Jousting anyone? and on water?

There’s been some more wonderful food this week, and some seriously gorgeous produce in the market.  I know, I get a little carried away on a Sunday morning from time to time, and when it happens I have to drag myself away from the stalls, loaded down with bags!  There’s just too much choice at times, and the smells can be intoxicating. Take the melons for instance, they were fragrant and juicy, and as these are the first of the local crop they’ll be here all summer!!

Valerie from Agel (one of my favourite growers) had a very attractive selection of produce, and I splashed out on a selection of heirloom tomatoes – the ones in my garden won’t be ripe for another couple of weeks or so.  Valerie’s tomatoes are delicious, either just with a little olive oil and pepper or with mozzarella and basil, and at lunchtime today I made a salad with cubed tomato, cucumber, yellow courgette and feta cheese, with basil and mint.  Sorry, there was no time for a picture, it got eaten very quickly!Apricots are also getting into their stride, and we’re now on the third variety.  Charles and Barbara Cathala have their orchards in Argeliers and they grow apricots, peaches, nectarines and apples.  During the height of the harvesting season they can pick anything up to a ton and a half a day. Last weekend the town of Valras Plage was celebrating the “Fete de St Pierre”.

I got there just as the boats were going out to sea, taking St Pierre for a run and dropping a wreath at sea.  All manner of craft were participating, including some guys on jetskis, who kept racing through the other boats.  The boat procession was great to watch, the main boat had a brass band on board, and the “Vieux Crabe” a choir.

One of my neighbour plays for a Fanfare, a traditional brass band and he had told me about the fete in Valras – here’s what they sound like.

With weather so good the beach was pretty busy, but my group had decided on watching the water jousting, so no lounging on the beach for me.  The water jousting has a long tradition in the region and there is a big championship in Sete in August.  Two boats are being rowed by ten oarsmen each and also on board is someone steering, two musicians and in this case 10 jousters.The weight of the two boats has to be equal so when a particularly heavy jouster got on the red boat some of the others got off into the dinghy.  The jousters stand on a platform at the back of the boat, carrying a shield and a lance.  The goal is to destabilize the opponent and ideally get him to fall into the water, or get disqualified on faults.  It was pretty interesting to watch the audience reaction, especially when they deemed the jury to have made a wrong decision.  At one point a particularly irate spectator stormed up to the jury desk and started shouting at them – I was waiting for fisticuffs to start, but it all got calmed down, until it happened again a little while later…
(The two jousting pictures are animated gif files, you might have to click on them to see the animation)After the excitement of the jousting we meandered round the streets and ended up in the square where all the restaurants are.  At the “Auberge Provencale” we sat down to some excellent Moules Frites followed by ice cream, and were entertained by two passing bands.  At the hotel across the road a group of bag pipers were getting ready to do the rounds, dressed in blue kilts.  The band was called the Bagdad d’Aix en Provence and I’ve since found out that the bags and music are Breton.

On the way back towards the car the beach was almost deserted, but by now the restaurants and bars were all humming. 

We came across another band called Skamanians, playing wonderful jazz with a Caribbean beat – I’d not come across that before, and was mesmerised.

We followed them around as they were going in the direction of the car, and when they took a short break a little chat revealed that the band leader is from Newcastle, the Sousaphonist from Germany and one of the other musicians from Belgium, and that their home is Perpignan.  They have a page on facebook where you can listen to their music!  What a great ending to a fantastic day out!

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Food, food and more food!

When I look at this blog I amaze myself that I’m not a walking barrel – so much of it seems to revolve around food and eating.  But then we all enjoy good food and without it our lives would be rather monotonous – I don’t think any of us would enjoy the diet of an everyday mediaeval person.

Last Sunday the Etoile Cycliste du St Chinianais had its annual summer party, by invitation only and I was lucky enough to be invited.  The party takes place in the garden of the founder of the association, a little outside St Chinian.  It’s a garden full of quirky things, and shaded by large pinion pine trees.  The guests sit at long trestle tables and cooking is done over an open fire or coals.  First there are aperitifs – drinks of various sorts accompanied by home-made nibbles.  The come the moules – mussels cooked over the coals and turned with a garden rake!  Lovely juicy mussels, washed down with white or rose wine, the juices mopped up with crusty French bread.  Just as we finish the mussels and think there’s time for a break, they start cooking the sardines – lots of them, grilled just as they are, and they come to the table crispy and piping hot. Surely that must be it now, but wait, now they start grilling pork chops and sausages!!  OK, I think I can manage a chop and a tiny bit of sausage (there are beans to go with them).  Then comes cheese, and finally a sponge cake as light as a feather, and in between main course and dessert, and after dessert there’s music and dancing.  I did feel like a barrel, so we went for a long walk and took a detour to get home! 

