Monday, August 10, 2015

SUMMER IN PROVENCE…AND A SURFEIT OF TRUFFLES?

A truffle hunter and his dogs at Les Pastras.  Photo by WT Manfull

In all the summers we’ve spent in Provence, I have never seen any mention of summer truffles. Maybe I was drinking too much rosé to notice something I thought only surfaced in the winter—silly me—but, this summer, Tubera aestiva were on my radar…and on my plate! 

Rognes Truffle Fête.  Photo by Susan Manfull


I began the summer with a truffle hunt, later went to a truffle fête, and then tried (in vain) to squeeze in a visit to Carpentras—long famous for their winter truffle market—to see their first endeavor at a summer truffle market. 

Living in the Luberon in late fall and winter, one can’t help but cross paths with a winter truffle (a.k.a. black or Périgord truffles and, in Latin, as Tuber melanosporum). 

Our first encounter was probably at the hairdresser on a chilly December afternoon about fifteen years ago. My husband was having his locks trimmed at a popular hair salon when the mistral seemed to blow in a rather weather-beaten looking fellow through the door. He carried a medium-sized brown paper bag that he covertly opened for each client who was waiting for a turn in one of the four chairs. Noses were inserted deep into the bag, followed by audible oohs and ahhs. Soon everyone was on their cell phones, including my husband who called me to say that he wasn’t sure what was going on but that I had better come down to the salon. Before I got there, he had made the purchase of three firm, fragrant black truffles. We took them home, stored them with the eggs, and made an omelet for lunch the next day. We were hooked. 

Les Pastras.  Photo by Peter Newbury


Our daughter’s soccer coach got wind of our salon encounter and invited us to accompany him (and his dog) on a truffle hunt. We jumped at the chance for a hands-on adventure and, at the end of a morning right out of a Peter Mayle book, came home with a several truffles the coach had kindly parted with. We learned more as we talked to friends Heidi and Mark Stanvick who, at the time, were importing truffles to the U.S. (from Spain), attended local truffle fêtes, and later went to the renowned “Mass for the Truffles” in Richerenches. We fell in love with the earthy aroma and pungent musky taste of black truffles. 

I wrote a few articles about winter truffles and, somewhere along the line, I must have read about summer truffles but they just didn’t strike a chord until late this past spring when friend Germaine Juneau raved about a truffle hunt she had just taken. We would be in Provence in June and July and, in fact, would be leading a tour group in June. Hmmm…. 

Les Pastras.  Photo by Peter Newbury


But, what are summer truffles? I took Germaine’s advice and reached out to Lisa and Johann Pepin who own Les Pastras, an 11-hectare organic farm near Cadenet that grows grapes, olives, apricots, cherries, plums, apples, pears, pomegranates, figs, almonds, hazelnuts and…truffles! (And for good measure, they raise bees!) 

“Summer truffles are a relatively new gourmet feature, at least for humans,” the Pepins explained. “In the old days, farmers used to feed them to their pigs!” 

Summer truffles require the same amount of time to hunt, clean, and take to market and yet they command five to six times less than the coveted Tuber melanosporum. “Most farmers didn’t consider it worth the time and effort,” the Pepins added. 

Les Pastras.  Photo by WT Manfull


Summer truffles are much less fragrant than their famous winter counterparts. Whereas the scent of winter truffles can be likened to one’s damp, smelly socks after a marathon, the smell of summer truffles, in striking contrast (I now know), is barely detectable. The Pepins say that the smell is akin to mushrooms and hazelnut. 

Summer truffles at Cotignac's weekly market.  Photo by Pamela O'Neill


The taste of summer truffles is also very subtle. If you don’t pay attention, you might miss it. Like its fragrance, mushrooms and nuts come to mind. In contrast, the taste of black truffles is unique and difficult to put into words, but whether you pay attention or not, you won’t miss it! “Woodsy, musky, sexy, and intense” are some of the descriptives the Pepins use.

Summer truffles at Cotignac's weekly market.  Photo by Pamela O'Neill

Perhaps the recent growth in popularity of summer truffles may be due, in part, to the “farm to table” movement favored by “upscale foodies,” the Pepins suggested. I am told that summer truffles have long been a mainstay of markets in the Var, but that has not been the case in the Luberon until recently. 

