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!

No ordinary seaside lunch

Earlier this year, I was given a recommendation for a restaurant in Valras Plage, called O Fagot.  Seaside towns are not always known for their restaurants, so I looked up the restaurant on the net.  I found that the chef had just participated in a reality show on French TV called Top Chef – by the time of our visit he’d already been “knocked out”.  However, his food looked very promising, the reviews for the restaurant were encouraging, and friends were keen to come along, so off we went to Valras Plage!

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The restaurant is located a little way away from the centre, in a residential part of Valras Plage.  The outside is unprepossessing – I learnt that Franck Radiu, the chef, had taken over the premises not long ago.  In its previous incarnation, the restaurant had been a pizzeria, and the wood-fired pizza oven is still in place at one end of the dining room!

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A reminder of Franck’s stint on Top Chef hung on the wall – a chef’s jacket, signed by the other contestants and the judges.

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The interior was sober and modern, the chairs were comfortable and the tables set with nice glasses and silverware.  But all that was incidental, the food was the star here.  On the picture below is our amuse bouche – we certainly amused ourselves with it!🙂

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This starter was interesting for the different textures, and very delicious:  an egg yolk on a slice of crispy bread, over an artichoke cream with toasted hazelnuts.

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The foie gras was pan-fried and perfectly cooked.  It was accompanied by apple slices and shavings of mushrooms and fennel, as well as a wafer thin piece of crispy bread.

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The starter in the picture below was a soft boiled egg, which had been coated with breadcrumbs and deep fried.  The egg was sitting on a salad made with quinoa and lots of fresh herbs, shaped into an incredibly neat circle.

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The main courses looked as spectacular as they tasted!  Franck Radiu is Corsican and uses this wonderful ham from Corsica to add flavour and seasoning to his meat dishes – he uses salt sparingly, preferring the ham to add the salt to the dish.

The lamb was braised for 24 hours at low temperature.  Even though the meat was incredibly tender, it still had a good texture.

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The steak was very succulent, and accompanied by potato croquettes.

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Braised and grilled belly pork on a bed of lentils with foie gras – yummy!img_4360

Franck Radiu started his career as a Chef Patissier (pastry chef), working in some high class hotels and restaurants in France, and his love of desserts shows!

The fraisier was a light as a feather!

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Ma Passion Chocolat was almost a chocolate orgy, combining crispy, crunchy, smooth and cold, and the passion fruit added a nice kick!

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Praline/Framboise was another lovely combination of textures and flavours – fresh raspberries, crispy biscuits and smooth praline mousse.

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A great finish to a lovely meal!!

And to round off this wonderful experience, we went for a walk along the seafront, which was just around the corner!

I would strongly recommend that you book before you head to O Fagot – you can find the contact details on the facebook page for the restaurant here.

Coming up – the festive season

Now that the days are getting shorter and the nights are getting colder, people everywhere are thinking about preparing for the festive season.  In our area, the marches aux truffes and the foires aux gras – truffle markets and foie gras fairs – are very much part of the run-up to Christmas.

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The truffle markets will be taking place all over the Occitanie region (formerly Languedoc-Roussillon and Pyrenees Orientales) from mid-December to mid-March.  The ones before Christmas will be especially popular with buyers who want a special touch of luxury for their celebration.  You can find a list for the truffle markets in the region via this link.  And if you want to know what it is like to visit a truffle market, have a look at the post I wrote about my visit to one such market a little while ago.

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The foie gras fairs start in mid-October and run until the end of March, and are for those who enjoy eating foie gras and ducks and geese.  At a typical fair you’ll find many different kinds of foie gras for sale, along with the meat of the birds who produced the fattened livers, either as whole birds (minus the livers) or pieces thereof.  The legs can be turned into confit de canard (or confit d’oie if it was a goose), the breasts are grilled and the rendered fat is a great replacement for butter or oil in cooking.  I’ve written about my quest for making confit de canard in a previous post.  If you are interested in any of this, you can find the dates for the foie gras fairs via this link.

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In this part of the world, to prepare for the festive season also means stocking up on good wines.  To make it easier for the buyers to do just that, the Saint-Chinian winemakers’ syndicate has come up with the idea of an open day, a Journee Portes Ouvertes. The idea is that you can go from winery to winery, meet the winemakers, taste what what they have on offer, and buy what you like.  The event will take place on December 10th, 2017 and you can find full details here.

