Open farm Sunday

During the early part of last year, I came across an event called De Ferme en Ferme, which translates to ‘from farm to farm’, and which takes place in farming areas all over France at various times of the year!  I managed to pick up a leaflet for last year’s fall edition of the event, and found that some of the farms were not all that far from Saint-Chinian, relatively speaking 🙂 .

I set my eyes on visiting a farm called Le Rodier, up in the mountains between Saint-Pons-de-Thomieres and Mazamet.  The day started a little misty and overcast, and as I drove up the mountain, the tops of the trees started to disappear into the fog. The farm is in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by meadows and trees.

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As I walked from the car park to the farm I passed this magnificent mushroom, its top as big as my hand!  I don’t know many mushrooms, but I do know this one is edible.

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Le Rodier is run as a dairy farm by Marie and her husband Sebastien, and Marie’s parents, Martine and Jean-Louis.  The farm has been owned by successive generations of Marie’s family for 100 years!  Marie and Sebastien had careers in law and finance, but when Martine and Jean-Louis began to look at possible retirement, Marie and Sebastien decided that they would carry on the family’s farming tradition!  With lots of enthusiasm they re-trained and became expert cheese makers and farmers!

They farm an area of 70 hectares (70,000 square metres or 173 acres), either as pasture or to produce hay and cereal feed for their 45 cows.  The cows are called Brune des Alpes, and they are out on the pasture from the end of winter until the first snow, producing a total of 270,000 litres of milk during the course of the year.  60,000 litres of that milk are used for cheese production on the farm, the rest is sold to a dairy.

Sebastian had set up a display of various equipment used for the production of their cheeses.  For hygiene reasons, a visit to the dairy itself was not possible.

Before I had a chance to visit the shop, Martine took a group of us to see the cows!  On the way we passed the hay barn – they had certainly made hay while the sun had shone!!

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The cow shed was large and spacious, and very clean-smelling!  I remembered that sweet smell from when I went as a child to a farm in the neighbourhood to get fresh milk.  Most of the time I would be allowed to visit the cows as they were being milked!

There weren’t many cows about, most of them were out grazing.  The ones in the barn were about to give birth, or had very recently given birth.

Here are the calves:  the one on the right had been born the day before!

The milking parlour was our next stop – the cows walk in at one end of the parlour and line up with their rear ends towards the pit, where the milking machinery is located.  Once they have been milked they walk out the other end of the parlour and back into the barn – all very organised and efficient.

Martine was a wonderful guide, and she communicated her passion for her work and her animals so well – it was a privilege being able to spend time with her!

Finally to the shop, where Sebastien was busy serving customers.  The range was relatively small compared to what you would find in a cheese shop, but for a small family business it was impressive!

On the top shelf there was faisselle (cheese curds), butter, creme fraiche and fromage blanc.

On the second shelf there was half a blue cheese (left), and three trays of frisquet, a fresh cheese much like goats cheese, either as is or with various ‘coatings’ such as herbs, pepper or paprika.

The third shelf held desserts 🙂 : Creme caramel, chocolate cream, rice pudding with caramel, and plain rice pudding!

Finally, on the bottom shelf were bottles of fresh raw = unpasteurized milk, and some camembert.

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The firmer cheeses are the ones made in the large moulds, which Sebastien had on show outside.

The Pastural is the softest of them – 18 litres of milk are needed for one cheese.  For the blue cheese to the right, 20 litres of milk are required.  The large cheese towards the right is called Rodal and it is made from 120 litres of milk!  On the very right of the picture you see part of a tomme – during the cheesemaking process, the curds are pressed with a weight, resulting in a firmer cheese, made from 40 litres of milk.

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Sebastien was happy to let me taste the various cheeses, and I came away with a lovely selection AND some fresh milk!

On the way back I caught a glimpse of the cows in one of the fields.

I must confess that the cheeses from Le Rodier were not a new discovery for me – Marie and Sebastien come to the little market in Agel (circuit court) every other Thursday.  But it was wonderful to visit their farm, and to meet Marie’s mother!  In case you are wondering, Marie’s father was there also, but he was busy with another group, so I did not get a chance to meet him.  If you want to experience this farm yourself, the farm shop is open every Saturday from 10am to 6pm, and you can of course buy the cheeses every other Thursday in Agel from 5pm to 7pm.