The Pepins, who began their summer truffle hunts just three years ago, said that they had guests who stopped by the Tourist Office in Cadenet to inquire about the location of Les Pastras only to be told that “there was no such thing as summer truffles.”

Hervé, owner of La Maison d’Ingrid in Lourmarin.  Photo by Susan Manfull

Our curiosity was piqued and we thought that the savvy travelers in our tour group would want to learn more about this relatively new delicacy on pricey tables and in specialty food shops in the Luberon. We signed our group of eight folks up for the tour—what a fabulous evening it would be!

I suppose the adventure began before we arrived. Finding Les Pastras is challenging, even for people (like us) who know the area. Although not far, as the crow flies, from the centers of Cadenet or Lourmarin, it is located in a remote area. 

Les Pastras. Photo by Peter Newbury


It was a quintessential Provençal evening around 6:30 when we met Johann and Lisa, the Franco-American couple who moved from Chicago to Provence in 2003 to take the reins of the Pepin family farm where we all stood. Johann’s grandparents, who continue to share the property with the younger couple, bought it some forty-five years ago. They lived in Paris at the time and were drawn to the idea of retiring in the lovely stone farmhouse in such a bucolic setting, raising bees and enjoying the various fruits on the land—they had no idea that truffles laid just below the surface. 

Although neighbors long knew that the Pepin’s land was laden with truffles, the Pepins did not find their first truffle until the winter of 2006-2007. It was a big one—80 grams—but I am getting ahead of the story. 

Les Pastras. Photo by Peter Newbury

Running in and out of our legs, as we stood on the lovely grounds, were Mirabelle and Éclair, two mixed-breed dogs who would be the stars of our adventure. Lingering in the background was le chasseur de truffe, the truffle hunter (who shall remain nameless).

There is a lot of intrigue in the world of le truffe. From furtive dealings in backrooms and luring away one’s truffle hunter with more money to drugging truffle dogs and mugging dealers after a good day at the market and killing trespassers who scale fences onto private land in search of black gold. Some tour guides go so far as to blindfold their clients for the drive to Les Pastras. (We didn’t use blindfolds but our group is bound to secrecy as to the exact location of the farm and the identity of the truffle hunter!) 

Les Pastras. Photo by WT Manfull


As it happened, Éclair, just a few months old, was in training. He had already been through the “tennis ball” and “find the hidden truffle” phases and was now in the field. Johann explained that a puppy is first exposed to play with a tennis ball that is stuffed with a truffle and, gradually he learns when he brings the pungent tennis ball to the trainer, he receives a reward (e.g., a piece of meat). It is important that the dog learns that the trainer will give him a reward so that, eventually, when he’s in the field, he doesn’t eat the truffle. 

Johann Pepin at Les Pastras. Photo by Peter Newbury


That, Johann explains, is the drawback of working with pigs, a practice not typically seen nowadays. Apparently, pigs love truffles so much—the scent of a truffle is remarkably similar to the smell of pheromones released by female pigs (and boars)—that they would bite off the finger of the hunter in their excitement to get the truffle. At one time, you could reliably spot a truffle hunter by his missing finger! 

The next phase entails hiding truffles indoors with the goal being two-fold: to find the truffles and not to eat them! The final phase is hiding truffles outdoors where there are more competing scents. By the time that our hunt took place, Éclair was in the field, hunting alongside Mirabelle. 

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Les Pastras Truffle Hunt.  Video by Susan Manfull

Summer truffles are more prevalent than winter truffles but they are not as aromatic as winter truffles. I wondered how easy it would be for the dogs to pick up the scent. Very easy—and it was fascinating to watch the dogs follow the scent. Most of the time, they were right! Our basket quickly filled up, totaling we would learn later, 238 grams! 

Les Pastras. Photo by WT Manfull


As we followed the dogs and their trainer through the forest, Johann regaled us with interesting facts about truffles and truffle hunting. For example, as most readers probably know, truffles are most commonly found under oak trees, but the telltale signs are a cleared area (sometimes called the “witch circle”) around the tree where the truffle spores have killed the ground-covering around the tree. Flies lurking around the cleared ground are another sign as a specific fly put its larvae about 6 inches below the ground near the truffles. 

