Growing oil

De ferme en ferme is a nationwide programme of farm visits, and last fall I went to visit a couple of farms in the Montagne Noire, a fair drive from Saint-Chinian.  This year, a new network of farms, much closer to home, opened their doors to visitors.  I went to see two of them on September 10.

First I’ll tell you about my visit to Top Fruits, which was one of the farms I visited that day.  The farm is run by Jim and Sarah Pearce, who – no surprise after reading their name – are from Britain!  If the name isn’t a total giveaway, then the double-decker bus may be!! 🙂

Jim and Sarah started their ‘pick-your-own’ farm well over 10 years ago – they have a great selection of fruit and vegetables.  I’d known about the farm for years, but had never stopped to have a look.  I visited in the afternoon, and the crowds had gotten there before me.  The farm had more or less been stripped bare of ripe fruit!!  All the same, it was impressive to wander around the farm and see the rows upon rows of fruit trees (apricots, peaches, nectarines) and the greenhouses with tidy rows of tomatoes and aubergines!  I’ll be back next year, once the fruit season has started!!

My main visit of the day was Les Roumanisses, near Mailhac, where Nicolas Albert grows aromatic plants.

Nicolas started the farm in 2010, without a background in agriculture, but with plenty of passion and dedication!  Seven years later, this passion was still evident as he was showing visitors around the farm!

Our visit started in the polytunnel, which is the plant nursery where all the new plants are grown.  Nicolas grows all plants on site, and the farm is completely organic!

A large number of different types of herbs are grown at Les Roumanisses.  Here is a selection:

Nicolas had gone to a lot of trouble, providing labels and descriptions for a large number of different plants!

After the greenhouse, he showed us some of the machinery he uses.  Because of the fact that his farm is very unusual in this area, he’s had to make do with and adapt the machines he’s been able to buy.

Nicolas distills essential oils from the plants he grows and harvests on site.  The still had been set up and was ready to be demonstrated with lavender flowers.

The lavender had been harvested earlier in the year, and since Nicolas was still awaiting delivery of his new (larger) still, it had been dried.

The lavender had to be loaded into a large canister that looked a little like a milk churn.

Once full, the lid was screwed on, the canister was fixed in place and connected to the steam boiler and the condenser.

Here it is all ready, with Nicolas explaining how the process was going to work:

The glass container on the table is a separator, which will separate the essential oil from the distilled water.  The distilled water is collected in the large blue container.

Here we are, all ready and waiting for the steam to do its work!

After a little while, steam started to come out of the pipe at the bottom of the condensing unit (on the right), and soon after that the liquid started to flow!!  The smell was wonderful!!

In the picture below you can see the separation of oil and distilled water:

It was fascinating to watch!!  When I think of all the lavender flowers I have mulched in my garden over the years….  Perhaps I should invest in a little still of my own??  Nicolas had a very dinky copper model in his shop:

The shop was very busy during my visit, so it was not possible to get any decent pictures of the products.  Les Roumanisses offers about 10 different essential oils and 16 different flower waters.  The Flower water is the distilled water from the distillation process, which carries a lot of the fragrance of the plant. All the products are available from the on-line shop, from the farm, or from one of the local stockists.

I finished my visit with a lovely glass of chilled rosé wine – cheers!

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Saint-Chinian, “the place to be”

In early August, an article appeared on the CNBC website which caused quite a stir in Saint-Chinian – thank you Julian for forwarding it to me!  The article listed the world’s top 10 retirement destinations for 2017.  I posted a link to the article on the midihideaways facebook page, so, if you’ve already seen the article you’ll know why it would have caused a stir – Saint-Chinian was listed in fifth position!!  You can read the article via this link.

It was a little while before the local press found out about it, but eventually the story was picked up by Midi Libre, and it made the front page of the Sunday edition on August 20, 2017!  Here’s a link to the Midi Libre article.

After that, things went a little crazy!!  Some locals started to get concerned that the village would be overrun by Americans.  Others welcomed the news in the hope that it would bring new people to the village.  On August 22, a TV crew from France 3 appeared in Saint-Chinian, looking to interview locals and foreign retirees.  Their video was broadcast later in the week, and can be found here.

The following morning, a TV crew from TF1 turned up, looking for people to interview!  Their video aired the same day, at lunchtime, and you can watch it here.  Please be patient, the adverts don’t take too long…

On Friday, August 25th, yet another TV crew turned up, this one from M6 – their video was aired on the following day, and can be watched via this link.  Again, please be patient with the adverts!

Several articles have since appeared in the French media – BFMTV, RTL and Le Parisien.  The radio station for the region, France Bleu Herault, added its own take on the CNBC article, interviewing the mayor and Jeremy at Cafe Vernazobre.

The link from the CNBC article leads to a website called Live and Invest Overseas.  The full article on this website goes into a lot of detail as to how the best places to retire to in 2017 were chosen.