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Once you have your truffles, foie gras and wine, you’ll need to shop for presents.  Where better but at one of the many Christmas markets which are taking place all over the region?  Some are one-day events, whilst in the larger towns they can run for the whole month of December!  Month-long markets can be found in Montpellier (1 to 28 December 2016), Carcassonne (3 – 31 December 2016) and Perpignan (3 to 31 December 2016); dates for the Christmas markets in Narbonne have not been announced at the time of writing this, and in Beziers there will be pop-up Christmas shops all over the town centre, rather than a classic Christmas market.

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The smaller one-day events have already started, and here is just a small selection, to give you an idea of what is coming up!  The first market on my list is at the Chateau Abbaye de Cassan on November 26th and 27th, 2016.  This is a very popular event with many stalls.  On December 3rd, 2016 markets can be found at Agde, Quarante, Serignan and Servian.  The following day, on December 4th, 2016, Christmas markets take place in Saint-Chinian and at Terra Vinea near Portel-des-Corbieres.  On the following weekend, there is a market in Lezignan Corbieres on Saturday, December 10th, 2016, and on the Sunday, December 11, 2016 there are Capestang and Cruzy.  On December 17, 2016 there is a Christmas market in Valras Plage, and Chateau Coupe Roses in La Caunette is hosting a market on December 18, 2016.  The last market on my list takes place in Caunes Minervois on December 20, 2016 – for all those last minute presents!!

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Do you have a favourite Christmas market?  How do you prepare for the festive season?

Celebrating cultural heritage – Hotel Berge

I started to write about this year’s outing during the European Heritage weekend some time ago, with the post about the wonderful meal at O Petits Bontemps in Beziers.  My intentions were good – I was going to write about the other amazing places we had visited as quickly as possible, lest I would forget all the interesting details we had seen and heard.  Alas, I got sidetracked and wrote other weekly stories for my blog, no less interesting, I hope, or perhaps more so?

I’ll try to pick up where we left off: after that wonderful meal at O Petits Bontemps we headed to the Rue des Docteurs Bourguet (don’t ask who and why, I’ve not been able to find out!🙂 ), where the Hotel Berge was awaiting our visit.  The Hotel Berge is a typical example of why I love the European Heritage weekend – it is only open this one day each year to the general public!!

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In France, the word hotel can mean both a conventional hotel and a mansion – the Hotel Berge falls in the latter category.  The building was given to the town of Beziers in 1986 by Dr Lucien Berge, an eminent local citizen and dentist, on the understanding that it would provide a home for the Societe Archeologique, Scientifique et Litteraire and the Antico Confrarie de Sant Andiu de la Galineiro.  The first is a learned society, established in 1834, and behind the creation of several of the municipal museums in Beziers.  The latter is a brotherhood devoted to the promotion of wine and local products; its members organise the Fete de Saint Aphrodise and the Caritats.  Dr Berge also wanted his former home to house a museum for decorative arts, but that hasn’t happened yet.

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Apart from a monumental door, the outside of the building is rather unprepossessing.  Behind that door lies a courtyard, which is at the heart of the building.  Straight ahead is the main part of the house, where Dr Berge lived; the wing on the left housed his dental surgery on the first floor, and there were also stables on the ground floor of that wing. I never found out what happened in the other wings around the courtyard.

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The main facade had been given a makeover in the neo-renaissance style in the late 19th century.  The ornate door on the very left led into the kitchen!  The detail on the facade is quite amazing, and appears to be very much untouched, apart from the spikes to deter the pigeons.

We were welcomed by the president of the archaeological society, Mr Barthes, who started our guided visit of the ground floor.  Incidentally, Mr Barthes is also the church organist in Saint-Chinian!

Our first stop was in the former kitchen, to the left of the front door and the staircase.  This room is large and airy.  The old red terracotta tile floor and the original fireplace and potager are still in place.  A potager is a cooking range where charcoal was burnt and where dishes could be cooked more ‘daintily’ than in the big fireplace.  Above the potager hangs Dr Berge’s diploma from the Chicago School of Dentistry!  Leaving the kitchen we passed through a very small pantry with a sink made of the same red marble as the fireplace and the potager.