Seven-year-old oak tree at Les Pastras. Photo by WT Manfull


Les Pastras supports about 500 oak trees, many of which were quite young. When “truffle oaks” are purchased, they come inoculated with thousands of truffle spores. Very few will grow and it takes about 7 to 10 years to see whether the spore will mature and as long as fifteen years to determine if the tree will produce truffles.

Truffled trees for sale at Rognes Truffle Fête.  Photo by Susan Manfull


The return-on-investment, according to Johann, is pretty low as very specific conditions must be present for truffles to grow (e.g., type of soil, pH, contrast in seasonal temperatures, drainage, and sunlight are the main areas of concern), not to mention the absence of sangliers and thieves. 

Johann Pepin shows oak tree damage made by sangliers.  Photo by WT Manfull


Right now, the winter truffles are growing. We were asked to circumvent the area around all the oaks. Interestingly, winter truffles do not share the same oak trees as summer truffles. We will have to wait until November to see how successful the 2015-2016 crop will be. 

We wrapped up the tour with a long stroll throughout the rest of the beautiful property. The other major crop on the farm is olives. As many as 400 olive trees comprise the groves on the family land. Johan showed us how the root ball of an olive tree may be divided and replanted to create more trees, a tedious task but one that is more economically and environmentally sustainable for the farm as a whole. Last year, olive oil production was extremely low at Les Pastras and throughout Italy, Spain, and France. Several factors combined to create this historically poor season but the main culprit was an olive fruit fly infestation. Johann is hopeful that this year will be better. 

One of hundreds of olive trees at Les Pastras.  Photo by WT Manfull


We saw the bee hives (from a distance), and many of the other fruit trees that thrive on the land. Stopping to smell the indigenous herbs and sample the fruits of so many of the trees prompted one member of our tour group to ask whether we had entered the Garden of Eden. Then, came the champagne and delicious truffle treats, including truffle ice cream! It was a heavenly spread. 

Photos by Peter Newbury


We weighed the truffles we had collected, while following Mirabelle and Éclair around. Our 238 grams would be worth at least 40 euros (at 200 euros/kilo).  Had the basket been full of winter truffles, it would have commanded a little over 240 euros (at 1200 euros/kilo). I would love to return in the winter and follow Mirabelle and Éclair around again! 

Summer truffles.  Photo by WT Manfull


For the rest of my seven-week stay in Provence, I definitely noticed summer truffles this summer. The first ever truffle fête in Rognes was a lot of fun, filled with samples and demonstrations of dogs showing off their prowess for finding truffles. I noticed that Hervé, owner of La Maison d’Ingrid in Lourmarin, had a huge basket of summer truffles prominently displayed on his counter. As I wrote above, in the Var at the Cotignac market, several vendors featured summer truffles for sale. And, finally, having discovered Tuber aestivum for myself, I made sure they were on my table several times while there. Sadly, I never made it to the first Carpentras summer truffle market, but my observations suggest there will be a second one next summer. 

The Modern Trobadors tour group at Les Pastras.  Photo by WT Manfull

For now, my desire for truffles is satiated. At least until November.

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Demonstration of truffle dog hunting for a truffle at the Rognes Truffle Fete. Video by Susan Manfull


Notes:

For more information on summer and winter truffle hunts at Les Pastras, visit their website http://www.lespastras.com/.  I highly recommend this tour!

To learn about The Modern Trobadors' 2016 Provence Tours, follow this link.  We are booking now for June 2016.





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Sunday, July 5, 2015

THE MUSÉE EXTRAORDINAIRE CELEBRATES ITS 40TH ANNIVERSARY

Georges Mazoyer, founder of the Musée Extraordinaire.  Photo by Susan Manfull.

Forty years ago, Georges Mazoyer (1925 - 1996) opened his Musée Extraordinaire in the tiny Luberon village of Ansouis. Deep-sea diver, artist, and world-wide traveler, this extraordinarily unusual man spent ten years refurbishing the small space--a former stable--adjacent to his studio and filling it with the souvenirs of his adventures. Encouraged by friends to share his passion for underwater life, the museum was a labor of love that today is carried on by his daughter, Nicole, and her husband, Claude.

Exhibit in Le Musée Extraordinaire. Photo by Susan Manfull.

