Windmills, wine and food

What do those have to do with one another, you might well ask.  Nothing really except that it all happened the same week!  Last weekend the theme was “Journees Europeens des Moulins”, in other words European mill days and the idea was to look back on history and heritage.  The windmill in St Chinian is fully functional and once a year the sails go up and if the wind is right the mill turns and makes stone-ground flour (not for human consumption, according to hygiene regulations!!).  Among the local historians there is dissent as to whether the mill was originally designed to grind grain or whether it was to process lime, which was burnt in the nearby kiln.  When it was reconstructed some years ago, they argued it out, but the flour lobby won.  This year it was grey and cloudy and the wind too strong, so here is a picture from a sunny day!

On Tuesday Domaine La Madura bottled some of last year’s white wine – always an exciting operation.  The bottling plant comes on a truck, and the wine has to be pumped across the river.  There is no space for the truck to park outside the cellar, so Cyril has to put on his gum boots and brave the icy waters and slippery stones to get the hose pipe across the river bed.  In part made a little more perilous this year as we’d had rain not long before so there was lots of water!  

Once everything is hooked up the pump in the truck draws the wine into a holding tank, and then the bottling operation can begin – in theory.  The whole setup is very complex and needs a fair bit of fine tuning.  Bottles are fed in one end, get washed and dried, filled with wine, the cork pushed in, the capsule dropped on and tightened, the two labels pasted on and then agile hands put the bottles into boxes which are sealed and stacked on pallets.  It takes six people to keep the whole thing running and if it all runs smoothly the plant can process something like 2400 bottles an hour.  I’m looking forward to tasting the 2011 vintage of Domaine La Madura Classic blanc, cheers!

Auberge La Selette was my last dining out experience, and very nice it was too!  For aperitifs they serve a cucumber/garlic dip with croutons along with some luques olives, followed this time by an amuse bouche of gazpacho (yummy!)   I’m not fond of raw oysters, but I love their gratinated oysters, plump and juicy with just the right amount of cheese and grilled to perfection.  The salad with feta, anchovies and olives looked good too and was very tasty.

For main course there was duo of scallops and gambas, tempura of gambas on a herbed potato puree, and veal kidneys in red wine sauce.  All of it well executed and delicious.

For dessert we had tiramisu and profiteroles with ice cream and chocolate sauce.  The profiteroles had the wow-factor when they arrived at the table, but I was more than happy with the tiramisu.  Do reserve if you want to go for dinner.  The night I was there the place was packed; service was good if a little slow (but then we were there for the evening, and we didn’t starve!), and despite the volume the kitchen coped very well.

In the garden things are finally moving – the tomatoes are planted and the potatoes are beginning to flower, so we’ll soon be enjoying the first new potatoes!  The roses are flowering their hearts out, and the first blossom on kiwi vine are opening.  That means that I’ll be pollinating every day now:  pick a male flower and then go over all the open female flowers – a little tedious at times but it works!!  With the recent rain everything is lush, including the weeds, but they’ll soon be under control again!

And here’s the gallery!

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A day at the Fetes

Last weekend the fete season was in full swing, with a number of villages celebrating spring!  Prades sur Vernazobre had its annual Foire Artisanale de Printemps, celebrating the diversity which exists in the village, with the various nationalities representing their countries mostly through food.  I stopped at the British stall, where I met Jane from Restaurant Les Platanes in Poilhes, who had helped making some of the delicious treats on offer.  I took home some of the carrot and lemon cakes as well as a couple of their pasties, and all of it got eaten up very quickly – it was yummy.  I wonder what the French locals made of the cream teas and the pasties??  Other stalls were offering treats from La Reunion (very nice looking spicy food), Germany (pretzels, sausages & beer), Holland (more beer and sausages) and Maghreb (delicious pastries), and the local Comite de Fete, the organisers of the day, were offering oreillettes (crispy thin sheets of deep-fried pastry) and grilled sausages with fries.  Further up was a stand with mussels done the Catalan way.  In between were stalls selling a variety of handicrafts, plants, gifts and someone was offering magic.  The band (La Fanfare “Paradix”) in their pink shirts and white trousers played a terrific mix of jazz and the sun shone brightly – what more do you need??

