First of the season

The return of the sunny weather has also seen the start of the flea market season.  From now until mid-September, Saint-Chinian will be hosting a vide grenier or flea market almost every Saturday!!  You can find details of the dates on the official Saint-Chinian website – move your mouse pointer over the highlighted dates on the calendar, and it will show up the events for that day.

I went to a vide grenier recently and found some amazing things!

This set of plates and dishes was for sale for only 30 Euros!!

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This hair drying attachment looks as though it is from quite a while ago, when a lot of women would dry their hair while wearing curlers.

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Here’s an eclectic selection – the vendor was emptying her uncle’s house!

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This must have been a precursor to todays much more sophisticated electric barbecues.  The small yellow and white boxes contain razor blades, and they have nothing whatsoever to do with the BBQ!.

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This table had a mixture of old and very old books:

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Some of it was tempting, but over the years I’ve learnt to be very selective!! 😇

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The fashion plates showed some amazing clothes AND hairdos!

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Sacks such as these would have been used to transport all manner of things – the imprinted labels give a clue as to what the contents would have been.

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So there you have it – a taster of what there is in store in Saint-Chinian and the surrounding area.  If you love rummaging and are fond of finding a bargain then this is definitely for you!!

Brunch in the sun

Last Sunday I headed to Beziers – there was much to do there, but the weather was not promising!  I had booked a table for brunch at Au Soleil, a small restaurant cum tearoom and fine grocery store, on Place de la Madeleine, in Beziers.

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As I approached Beziers the skies brightened a little, and when I got to the restaurant I saw that a few diners were already seated outside and tucking into their food! 😀

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The restaurant is very aptly named – if the sun is out then it will be on the terrace of the restaurant!  Au Soleil had been recommended by a friend, who’d been there for lunch on a weekday.  I’d stopped there for a cup of tea one afternoon, and found out about the brunch whilst there.  The premise of the brunch is simple: there is a self-service buffet, and you can eat as much as you like – fairly unusual in France!

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This is a variation on the American style brunch, with a French twist – more of a leisurely lunch than breakfast and lunch combined.  To my mind it was all I could have wished for!

The buffet had a very good selection – I started with the cold beetroot and raspberry soup.  It had a lovely zing to it, perfect for an appetizer!IMG_4483

I then tried some of the hams (smoked and dried) with some scrambled eggs:

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The dried ham was so good that I had another slice, this time with some chorizo, pate de campagne and some lettuce:

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Up next: rillettes de thon, a kind of tuna fish mousse, which was wonderfully creamy and delicious!

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I followed that with a piece of the courgette and pepper tart, and I added some of the cauliflower tabouleh to my plate.  Both were very yummy!

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Then it was time for the “main course”: chicken cooked in a mild (but very flavoursome) curry sauce, served with rice:

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By now you’re probably thinking that I was a bit of a piggy to have had so much food?  Be reassured, the plates were small, and so were my helpings!!  I really didn’t want to feel overly full at the end of the meal, and I wasn’t!

There were some lovely Saint-Nectaire and camembert cheeses, so I had to try them:

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The “sweet” part of the buffet offered a light chocolate cake, American style pancakes, waffles, jams and spreads, including a well-known hazelnut and chocolate spread, fresh fruit, apple compote and curd cheese.  Earlier I had overheard one of the patrons talking with a member of staff about the jams – they sounded delicious.  So I decided to try a little of each of the jams on a pancake.  I put a piece of chocolate cake on my plate too – for good measure! 😉

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The apple compote was home-made, so, for the sake of research, I had to try that too – and very delicious it was!!

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The brunch included a glass of wine, and there was tea, coffee, orange juice and apple juice on the buffet.  The price was EUR 19.50 per person – not bad for a Sunday lunch.  I photographed the menu boards for you:

Au Soleil is in a great location – Place de la Madeleine is dominated by the Madeleine church, a romanesque church with lots of history!!  The square is also close to the market halls, and to the ‘main drag’ where the theatre is located.