Last night, Nicole and Claude hosted a bash for the whole village to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the museum. I attended the event, along with Jerry Clark and wife Benedicte and at least 100 other people (at last count when we departed at around 10 pm). The Polynesian dancers had the crowd swaying and smiling. As an integral part of this community of around 1000 people, this was an opportunity to pay tribute to the man who founded this museum four decades ago and for the Mazoyer family to demonstrate their appreciation to the community for their support.

Benedicte and Jerry Clark (left) and Nicole and Susan Manfull (right).  Photo by Susan Manfull.

My invitation to this soirée stemmed from an impromptu visit to The Extraordinary Museum one very hot day last week.  Donning hats and hugging the walls of the narrow cobblestone paths and steep stairwells to escape the fierce Provençal afternoon sun, friend Barry and I made our way there from the maison village where I am staying.

Barry Quick in Ansouis. Photo by Susan Manfull.

For the nearly twenty years that my family and I have vacationed in the neighboring village, Lourmarin, I have wanted to visit this museum with the unabashedly ambitious name but, for various reasons, had not done so. 

Exhibit in Le Musée Extraordinaire.  Photo by Susan Manfull.

Often and understandingly referred to as "quirky" (and sometimes dismissed entirely in tour guides), I had long been intrigued by the science-fiction size statues of sea creatures that grace the grounds of this small museum, located some 60 kilometers (35 miles) from the sea in the middle of a village that rose up around a château that dates back over a thousand years ago. It is just not what one expects to see in a medieval village.

Musée Extraordinaire in Ansouis. Photo by Susan Manfull.

Visitors are told that they will find "fascinating objects" including prehistoric objects such as fossilized fish and shellfish that once thrived in the Luberon countryside. Paintings, stained glass, and ceramic sea creatures, all created by Mazoyer, add color to the collections. Some antique Provençal furniture makes the rooms feel cozy. The highlight is said to be the "magical blue coral grotto" depicting a deep-sea dive, not unlike one of the hundreds Mazoyer took.


Musée Extraordinaire in Ansouis. Photo by Susan Manfull.

This menagerie is housed in a series of 16th-century vaulted rooms once stables that kept the mules that carried the stones to build the village back in the Middle Ages. The grotto stands where the original entrance to the stables once was.

This painting was prompted by the devastating effects of an oil spill off the coast of Brittany in the early 1970's.  So moved was Mazoyer that he donated the profits from the sales of lithographs of this painting to the clean-up effort.  The three "balls" of oil were found in Sardinia following an oil spill in the late 1970's.  Photo by Susan Manfull.

The museum is part of the house Mazoyer bought in 1955 when he moved to Ansouis from his birthplace Marseille to be with the woman who would become his wife. Referred to as a "troglodyte" house, it is built into the side of a cliff (especially appealing on a very warm July day).  He created a studio on the second floor and later spent ten years renovating the first floor to exhibit the aforementioned collection.  The museum opened in 1975.

Le Musée Extraordinaire in Ansouis. Photo by Susan Manfull.

On the day that Barry and I went, we were warmly greeted by Nicole Le Drean, daughter of Mazoyer, who with her husband Claude La Drean, now oversees the museum and continues the tradition of creating ceramic sea figurines. 

Nicole and Claude Le Drean. Photo by Susan Manfull.

Nicole, who divided her time between us and another group of visitors, was filled with the same passion that undoubtedly drove her father to create his museum to showcase his collection of "extraordinary" objects that express his love of the sea. She told us her father's story as we toured the museum.

According to Nicole, her father's love of the sea and underwater life began at a very young age. Around 14 years old, he began diving in Marseille and quickly expanded his exploration to include Corsica, Sardinia, Italy, and Spain. Then, he went to the Caribbean, the Indian Ocean, and the Pacific Ocean.  One of the highlights of his life was diving with Jacques Cousteau.

When he wasn't diving, he was painting.  In addition to his work as a creative artist, he was a professional (restorative) painter, a job that took him to the Château in Ansouis where he assisted in restoration work there.

In 1991, for one of his last dives, he traveled to Polynesia which had a particular impact on him, as it did Nicole and her husband. (Hence the Polynesian dancers!)

Polynesian dancers performing for the 40th anniversary celebration of Le Musée Extraordinaire in Ansouis. Photo by Susan Manfull.

