Summertime, and the living is busy…

Summer is on the way, and in Saint-Chinian that means that there will be lots going on!!  We started with the festival Jazz au Cloitre last Wednesday and there are three more concerts: tonight, tomorrow and Sunday!

Hot on the heels of Jazz au Cloitre is the Fete de la Musique, which is a Europe-wide event, taking place on June 21.  I wrote about the Fete de la Musique back in 2014 – you can find the article here.

Throughout July and August, there are lots of things going on in Saint-Chinian: night markets are held each Tuesday evening…

… open-air cinema screenings are programmed for Wednesdays…

… there are free concerts in the cloister gardens each Thursday, and on Fridays there are circus shows, also in the cloister gardens!

The Bastille Day celebrations are always worth a visit to France!  In Saint-Chinian the party is held over two days – on July 13 and 14, with big fireworks on July 14, followed by a concert on the main square.

A week after Bastille day, on July 21, the main square in Saint-Chinian will be filled with rows of stalls for the annual Fete du Cru, the winemakers’ festival, where you can taste all kinds of Saint-Chinian wines!

The Festival MusiSc takes place this year from July 22 to 28 – you can find the full programme here.

For wine lovers, the cooperative winery in Saint-Chinian will be unveiling a new painting on the walls of one of the wine tanks in the winery on July 26.  I’ve written about the Art en Cave project here.  A special cuvee, with a reproduction of the new painting on the bottle label will also be available that day!

On August 22, there’s more music with a concert by the Sinfonietta Bardou in the parish church of Saint-Chinian.  A programme can be found via this link.

If you are tempted to visit any of these events in Saint-Chinian, do let me know!  And if you are planning a holiday to the area, please have a look at www.midihideaways.com .

I hope you’ll understand that I’ll be hard pressed to write blog posts with so much going on.  So I’ll be taking a little break for the summer months, and I will be back with more stories in the fall.  In the meantime, I’ll be taking many photographs and will gather new material for new posts!!

I hope you’ll have a great summer too!

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A walk on the wine side

Wine walks, such as the one I went on in Saint-Jean-de-Minervois a few years ago, are a great way to discover a “terroir”.  Terroir is a French word that has no direct translation — its meaning encompasses geology, climate and location, and it mainly relates to agricultural land.

Last Sunday, I went on a walk organised by the Maison des Vins in Saint-Chinian, entitled Vins, Vignes & Terroirs, to discover wines, vineyards and terroirs!

The format for the event was that small groups would leave for their walks every 15 minutes from 9am to 11am, and that each group would be guided by a winemaker.  I had chosen the 9.30am departure and our guide was Elisabeth Poux from Domaine de Pech-Menel.  If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you may remember the food and wine pairing dinner at restaurant Le Village a few years ago, where the wines were from Domaine Pech-Menel.  You can find the post here.

Our little group of seven got kitted out at the Maison des Vins with hats and wine glasses in pouches which were to be hung around our necks.  A list of the wines we were going to taste was also included in each of the pouches.

Elisabeth took us along the Avenue d’Assignan, and pointed out a typical example of a wine grower’s house, just opposite from where we turned onto Rue des Jardins.  Along Rue des Jardins, she pointed out a former spinning mill, part of Saint-Chinian’s heritage from its days as a textile producing village.

The window surrounds on many buildings are made from stone which is typical of the Saint-Chinian geology: sandstone.

At the end of Rue des Jardins we left the village and headed for Les Platanettes, crossing the Canal de l’Abbe on the way and passing some of the walled gardens which are always impeccably tended!

We headed towards La Rive through the vineyards, under a bright blue sky!  I was very grateful for the wide-brimmed straw hat! The vineyards were looking beautiful – lots of lush growth!

As we passed the building in the picture below, Elisabeth explained that many of the buildings that one sees dotted around the vineyards were used to house horses.  Before the advent of tractors, the heavy work in the vineyards would have been horse-powered, and everything was geared towards that.  Often the horses would be stabled in the vineyards for several days, so that they would not have to be walked to and from their regular homes every day.

