The Shrew – untamed!!

Over the past few months I’ve been spending a lot of time working in my garden. ¬†I was there pretty much every afternoon, except on rainy days!! ūüôā During my time in the garden I’ve been able to observe the wildlife that calls my garden home. ¬†Very early in spring, I found a very large toad hiding among the weeds by the rose bushes. ¬†It sauntered off slowly, and it is probably still hiding in the tangle of weeds which I’ve not gotten round to clearing yet!

When the pear trees bloomed this spring they where abuzz with bees  Рthe promise of fruit later in the year!!

Bumble bees loved the comfrey flowers:

I left a fair number of borage plants to flower this year – they provided lots of bee food!

This tiny green spider was a little cross at being disturbed, I think. ¬†It waved its front legs at me in a fairly threatening manner! ūüôā

Many years ago, when I first took over the garden there were many small lizards darting in an out of the gaps in the stone walls.  They were fun to watch as they jumped and dashed about.  I managed to photograph the one in the picture below many years ago Рit was sunning itself in an old ceramic sink!

At some point the geckos started moving in – I don’t remember when, but it’s been a good many years. ¬†Somehow the geckos took over and I haven’t seen a lizard in the garden for a few years – they got crowded out. ¬†I have one bruiser of a gecko living in one of the compost bins – it is feeding on the little flies and other insects that buzz around in there. ¬†Doesn’t it look well fed??

Over the years I have spotted many other animals in the garden!  Once I came across a large bright green lizard (no I had not had a drink!).  Another time there was fairly large snake slithering away into the bushes.  The snake had me spooked Рfor quite a while I was very weary of reaching with my hands where I could not see!

All kinds of birds visit the garden and it’s always a pleasure to sit and watch them once I’ve turned over a patch of ground!! ¬†And of course there are cats – a succession of them, some better behaved than others!

This year, I discovered an animal in the garden that I had never encountered before. ¬†In February I became aware of something scurrying about – I thought it was probably a mouse and gave it no more thought. ¬†At the beginning of April I took my camera with me to the garden, to take pictures of some of the flowers, and that’s when I saw this little animal in one of the flower beds:

Its fur was a kind of grey-ish brown colour and its body was probably the length of my ring finger.  It was rummaging around in the mulch, totally oblivious to my presence.  I first imagined it to be a mouse.

I couldn’t quite see its face as it was buried in the mulch most of the time! ¬†As it rummaged it came closer to where I was crouched, and finally I managed to get a good picture!

I’d never seen an animal like it – a mouse with a pointed nose!! ¬†A bit of research on the internet showed this to be a garden shrew. ¬†I did a bit of reading and found out that this was not a rodent – what a relief!! ¬†Shrews have a very high metabolic rate and eat insect larvae, slugs & snails and worms. ¬†Because of their high metabolism they have to eat a lot! ¬†Perhaps this shrew was very hungry and therefore ignored me?? ¬†In any case, it would seem to be a very beneficial animal to have in the garden!!

Here is a brief video of the shrew:

Do you have any interesting animals living in your garden??

Virtual reality

Please join me on a virtual visit of Saint-Chinian and some of the surrounding area! ¬†I’ve found a number of videos on youtube, which I think will give you a great taste of Saint-Chinian and its surroundings!

To start with, a walk that takes in the countryside surrounding the village:

Next, a couple of videos which show Saint-Chinian from the air:

I found several videos about virtual wine tastings of AOC Saint-Chinian wines.  The following video is about the wines of Chateau Pech Menel, whose wines I have enjoyed a great deal!

Fr√©deric Revilla of Restaurant¬†Le Faitout in Berlou participated in a programme about wine and food pairing. ¬†The video is in French only, but you’ll get the idea – just don’t watch it when you are hungry, the food looks delicious!

Here is another aerial video showing the landscape around Saint-Chinian Рit will give you a good idea of the vast and varied terrain of the area.

Domaine des Pradels is in a little hamlet just outside Saint-Chinian, nestled in a little valley. The wines are very good, so add it to your list of wineries to visit next time you are in the area!

And to end our virtual visit, here is a video of the Saint-Chinian jazz festival 2019!

I hope you have enjoyed our virtual visit!!

From here to you

You might have planned a visit to France and to Saint-Chinian which may have had to be cancelled because of the Covid-19 pandemic and the restrictions placed on travel. ¬†If you can’t come to Saint-Chinian in the immediate future,¬†then perhaps Saint-Chinian can come to you?? ¬†There are a number of ways to bring some of the essentials from this part of southern France to your home, wherever you may be right now.

With the music festival in July having had to be postponed until next year, the organisers are planning a virtual festival.  In the meantime, you can watch some clip of past concerts on the youtube channel Рplease subscribe to the channel and comment/like on the individual videos!!

If your local wine merchant does not stock your favourite Saint-Chinian wine, they may be able to order it in for you. ¬†If they are not able to order it for you then don’t despair, help may be at hand!! ¬†Espace Vin and Maison des Vins in Saint-Chinian both offer shipping and all the wines are sold at producer’s prices. ¬†Espace Vin is set up for a variety of different overseas destination in their online shop, for the Maison des Vins you may have to ask.