This week saw the arrival of the first locally grown tomatoes – delicious, juicy and RIPE!!  From Gill at Le Petit Pepiniere in Caunes Minervois I got a selection of basil plants (lemon, cinnamon, lettuce leaved, ararat, thai, greek and regular) so I decided to make a tomato and mozzarella salad, experimenting with several different basil flavours.  It was totally delicious, but I’m not sure which I prefer.  The first apricots also arrived – somewhat later than usual and even more eagerly anticipated.  For now I’m just eating them fresh, but soon enough I’ll be turning to jam and tart making!

On Wednesday I got together with a group of friends for our monthly cooking session.  This week’s theme was Asian food, and we had a ball!  On the menu were
Green onion pancakes
Temari-Zushi (rice balls with prawns or fish)
Tuna salad sushi rolls
Shiso roll Katsu (pork)
Egg rolls
Gyoza (Chinese dumplings)
Green onion pancakes
Lynn’s salad
Matcha ice cream (green tea)

Ambitious I know, but with nine pair of hands we made short work of the cooking, and of course of the eating!!  I won’t describe the preparation of the meal in detail, I’ll just leave you to drool over the pictures!  And as I’m selecting the pictures, I’m starting to feel ever so hungry, I wonder why?

Green onion pancakes

Sushi

Shiso Roll Katsu

Egg Roll

;

Gyoza

and a few more pictures

and finally the gallery

The first guest post

Jim and Bibi Brown recently spent a week staying at Les Rossingols near Roquebrun – here’s their version of the area!  Thank you to Jim for allowing me to share this with you.

Languedoc 2012

Languedoc-Roussillon is a region of southern France that lies between the base of the Massif Central and the Pyrenees. It is bordered on the east by the Mediterranean and was once also part of Catalonia. The Catalan influence remains strong to this day in and around Perpignan and along the coast. Languedoc-Roussillon was once the center of the Cathar sect. Numerous churches are spread throughout the region.

The gîte that we rented about an hour south of Montpellier, the largest city in Languedoc and just west of Béziers, was situated near the small country village of Roquebrun. “Les Rossignols” (The Nightingales), as the house was called, was at the end of a 3 km narrow lane that ran parallel to the Orb River.

This was our first glimpse of “Les Rossignols” as we approached from the village. It was appropriately named: the nightingales sang 24/24.

The Languedoc region is known as la mer des vignes (the sea of vines). It is the largest wine growing region in France. The entire valley and plain are covered with vines. The vineyard above spread from east to west just below our gîte. The plants are still young at this time of the year.

The village of Roquebrun is built on the side of a mountain overlooking the Orb River. It has a population of about 500 people many of whom are involved in the wine industry. Apart from that it is known as a center for outdoor sports like kayaking and canoeing, mountain and road biking, hiking and equestrianism. The tower dates back to 908. The village is actually located in the National Park of High Languedoc. To the west of the village lie the Espinouse mountains; to the east the plain of Languedoc spreads eastward to the Mediterranean and south to the Pyrenees.

At the center and crossroads of the village local life is carried on at the town’s only major café:

This picture was taken early on a Sunday morning (the day of the French presidential elections). The folks had all disappeared in the voting stations. The terrace of the café was normally full of habitués and foreigners. To the right of the terrace, the only grocery store in town was rarely without customers. Cyclists and motorcyclists stopped here regularly for a drop of courage before proceeding.

Roquebrun had a small park at river’s edge. The town is also known as Petit Nice because it’s climate is similar to that of the city of Nice on the Côte d’Azur. For anyone doubting the appellation, take a look at the palm trees in the park and, oui…oui, organge trees as well. Roquebrun was built on a hillside for defense purposes, a similar strategy to the villages perchés in Provence. (the picture below shows Olargues, another hillside village in Herault. ed) The picture below is confirmation that habitués and clients adorn the local café. The last picture I sent showed an empty terrace.This photo was taken from the other side of the café and shows the grocery store and local signage. The café faces directly onto the bridge that crosses into town. It is situated on the left bank of the Orb river. When crossing the bridge to the right side, an immediate right turn put us on the entrance to the lane that led to our gîte, 3 km distant. The lane was excellent for walking and running but very narrow for automobiles. It also served as the entrance to a mountain biking trail that passed our house.Roquebrun had only two bakeries. One was run by a young couple from Geneva who had moved to the village in order to enjoy a better quality of life. They turned their boulangerie into a small café-terrasse overlooking the river. The other bakery was in the grocery store. The proprietor claimed that her bread was better. We never got to taste it. By the time we got there in the morning all the baguettes were gone.The name of the bakery was derived from the local orange groves.

