So much more to do…

Here are some more events, which I have recently added to the list of upcoming events

Soapbox race, Saint-Chinian – 4 June 2016

This event promises to be great fun, if last year’s edition of the race was anything to go by!  Again the participants will be hurtling down the hill from the windmill to the market square, in their home-made contraptions!!

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Festival de Carcassonne, Carcassonne – 4 July to 1 August 2016

The Carcassonne festival is one of the biggest in the area, attracting stars such as Elton John (a few years ago) and Pharell Williams (this year).

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Nocturn’Art, Saint-Chinian – 26 July 2016

An evening dedicated to artistic creations of all types.  Last year, the event had a great variety of artists displaying their skills and creating works of art right in front of the visitors’ eyes.  This year’s event promises to be even better!

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Fete du Cassoulet, Castelnaudary – 24 to 28 August 2016

This must be heaven if you enjoy cassoulet!!  Five days of music and cassoulet – I am hoping to make it there this year – will I meet you there?  The official website can be found via this link.

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Open day at the cooperative winery, Saint-Chinian – 5 August 2016

This is your chance, if you have always wanted to know what these enormous wineries look like inside!  In the evening there will a communal meal and live music – it’s usually a fantastic evening!!  I’ve been many times and have written about it here.

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Fete de l’Ail Rose de Lautrec, Lautrec – 5 August 2016

This wonderfully “fragrant” fete is heaven for all lovers of garlic – hundreds of litres of delicious garlic soup is prepared and distributed to the visitors at lunchtime.  I’ve been to this fete a couple of times, and of course I have written about it!!  More information can be found on the official website here.

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Feria de Beziers, Beziers – 12 to 15 August 2016

Four days of partying in the centre of Beziers, and bull fights in the arena.  I’m OK with the partying, but not so sure about the bull fights…

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Fete du Fil, Labastide Rouairoux – 14 and 15 August 2016

This is the fete for all of you who sew, embroider, knit, or are otherwise into craft projects.  And if you’re not that way inclined, you may enjoy the visit to the textile museum – this year’s special exhibition features Japanese kimonos.  You can find my blog about a previous fete du fil here, and for the official website, please follow this link.

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Pottery market in Salleles d’Aude – 14 and 15 August 2016

You can combine a visit to this well-established pottery market with a visit to the Roman pottery museum, Amphoralis, just as I did a few years ago.  It’s fascinating to see what was produced with fairly limited means in Roman times, and what today’s potters have to offer.  Read about my visit here.

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Saint-Chinian’s preface to Brescudos Bike Week, Cap d’Agde – 29 August to 4 September 2016

A must for all lovers of motorbikes out there.  Hundreds of motorbikes and their riders will descend on Saint-Chinian on August 28, 2016.  There’ll be a competition for the “best dressed bike & rider”, and there’ll be lots of motorbike related paraphernalia.  Have a look at what happened in 2015.

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European heritage days, all over France and Europe – 17 and 18 September 2016

I’m sure there will be plenty of interesting things to do over that weekend!  Details of participating venues will be on the French Ministry of Culture website in due course.  I have written about events on the heritage weekend several times – you’ll find the posts here.

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Austerity and splendour

What do most people think of when they hear the word Albi? Perhaps that it was the birthplace of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec,  or the Albigensian crusade against the Cathars?  I think of a fortress-like church.  I recently went back to Albi for another visit.  Construction of the cathedral, for that is what the fortress-church actually is, started in 1282, at the end of the persecution of the Cathars.  The massive building was designed to intimidate and impress, to show the domination of the Catholic church over its surroundings.IMG_4705

It is very impressive, wouldn’t you agree?  The building is in a style called Meridional Gothic, distinctly different from the Northern Gothic style which gave us cathedrals such as the ones in Chartres, Rouen or Notre Dame de Paris.  The whole shell is built entirely of brick, and there are no flying buttresses – instead the semi-cylindrical abutments on the outer walls transfer the weight of the vaults to the massive foundations.

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It took over 100 years to build the shell of the building, and the massive belfry was only finished in 1480, almost 200 years after construction began!!  The belfry is 78 metres high!

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The cathedral is the largest brick-built cathedral in the world, an impressive 113 metres long, by 35 metres wide!  It totally dominates the old town, which of course was the aim.

The fortress aspect of the exterior includes details of military architecture, such as the observation tower below:

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There is hint of the more well known northern gothic style in the monumental porch on the southern entrance.  Unfortunately this was undergoing some restoration, so it isn’t all that visible.