Veronique Etienne at Chateau La Dournie has set up her own online shop – you can visit it here.

If you are interested in the wines of Saint-Chinian but don’t need to re-stock your cellar right now, you might enjoy this book:

It is available from the¬†Maison des Vins and it is a great read. ¬†Written in French and English, it presents a wealth of information about the Saint-Chinian wine region, its wines, and its winemakers! The book is beautifully illustrated with photographs taken by the¬†Maison des Vins’ Gaylord Burguiere!!

Paul Lappin is a very talented artist who has spent lots of time in Saint-Chinian. ¬†His drawings are available as prints in a variety of formats. ¬†You could also commission Paul to draw your favourite view for you! ¬†More information can be found on Paul’s Instagram¬†feed or on his own website. ¬†Below are a few of Paul’s pictures:

The olive cooperative¬†L’Oulibo in Bize Minervois has an on-line shop, and they will ship abroad. ¬†If your country of residence is not showing in the delivery options, just send them an e-mail with your requirements.

Fabrics are something that’s very easy to ship! ¬†I stopped at the shop of Les Toiles de la Montagne Noire in Mazamet¬†back in February. ¬†It’s a bit of an Aladdin’s cave, piled high with all kinds of wonderful goodies, all of them made locally! ¬†I bought some linen material to make napkins with. ¬†I fell in love with their fabrics when I saw their stand at the¬†Fete du Fil¬†in Labastide Rouairoux a good many years ago. ¬†You can read my post about that fete here.

So there you have it – a bit of retail therapy or something to add to your “to do” list for your next visit! ¬†Feel free to share your favourite Saint-Chinian shopping experience in the comments section!

Close to you

This past week has been somewhat mixed – our confinement will be ending soon, since Saint-Chinian is in one of France’s green zones where there have been few cases of the virus. ¬†However, this does not mean that our lives will go back to normal – far from it! ¬†Many restrictions will remain in place, and we’re a long way from being out of the woods!

So, since I cannot be close to any of you I went for another walk with my camera, to be close to nature instead!  Below is a map of my walk Рit started by the cooperative winery in Saint-Chinian. I wore my sturdy shoes since a part of it was on slightly uneven terrain!  Only a short length of it was somewhat challenging, where the path went uphill, but for the rest it was pretty easy and very enjoyable!

I started the walk by going along the Chemin des Gazels, passing the cemetery and then took a right turn, just past the former distillery, to join up with the Chemin de Sorteilho.  After about 750m on the Chemin de Sorteilho, I turned right onto a somewhat overgrown track.  This track is not marked on any of the maps, but the hut it goes past is marked with a little black speck on the map!  At the top of the track I turned right once again and followed the path back towards the cooperative winery.  The walk was about 2.5 km in length Рeasy!!

We’ve had wonderful weather over the past weeks, plenty of sunshine, but enough rain to keep nature happy! The wildflowers I saw along my walk were beautiful and here are a few of the pictures I took:

The hut I walked past during the uphill part of my walk had been abandoned some years ago.  The door was missing, and the inside was strewn with all kinds of rubbish.  The roof was still intact and from one of the beams hung an enormous wasps nest!!  It was very well preserved, so might have been built only last year?  I would never have been able to go anywhere near it if it had still been occupied!!

Just before I reached the first of the ponds which are by the side of the path, I noticed the mushrooms in the pictures below. ¬†They were incredibly well camouflaged amongst the rocks! ¬†What a shame that they were not truffles!! ūüôā

I hope you enjoyed this walk – you’ll be able to follow it yourself on your next visit to Saint-Chinian!!

I leave you with a video of Karen Carpenter singing Close to you…

Changes afoot!

Week 6 of the lockdown in France – still doing fine here in Saint-Chinian!! ¬†We’ve had some rain this week, which has been incredibly beneficial for my garden and for nature in general!! ¬†I swear that the potato plants pretty much doubled in size during the three days of soft drizzle! ¬†As I am writing this, the sun has come out once more, and everywhere is beginning to dry out a bit. ¬†It’s still too wet to work in the garden this afternoon, so perhaps I’ll clean the windows instead?? ūüôā

Here is a picture I took the day after the rain stopped:

You may know that I’m heavily involved in organising the music festivals in Saint-Chinian. ¬†Our July festival was scheduled for July 19 to 26 this year. ¬†Was because the committee members (of the association which runs the festivals) have had to take a good and hard look at the facts and pronouncements by the French government, and in the end we came to the conclusion that we had better postpone that festival until 2021. ¬†Very sad ūüė¶ , but we had to think of the wider implications for our public and musicians. ¬†Three of the concerts from the July programme were rescheduled and added to the September festival, which will now run from September 2 to 6, 2020. ¬†Of course there is a question mark hanging over that too, but we’re trying to stay positive!! ¬†ūüôā

Here’s a little summary of what we’ve had to postpone/reschedule:

This is a very difficult time for all of us, but my heart goes out especially  to all the performers, musicians, singers and actors who are deprived of their public!