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The theatre was my next stop – I had received an invitation to the finals of the Concours National de Chant Lyrique, a national singing competition for classically trained voices.

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I arrived in good time, but all the seats in the stalls were already taken.  I was happy to have a seat in the front row of the second balcony – that way I also got a view of the judges, who were seated in the first balcony.  Unfortunately, photography was not allowed, so all I can show you is this picture of the stage.

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If you are curious about what the inside of the theatre in Beziers looks like, here’s a post I wrote last year.  The competition started on time, and once our host had asked the audience members to turn off their mobile phones, he set out a few house rules.  I already knew of the ban on photography, but he also requested that there would be no clapping or applause whatsoever!  Apparently that’s the rule for competitions, so that the judges are not influenced by the audience members.

As this was the final of the competition, the number of contestants had already been drastically reduced.  Four persons competed in the operetta category (down from 15), and 15 in the opera category (down from 69).  The singers were all dressed beautifully, and they had obviously worked very hard to get to where they were.  I found the first two ladies in the operetta category a little painful to listen to – they had big voices, but some of their high notes sounded rather shrill to me.  The third candidate was much better than the previous two, and the fourth was the best of them all.

In the opera category I listened to another five performers.  There was a lovely sounding tenor, who appeared to be very nervous.  Then came two sopranos and another tenor, who were unremarkable.  The last candidate I listened to was a 23-year-old soprano, who had a most beautiful voice.  She really had something about her, a great stage presence, a good vocal range and a lovely tone – no shrill notes there!  I didn’t get her name, and because of a prior engagement I couldn’t stay until the end of the competition, but I hope that the young lady made it into the top three.  And perhaps I’ll be able to listen to her again somewhere, sometime?

P.S.  Roberto Alagna, the well-known opera singer, is a past winner of the competition in Beziers!

And more to come…

Fouilles Paleontologique, Cruzy – 18 to 28 April 2016

This month sees the annual dig for dinosaur bones in Cruzy – I have written about the excavations and the museum exhibition here and here.  This is a great opportunity to get up close to the action!!

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Vide Jardin, Saint-Chinian – 23 April 2016 (9h – 17h)

This is the first of its kind in Saint-Chinian – a flea market with a garden theme!!  Bring your spare plants, the tools you no longer use and any other garden related stuff, and take a stall!  It should be very interesting – you’ll definitely see me there!!

Fete des Plantes et du Massif, Abbaye de Fontfroide – 30 April and 1 May 2016

Fontfroide Abbey has been hosting a plant festival for a good many years now.  The surroundings at the abbey are a magnificent setting for the festival, and it’s a great time to visit the rose garden.

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La Randonnee de Bacchus, Berlou – 15 May 2016

The Bacchus walk is similar to the Balade Gourmande in Saint-Jean-de-Minervois.  It is a well established event, and the website gives you a good idea of what’s in store, both for the walk and the food and wine!  I might sign up for it this year!!??

Fete de la Cerise, Ceret – 21 and 22 May 2016

This is a cherry festival which has great renown, but which I’ve not yet managed to visit – so much to do, so much to see, but maybe this year?  😀

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Open Day at La Petite Pepiniere, Caunes Minervois – 4 and 5 June 2016

A must for plant lovers and all of you who are interested in mediterranean gardening.  Gill Pound is an expert on the subject of gardening in dry climates, and her mature garden is looking spectacular at that time of year.  I’ve written about a previous visit to the open day here.

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Fete de la Cerise, Mons la Trivalle – 5 June 2016

This is a local cherry fair which I have visited a number of times over the years.  It’s another lovely occasion to get your fill of cherries.  You may even get to take some home, and make a wonderful cherry clafoutis (flancake)?

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Fete de la Musique, all over Europe – 21 June 2016

Don’t miss this wonderful celebration of music all over France.  It’s a great occasion to listen to all kinds of music – I’ve written about some of my experiences here and here.