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The interior of the cathedral is in stark contrast to the exterior.  Where the brick walls on outside carry no decoration, inside the church not a single square inch remains undecorated! (Or the inside of the church is decorated to within an inch of its life??)

The decorations on the vaults were painted by Italian artists between 1509 and 1512.  On a blue and gold background, the ceiling depicts the promise of salvation.  The west wall, below the organ loft, is taken up by a monumental depiction of the last judgement, painted by Flemish artists from 1495 to 1500.  Unfortunately, at one point a door was cut into this wall, which meant that the central portion of the painting was lost!  The paintings were a way of instructing a populace which was largely illiterate and/or did not know enough Latin to read the Bible.

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The painted walls have not been restored (read re-painted) since they were finished.  Some of the walls have been cleaned, removing centuries of dust and grime, and the difference is noticeable.  On the very right you see a wall which has not been cleaned – the colours are incredibly vibrant on the cleaned walls!

The rood screen and the choir enclosure are in the flamboyant gothic style and were carved by the best craftsmen of France during 1477 – 1484.  The detailing is incredibly fine and ornate!  The statuary on the exterior of the enclosure represents the Old Testament, whilst on the inside, characters from the New Testament are depicted.

The walls above the choir stalls are decorated with angels, and the fields between the angels are painted with mythical creatures.

A few of the angels have lost arms, but all of them have their heads.  And there seems to be something missing from the canopies which are in between the angels – but what?

And here is a statue of Saint Cecilia, the patron saint of the cathedral:

I hope I’ve shown you enough of the interior of the cathedral to make you want to visit it for yourself!!  From Saint-Chinian, Albi can be reached by car in just under two hours – it makes for a good day trip.

The cathedral of Sainte-Cecile is an amazing work of art – do allow yourself enough time to explore it. An audio guide is available, which offers good explanations of the interior of the church.  From the tourist office, the Albi City Pass is available, which is a day pass for the Cathedral and the Toulouse-Lautrec museum, located in the former archbishop’s palace.  The pass also gives reduced entry to a number of other museums and attractions in Albi.

I’ll write about the palace and the Toulouse-Lautrec museum in due course – promise!!

Pit stops

Wikipedia defines a pit stop thus: “In motor sports, a pit stop is where a racing vehicle stops in the pits during a race for refuelling, new tyres, repairs, mechanical adjustments, a driver change, as a penalty, or any combination of the above.”

On a day out, a pit stop is for refuelling, perhaps a driver change, and definitely a visit to the bathroom!! 😀

In last week’s post I told you about my visit to the paper mill in Brousses-et-Villaret.  To get there, we took the scenic route, via Saint-Pons-de-Thomieres and Mazamet, and we stopped off in Mazamet to visit the farmers market.  The weather in Mazamet was somewhat grey and damp, but the market was interesting, and we found some tasty morsels to buy! 😉  After a brief pit stop at a cafe in Mazamet (coffee for some of us, hot chocolate for the others), and a long-ish walk back to the car, we set off to cross the Montagne Noire, the black mountains, for our real pit stop destination at Cuxac-Cabardes.  The drive was beautiful, the road snaking up the mountainside, passing into the low hanging clouds, higher still past little villages and the occasional cow, until we started to descend again.  On the other side of the mountains the weather was clearer, and by the time we reached Cuxac-Cabardes, the sun was peeking through the clouds!

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I had booked a table at the Hotel Restaurant de Cuxac, and when we arrived at 12:30, the dining room was already half full!  The welcome was warm and friendly, and soon we were seated at our table and handed the menus.  The Hotel Restaurant de Cuxac is in a modern building which dates from 2006.  The building belongs to the municipality – a previous hotel was destroyed in a fire, and the community leaders wanted to maintain the facilities and services for the village.

For us, Cuxac was the perfect lunch location – the village of Brousses was only 10 minutes further down the mountainside.  Three of our group went for the menu at €18.50, and I decided to opt for the Cassoulet, foregoing a starter.

Here are the starters:  goat’s cheese with honey and pesto in a crispy parcel:

IMG_4821 and salad with preserved duck gizzards and smoked duck breast:

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Two of my companions had the salmon filet, which was cooked to perfection!  For one of the servings, the tomato compote came in a separate little dish.

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Confit de canard (duck leg preserved in its own fat) was also on the menu, and very tasty it was too:

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Here’s the cassoulet I was served:

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The cassoulet comes ready prepared from Maison Escudier in Castelnaudary, and it is served in the traditional cassole.  