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A perfect match

Here’s to the start of another year – let’s hope that there will be more peace and less hate in the world!

What better way to start a new year, than with a post about wine-tasting!  Before Christmas, a friend asked if I would like to join her at a tutored wine tasting with food pairing – she had won two places for it in a prize draw!  “Of course, with pleasure”, I said without much hesitation.  The event was organised by the Herault Department in collaboration with the Maison des Vins de Saint-Chinian, the official showroom for Saint-Chinian wines.  The Herault Department organised a series of these events between September and January, in order to make the wines and foods of the region better known.

The tasting in Saint-Chinian was presided over by Thierry Boyer, a professional sommelier, who regularly hosts wine tastings in the area.  The food which was to go with the wine was prepared by Frederic Revilla of the restaurant Le Faitout in Berlou.  Here is the menu:

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The evening started in the shop on the ground floor of the Maison des Vins, with a glass of white wine, whilst everyone signed in.  The wine was called Schisteil and came from the Cave Cooperative in Berlou.  It was perfect as an aperitif, a nice fruity wine, without too much acidity.

Once everyone had arrived, we were invited to climb the stairs to the second floor, where we were to spend the next few hours.

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Once everyone had settled down, Thierry Boyer (below, far left) started the evening by introducing his co-hosts: Nellie Belot (far right), the director of the Maison des Vins, and Frederic Revilla (second from left), the chef of the Restaurant Le Faitout.  The lady with the red apron in the picture below was helping Thierry Boyer with pouring the wine.

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Once the introductions were made, Thierry started on the technical part of the evening, explaining the ‘art of tasting’ in some detail.  I’m no expert when it comes to wine tasting, and so this was all very interesting.  Each participant was given a tasting sheet, where notes could/should be made about various aspects of the wine, such as the visual aspect, the smell, taste and overall impression.  On the reverse of this sheet was an explanation of the words to be used in describing the wines.  All in French, of course, AND highly instructive!!

Once Thierry had finished his explanation, Nellie Belot took over to introduce the first wine, Domaine du Landeyran’s Saint-Chinian-Roquebrun 2013.  My notes tell me that the grapes for this wine are grown at Saint-Nazaire de Ladarez, on schist (slate) terroir, which produces relatively small yields of 30 hectolitres per hectare (1 hectolitre equals 100 litres, and a hectare is 10,000 square metres).  The wine is made with 70% Syrah grapes and 30% Grenache grapes, and spends one month in oak barrels.

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Next, Frederic Revilla introduced the food – blinis made with chestnut flour, topped with rillettes de volaille a la sauge, potted chicken with sage.  Somehow the French sounds more elegant, don’t you think? 🙂

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Finally, the wine was poured, and Thierry continued to teach us how to taste!  Take the glass by the base, so that your hand (which might be smelling of onion or garlic??) is as far away from the rim of the glass as possible!  Tilt the glass to the side and examine the colour and the clarity of the wine, as well as the colour of the “edge” of the wine, where the wine touches the glass as you look down into the glass.  Then we came to the “legs”, which are traces left by the wine on the inside of the glass.  Finally we were instructed to smell.  Once everyone had had a good sniff (the first nose), we had to swivel the wine in the glass and smell again – that’s called the second nose.  Agitating the wine causes some oxidation and brings out the smells more strongly.

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As you can see, everybody was doing this very seriously!!  After much sniffing and scribbling, we were allowed to taste the wine.  No, the idea was not to have a good gulp but to aerate the wine again, drawing air through it and making noises almost as if you were slurping noodles or some such.  The air causes still more oxidation, and brings out yet more flavours!  Once we’d had our first mouthful of wine, the blinis were passed around – one piece each.  I was so caught up in the tasting and note writing, that I missed taking a picture of it!  My note on the food says ‘super’!!  My memory of it is that it was very delicious, gone in a flash, and very good with the wine!  About the wine, my notes say very dark, almost black, a nose which was spicy, with red fruits and a hint of caramel.  The taste was a little tannic, and not too heavy.  Overall very nice, but I wasn’t blown away.