Nicole said that her father stopped diving in 1992. He died just a few years later in 1996 at which time his wife took over as curator at the museum. Later, Nicole and her husband joined the effort and today the couple is dedicated to maintaining, curating, and hosting visits in the museum full time.

Exhibit at Le Musée Extraordinaire in Ansouis. Photo by Susan Manfull.
Mazoyer's studio may be visited, too. There, one can see the kiln, built into the rock wall, which is still used today. The large table in front of the fireplace is still a centerpiece of family gatherings. Nicole and Claude live adjacent to the studio.

Nicole, one of three daughters, was very close to her father. She shared his love of art and the sea. She often dove with her dad (although not as deeply he would go). After a 40-year career in managing a beauty salon in Apt, during which time she visited her parents and helped with the museum on the weekends,  she retired and moved back in Ansouis about two years ago.

Exhibit at Le Musée Extraordinaire in Ansouis. Photo by Susan Manfull.

If you find yourself in Ansouis (or in nearby Lourmarin), I definitely recommend a visit to Le Musee Extraordinaire.  The collection, as has been described by others, is "quirky," but it is also, in part,educational and, most importantly, the museum offers a window into the heart of one man and his passions.  Mazoyer's various collections clearly evoked emotions in the adventurer that were manifested in his ceramics, paintings, and his stained glass. How fortunate is he or she who chooses to live life with such relish?  The world might be a better place if a few more of us enjoyed such a zest for life, however quirky or eccentric the effort may appear.  Barry and I left smiling and feeling inspired.

Le Musée Extraordinaire in Ansouis. Photo by Susan Manfull.

Le Musee Extraordinaire de Georges Mazoyer is located on rue du Vieux Moulin 84240 in Ansouis.  It is open every afternoon from 2:00 to 6:00 p.m. (and until 7:00 p.m. in the summer). tel/fax:  04 90 09 82 64. Admission is a nominal fee. (Reduced rates for groups, children, and students.)

Notes:
You may also be interested in reading: SLEEPY ANSOUIS: ONE OF "LES PLUS BEAUX VILLAGES DE FRANCE"



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Sunday, May 24, 2015

BREATHALYZERS AND OTHER CURIOUS ITEMS LEGALLY REQUIRED WHILE DRIVING IN FRANCE

A bowl at the Château St Estève de Neri tasting room filled with breathalyzers for their guests.  Photo: Susan Manfull
With a trip to Provence on the horizon, I looked into the status of the legal requirement to carry  breathalyzers in one’s car. The answer, as I write this post, is that at least one is required. However, don't hold your breath, things could change by August.  Such is nature of this law and, to some extent, many of the laws pertaining to driving while in France.

While researching the status of the on-again, off-again breathalyzer requirement, a story I have kept an eye on since it first surfaced back in March 2011, I discovered a very informative website, all about driving in France. There, on Drive-France.com, Dave Griffiths of Redditch, England—who apparently crosses the Channel frequently or is just simply fascinated by the bizarre nature of French motor vehicle law—details the equipment and, for lack of better words, "stuff" that people who choose to drive in France are responsible for stowing in their cars.  Oh, and I hasten to add: it matters where in the car, you store these items. Mais oui. It's France.

To purchase more sophisticated breathalyzers, visit: http://www.breathalyserstore.co.uk/ 


Since I (moi) will be driving much of time while in la belle Provence, I wanted to make certain I would not stray from the straight and narrow roads of French law. I’ve had only one encounter with gendarmes while driving—or rather while parked—in France and, because my French-speaking husband returned to the car before my charm wore thin, the matter was amicably resolved.

For those who are curious, I was parked illegally in the center of Avignon, a centreville where the streets are narrow and devoid of anything resembling a legitimate parking place.  My husband had popped out to pick up concert tickets we had already purchased, a quick transaction we assumed. The officers were smiling when they asked me to move the car, but something was clearly lost in translation as I spoke, probably because the thought never occurred to them that I didn’t know how to put the car I was driving into reverse. Just as our conversation was about to take a different course, my husband returned from his "quick" errand and confirmed that it was indeed true that I hadn’t mastered reverse in this rental car.

Beyond the typical requirements for operating a rental car found in other countries—for example, to carry one’s driver’s license, passport, and the rental agreement (or proof of ownership)—there are other paraphernalia  you might never have considered stowing in the car. Some of the items make sense and may keep you safer; other items defy logic.