Ever since reading the article I’ve been intrigued as to how they came to pick Saint-Chinian, out of all the villages in France or even Europe!!  I decided that there was only one way to find out:  I wrote to Kathleen Peddicord, the author of the CNBC article, and founder & publisher of Live and Invest Overseas.  Here’s what Kathleen replied:

“Andreas,

Thanks for your  interest and for getting in touch. We were all surprised and delighted to hear about the far-reaching impressions our English-language Index has made across the pond.

Our annual Overseas Retirement Index has featured the Occitanie region (under former name Languedoc) in previous years, because we feel it offers an excellent quality of life at a great value—and, more generally, that the south of France is a must on any list of the best living or retiring destinations in Europe.

This year we approached our methodology differently, dividing the Index into categories of lifestyle. Under this new organization, we included Small Towns as a lifestyle option, and thought that a small town within Occitanie would be an ideal addition to epitomize small town living for France and generally for Europe.

We’ve known many retirees to villages and towns throughout Occitanie and have a particular concentration of contributors (or family members of contributors) who happen to live in Saint-Chinian. Based on their testimonials, it sounded like the quintessential small, southern French town—a perfect representation of small town living in Europe.

Within France for this category, we only considered a couple other towns in Occitanie and towns in Morbihan in the north. The south beat out the north based on weather and access to the Med. Saint-Chinian came out among our other southern towns as a particularly good value for cost of living, while being at what we felt were ideal distances from nearby larger towns, transport hubs, and the Med. But we only allowed for a winner and a runner up for each region in each category, so the other small towns we considered before narrowing one of the slots down to France took the entire Continent into consideration (Portugal, Spain, Italy, Slovenia, and Greece in particular).

Please let us know if you’d like to know anything else about Saint-Chinian’s inclusion or the Index and how we do our rankings and gradings. “

So there we have it – Saint-Chinian beat off stiff competition and it is definitely the place to be!!

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I’m back!

It’s been a wonderful summer – very busy with one thing and another, but wonderful all the same.  Now that I’m sitting down again to write, I don’t know where to start!!  Perhaps I’ll start with my most recent outing, as it’s still so fresh in my mind.

This past weekend, the village of Bize-Minervois hosted a festival called Tastes en Minervois.  It billed itself as a wine and gastronomy festival, and this was the third time it was being held.  I had completely managed to miss the previous two festivals, which took place in Homps in 2015 and 2016 – quel dommage – I was thrilled that I was able to go this year!

For the festival, the old centre of the village had been closed off.  The entrance fee was 15 EUR, which included a wine glass, a voucher for a meal at one of the four restaurant tents and free wine tastings throughout the village.  A fifth restaurant spot was reserved for children.

It was all incredibly well organised – and it had to be!  The organisers were expecting around 10,000 visitors over the two days!!

About 100 winemakers from the Minervois AOC area participated.  Each winemaker was assigned a wine barrel, and allowed to showcase one wine for tasting.  Orange polo shirts denoted volunteer stewards or wine makers – their names were printed on the back of the shirts!

The restaurant tents had been set up in four different places around the village, and each had its own distinctive theme.  Cuisine du Monde was on the promenade along the river,  and its musical accompaniment was by a flamenco guitar group.

Cuisine traditionelle had been set up near the Mairie, and the music was provided by a group of three women, calling themselves USB – a play on words – they are super branchées, which means either connected or trendy.  Their music was great: festive and rhythmic, it really made you want to move!

Cuisine Carre Vert was near the church, and the musical entertainment there was very original!! Eric van Osselaer makes music by using vegetables as his instruments!!  He made flutes from carrots, a kind of clarinet with a carrot, a cucumber and a mini pumpkin, leaves of Belgian endive served as reeds – it all was highly original.

Cuisine Street Food was in a newly created square in the heart of the village, and the music was provided by a group of DJs.

Here’s some of the food:

On the tray with the small bottle (milk shake) is Cuisine Street Food, and on the other tray you see Cusine du Monde.  Both were very delicious!!

It was great wandering around the village, glass around my neck and stopping for a sip here and there!!  Here are my favourite wines from the evening:

As the evening went on, the lights came on, and the atmosphere became even more magical!

In a courtyard, a little tucked away, a coffee bar had been set up.

The coffee was delicious, and accompanied by a few mignardises, small sweet bites, each of the four chefs of the evening having contributed one.

Darkness fell and people were still arriving, the numbers swelled perhaps by the inhabitants of the village, who had all been given passes.

With the fading light, the decorations in various places also came into their own!

For me it was time to head home, but here’s one last look, from across the river:

The festival is due to take place again in Bize Minervois in 2018.  More information on http://www.leminervois.com .  To book your stay in Bize, visit http://www.midihideaways.com/figuier

 

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Party time!!

Today is France’s national holiday – a day which remembers the storming of the Bastille fortress on July 14, 1789, as well as the Fete of Unity (Fete de la Federation) on July 14, 1790.  All over France there will be celebrations of one kind or another.  In some of the very small villages it may be a communal meal with music and dancing on the day.  Larger villages can afford to spread the festivities over several days, and in many towns there will be fireworks and parades.