After we crossed the river on a little iron bridge, we reached La Rive.  Just before the first house on the left there are steps leading down to what looks like a small creek.  Elisabeth explained that there is a spring there, and until not that long ago people would come to drink the water.  I could just about make out the outlines of a basin, but it was all a bit overgrown and neglected.

On we went — after we had passed through La Rive we took a left turn and headed through the vineyards to where the first tasting booth was waiting for us in the shade of the trees!!

Marie Rouanet, who runs Domaine Saint-Cels with her husband Etienne, welcomed us with a selection of three different wines:

A white wine (Fleur de lin) from Domaine La Linquiere, a rose wine from Chateau la Dournie and a red wine from Domaine Saint-Cels.  As we were tasting the wines, Marie passed around a plate of tapas – slices of toasted bread that were spread with tapenade and topped with grilled artichoke slices and sun-dried tomatoes.

After a big glass of water we set off once more.  Our path took us along the Canal de l’Abbe, which was built in the Middle Ages and which supplied water to the many textile workshops in the village as well as water for irrigating the gardens.  The textile workshops have all gone, but the gardens are still there.  You can see part of one in the picture below.

The next part of our walk involved a stretch of uphill climbing – at times it was somewhat steep, but the effort was rewarded by the wonderful views!!

Once we got to the top, the path was fairly level for a little while, before climbing again.  It was on the level bit that Elisabeth spotted the bee orchid!

The Spanish broom was in full flower and its perfume was heavenly!

After another steep-ish stretch we reached the top of the hill!  There were more great views!

Our next stop was just around the corner!!

At the Capitelle de Seguin, Nellie Belot from the Maison des Vins was waiting for us with three more wines to taste:

The white wine came from Domaine de Pech-Menel, the winery of our guide Elisabeth Poux.  The rosé wine was from the cooperative winery in Saint-Chinian, and the red wine was from Chateau du Pieure des Mourgues.  There was another bite to eat with the wines, a miniature club sandwich, filled with smoked duck breast and fig chutney.  All highly enjoyable!

After another glass of water, we paused for a group photograph with our guide, before continuing our walk.

Our path took us along the edge of the hill above Saint-Chinian, so the views were wide and sweeping!

Before too long the windmill came into view – we were headed there for the last tasting stop!

After a final climb we reached the windmill, where Nadia Bourgne from Domaine La Madura and Gaylord Burguiere from the Maison des Vins were waiting for us.

At this stop we tasted four wines!

The white wine was from Chateau Viranel, and the red wines were from Domaine Galtier, Mas Champart and Domaine Cathala.  Gaylord had a lovely story to tell about the name of the wine from Mas Champart.  The wine is called Cote d’Arbo after a Mr. Arbo, from whom Isabelle and Mathieu Campart bought the vineyards where the grapes for that particular cuvee are grown.  Mr Arbo pushed his bike up the hill from Saint-Chinian every morning, to work in his vineyeard.  After his day’s work he freewheeled down the hill!!

Our wine tasting by the windmill was accompanied by a toast topped with camembert cream – very yummy!!  All the food we had eaten along the way was prepared by Vince’s Truck.

After we finished the tasting it was all down hill – literally!! 🙂

Our walk back down to the village took us across a former vineyard.  I spied this flowering asphodel just before we got back onto a paved road.

Before long we were back at the Maison des Vins once more.  I was a little tired but so happy to have been able to go on this walk!  Thank you to all the people involved who made this possible!

Below is a map of the walk we took.  The complete loop (starting and ending at the Maison des Vins) is approx 6.5 km long.

 

Cherry Celebration

Since the cherry season has started and the cherry festival in Mons-la-Trivalle will be taking place this Sunday, June 2, 2019, I thought it appropriate to share this post from a few years ago.  Details of this year’s cherry festival can be found on the website of the Mairie of Mons-la-Trivalle.  I do hope you’ll enjoy your fill of delicious cherries!!


