whole host of animal and plant motifs as well as and 46 scenes from the Bible including Sunday school favourites Daniel and the lion’s den, the Evangelists and the fisherman on Lake Galilee. Despite the damage caused by the Revolution, the fine craftsmanship is still visible.
Our plan was then to wonder round Moissac to find something to eat and browse a few shops. The Friend family has a terrible habit of landing in the places at the wrong times and after we finished at the cloisters, most places had rolled down their shutters for the day. We were in that annoying limbo period between the shops shutting and bars not being quite open.
We headed back to Montaigu de Quercy, where we were staying, in the hope of finding somewhere inspiring for dinner. We stumbled across Le Delice, which looked distinctly shut, but Mum ventured inside to suss out the lay of the land. Open! Hooray!
As we trooped in we realised that we’d found a right treat – Montaigu de Quercy’s very own Morrocan. Now that’s something you can’t get much of in the Cotswolds. We settled down to a splendid three-course banquet that refuelled our tired beings. Dad and I had the unusual cured duck salad for starters, whilst Tom and Mum tucked into a salmon samosa.
The piece de la resistance were the two lamb shank tagines that emerged, steaming hot, stuffed with local Agen prunes and unveiled with a flourish . In fact, no less that 65 per cent of all France’s plums are grown in the Agenais. Leaving Mossiac, the fields were lined with rows of plum trees draped in nets which we supposed were to prevent pests from getting at the crop.
In total, the trees take up to eight years to reach maturity and fruit is harvested in August and September either by hand or machine. Once collected the plums are laid out in drying tunnels exposed to temperatures of over 75 degrees centigrade for 24 hours. Losing up to 25 per cent of their moisture, plums turn into prunes – in fact about 3kg makes just 1kg of prunes.
Le Delice was a truly wonderful find, clearly, Englishman are still a novelty (well at least in May) and even the chef came out to see us. It’s the kind of place where everyone knows everyone else, as diners waved to friends as the entered the small restaurant. At one point, the whole restaurant was involved in a game of ‘what is this in English’ when attempting to demystify the selection of Moroccan pastries for dessert!