It is impossible to speak about herbs and salad greens and not note the dependency on their curative properties. The kitchen was the center of health care. kitchen-gardens and the forests occasionally supplemented by ingredients purchased from the local pharmacy were relied upon to cure many ills.
Thyme, rosemary, laurel, parsley and garlic belong to the register of home remedies. These were codified during the early nineteenth century in popular médecine sans médecin books.
Thyme and rosemary were used as fumigators and incense by the Greeks and Romans, a practice which continued until the 17th century in Europe. As did the use of thyme for its antiseptic and tonic qualities and rosemary for headaches, colds, and nervous disorders. Traces of this echoes in local memory when Mme Aureliac recalls that her father drank a "horribly tasting rosemary infusion as a purifying tonic for one month each spring."
The beneficial effects of garlic; notably as a diaphoretic, diuretic, expectorant, and stimulant are still spoken of today. Its raw juice mixed with a few drops of vinegar functioned as an antiseptic in the days before penicillin, and as recently as World War I it was often the only antiseptic available to the soldiers.
Some of the older people in the commune remember that oil was once rare and expensive and only used for vinaigrettes. Goose or duck fat were used for cooking, and veal fat was substituted for butter in baking.
Walnut oil has been indigenous to the region for a long time, and because it burns quickly it is used rather as a flavoring than an oil. It has a strong nutty flavor and a punchy aroma. The shelled nut meat is carefully roasted, burning makes the oil bitter, and then ground. Before grinding-mills were used the nut meat was crushed into a paste, called "lo pan nogat" in Occitan. This was cooked for half an hour, and the mixture then placed in special nets which were set in stone troughs with screw on lids. The yield of the first pressing was preserved in ceramic flasks and was reserved for "table use", that is flavoring. The second pressing gave a darker oil, "lo retrolh", used for cooking; while the third yielded "los calehls", oil for lamps. Generally 6 kilos of walnuts gave up 2 kilos of meat and in turn they yielded 1 liter of oil. The use of mills for grinding did away with any residual paste which was fed to the cows and pigs.
Olive oil, later peanut oil, have been available in the region for a long time. In both cases a good quality oil can only be extracted by cold pressing, a laborious and expensive process. Large scale production of peanut oil became possible through the use of chemical solvents. Peanut oil is very good for deep frying because it's smoking point is very high. Cruder versions of olive oil are also made with hot pressings.
Sunflower oil, either in pure or blended form, became readily available in the late '50s when the government directives and subventions mandated and supported the growth of the crop in the region.
The diversity of the landscape around Puycelsi is visible from any part of the ramparts. Ploughed fields, orchards, woodlands and forests are interlaced with small gardens, tiny vineyards and dense low underbrush called maquis. Known more for the cover it afforded Resistance fighters during World War II than as a perfect environment for wild thyme (thymus serpyllum), rosemary, and bay laurel. These three herbs along with parsley and garlic were the main flavorings in regional cooking.
The prevalence of dried garlic has overshadowed the use of the plant in its more flavorful stages. Young garlic known as l'aillét, when the bulb has not yet been formed, is ideally suited for use in omelets and potato croustade. While freshly harvested garlic is succulent and aromatizes a dish with a subtle flavor that dried garlic can never hope to achieve.
Many recipes call for parsley and garlic combined in a one to one ratio; called persillade. This combination softens the taste and drastically cuts the garlic's offensive odor. On its own parsley is valued for its nutritive qualities, diuretic properties and its effectiveness in aiding digestion.