From the pantry we stepped out into the garden, where we could admire the elegant 18th century facade of the main building, as well as the view over the lower part of Beziers.

Mr Barthes led us back into the house, past this marble bust.  I don’t know whose likeness that is, does anyone know?

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We were now in the main salon on the ground floor, where the meetings of the archaeological society are held.

The decorative scheme of the room hasn’t changed since the good doctor moved out of the house.  The wallpaper is not pasted to the wall, but stretched onto wooden frames.  Not great if someone pokes a hole in it!😦

The original cast-iron central heating radiators are still in place, but no longer used.

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From this salon we passed through a small room with green painted panelling, and out into the entrance hallway, which was guarded by the statue of an angel, and which was also painted green.

The staircase with neo-renaissance ceiling and marble mosaic floor led up to the first floor (note to my north American readers: in France the first floor is actually your second floor).

At the top of the stairs, a door on the right led into the dining room, which was a typical example of the kind of dining room any fashionable late 19th century mansion in Beziers would have had.  The whole room was panelled in dark wood and the windows were made of stained glass.  Very little daylight penetrated into the room and my camera struggled to get any decent pictures.  At least it did pretty well with the stained glass!🙂

There were five more rooms to be visited on the this floor.  The first was a salon which overlooked the central courtyard.  The panelling was painted a putty colour, and the parquet floor was in a kind of checkerboard pattern, which looked almost three dimensional from some perspectives.

The next room was the start of a long enfilade of rooms, with one room opening onto the next, along the garden side of the main building.  It had a bit of a gloomy feel to it, but our guide cheered us up by pointing out a somewhat risqué painting near the fireplace!  Well, it was rather risque at the time it was painted!

The next room was a library, with some of the bookcases protected with pink-ish fabric.

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The following room was a monumental bedroom – almost as large as the main salon on the ground floor!  The room was also slightly creepy because of the wax dummy to one side.  Was that a likeness of Mme Berge, keeping an eye on her bedroom??

At the end of the enfilade was another, much smaller bedroom, with a distinctive masculine flair.  Had that been Dr Berge’s bedroom?

All the rooms had more or less hidden doors, which would have allowed the servants (and sometimes the occupants of the rooms?) to come and go unseen.  I’d love to explore those corridors some time.  One of the guides said that they were just very dusty and not very interesting, but I’m not so sure!?  We retraced our steps through the various rooms and down the stairs, to visit one last room.  This was the Hotel Berge’s answer to the souvenir shops which can always be found in museums and galleries.  A very large table in the centre of the room held the various booklets which had been published by the society, and which could be purchased.  Because of the stained glass, this room was also fairly dark, but at least I managed to get a good look at the valve of the antique radiator!!🙂

I felt very privileged that I’d been able to visit this amazing building. If you want to see it for yourself, keep an eye on this website for dates of the 2017 edition of the European Heritage weekend.

Our next step that afternoon was the Hotel Fayet, but you’re probably exhausted from reading all this, so I’ll save that for a future post!

Up on high

If you have ever visited Languedoc, you might have caught a glimpse of a flat-topped mountain, which can be seen from far away.  Its official name is Mont Caroux, but locally it is called La Femme Allonge, the sleeping lady.  If seen in the right light, from the right viewpoint (and with enough imagination) the small peak on the left looks like a face in profile, with the crags resembling flowing tresses.  The picture below is not really showing that interpretation, but it gives you an idea of the general shape of the mountain, which can be seen from as far away as Valras Plage.  Apparently, the outline of Caroux has been used by mariners to help with navigation.

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The mountain is a paradise for hikers and wildlife alike!  There are many tracks and trails to be explored, and if you are lucky you might catch a glimpse of a mouflon,the big horned wild mountain sheep.  The roads are sinuous and sometimes narrow, but there are rewards for navigating these roads!!  The driver has to concentrate on the road, but the passengers can enjoy the glorious views!

I recently visited the village of Combes, which is located on the southern flank of Caroux at 500 meters altitude.  My reason for going there?  Food, of course!  I went with friends, to eat at the Auberge de Combes.