The most spectacular fireworks display takes place in Paris, where the Eiffel Tower is beautifully showcased by truly amazing pyrotechnics.

The festivities in Saint-Chinian will go on for three days, with bands and parties.  Here is the programme:

The 14th of July is also the start of the French summer holidays, and in the spirit of that I will be taking a bit of a break.  I hope you will all have a wonderful summer, and I look forward to catching up with you again in August!  if anyone would like to write a guest post in my absence, please let me know!

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Time with the Swiss

One grey Saturday morning this spring, I went to meet up with a group of like-minded people for a guided visit on Beziers’ architectural history.  The history of that town has fascinated me for a long time – it goes back so far, and there are so many different layers to discover.  The theme of the guided visit was Chez les Suisses, and very appropriately the visit started on a square just off Boulevard de Geneve.  The boulevard was given its name around 1904 after the town councillors of Beziers had had a particularly cordial welcome on a visit to Geneva.

During the later part of the 19th century and the early part of the 20th century, there were strong commercial ties between Switzerland and Languedoc.  The Swiss would buy wines from the region, and in turn would sell grain.  Swiss merchants opened offices in Beziers, and built themselves sumptuous mansions with their profits.

On our visit we stopped at several of these mansions.  The first one we saw was built by Godefroid Meyer on Boulevard de la Liberte between 1926 and 1928 in a very pure art deco style.

We were fortunate in that the owner of this beautiful white house was one of the guides – there were several of them, each with a different field of expertise.  He had brought several photographs of the interior of the house to show to the group.  The interior looked as stunning as the outside. In fact, my pictures above do not do the building justice, it really has to be seen in person!

The next mansion we saw used to belong to the Bühler family.  Traugott Bühler bought an enormous plot of around 4500 square metres along Avenue Saint-Saëns, and proceeded to build not one but two mansions.  The one on the corner was used as offices, and is a relatively modest brick and stone confection with a mansard roof.

The initial of the family name still decorates the stonework at roof level, and the railings on the balcony just below hint at art nouveau.

The big mansion next door, completed in 1903, was designed by the architects Leopold and Louis Carlier, well-known architects from Montpellier.  The locals called it the Chateau Bühler, on account of its size and air of sumptuousness.

Both of the Bühler mansions have been split into apartments, and a large part of the park has been sold off and covered with very nondescript apartment buildings.  The facade of the chateau as well as the monumental wrought iron gates and railings have listed building status!  Here is one of our guides in front of the gates:

The last of the mansions we visited, was built for Otto Müller, another rich merchant of Swiss extraction, who, if I remember correctly, had married one of the Bühler daughters – or was she a Meyer?  The architect was Leopold Carlier.  He designed the mansion in the Flemish style, with gables and turrets.  The building was finished in 1870.  At the time there were few other buildings surrounding it.

You can still see Otto Müller’s initials on the monumental chimney:

In 1916, the mansion was bought by the brothers Guy.  In 1918, they engaged a renowned landscape architect to turn the land surrounding the house into a park.  They also commissioned original artwork from the local sculptors Antonin Injalbert and Jean Magrou for the park.  Once the Guy brothers bought the house, the locals started to call it Villa Guy.  It retains that name to this day.

We were fortunate in that the current owners of Villa Guy allowed our group to visit the grounds – we got a very close look at the building and the park.  Villa Guy is today an exclusive Bed and Breakfast and function venue.

Here is a selection of photographs of the building and of the sculptures in the park:

Farthest from the house is the Neo-Moorish garden, which was undergoing restoration when I visited.  At the time of writing this post, the fountains should be tinkling again!

And thus ended a fascinating visit into Beziers’ past!

 

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On rocky ground

It’s amazing what you can discover on walks around the villages in Languedoc! (I know that the area has now been renamed Occitanie, but I refuse to call it that!!)  A village which is full of interesting things to discover is Montouliers.  It is perched on a hill in the hinterland, not far from Bize Minervois and Argeliers.  Walk the narrow streets of the old part of the village up towards the chateau, and with a little imagination you could picture yourself transported back in time.

The narrow streets are paved with stones, a surface which is called calade.  Calade is a word that you’ll not find in a French dictionary – it has its roots in the old Gaulish word cal, meaning stone and height.  Calades were built using the materials to hand – stones which had been cleared from the fields to make them arable.  Skill was required so sort the stones and to place them, so that they would form a durable surface.  Mortar was not often used as that would have raised the cost.

Steps were built to shore up the steeper slopes and to allow humans and animals (donkeys and horses in the main) to walk up and down more easily.

In most villages, the calades disappeared with the advent of tarmac in the early 20th century, the old making room for the new.  However, in some villages you can still find calades.  I know of two small patches in Saint-Chinian.

Here are a few more images from Montouliers – along with the Calades, the exteriors of the houses in the old part of the village have also been carefully renovated!

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