The cherry harvest is in full swing right now, and to celebrate it, the village of Mons-la-Trivalle holds a cherry festival each year, at the beginning of June.  Cherries are grown all over the Languedoc region, but they seem to especially thrive in some areas.  The upper valley of the River Orb is one of these areas, and if you go for a drive at the right time during spring, you’ll see the most amazing sights of trees, white with cherry blossoms!  Later on you’ll see stalls set up by the roadside, selling cherries :).

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The growing season for cherries is pretty short.  From mid to late May, locally grown cherries start to make an appearance in our weekly farmers market.

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The first of the crop are usually quite expensive, but as the season gets under way the prices drop.  Cherries can never be a cheap fruit though: each cherry has to be carefully picked by hand, and that takes time!

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I arrived at the “Fete de la Cerise” just after lunchtime – parking was well signposted, and the view from the car park (up the hill from where the fete was taking place) was spectacular!

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Walking down the road to the village, the cherry trees I passed were heavy with fruit, and the sun was shining – what could be better??

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When I got to the fete I made a beeline for the flea market; there I found a very good selection of all things bric-a-brac, and fell in love with a bentwood armchair – more on that later :)!

The “cherry market” was great too – although, since I was relatively late, the cherries were not as much in abundance as they had been in the morning. But there were enough for me to snap pictures of, and to buy.  I had it in mind to make a Clafoutis, a dessert traditionally made with cherries.  The selection of stalls was excellent, colourful ceramics vying with equally colourful baskets, and there were plants, and hats and of course food!!  I couldn’t resist the French Fries from the Belgian food stand :)!

Entertainment was provided for all ages:  Donkeys would take children for a ride, there was a gyroscope, a stilt-walker, and then there was a corner where a number of games had been set up!  I decided to try a game called Quarto, where wooden pieces are placed on a board, with the aim of forming a line where either the colour, height, shape, or top of the pieces match.  The interesting part is that you chose the piece which your opponent has to put down on the board.  Can’t be that difficult, I thought, and promptly lost the first two games :(, but then I won the third 😀 !

The cherry theme was in evidence everywhere!  Even the members of the roaming drum band had decorated their drums, and in some cases themselves, with cherries!

After all the exertions in the market, I had an ice cream and a glass of water in the local cafe.  From where I was sitting I had a great view of the bentwood armchair – it just kept calling to me.  In the end I simply had to go and take another look at it, and guess what – I came away with the chair in my hands :).  The seat needs re-caning, but the price was good and the shape just so beautiful!

Once I’d gotten my chair home (luckily it fit into the car!), I made the cherry clafoutis.  It’s a very simple dessert: cherries baked in a kind of pancake batter.  Originally from the Limousin, clafoutis is now popular all over the south.  Over the years I’ve tried a number of different recipes and methods, and I’ve now hit on one which I like best.

Cherry Clafoutis

  • Servings: 4-6
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

500 g cherries
125 ml milk
60 ml cream (single or whipping)
2 eggs
50 g sugar
1 tbsp flour
1 tbsp kirsch
butter for greasing

Pre-heat the oven to 180°C.  Butter a round or square oven-proof dish, just large enough to hold your fruit in a single layer;  I used a 23×23 cm sized ceramic dish for this recipe.

Wash your cherries and decide on whether or not you want to stone them – I’m not sure whether cooking the cherries with their stones adds any flavour, so when I have enough time I will stone them.

In a bowl mix the flour and sugar, then add the cream, milk, kirsch and eggs and stir with a wire whisk until combined.  Leave the batter to rest for 10 minutes; stir briefly, then pour over the cherries and bake for 30 – 35 minutes.  The exact cooking time may vary depending on your oven, but the clafoutis is cooked when it starts getting puffed around the edges and is no longer wobbly in the centre.