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The Auberge de Combes had been recommended to me a number of times over the years, and I was very much looking forward to the meal.  The drive was beautiful and the weather just perfect for eating outside, on the shaded terrace.  The views from the terrace and the dining room are  amazing!

And the food was wonderful too!!  Here is a picture of our amuse bouche, the pre-starter, to get us in the mood for what was yet to come:  Escalivade (roasted red pepper & anchovy filet), aubergine puree in a shortcrust pastry case, and gazpacho made with heirloom tomatoes!

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The starter was a delicious composition of crisp pastry, tender baby squid and tasty greens.

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The next course was a crayfish bisque with wild gambas – oh so very tasty!!

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For our main course, we had pan fried foie gras with roasted figs – wonderful!!

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The main course was followed by a plate of tasty cheeses:

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The meal finished with dessert, and three different desserts made it to our table – there might have been more on the menu, but I don’t recall.  This was a peach soup with peach ice cream and a crunchy crumble topping:

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The raspberries were on a bed of light pastry cream, in a crisp pastry shell, served, of course, with raspberry sorbet.

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The chocolate vacherin was to die for – chocolate mousse, chocolate cream, mandarin cream, meringue AND mandarin sorbet!

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Now that I’ve eaten at the Auberge de Combes, I know that the people who recommended the restaurant were right – it’s definitely one to visit!!

After all that delicious food we needed a walk – badly!!  I suggested to my friends that we continue our drive up the mountain, and visit the hamlet of Douch.

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Douch is on the northern slope of Caroux, at 900 meters altitude, and the road ends there.  The hamlet is a popular starting point for the climb to the top of Caroux, and there is a greeter by the car park: a megalith made from locally quarried granite.

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On the way from the car park to the hamlet we passed some very neat vegetable gardens.

The houses are all clustered together, sheltering one another, no doubt!

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Just on the edge of the hamlet stands a communal bread oven.

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The bread oven was built in 2012 by the municipality with the help of local volunteers.  A sign on the wall invites visitors to make use of the oven.

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Everything is there: wood for the fire, a paddle to put bread and/or pizza in and out of the oven, even some brooms to sweep out the cinders.  There is a big table right next to the building, made from one huge stone slab!  Such a wonderful idea, and what a welcome for visitors!

I’ve made a mental note for a future outing to Douch, armed with pizza dough and toppings – it could be great fun!!

The little chapel was unfortunately closed.

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Before the advent of running water, this pump would have supplied the neighbourhood.

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At the end of this narrow alley stood a most magnificent hydrangea, surrounded by other plants and flowers.  Somebody must have a green thumb!

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The view from the hamlet was breathtaking – a wide expanse of hills and not much else!

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And then it was time to leave Douch and start our drive down the mountain again.  I’ll be back, before too long!

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The Village Voice

Florence Nash has very kindly written another post for this blog!  I’ve lived in Saint-Chinian for so long that I take the sounds around me for granted, and as such I don’t really pay attention to them any more.  So it’s wonderful to be reminded of those particular sounds which make living in a village (as opposed to a town/city) so very special – thank you, Florence!!


I usually arrive in Saint-Chinian, at the end of August or early September, as a refugee from the sweaty, buggy, late-summer slump of the southern United States, where people dash from one air-tight, air-conditioned haven to the next. Maybe that’s why one of my favorite images of this many-splendored place is a surprisingly modest one: My waking view of dawn lighting the red roof tiles outside the wide-open casement window, and the curtain sheers, dotted with little Fleurs de Lys, stirring slightly in air just cool enough to require a blanket. This air is sooo delicious! And virtually bug-free, with the sky criss-crossed by swallows (or martins, or swifts — I never can tell the difference) swooping and darting helpfully after their airborne breakfast. I wouldn’t dream of closing these windows at night, even if it were to take three blankets.

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That may explain how I have become so conscious of the voice of Saint-Chinian, the particular texture of sounds human and otherwise that seems almost a sonic portrait of the village. Especially in early morning as the village wakens, but throughout the day as well, I find myself listening for and collecting its distinctive sounds.