The next wine was Vieilles Vignes 2014 from Chateau Cazal Viel, near Cessenon-sur-Orb, was accompanied by a mushroom pate made with soya oil, on a toast which had been lightly brushed with olive oil.

This wine was made with Syrah, Grenache and Mourvedre grapes, and looked very dark, with very long legs. On the nose, I discovered red fruit and farmyard smells (those of you who remember the Food & Drink Show on BBC TV in the 1990’s may recall presenter Jilly Goolden talking of “bags of manure” 🙂 ).  Thee are all kinds of funny ways of describing the smells of wine – and manure/farmyard don’t mean that it tastes of that!!  In the mouth, the tannins were still somewhat strong, but the wine was generously fruity.  This is a wine which would be good to keep for a few more years, but which was very nice to drink now.

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The mushroom pate was wonderful with this wine, and as you can see in the picture, the pate was topped with a little piece of mountain ham, as well as some celery and carrot, both lightly steamed.

The third wine on our list was Le Secret des Capitelles 2014, from the Cave Cooperative in Saint-Chinian, made with 65% Grenache and 35% Syrah.  The colour of this wine was lighter than the two previous ones had been, and the edge of the wine was pinky red, indicating that it is relatively young (older wines can have a brown-ish edge).  The nose was fruity, with some toasted aromas.  The taste was very round, very easy to drink!

img_1793This wine was accompanied by a tartar of hake, a white fish, similar to cod, which had been delicately seasoned with peppermint and licorice, and was topped with a leaf of pennywort (umbilicus rupestris).  The pennywort brought out a sweetness in the wine, whist the pairing with the fish worked perfectly!

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During a brief interlude in the tasting, Thierry explained a little about corks, and why it is important to keep a bottle horizontal:  corks have tiny air pockets in their structure, and if left exposed fungi could grow in these pockets and taint the taste of the wine.  I’m simplifying here, there is far more science to it than just that!

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On to our last wine, Domaine Cathala’s Absolue 2013.  With this wine it was a case of keeping the best ’til last!  The wine is made with a blend of Syrah, Grenache and Carignan grapes, which are grown on limestone terroir near Cessenon-sur-Orb.  The colour of this wine was very deep, almost black and the nose had hints of farmyard and something called ‘sweaty saddle’.  I have the ‘sweaty saddle’ on authority – the friend who had invited me to the tasting is an expert!  The wine tasted spicy and fruity, and it was very delicious!!

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To accompany this wine, we had some baby wild boar, cooked in a stew with Sichuan pepper, mandarin and a little chocolate to thicken the sauce.  It was a pairing made in heaven!!

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What a great way to spend an evening – good food and good wine, and I learnt a great deal at the same time!!

Here’s a picture of the happy team at the end of the evening – they all did a wonderful job transmitting their enthusiasm for the food and wines of the region!  From right to left: Gaylord Burguiere, who works at Maison des Vins and has wonderful Instagram feed; Frederic Revilla; Natalie Revilla; Thierry’s helper; Thierry Boyer; Nelly Belot, and two ladies from the Herault Department, who’d organised the evening.

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Thank you to Carole for allowing me to accompany you on this adventure!!

If you are in Saint-Chinian, do go and visit the Maison des Vins.  You’ll be able to taste (and buy!) a good cross-section of wines from the Saint-Chinan area!

Light up your heart

The city of Montpellier has a special sparkle in the run-up to Christmas, when night falls early and festive decorations light up the streets in the heart of the city.

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I wrote about my visit to the Christmas market in Montpellier about this time last year.  This year I have a different treat in store for you:  for three days at the beginning of December, the city centre’s landmark buildings served as canvases for the most wonderful light shows!  There were nine locations in all, and I managed to see the shows at five of them.  I started with the Arc de Triomphe, which was lit up spectacularly before the show:

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I shot videos of all the sites I visited, so here are two of the Arc de Triomphe – if you receive this blog by e-mail, you may have to visit the blog page, in order to watch the videos.  The amazing light show turned the building into a futuristic spaceship, which took off for a flight through space!