The very same day Olargues was holding its annual Fete de la Brouette (wheelbarrow fete).  The town hall building glowed against the blue skies and the whole village was awash with people browsing the essentially plant based selection of stalls.  There were rare varieties of tomatoes, some beautiful roses and lots of other flowers, and even a local saffron grower, who reassured me when I asked why my little patch of six saffron bulbs had not flowered this spring  and the leaves were drying up.  Apparently that’s completely normal, they’ll flower in the fall!!

We decided to have lunch at the cafe/restaurant opposite the old station building at the end of the high street. A lovely terrace in the shade of old plane trees, and there was just one table available. It turned out to be a memorable meal, but unfortunately not for the right reasons. The kitchen could not cope with the volume of customers even though the food was fairly simple (salads, omelette, steak etc), the very friendly but inexperienced waitress got her orders mixed up and the wait seemed interminable, but we did get fed and it was great to see the world go by. Perhaps better to be tried on a day when they are not run off their feet!? One definite plus of sitting on the terrace was the view of the band Les Buffarels who came to play just across the road. This was a traditional band of wind instruments with two drums, and their speciality were the bagpipes. I’d never seen bagpipes like these;  here you can see that they are made from the skin of a lamb or small sheep, and they did sound pretty good.

If you approach Olargues from Tarrassac the first thing you see is the old railway bridge, spanning the valley. A sign below it proudly proclaims it as the Pont Eiffel, 1889 – a claim which is dismissed on Wikipedia. Last year the bridge, which now carries a walking and cycling path (La Piste Verte) across the valley was re-painted bright red.

On the way back from Olargues we stopped at Roquebrun to have a drink, and a rest from all the activity of the day, in the local cafe. Sitting once more in the shade of old plane trees, we watched the world and the few tourists go by, including a group of motorcyclists with some serious gear! I am always fascinated by the fading signs on some of the buildings around the area – this one hints that the building might have housed the post office and telephone exchange at some point in the distant past, perhaps in 1911?  Driving home to Saint Chinian there was a field of irises in full flower. I just couldn’t resist and had to take a few shots!

Walking, food and bread…

yes, there is more food!!  But the walking is great, allows me to walk off some of those calories.  Walking around Saint-Chinian there are a lot of little discoveries to be made, quirky things, like the door handle that has a face on it, or some of the old insurance plaques which are still on a few buildings.  Down the Route de Cessenon there are some wonderful examples of “vigneron” houses, mostly two storey buildings with living accommodation above the workshop and cellar.  Some of the houses tell a story of former use, such as this old storefront.The former abattoir is now a storage facility for the municipality, but the art deco lettering is still in evidence, as are two cow horns which someone stuck on there.A narrow alley along the side of the abattoir takes you to a little iron bridge across the river (there’s another one further upstream), and from that bridge you have a wonderful view of the town with the church tower peeking out above all the roofs.  Walk up the river towards the bridge and you’ll pass by Les Hirondelles and Le Puits, where you could spend your holidays in St Chinian, overlooking the river and watching the swallows swoop and dive.  There’s a lot more to see in St Chinian.  Don’t miss the cloisters in the former abbey, and whilst you are there take a peek inside the town hall:  the staircase is ornately painted with a mural.There are more quirky things to be discovered in the village: weather vanes, ancient doors and beautiful  door knockers, ironwork, glass, mediaeval alleyways, the canal which waters the vegetable gardens and used to drive mills …

So now for the food… This week our cooking group got together in La Caunette; we had planned to try our hands at bread and pasta making. Bread was first because of the longer rising time, and the pasta making could fill in the gap. Three one kilo batches of bread flour were weighed out (half regular flour and half multi cereal flour) and after a fair bit of sticky work mixing the dough, hands got to work kneading and stretching the dough.

We also made a smaller batch of dough for ciabatta, to have with our starter that evening (rillettes and pate from the previous get together). Soon we had all the various doughs in their bowls, resting on the terrace in the warm. Then came the fun bit with the pasta dough.  The recipe was for egg pasta, found in James Beard’s book Beard on Pasta and the dough consists of only flour, some salt and eggs. The flour was from the windmill in Felines Minervois, organic stone ground wheat, with a fair bit of bran, wich accounts for the colour of the dough. After about 10 minutes energetic kneading the two batches were wrapped in film and left to rest.