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Fete de Saint-Pierre, Valras Plage – 26 to 28 June 2016

Once upon a time, Valras Plage was a little fishing village.  The Fete de Saint-Pierre celebrates that heritage with food, drink, music and jousting on water.  Read about it here.

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I have a list of other events, which I will gradually be adding – do you have any events you think I should list?

Etched in time

For over a decade, the French National Institute for Arts and Crafts (L’Institut National des Metiers d’Art) has been organising the European Artistic Craft Days (Journees Europeennes des Metiers d’Art).  The European Artistic Craft Days take place each year on the first weekend in April.  Last year over 6000 events were organised in 14 European countries, including France

This year I went to one such event: I visited the workshop of Christian Fournie in the village of Beaufort, about 30 minutes from Saint-Chinian.

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Christian Fournie is a master craftsman who specialises in the transformation of glass for the use of architecture, interior design and stained glass.  His particular passion is for a kind of patterned glass which was produced from around 1826 to 1940, and which has all but disappeared since then.  It is called verre mousseline or lace glass.  Originally the patterns would have been produced by overlaying clear glass panes with lace, and sifting enamel powder over the lace to create a pattern.  Once the lace had been removed, the glass pane would be processed in a kiln to fuse the layers of glass and enamel.  The resulting pane of glass would keep prying eyes at bay, whilst only slightly reducing the luminosity.

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Above is a piece of verre mousseline which Christian Fournie has produced, using modern techniques.

Before we get to present day production though, here’s a little more history: Over the course of his working life, Christian Fournie has researched all aspects of the production of verre mousseline.  He’s created a slide show (in French) to share his findings:

Christian’s talk about his favourite subject was as fascinating as it was technical.  He covered most of the glass making tradition in France and explained that the craft was almost like a secret society.  All the knowledge used to be transmitted within the workshops and factories, and very little exists in the way of written records.  Did you know that until the advent of modern glass manufacturing, all window glass was blown glass and made by artisan craftsmen?  The video below shows how window glass was made in the 1920s

The following video is from the Saint-Just glass works near Lyon, and shows the present-day making of flat blown glass.

The Saint-Just glass works is one of only two factories in Europe where this type of glass is still produced.  Nowadays, sheet glass is produced by the Pilkington “float” process, where the molten glass is floated on a bath of molten lead.  You can still find blown glass in some of the windows of old village houses in and around Saint-Chinian – Acanthus and La Rive have them for sure, and there are many other houses with old glass panes.

After this little digression, let’s get back to verre mousseline.  Christian has amassed a collection of catalogues, patterns and samples over the years, and from that he has created his own collection of verre mousseline, which he can produce to order.  Here are some pictures of the glass in his studio, some old and some new:

He uses two techniques to create the patterns.  For one technique  he covers a piece of glass with adhesive film.  The adhesive film is then cut by a plotter with the required pattern, and the parts of the pattern which will later be sandblasted are then peeled away with the aid of a scalpel.

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Depending on the size of the piece of glass and the pattern, this could take some time!

For his other technique, the glass is coated with a photosensitive substance.  A film negative with the desired pattern is placed on the coated glass, and the whole thing is then exposed to light.

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After exposure the result is “developed”, much like a photograph would be, and the resulting plate can then be sandblasted.  In the picture below, Christian is holding up a developed plate of glass which has not yet been sandblasted:

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In the picture above, you can see a brass stencil, which lies on the table just behind the piece of glass that Christian is holding up.  This stencil is used for a different technique, which Christian explained to his visitors, but which he does not use.  The picture below shows the ingredients and tools, and the piece of glass between the brass stencil and the brush is the finished result:

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The white enamel powder is mixed to a paste with a gum arabic solution, and then the glass is coated with that solution.  Once thoroughly dry, the stencil is fixed to the plate, and the metal brush is used to brush through the stencil, removing the enamel coating where there are holes in the stencil.  The resulting glass plate would then have to be fired in a kiln, in order to fuse the two layers – which is why Christian does not use this technique in his workshop: he does not have such a kiln.  Here is another video, which shows the process I have just described:

The pictures below show the display at the entrance to the workshop – as you can see from two of the pictures, Christian does also do contemporary work!