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It was absolutely delicious, and I managed to eat all of it!! 😀

I did have room for a little dessert after all that cassoulet:  two scoops of wonderfully creamy ice cream!

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There was also panna cotta with a fruit sauce:

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And then there was the house speciality – a dessert called crepiterole.  It sounds very droll, and is an amalgam of crepe and profiterole – a thin pancake (crepe), filled with vanilla ice cream and topped with hot chocolate sauce!

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We went for a little stroll around the village after that wonderful lunch, before setting off to our next destination, the paper mill in Brousses-et-Villaret, where we caught up with some people who, like us, had enjoyed their lunch at the Hotel Restaurant de Cuxac.  Small world??  No, more like ‘small village’!! 😀


Another recent day out found me in Albi, where the pit stop was eagerly awaited by my companions and myself, after lots of walking around this wonderful town!  The story of my visit to Albi is for another blog post, but here’s a picture to whet your appetite:

IMG_4711The restaurant L’Esprit du Moulin is in a little side street, not far from the main square and the famous cathedral.  I had eaten there many years ago, when it was called La Tete de l’Art and owned by a different proprietor.  Some of the decor has changed since then, but the lovely cosy atmosphere remains.  The restaurant is in an ancient building with lots of quirks, and the dining room is more of a series of rooms.

The tables were nicely laid with white tablecloths and napkins.  The lunchtime menu was €18.00, with a very good choice of dishes!  We ate two different kinds of starters – salad with crispy goat’s cheese, and salad with turkey gizzards – both very delicious!

Only two of us chose the same main course, so here are three pictures:  Salmon with beurre blanc sauce:

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Poached chicken breast with wild mushroom sauce:

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Sea bass with a herb sauce:

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All very nicely prepared and tasty!!

Nobody chose the same desserts, so there were four wonderful ways to end this meal:

Fondant au chocolat, a kind of chocolate sponge with a melting centre:

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Tiramisu:

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Nougat ice cream with a blackcurrant sauce:

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Caramelised apple tart (tarte tatin) with vanilla ice cream:

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A truly wonderful meal!!  So, suitably fortified, we continued our visit of Albi, and I’ll give you another sneak preview of what there is to come in a future blog post – watch this space!

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Making paper

I recently went on a day out with friends – it was a treat for us all!!  We went to the village of Brousses-et-Villaret, where there is a bit of living heritage: a paper mill. The mill in Brousses (Villaret is the other part of the commune, but really a separate village or hamlet) is one of only five in the whole of France where paper is still hand-crafted.  There are many other paper mills in France, but they all produce paper on an industrial scale.

To get to the paper mill in Brousses you have to drive down a narrow road which winds across the village green, past the church and some houses.

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You park your car in a grove of green oaks and then you set off on foot along the narrow road.  You can hear the mill stream running in the valley below.  After about a hundred yards, you leave the road and follow a path which runs through the woodland.

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At one point, a wooden bridge takes you across a small canal and it’s shortly after that you’ll have your first ‘mill’ experience. (Note to e-mail subscribers: there’s a video following the next picture, which you’ll be able to watch on the blog website.)

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The little water wheel is a ‘paddle wheel’ – the water flowing below the wheel moves the paddles to turn the wheel.  These kinds of wheels were used along rivers and also on the plains, where the water flows more sedately.  When you’ve finished admiring the little paddle wheel, you round a corner, and there, in front of you, is the mill building!

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It doesn’t look like much at first glance – not very large, and the right hand side is a bit squashed against the steep side of the valley.  But there is a lot more to it, as can be seen by crossing another bridge and looking at the building sideways.

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The noise of rushing water is everywhere!  The river is called La Dure, and during the heyday of manufacturing in the area (mid 19th to mid 20th centuries), there were 67 waterwheels on the river.  In the village of Brousses alone there were 12 watermills, half of them being paper mills.  The other mills would have been producing textiles, and there might have been the odd flour mill too.

This mill has belonged to the Chaila family since 1877, and it was in operation until 1981, producing cardboard for the packaging industry.  After the last paper maker retired, his children decided to preserve the buildings, and in 1994 they took up the production of hand-crafted paper, using the abundantly available water.  The mill has been open to the public for guided visits for many years, and it was during one of those visits that I learnt about the paper making process.