Public service ad featuring fashion icon Karl Lagerfeld -
"It's yellow, it's ugly, it doesn't go with anything, but it may save your life."

The reflective triangle is a good idea. If your car has broken down, it is required that you place a warning triangle on the road, or on the shoulder, behind the car.  If you don’t have one, the fine can be as high as €135. (I have always found this item in our rental cars.)

The high visibility vests—you know the fluorescent yellowish-green ones with prominently placed reflector strips—also make sense. Until you read the details. There must be one for the driver and every passenger and they must be stored in the car. (That is, not in the trunk.) Mr. Griffiths had me laughing out loud as he described the hapless driver digging through beach balls and suitcases in the trunk to find the vests that should have been in the car, when the gendarmes pull up. As Mr. Griffiths also points out, even if they are lawfully stowed in the passenger area of the car, most people would probably put the vests on outside the car, in which case, he wonders if the driver is still liable for the fine, upwards of €135. And, is the fine levied per general infraction or per person donning the vest outside the car?  (The last time I checked a rental car, the singular vest was in the trunk.)

Then there are the requisite spare bulbs, a completely impractical requirement since many headlights nowadays require professional installation. That’s a (maximum) €80 fine. (I have never noticed these in my rental cars but that's not to say they are not there...I promise to get back to you on this subject.)


If you wear eyeglasses, you are required to carry an extra pair with you, while driving in France. A good idea but it hardly seems necessary to elevate this commonsense to law.

Saving the best for last, the breathalyzer requirement, Mr. Griffiths discusses the history of this law, including its unorthodox impetus. The law was initiated, not on account of pressure from some safety-conscious group like the French equivalent of M.A.D.D. (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) but, rather, due to the lobbying efforts of a group called “I-Care” which was spearheaded by the director of one of two companies that manufactured the breathalyzers. Passing this law created a huge captive customer base. Furthermore, drivers were advised to carry two breathalyzers to ensure that there would be one unused one in the event that, mon dieu, the driver was pulled over by the gendarmes just after using his or her breathalyzer, in good faith, to make sure that he or should was legally able to drive.  In fact, the demand was too great to meet and the date by which the breathalyzers would be required was postponed again and again.

According to Mr. Griffiths, in May 2012, when President Sarkozy (who had signed the law into effect) lost the election, the breathalyzer law was relegated to a dormant status, meaning that it is still on the books but that it carries no fine if one is caught without one.

"Visit the Rhône Valley wineries in total security!" Photo by Susan Manfull


The crazy part of this whole ordeal, Mr. Griffiths writes, is that people are still buying them to the tune of as much as €20 a packet. Even when there was a proposed fine (never put in place), it was only €11. Mr. Griffiths, who sells the breathalyzers, advises folks not to buy them. But, they still do, he says. (I've never seen one in my rental cars.)

To make matters even more confounding to the rational person, the breathalyzers do not hold up under extreme temperatures. Already fairly unreliable under optimal circumstances, in the heat of a typical summer day in Provence, they simply don’t work.

What seemed like a good idea for drivers and all people on or near the roads in France, was really only a good idea for the manufacturers of breathalyzers. The best advice is simply not to drink and drive.

So, there you have it. If you will be driving in France, make sure that the aforementioned equipment is stowed in your car (in its proper place) and that  the required documents (and extra eyeglasses, if necessary) are in your possession. Consult Mr. Griffiths’ highly informative and entertaining website for other details, including legal alcohol level (.05% in general and .02% for novice drivers), mobile phone usage (strictly prohibited even with headphones although Bluetooth setups are legal), and seat belt usage (mandatory for all occupants).

Aside from required stuff in the car while driving in France, my biggest concern is the motorcycles that weave in and out of cars and travel between lanes, a frequent practice of cyclists and one that, incidentally, is illegal. If you will be driving a motorcycle in France, brush up on what you are legally required to carry. Breathalyzers are required equipment, as are high visibility jackets although, as of January 2013, they no longer need to be worn at all times. Reflective triangles are not required.

Check Mr. Griffiths' site before hitting the road in France, no matter what you are driving. Are breathalyzers required gear on tractors?

On the way to the cooperative in Cucuron. Photo: W.T. Manfull



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