This was a very fascinating visit, getting a glimpse into the universe of glass and its transformation!!  The subject is vast, and I’m sure Christian will be happy to share his passion with you, should you wish to visit his workshop!

Eggscellent

For as long as I can remember, I have associated Easter with brightly coloured eggs. When we were children, my brothers and I would decorate blown hens’ eggs in the weeks before Easter.  For several weeks before Easter,  instead of cracking eggs open to use them in cooking or baking, a hole would be pierced in either end of the egg (a larger hole in the ‘flatter’ end), and the egg white and yolk would be blown out through the holes.  The resulting blown eggs would be washed and dried before being decorated.  The eggs might be painted, pasted with cut-outs, drizzled with coloured wax – anything and everything was allowed and encouraged as far as decorating techniques went.  The finished eggs would be hung with a piece of thread on the cut branches of forsythia or other flowering shrubs, and they would decorate the house during the Easter festival.

In the run-up to Easter, the shops would start selling brightly coloured hard-boiled eggs – you would be able to find them right next to the fresh eggs, in virtually every store!  They were always looking so perfect and shiny – as though they had been laquered.  Maybe they had been???  Those store-bought eggs didn’t make it into our house very often.  Instead, my brothers and I would help mum dye hard boiled hens’ eggs on Good Friday.  It’s a tradition I still keep alive, all these many years later!

There are a number of ways to dye the eggs using various natural vegetable dyes such as beetroot and spinach juice, or dried onion skins.  An easier and foolproof way, is to use  ready-made egg dyes.  One of my sisters-in-law sent me a packet this year – thank you Veronika!!

It’s best to dye the eggs just after they have been boiled and while they are still warm.  I put all my eggs into one pan (no, not into one basket!!:) ) and covered them with cold water.  When they started to boil I set the timer for six minutes.

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While the eggs were cooking, I prepared the dyes.

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The packet contained five colour papers:  red, orange, green, blue and yellow – a rainbow of colours!  :)  Since yellow does not really change the colour of brown eggs, I added that in with the orange.  Into each cup were put two tablespoons of white vinegar, 250ml of boiling water, and one dye-paper.

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Once the eggs had finished cooking, I briefly ran them under the cold tap, before they went into the dye bath, one at a time for each colour.

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They emerged totally transformed!!

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Bit by bit my egg box was filling up with wonderfully coloured eggs!  Below are the last four:

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This is a picture of the dye I used for this batch of eggs.  You should be able to find something like that on one of the internet mail-order sites or in your grocery store?

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To make them shine, the eggs can be rubbed with a little bit of olive oil.

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Baking a cake in the shape of a lamb is another Easter tradition in my family.  Some years ago, I was lucky enough to inherit my grandmother’s baking tin.  Nowadays, if I am home for Easter, I will bake at least one cake in that mould.  For the cake recipe, I looked at Gaston Lenotre’s Desserts and Pastries.  It’s a wonderful book, full of very precise and easy to follow recipes.  I used his Genoise recipe, a very light sponge cake.

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The ingredients are very simple:  eggs, sugar, flour, butter and vanilla flavoured sugar!

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Three eggs are mixed with 78g of sugar and the vanilla flavoured sugar in a heat proof bowl – I used the bowl of my stand mixer for this.  The bowl is then set over boiling water, and the eggs are whisked for one minute – no more!  I then put the bowl on the mixer, and whisked the egg/sugar mixture on high speed for two minutes, and on medium low speed for another five minutes or a little longer, until it was cool and very white and thick.