I am very much looking forward to the day when I will once again be able to attend live performances in person. It will certainly be a moment of intense emotion!  In the meantime, take good care of yourself and continue to listen to music as much as you can!!

Locked in

We’re into week five of the lockdown – at least I think we are, I sometimes lose track of time! ūüôā ¬†Last Monday, we had some good news – sort of. ¬†Emmanuel Macron announced that France should gradually come out of the lockdown from May 11th onwards. ¬†There were no indications as to how it could work, but no doubt the details will follow. ¬†Of course, that means that we’re in for a little more than three weeks of staying at home!! ¬†ūüėČ

Last Sunday being Easter Sunday, I had planned ahead and bought a piece of saddle of lamb from Boucherie Gerard, my local butcher. ¬†Along with most food shops, Corinne and Nicolas Gerard have stayed open throughout the confinement. ¬†They’ve been incredibly cheerful, and it’s always been a joy to shop there!

I wanted to roast the lamb, but as the joint was relatively small (700 g) I figured that a traditional roast would be somewhat tricky to pull off successfully. ¬†I briefly considered cooking it at a low temperature (80 degrees Centigrade) for many hours but I dismissed that idea too. ¬†In the end, I hit upon cooking the lamb saddle in a salt crust. ¬†I’ve ¬†cooked things in salt crusts a number of times, and it has always worked well for me. ¬†In fact, I’ve previously written about that way of cooking here. ¬†In an old copy of House Beautiful I came across an article by Gabrielle Hamilton of Prune restaurant in Manhattan, in which she gives directions for cooking beef tenderloin in a salt crust. ¬†I used that as my inspiration!

To begin with, I browned the joint all over in a frying pan. ¬†I started in a ‘dry’ frying pan, i.e. without any fat, and I placed the joint with the skin side in contact with the hot iron first. ¬†It soon started to give up some fat, and that was all I needed to help brown the rest of the meat. ¬†It was quite smoky, so I was glad to have an efficient extract fan above my cooker!

While the meat was browning, I prepared my salt crust. ¬†In a large bowl, I beat an egg white until it was foaming, then I added two kilos of coarse sea salt (kosher salt) and a little water. ¬†The texture was that of sand that’s damp enough to build a sandcastle with. ¬†Below is a picture of the lamb nearing completion of the browning:

I placed a layer of the damp salt mixture on a baking sheet, and put the lamb on top of that:

I then encased the lamb with the remaining salt mixture:

Once it was all covered, I put it in the oven, which I had pre-heated to 130 degrees Centigrade.  Gabrielle Hamilton gave the roasting time for her tenderloin as 45 minutes and I stuck with that.

Here’s what the lamb looked like when it came out of the oven: not all that different to when it went in!! ūüôā

I left the meat rest for about 15 minutes, before I cracked open the crust.  It had set very hard, but a sharp blow with the blunt edge of the cleaver soon made it crack!

There was a fair amount of salt clinging to the meat, so I used a pastry brush to get it all off!

I had prepared some mashed potatoes, pan roasted vegetables and mint sauce while the meat was cooking, so I was ready to carve and dish up as soon as the meat had been ‘liberated’ from the crust!

The lamb was wonderfully tender, with just a hint of pink all the way through, and a great savoury flavour. No salt is needed with this method of cooking, the salt crust takes care of all the seasoning!

Best of all, after this wonderful meal there were enough leftovers for lunch the next day!! ūüôā

Since it was Easter Sunday, there was a little dessert to end the meal.  I cut a few slices from the lamb-shaped sponge cake I had made, and topped them with a little rumtopf, fruit which had been macerating in rum and sugar for some months!  Simple and oh so delicious!!

How was your Easter meal – did you have any special treats??

It’s virtually Easter!

We’re in our fourth week of lockdown in France! ¬†With lockdowns in place in numerous countries worldwide, it will mean that many people will be celebrating Easter this year very differently compared to previous years! ¬†The churches will be closed, large family gatherings are out of the question, and even family walks are restricted. ¬†I’ll be taking it in my stride, but I feel for those whose lives are being disrupted by being confined to their homes!

I’ll be following some of my Easter traditions such as dyeing hard-boiled eggs:

baking Hot Cross Buns:

and baking a cake in the shape of a lamb:

I will probably prepare Easter lunch using lamb, though this time I won’t leave the shopping to the last minute, as I did back in 2012!! ūüôā ¬†You can read my story of that Easter lunch here.

The town of Perpignan won’t be holding its traditional Good Friday procession, but you can have a look at what you’ll be able to see next time you visit around Easter!

Traditionally, families in our area of France (and perhaps in other areas of France too?) will go for a walk on Easter Monday to pick wild asparagus for the Easter omelette. ¬†This year being different, perhaps the omelette may have to be made with bought asparagus, but I’m sure the traditional omelette will be eaten!!

Do you have any Easter traditions you’d like to share?