Next, I stopped at the Prefecture, a very imposing building by day, and really funky looking that night:

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The theme for the show at this building was a magical circus, with strong men pushing pieces of a giant puzzle into place.  Have a look!

At the church of Notre Dame des Tables the students of the Montpellier School of Art and the Montpellier School of Computer Graphic Animation and Visual Effects had been given free hand.  Their work was varied and highly entertaining.

Here are two videos:

Not far away was the Musee Fabre, where the show drew inspiration from some of the great paintings which are on display in the museum.

The show made you believe at times that the building was really moving!

As it was getting later, it became time for something to eat!!  My companions found a Lebanese restaurant in one of the side streets near the railway station.  The place was buzzing and warm, and we had a wonderful meal!  Meze to start with, followed by a large grill platter – very tasty and plentiful!!  The restaurant is called Al Manara, and you can find their website here.

The meze dishes were tabbouleh, hummus, aubergine caviar, cucumber with yoghurt, and beans with tomatoes.

On the grill platter we had grilled chicken breast (marinated beforehand, tender and juicy!), lamb kafta (minced lamb with onion and parsley), chawarma (a kind of kebab, with a wonderful sauce), as well as tasty rice and some salad.  There wasn’t room for dessert!!

But there was time for one last light show, at the Eglise St-Roch!

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The facade of this church transformed into a kind of factory before our very eyes!

As this is the last post for this year, I’d like to take this opportunity to wish you all a very peaceful and happy festive season!!  See you next year, I hope!

Discover Uzes

A couple of weeks ago, I told you about my trip to the Witches’ Market in Saint Chaptes. In order to be able to get to the market early in the morning, I stayed the previous night in Uzes. Getting to Uzes in good time gave me the chance to spend a few hours exploring the centre of town. Uzes is a town whose history dates back to Roman times. Most of you will have heard of the Pont du Gard, an aqueduct built by the Romans to bring water to Nimes. The Pont du Gard is not far from Uzes, and Uzes is where the Romans captured the water for Nimes. Here’s a picture of the Pont du Gard at sunset:

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The old town centre of Uzes is full of amazing buildings.  Unfortunately most of the streets are very narrow, so it was impossible to capture much more than some architectural details.  The “dressed up” door was for Halloween – the tape says ‘Caution – Enter if you dare’!  🙂

In the centre of the old town lies a large and irregular shaped square, it kind of meanders around several corners.  This is where the market takes place every Saturday – I’ve not yet visited that, but it’s on my list!!

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Some of the houses along this open space have arcades on the ground floor – here’s a picture of a stone-vaulted arcade:

Not far from the square lies the ducal castle.  The Duke of Uzes still owns the castle, and apparently the title is the highest ranking among French nobility.  The castle can be visited, I just didn’t have enough time.

Right across the street from the ducal castle stands a splendid building, which houses the town hall.

One wing of the building was home to the post office and telephone exchange at one time.  I imagine that both moved out some time ago!

The cathedral was destroyed several times.  The current building dates from the 17th century.  The arcaded belfry dates from the 11th century.

I found a some lovely door knockers on my walks:

As the day drew to a close, my thoughts turned to dinner – wouldn’t you know?? 🙂  I’d noticed a few restaurants throughout the town and in the end I decided on a restaurant called Midi a l’Ombre, which was tucked away a little, not far from the tourist office and the cinema.  It turned out to have been a great choice!  The dining room was very stylish and warm, and the chairs oh so comfortable.  You’ll be able to see pictures of the dining room on the restaurant’s own website – I didn’t take any since there were a fair number if diners already seated.  But I did take pictures of the food!  Here is the amuse bouche, a delicate jerusalem artichoke soup!

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Since I had a friend with me, here are two starters.  The first is a terrine of foie gras with figs, the second is a dish of scallop and prawn ravioli with crispy vegetables.

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Here is the main course – delicious and perfectly cooked john dory with polenta and ratatouille.