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While all the whisking was going on, I brushed both halves of the mould very carefully with melted butter, and gave them a light dusting of flour, to prevent the finished cake from sticking to the mould.  I also melted 23g of butter for the cake mix.

When the egg mixture was ready, I sifted 78g of flour over it and folded it in gently.  Then I added the melted and cooled butter, and folded that in too.  The finished mix was poured into the mould, and the cake was baked in a pre-heated oven at 180 degrees for 30 minutes.  For the first cake I had set the oven to the wrong function (regular convection rather than fan-assisted), so the cake did not turn out from the mould as easily as it should have.

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I baked another one right away, using the fan-assist setting, and it turned out near perfect!

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And here they are – decorated with a dusting of icing sugar and some tiny bells hung with red ribbon around their necks, and surrounded by some dyed eggs!

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Do you have a special Easter tradition?  Would you would like to share it with me?

Discovering new flavours

Our cooking get-togethers are still on the theme of ‘take one cookbook and do as many recipes as you can’.  The last time we met up, the book for the day was Siriana by Sabrina Ghayour.  It’s a book full of delicious sounding recipes, and we prepared three:

The above links are to various sites where you can find the recipes.  You could of course buy your own copy of Siriana.  I’ve not yet added the book to my bookshelf, but I feel that it may not be all that long…:)

The scallop dish was pretty easy to prepare.  A mandolin slicer made very short work of shaving the fennel into wafer-thin slices!

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The shaved fennel was mixed with lemon juice and olive oil, and set aside while we made a dressing with honey, vinegar, saffron, orange juice, olive oil and a little lime juice.

The scallops were looking beautifully plump!

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Once we were ready to sit down for our starter, the scallops were seared on both sides in a very hot frying pan.  When they were just done, we arranged some of the dressed fennel and a few scallops on each plate, and drizzled over the prepared dressing – et voila!!  Delicious and simple to prepare at the same time!

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The Bandari monkfish tails were prepared for our main course. There was one monkfish tail per person.

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To prepare this dish, the monkfish tails were marinated with a spice paste, which contained turmeric, curry powder, cumin, ground coriander seeds, cinnamon, garlic, fresh ginger, coriander leaves, dill weed, Greek yoghurt, and lime juice.  Quite a list of ingredients!!

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Sabrina Ghayour recommended that a shirazi salad would be perfect to accompany the fish, so while the monkfish tails were marinating, we prepared that.

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The shirazi salad is a colourful mixture of fresh vegetables: cucumber, tomato and red onion, all cut into small pieces. Here’s the start of it.

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The salad is very simply dressed with olive oil, lemon juice and salt and pepper.  Before serving, it is sprinkled with sumac (a sour tasting seed) and pomegranate seeds.  Here’s  our finished salad:

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The monkfish tails were simply fried with a little olive oil…

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…and the finished dish tasted every bit as good as it looked!

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Originally we had planned to have our get together on Shrove Tuesday, also called pancake day in Britain, and so we had chosen crepes suzette for the dessert course.  Unfortunately our get-together had to be postponed,  but we stuck with the crepes suzette for dessert all the same.

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Wwe used Gordon Ramsay’s recipe (you can find it here), but we didn’t quite follow his method!  First we made a stack of crepes (thin pancakes), which were covered in plastic wrap, to stop them from drying out.  The oranges were filleted (the peel cut away, and the segments cut from the membranes), and some squeezed for juice.  The sugar was caramelized in a stainless steel pan (please don’t ever use a non-stick pan for that purpose, the temperature is too high for the non-stick coating), and once it was a nice caramel colour, grand marnier liqueur was added and “flamed”.  Careful, don’t singe your eyebrows!  The orange juice was added next, and the whole left to bubble for a moment.  Next the crepes were dipped into this sauce, one after the other, and each crepe folded into four.  They were then arranged on the plates, and decorated with the orange segments.  The crepes suzette were totally delicious!  I wish there had been more!!

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Do you have a favourite cookbook or recipe you return to time and time again??  Do let me know!!