To begin with, there’s the town clock that rings each hour and then, just to make sure everybody gets it right, does it again. The local doves join the daily aubade with their soft hoo, hoo-hooo. (One morning a few years ago I heard gunshots blasting through their peaceful calls. To my relief, it turned out to be someone chasing marauding boars out of his vineyards; they have a destructive enthusiasm for ripe grapes.) As the sun climbs, there’s the creak and clack of shutters being opened and secured and, on Thursdays and Sundays, the thrum of van engines as marchands converge on the market square and set up their stalls, calling and clattering and laughing. Plenty of dogs are quick to voice their territorial imperatives — there’s some indignant barking under my window as I write.

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I’m renting Acanthus, as usual, the house occupying the two stories over Andreas and Anthony’s headquarters on Rue Cours La Reine, and throughout the day I hear the companionable murmur of many a conversation — in French, English, German, and who knows what — below my windows as friends stop by for a word. The mail carrier on her rounds usually has time for a little chat, too.  This street is one of the few actually wide enough for two passing cars and even a bit of parking. But just in back, and all around, there are “streets” you’d swear a car could never fit through — until you find yourself leaping frantically into a doorway and mashing yourself against the wall as one squeezes past with a few inches (really!) to spare, rear-view mirror practically snatching at the market basket clasped to your bosom. These tiny streets, separating dwellings by only a few yards, are one of the factors contributing to what amounts to a village-wide conversation; that, along with the fact that every sound reverberates full force off these ancient stones. One morning as I lay in bed savoring the rising light and the twitter of birds, I heard the clear ting ting of a teaspoon against a coffee cup in someone’s kitchen across the way. It was extremely intimate, somehow.

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To be fair, I have to mention the occasional roar and clatter of huge trucks that shoulder their way along the main drag, momentarily challenging conversation under the trees at Le Balcon, and Vernazobre, and the Café de la Paix. They’re not my favorite noise, but they are part of the real life of all these old villages now strung like beads along a narrow, busy trucking route. I’ve come to love Saint-Chinian because it’s not a Hollywood-glamorous South of France destination, but an ancient town in a surrounding of dramatic beauty — and equally dramatic history — where people work hard and live in close community, mostly either making wine or providing services for those who do. And, for my money, instead of seeing famous beauties in full make-up and stage lighting, I find it a lot more interesting — and  privileged — to get to know what they’re like after a hard day’s work, or first thing in the morning!

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Speaking of working, I have to share with you one more little item in Saint-Chinian’s voice. The other day I drove up behind the Cave Cooperative to have a look at Domaine La Madura’s new winery, built since I was last here by my friends Nadia and Cyril. On the way up I spotted Nadia out talking with the pickers, so we only exchanged a hasty wave. At the winery, though, I found Cyril in rubber boots hosing off a concrete floor, the air tinged with new fermentation. He showed me around the sleek, modern building crowning the hill (and uncannily harmonious with the landscape): lab, tasting room, sales area, offices. We entered a low-ceilinged space filled with solemn rows of large, apparently identical barrels; but each bore its own markings: contents, origins, age; each had a personal history of weather and work and worry. The room felt like a kind of chapel of wine. Cyril removed the bung from one of the barrels nearby and said, “Come listen. You can hear the wine working.” I put my ear down close to the bung hole, held my breath . . . and there it was, faint but steady. Sssshhhh. Just like holding a seashell to your ear to hear the ocean, hundreds of miles from the coast. The voice of the wine! Delicate and astonishing and new, this voice of Saint-Chinian is now, without doubt, my undisputed favorite.

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Before I sign off, just one or two more words about the pleasures of driving in the Languedoc countryside. Because every road wriggles and squeezes through village after village —often without room for two cars to pass and always with two or three badly parked vans in the way— drivers encounter over and over the need to slow down, calculate relative maneuvering ease, and cede right-of-way in the most practical direction. This is accomplished fluidly, quickly, and without fuss by the great majority of drivers I’ve encountered, in a sort of car-ballet of accommodation. It makes me feel better about human behavior. It makes me feel less good about driving in the US. Lastly, my very favorite road sign in all of France is the one that says “TOUTES DIRECTIONS.” No message could be more welcome or more comforting than this, to us strangers wandering in a strange land: “Wherever it is you are trying to go, friend, you are — so far — on the right road!”