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The cheese selection was amazing!  I overheard the waiter describing the cheese under the plastic cloche as ‘the devil’s suppository’ to the guests at the next table, warning them that it was very smelly! 😀  I decided to give that particular cheese a miss…

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The desserts were a fitting end to a wonderful meal!  The first was a Grand Marnier mousse with crispy orange biscuits.  The second was a chocolate mousse cake, which was as light as a feather!

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Highly recommended!!

The last of the season

With winter marching in and Christmas on the way, I thought I would share some pictures of the glorious autumn colours we had in Languedoc this year.  I took the photographs on a walk last week, a couple of days before some wet and stormy weather moved across Languedoc.  I’m sure there are still a few leaves clinging on out there, but mostly the leaves are gone now.  Not surprising really, it’s early December after all!

Here’s where I started my walk – this field is just a few steps away from the main street in Saint-Chinian.

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Look at how these leaves glow in the sunshine!!

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A little farther on, the trees appear to have shed most of their leaves, but the leaves on the vines beyond are still almost green, and of course the evergreens around the vineyards stay ever so green!

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At Clos Bagatelle, this vineyard was a myriad of different shades of orange and russet.

Just around the corner I found this bottlebrush plant (callistemon) flowering its heart out.

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Daisies seem to thrive everywhere!

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At Chateau La Dournie, the predominant colour was yellow!

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This wonderful stand of trees is right by the Vernazobre river:

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Some plants thrive in the shelter which these trees provide.

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At La Rive, the market gardens had some very neat looking rows of cabbages!

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Returning towards Saint-Chinian, I caught this view of the windmill with the vineyards below.

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This mushroom is not edible, but looks quite attractive.

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And here is the last picture from my walk, the flowers and fruits of an arbousier (arbutus unedo).  I’m not sure if there are many plants which bear fruit and flowers at the same time, but this is definitely one of them!!

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If you’re planning a visit to Saint-Chinian, and are interested in following in my footsteps, I give you below the map of my walk.  I hope you’ll enjoy it!

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On your broomstick!

About 10 years ago, at the wine harvest fete in Cessenon, I met Didier Duserre, who was making brooms.  He was demonstrating how traditional brooms were made from sorghum straw, and he explained that his production was 100% French, since he grew his own sorghum.  I was fascinated by the process, and even more fascinated when he told me about the Marche des Sorcieres, a witches’ market, which was held in his home town of Saint Chaptes on the 1st of November every year.  I mentally filed that bit of information away, in the hope that I might be able to visit the market one day.

That day came this year, and I’m very happy that I finally was able to visit the market.  The drive to Saint Chaptes was beautiful, taking me across the mountains as I gave the motorway a miss.  I visited a couple of places on the way, and stayed overnight in Uzes, which enabled me to be at the market early.

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I met Didier Duserre again, who was at the centre of the market with his broom-making demonstration.  He explained that the market was started over 10 years ago by a group of women artists and artisans, who were looking for somewhere to sell their wares.  He suggested that they hold a market, and the ladies came up with the name.  It was a success from day one, and nowadays the market draws thousands of visitors each year!

Didier makes all kinds of brooms, all from the sorghum that he grows himself.  To find out a little more about the process, you can visit his website here.

At the market, the witch theme was to be seen everywhere, from the witches’ cauldron in front of Didier’s stall …

… to the items for sale at some of the stalls…

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… and it extended to the dress of some of the visitors!

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The market stalls offered a wonderful variety of goodies, from clothes to food to traditional handicrafts.

The storyteller kept young and old entertained:

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Some of the artisans were demonstrating their art:

There was another broom-maker at the market – to my mind his brooms looked more like the brooms a witch would use!! 🙂

A lady on stilts was walking through the crowds, holding people spellbound with her graceful movements and her puppet which moved as if by magic.  Her costume was very original – have a close look at her hat, it’s a re-purposed funnel!

We’ve come to the end of this post, and I hope you enjoyed our visit to the Marche des Sorcieres in Saint Chaptes.  Remember, all you aspiring witches, it is always on the 1st of November!