Serve warm or at room temperature.  If serving to children you can omit the kirsch and add a drop (but only one drop!) of almond essence.  You can make this a day ahead, in which case you cover the dish with clingfilm once it’s cooled enough not to melt the clingfilm, and put it in the fridge right away.  Ensure you let it come to room temperature before serving.

Ciao Bella

Last week I got together with friends to cook Italian food.  Unfortunately, our hosts had received some horribly upsetting news just a few days prior to our get together — they’d lost a very dear friend in dreadful circumstances!  I had met that friend on several occasions and I remember her very fondly, so I would like to dedicate this post to Vivian Hart.

Our menu was as follows:

  • Cheese stuffed roasted mini peppers
  • Caponata
  • Rosemary and olive oil focaccia
  • Spinach and ricotta gnocchi
  • Chicken with agrodolce sauce

If the list of dishes sounds ambitious, we did have a few things to nibble on while we were cooking!  And although it sounds like a lot of work, there were five pairs of hands to do the preparing and cooking, and I find that Italian food is not as labour intensive as say North African cuisines — that is apart from home made pasta!

The cheese stuffed roasted mini peppers were very straightforward to prepare.  The trimmed whole peppers were roasted until soft and starting to brown.

Once they were cool enough, a slit was cut into the side of each pepper, and they were stuffed with a mixture of goat’s cheese, mozzarella and basil.  Here they are, ready to go into the oven again:

We served the peppers with a few spears of cooked asparagus, which had been drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with parmesan shavings.

Together with a campari spritz (campari, prosecco, sparkling water, slice of orange) this was a perfect appetizer!!

The recipe for the caponata came from Jane Grigson’s Vegetable Book – if you don’t have your own copy already, I would warmly recommend that you buy that book – it’s absolutely packed with good recipes AND good writing!

I have previously written about making caponata — you can find my recipe via this link.

Essentially, caponata is a stew made with onions, aubergines (eggplant), celery, tomatoes, olives and capers.  The results will vary, depending on the recipe and method you use — there are many, many variations of the recipe out there!

We served the caponata with home made rosemary and olive oil focaccia — a typical Italian flatbread.  Here is the dough, already shaped and after it had risen a second time:

Here is the dough with the “dimples”, which are simply made by pressing the fingertips into the dough, and with the rosemary olive oil drizzled over:

… and 20 minutes later, fresh from the oven: 🙂

The fresh focaccia was delicious in combination with the caponata:

The recipe for the spinach and ricotta gnocchi involved a fair bit of chopping, but once that was done the dough was fairly quick and straightforward to prepare.

The dough was shaped into walnut-sized balls which were refrigerated for 30 minutes or more before being boiled.

The finished gnocchi were delicious!  A regular portion consists of 8-9 gnocchi.  I knew that we still had our main course to eat, so I held back a little! 🙂

The recipe for chicken with agrodolce sauce came from the olive magazine website, as did the focaccia recipe.  Once all the ingredients had been prepared, the cooking was very quick!

The chicken escalopes were dipped in flour and browned on both sides:

Next, the vegetables (onion, celery and tomatoes) were stir fried:

After the vinegar and sugar had been added to the vegetables, the escalopes were returned to the pan and cooked for a few minutes together with the vegetables:

The whole cooking process took no more than 15 minutes and the resulting main course was scrumptious!

We finished our meal with some fresh cherries and strawberries, and more reminiscences of our dear departed friend.

Three cistus

You may have come across cistus plants under their common name of rock rose.  They grow very abundantly in the area around Saint-Chinian, and right now they are flowering their hearts out.  I went on a little photo safari last Saturday, to shoot a few pictures for you.

In the map below, you can see the itinerary I followed for my walk, and this link will take you to the geoportail website, where you can see the map, albeit without the itinerary markings.