Our guide started the tour by demonstrating the old bucket wheel – a bucket wheel has the water running over it from above, as opposed to the paddle wheel.  The mill had three bucket wheels at one point, one on each floor, to drive the machinery in various parts of the building.

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In 1920, two of the bucket wheels were replaced by a turbine – a much more modern contraption!! The same turbine still turns today, now powering an electricity generator rather than mill machinery.

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Our next stop on the visit was one of the old workshops, where our guide gave an explanation of the history of paper.  Before paper was used, written records were scratched into stone or clay tablets – rather heavy to carry and fragile if not handled correctly!  The Egyptians invented papyrus around 3500 B.C.  Parchment, made from animal skins, appeared in the second century B.C. in Pergamon, Asia minor.  At around the same time (very roughly), the Chinese invented paper, using plant fibres.  It wasn’t until around A.D. 751 that the secret got out, and eventually paper reached the Western world with the Arabic expansion.  The 14th century saw the first paper mill on French territory.

Next, our guide explained that paper is made from cellulose fibres, which are found in every plant. There are various processes to extract the fibres from plants – one of them involves boiling the plant parts in a solution of soda and water for an hour and a half.  Sounds as though that would have been very messy!

In 1841 a Mr Tripot found that non-ruminant herbivores (horses, donkeys, mules etc.) do not digest cellulose, and he invented a process of making paper from horse dung – then abundant and easy to come by!  At the paper Mill in Brousses some paper is made using elephant dung!!  No, I’m not joking!!

Another process uses old rags as the basis for making paper  – you’ve heard of the rag and bone merchants of days gone by??  Rag paper is still made today at Brousses!

In olden days, it could take six months from the delivery of rags to a mill, to the finished paper.  The rags would be picked over for buttons and fasteners, and any seams would be unpicked.  Then the rags would be cut into strips, moistened and thrown into tanks, to ferment for two to six weeks.  The fermented strips would then be cut into tiny pieces, which would then be beaten to a pulp in a stamp mill.  A ten kilo batch would have to be beaten a day each in three different stamp mills.  In the first the mallets beating the pulp had sharp nails on their ends to smash the fibres.  The mallets in the second mill would have flat-headed nails, and in the third mill the mallets were covered in leather, producing a very fine paper pulp.  A noisy, smelly and laborious process!!  I’m sure that paper was much more expensive and more highly respected then than it is today!

Here is a model of a stamp mill:

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To speed up the production of paper pulp, the Dutch invented the Hollander Beater  around 1670.  At the Brousses paper mill, two hollander beaters were in operation between 1877 and 1981. They were driven by a pulley system, powered by the water wheels and later the turbine.

The hollander beater makes short work of the rags – where it took three days to produce 10 kilos of paper pulp, the hollander beater could produce 50 kilos in the space of about two and a half hours!

In the same workshop also stood a huge mill with two great big millstones – the whole assembly weighs over ten tonnes!!  This was mainly used to crush old paper and cardboard, 300 kilos in 90 minutes!  Recycling paper is nothing new!!

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We went into another room, where our guide showed us the actual process of making a sheet of paper.  The paper pulp is diluted with lots of water, to the point where you think there are hardly any fibres in the tank.  A sieve is then dipped into the water, catching an amount of paper fibre and water.  The water drains away, leaving the cellulose fibres behind.  This very wet sheet of paper is then laid onto a piece of moist woollen felt, covered with another piece of felt and the whole process repeated, until there are 100 sheets!  This pile of paper is then pressed with a hydraulic press, to extract as much water as possible and thus solidify the cellulose fibres.

Once the excess water has been pressed out, the paper needs to be dried.  We climbed the stairs to the top floor of the mill, which was used for that purpose.  The small sheets of paper that our guide had produced during a previous tour were put up on lines – much like washing!!

Paper which is dried that way is not flat, and needs a fair amount more work to get it into “shape”.

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To overcome the waviness of the paper, all of the regular production at the paper mill is now dried on large sheets of interlining, a material used in garment production, which keeps the paper flat.

A hydraulic press flattens the paper, with pressure applied for a few hours – in the old days paper would have to be pressed for several months!

The guided visit provided a very fascinating insight into a product which we take for granted today – so much paper is used every day, and whilst a lot of paper is recycled, most of us wouldn’t think twice about discarding a piece of paper.  Handmade paper is very different to the paper we use in our computer printers – it really bears no resemblance!  The shop at the mill in Brousses has a wonderful selection of all kinds of handmade paper.

I’m sure you’ll enjoy your visit as much as I did!

 

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!