A Walk Back in Time on the Saint-Antonin Causse

Gorges de l'Aveyron at Saint-Antonin
Gorges de l’Aveyron at Saint-Antonin

Last Saturday night’s thunderstorm caused us little bother – except for water seeping under the kitchen door as usual – and cleared the air. In parts of Aveyron, we hear, the damage was considerable and a church spire is reported to have fallen onto a house. This morning, as our walking group assembled in Saint-Antonin, the air was fresh and skeins of mist floated over the River Averyon. But the sun quickly dispersed the haze and we were glad our walk was short and mainly shady. The heat has returned.

Every year, the village of Espinas lays on guided walks every Wednesday in July and August. René and Marie-Bernadette (Nadette) Curato lead the walks and convey their affection for their adopted village. Mostly, the randonnées take place within the commune of Espinas but today’s walk was up on the causse above Saint-Antonin, along le chemin de Lou Finot.

Unforgiving Terrain

A few definitions are in order. Le causse is – so I’m told – the Occitan word for a limestone plateau, which is the dominant topographical feature of the Quercy region south of the Dordogne. The soil is thin and poor and the rock pokes through the surface everywhere. Little vegetation grows, except for scrub oak and hardy plants that need barely any water, which is scarce. Sheep farming was the prevailing form of agriculture.

Le cloup des trois cerisiers (long since gone)
Le cloup des trois cerisiers (long since gone)

In places, small areas of cultivable land exist. These are normally sinkholes – cloups in Occitan; dolines in French – formed by the land subsiding, sometimes when an underground cave roof collapsed. René explained that rainwater deposited earth in the base of the cloup and, enriched with animal dung, the soil could support modest crops.

Rare well next to the cloup
Rare well next to the cloup
Inside the well, full of water
Inside the well, full of water

Realities of Rural Life

The evidence of former human habitation is everywhere on the causse. This area was once much more densely populated. In 1900, for example, Caylus had more than 4,000 inhabitants. By 2006, the population had shrunk to 1,569. The challenge of scratching a living from such unpromising soil, combined with other economic and demographic trends, led many to abandon it. René told us that some of the paysans, whose land was not sufficient to feed them, regularly exchanged their labour for a plate of soup.

Long since abandoned
Long since abandoned

But who, or what, is ‘Lou Finot’? I should have asked René. ‘Lou’ is the Occitan word for ‘the’. In my ignorance, I used to think it was short for the name Louis. So, when we dined on holiday years ago in Perigueux at ‘Lou Chabrol’, I thought it was the restaurateur’s name. That phrase actually refers to the former practice of pouring a glass of wine into the dregs of the soup and drinking it straight from the bowl (down here, it’s called lou chabrot).

Researches via an Occitan dictionary reveal that finot is an adjective meaning slim or thin. This doesn’t help me along greatly, so I’ll be grateful to anyone who can enlighten me.

The chemin de lou finot is a nature/patrimoine walk and information boards point out the variety of wildlife and explain a little of how people once lived up there. The area is rich in orchids, of which, René said, there are at least 18 varieties. He also said that orchids grow particularly well where sheep graze or have grazed.

Thanks to René and Nadette, we learn something new on each walk, despite the fact that we have been taking part for years. Next week’s will be at Flouquet, a hamlet within the commune of Espinas, where the remaining part-time residents re-enact for us some of the rural pursuits that are now just dusty memories.

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  1. As a previous resident of the Lot, I remember walks on the causse – spikey and scrubby but nonetheless dramatic and often surprising. Here it is much greener and the variety of trees in our woods and forests is wonderful. We enjoy a verdant outlook most of the year. On the negative side, the architecture here isn’t nearly so inspiring, so you can’t have it all ways.


    • This year, because of the rain, the causse has been rather greener than normal. Now in September it has reverted to type and is arid and brown. Some rain won’t go amiss.


  2. Now I need to find an Occitan dictionary! I thought Lou was someone’s name, too! Thanks for the information. There’s always something to learn here, isn’t there?


    • I found one on the internet quite easily – you just Google dictionnaire Occitan. Then they usually have a two-way translation system. We never finish learning but that’s part of the pleasure of living in a different culture.


  3. As a recent, but fleeting visitor to your region while part of an international truffle growers conference, I always look forward to your posts. French production of wild truffles was around 1000 tonnes a century ago – and I suspect much of it came from the now almost deserted woods you’re walking through. France now produces perhaps only 100 tonnes of truffle as the cycle of life has changed fundamentally in the largely abandoned wild forests. The Spanish have the same challenges and as part of their approach to native forest rehabilitation, are planting truffle inoculated oaks which help clear the now covered forest canopy – this also deters summer wildfires. Are the Espinas or Floquet locals taking similar steps to restore their forests I wonder?


    • Hi Nigel, and thanks for reading my blog. I had a quick look at your interesting site and will go back for a longer read when I have more leisure. I would never have thought of truffles in Australia – but why not, if the growing conditions are right?

      I’m not sure if the particular woods we were in yesterday have ever produced truffles. I actually asked René, our guide, if they were truffle oaks but he didn’t know. The main truffle area around here is a little to the northwest of us on the Causse de Limogne (where there is a small truffle market) and around Lalbenque and Cahors. So I doubt if the locals around Espinas/Saint-Antonin are doing what you suggest, although I know that in other areas they are planting mycelium-inoculated oaks. I understand, though, that this is by no means a guarantee of truffles, whose large-scale cultivation remains an elusive dream.

      I have written about truffles myself on this blog (http://wp.me/pOu7B-xj and http://wp.me/pOu7B-ig), although I’m by no means an expert, just an interested amateur. There is a rather nice little truffle market at Limogne, which I have visited, and a much bigger one at Lalbenque.

      Good luck with your own truffière!


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