I started my walk by the cooperative winery in Saint-Chinian.  Most of the walk was on fairly well kept tracks which are used by vineyard workers and hunters.  If you want to do the walk yourself, you should wear reasonably sturdy shoes – high heels are definitely out of the question!!  The whole walk can be completed in an hour.  Of course it took me longer since I stopped frequently to take pictures! 🙂

Before starting the walk proper, I visited the cistus display bed beside the cooperative winery in Saint-Chinian.  It was planted some years ago, and all of the plants have now reached maturity.  A plaque by the bed identifies the various species on show:

Cistus plants thrive in a Mediterranean climate and grow well on poor soils.  According to the wikipedia article, the seeds can lay dormant for up to 100 years before germinating.

Around Saint-Chinian, the most commonly encountered species of cistus are C. monspeliensis:

Cistus monspeliensis

Cistus monspeliensis

C. albidus:

Cistus albidus

Cistus albidus

… C. ladanifer:

Cistus ladanifer

Cistus ladanifer

… and C. salviifolius:

Cistus salviifolius

Cistus salviifolius

The display bed at the cooperative winery also contains a species which is more rarely seen around here:  C. populifolius:

Cistus populifolius

Cistus populifolius

The plant in the following picture was also growing in the display bed, but I could not find it on the panel.  Cistus species hybridise readily, so, if my identification is correct, this should be C. x purpureus, a cross between C. ladanifer and C. creticus.  It’s a plant with very pretty flowers, and you can see the heritage from c. ladanifer with the purple blotches at the base of the petals!

Cistus x purpueus

Cistus x purpureus

As I was starting my walk, I walked past this stand of trees.  A nightingale, well hidden from view, was singing directly at me.  I thought I would share the video with you!

My walk took me up and down some gentle slopes – being a little higher than the surrounding countryside always makes for nice views!

The first flower picture I took after I started my walk was of an orchid – orchis provincialis:

Orchis provincialis

Orchis provincialis

It wasn’t long before I came to a clump of C. salviifolius by the side of the path.

C. salviifolius

Cistus salviifolius

Wild garlic was also in flower along the path.  The flowers have a pleasant onion/garlic flavour and can be added to salads.

Wild garlic

Allium rosea

I couldn’t pass by this doughnut-shaped tree lichen without taking a picture!

Farther along I found a clump of C. albidus in full flower, it’s pink flowers standing out nicely from the the grey, woolly leaves.

Cistus albidus

Cistus albidus

Nature’s flower arrangements are always worth studying – here we have lavender and heather flowers, with a background of blackberry leaves! 🙂

The leaves of some cistus species secrete a sticky substance which has a lovely resinous fragrance.  C. ladanifer is one of these species.  Incidentally, the picture below shows the point where the walk starts to loop back.

C. ladanifer

Cistus ladanifer

I came across some more Orchis provincialis – a whole stand of them, in fact.  The leaf rosette showed the typical brown splotches.

In this close-up you can see some of the delicate markings on the flowers:

Orchis provencialis

Orchis provincialis

I rounded a bend in the path and came to this wonderful sight:  a whole hillside covered in flowering cistus bushes!!  The photograph doesn’t really do it justice – it was spectacular to behold!

Here’s a picture of C. monspeliensis – you can see the leaves glistening with the sticky resin.

C. monspeliensis

Cistus monspeliensis

I found some interesting flowers towards the end of my walk:  Serapias lingua is an orchid whose flower petals are like tongues sticking out at you (or me).

Serapias lingua

Serapias lingua

I’ve not been able to identify the following flower, but I think it’s a species of vetch.

Then I found a rather mysterious looking plant – it’s fairly tiny, with a pitcher like flower and one petal folded over that like a lid.  From the top you just see a kind of purple black leaf, about the size of a thumbnail, but when you tilt the flower somewhat, you can see that it’s part of the flower which is pitcher shaped.  I immediately wondered if it was part of the arum family or a carnivorous plant.  Looking through some of the plant books I have at home, it turns out to be Aristolochia pistolochia.