Time for a cup of tea and a walk around the garden of our hosts, to admire everything there was in bloom!  Back to the kitchen, to “knock” down the bread dough and knead and shape.  We ended up with six loaves, five tin loaves and one round one, to be baked in a terracotta bread baker.  This was made by one of our hosts and consists of a heavy base with a cloche to put over the loaf.  I’ve been using that for some years, and the best results are obtained with a loaf that’s almost fully risen but not quite, and the whole put into a cold oven.  Turns out wonderfully light bread!

Once the loaves were out of the way for the final rising, we started on rolling the pasta dough, and that really was fun!  The dough gets fed through the rollers of the pasta machine, to start with a few times on the widest setting, folding the dough into a square after each time, and then rolling it out progressively thinner, until the strip was almost as long as the kitchen table!  The strips of dough were then put over the backs of the kitchen chairs to dry, before being cut, again with the pasta machine.  For cutting there are two options – tagliatelle or spaghetti width noodles.  We made some of each, the finer noodles to have with sage and butter as a little antipasti pasta, and the tagliatelle to have with a tomato sauce for a main course.  Once cut we left the pasta to dry on tea towels, while we got ready for aperitifs and looked after the bread.

Focaccia was the first to be cooked and ready – if you have a chance try this, it’s so good and very simple to make!  Fresh pasta cooks very quickly and only takes a few minutes – so keep tasting!  It was all worth the effort:  the pasta had a wonderful texture to it, which shop-bought fresh pasta cannot match, and the bread turned out wonderful!

And here’s the gallery:

May day, may day

May has arrived and with it a slew of bank holidays.  May 1st is one of the holidays which are very strictly observed in France; hardly anything is open on Labour Day.  The next one is May 8th – VE day and again it falls on a Tuesday, which means that a lot of people take the “pont” and have Monday off.  On May 17th we celebrate Ascension, and finally May 28 is Pentecost Monday.  Then there are no more bank holidays until Bastille Day on July 14th!

The week really started well – a visit to Floralies in Florensac – a fete which was conceived entirely around plants and flowers. The blooms were fantastic and the local brass band was great at keeping us all entertained!

After that a quick trip to Marseillan for a light lunch – the sun was out and the terrace at the La Taverne du Port open – and yes, there was a table for two! A starter of Sardines en Escabeche, followed by gratinated oysters and mussels. Just perfect and oh so good!

The reason for the light lunch was that I had gotten a little carried away in the market that morning:  found some very young broad beans, wonderful fresh goat’s cheese, white asparagus and our butcher cut me two veal escalopes.  I cut the broad beans into finger long pieces and steamed them, dressed them with good olive oil and lemon juice, with a little salt and sugar, and left them to cool.  To serve I just spooned a little of the dressing over the beans and crumbled some of the goats cheese over.  I’d forgotten to pick some parsley in the garden – ho hum….  

White asparagus needs peeling, but to me it is well worth the effort.  It also takes a little longer to cook than the green stalks.  I decided to serve it with a veal escalope, simply pan fried, and some orange flavoured hollandaise sauce.  For that, two tablespoons of freshly squeezed orange juice and one tablespoon of apple vinegar were reduced to half and left to cool.  I then added the egg yolk, salt and butter cut into pieces and placed the pan in the simmering water, which was waiting for the asparagus.  Stir and stir until it is the right consistency et voila!  The veal was one of the tenderest pieces of meat I have ever eaten – I went back to the butcher to find out what cut it was and he told me it was Merlan, a small piece near the shoulder blade, and that it exists both in veal and beef.  I’ve put my name down for the beef version when he next gets it in.

May 1st saw me at a Vide Grenier in Olargues, where I found two bargains!  One was a stove top waffle iron, which I’d been thinking of for some time.  It looked in need of a good clean but that was easily achieved at home with soda crystals and hot water.  The other was an old linen sheet with a decorative hemstitch edge, which was still brand new.  After a few washes and being run through the mangle it is now on the bed, and just the right size too!   With all that exercise of walking around and bargaining lunch at the Fleurs d’Olargues restaurant was just the ticket.  Their food is very well prepared and beautifully served.  It was a little too cool to sit out on the terrace by the river, but I enjoy the dining room, which is airy and spacious without feeling as though you’re in an old garage workshop (which is what it was before it was converted into a restaurant some years ago).    The restaurant is owned and run by a Danish family, and in addition to great food they also offer fantastic bread, which is home made.  I always have to watch that I don’t have too much of that, so easy to eat…

It looks very much as though this is turning into a food blog, so I will have to make sure that those of you who would like to read about other things wont get short-changed!!