I found a violet limodore orchid just around the corner from the mystery plant above:

Limodorum abortivum

Limodorum abortivum

The last picture I took on my walk is of a white flowered tamarix shrub.  With the flowers not yet quite open, the buds look like white peppercorns, tightly clustered on the branches.  I’m sure it’ll look gorgeous in a week or so.

I hope you enjoyed the wonderful flowers that can be found around Saint-Chinian.  Thanks for coming along with me on this wonderful walk!

Heaps of sheeps

Transhumance n. the seasonal migration of livestock to suitable grazing grounds [C20: from French transhumer to change one’s pastures, from Spanish trashumar, from Latin TRANS- humus ground]

The above definition comes from the Collins English Dictionary.  Transhumance seems to have been around as long as animal husbandry.  It is practiced wherever the seasonal conditions mean that it’s better for livestock to move to a different place.  For example, think of the alpine pastures that are rich and lush in the summer, but are under a thick layer of snow during the winter.  Or think of the coastal plains of the Languedoc, which grow lush during the winter but dry out during the summer months.

The village of Vendres is situated close to the coast, just beside a lagoon, and there is a lot of grazing land around it – the ideal area for a flock of sheep!  Grazing plays an important part in maintaining the ecosystems of the somewhat marshy lands, and in reducing the fire hazard that un-grazed land would present during the hot summer months.

For the past twelve years, the village of Vendres has been celebrating the occasion of the transhumance of the sheep with a fete.  The neighbouring villages of Lespignan and Nissan have also joined in, and so the Fete de la Transhumance has evolved into a three-day event!  I went to Vendres last Saturday, to enjoy a day at the Fete de la Transhumance!

The highlight of the day was the procession of the flocks of sheep through the village, accompanied by riders on horseback.  First though came the marching band!Closely behind them were the horses…

…and then came the shepherds and the sheep!  I’ve seen sheep before, but seeing a huge flock of sheep arrive in a village is something I’d never experienced!

The sheep seemed to be going round in circles, pushed one against the other, with the whole flock moving very slowly towards where I was standing.

The man standing to the left in the above picture was holding a branch, with which he blessed the sheep by sprinkling holy water over them.
Finally, the sheep made off down the road, but there were sheep as far as I could see!!

More shepherds and a couple of sheepdogs brought up the rear, and everyone followed them down the road and into the village.

We took a shortcut to get to the Place du Lavoir where a small market and a communal meal had been set up.  To my surprise, the sheep came right past that square – once more it was wall-to-wall sheep!!

By the old lavoir, the open-air wash house, barbecues had been set up, and people were preparing salads on long trestle tables.  On the bouledrome next to the lavoir, tables and chairs had been prepared for 600 people – they were expecting a crowd!!

Come 12.30, the tables were pretty much filled up and people were queuing to get their lunches.  The atmosphere was great – lots of laughter, families meeting up, strangers making new friends, children running through the rows!  Some people had even brought table cloths for their tables, along with real wine glasses!

On my tray I had the following:  green salad with tomatoes, onions and olives, grilled lamb with boulangere potatoes, a slice of sheep’s cheese, a slice of apple tart, a piece of bread (very important, we are in France after all!!) and, also important, a quarter of wine (in a plastic beaker).  Everybody else’s trays were the same, by the way!!

The food was all very good, and there was plenty of it!  The lamb was locally raised and the cheese was produced with milk from the flocks we had just seen.  The apple tart was divine!

The market stalls next door to the bouledrome had a variety of items on offer: wine, honey, plants, cakes, hams and sausages, cheese, knick-knacks, etc. My favourite pretzel lady was there too!!

It’s definitely a fete I’ll be going to again – the meal alone is worth the trip!  Keep your eyes peeled for details of next year’s Fete de la Transhumance.  You’ll be able to find details on http://www.ladomitienne.com