Much of the arable land around town was used for a community vegetable garden. Ripe vegetables were plentiful in the south of France even as early as May.Roquebrun, as I mentioned earlier, was built on the side of a hill. As we wound our way up the narrow streets leading to the tower, I spotted a house below that typified the area in its architecture and vivid colors so prevalent in the south of France.This violet and lavender motif is different from the colors in Provence, where blue or lime green shutters prevail that are offset with bright yellow motifs here and there.

A few kilometers out-of-town, about 1,000 meters above Roquebrun and nestled into a cliff side is a hamlet called Ceps. It’s small and charming. The Orb river rushes down from the high ground through the hamlet. An excellent hiking trail climbs upriver for 24 km to the next village. We didn’t have time to walk the whole trail but managed some of it. What we didn’t do on foot, we did in our car.

Saint-Chinian

Saint-Chinian is a neighboring village about 15 km from Roquebrun. It has a population of approximately 2,000 people and is the eponym of the AOC wines in the region.

Before arriving at our gîte the first day, we stopped at a local café for a lunch of tapas. Both the tapas and prices were so good that we returned a few days later for lunch. That was after whetting our appetite at the bi-weekly market. Vegetables were already ripe and one can see traces of the Catalan influence on the red banner in the background showing a vendor of paella.We returned to Saint-Chinian often in order to use the computer at the tourist office and to do walking tours of the town. The view below depicts a small park in the town center with the mayor’s office in the background. Most streets in town were tree-lined with fountains that are found everywhere in the south of France.Saint-Chinian has over 100 marked hiking trails extending out from the town center. The trails lead hikers up into the mountains, through endless vineyards and along historic Roman sites. We chose a hike along the “Moulin” (windmill) trail. The windmill signaled the beginning of a hike that would take us over a shale filled path and past ancient domed stone dwellings.Just to the left of the Moulin an obviously prosperous couple had built a stone home that stood alone atop the hill and commanded a view of the entire valley and mountain range. The homes of the ancients were more modest.Bibi leaving our “gîte” to go shopping. No wonder we got the place for such a good price. Thanks, Andreas…

Lodeve continued…. (food, carpets and some gardening)

When I left you last week, I’d gotten to the point were we started to get hungry.  We’d spotted a restaurant at the start of our walk, and that’s where we headed now.  Le Petit Sommelier is a couple of doors down from the tourist office, and has a lovely terrace out the front on Place de la Republique.  Unfortunately, the weather was not right, so we had a cosy table indoors.  The choice of dishes looked good and on their midday menu they had options for two our three courses.

The four of us had four different starters:  thinly sliced mountain ham, terrine of goats cheese, salad with herring and potatoes, prawn and avocado cocktail.  We all enjoyed our choice and waited for the main course!

For main course there was rumpsteak with pepper sauce, lamb tagine, duck leg with orange sauce and cod fillet with chorizo.  Again we all very much enjoyed our choices and there were no leftovers!!  After all that wonderful food only two of us managed to have a little dessert (ice cream and pannacotta), but neither was very photogenic, so you’ll have to imagine those two.  Service was friendly and quietly efficient and the bill for the four of us came to 82 EUR including drinks.

After all that food we still had a little time before our visit to the Savonneries, so we went for another little walk around Lodeve, and found more “treasures”, amongst which a shop selling all sorts of Polish foods – unfortunately closed for lunch, and an English Library.  The turbaned fountain head was at the back of a house, glimpsed through an open front door.

Finally it was time to head off to the Savonneries – I’d been before and thought I’d remembered where it was, but ended up asking at a supermarket petrol station.  The lady explained that it was just behind the supermarket (which hadn’t been built when I last visited), and to leave the car in the car park and walk round.  Our guided visit was booked for 3.30pm and we started off with a film explaining the role of the Mobilier National which is both a holding collection of works of art, furniture and carpets and tapestries belonging to the French state, as well as number of specialised workshops, of which the Savonneries are part.  The Mobilier National furnishes all French Embassies as well as the “palaces” of the French government, and their stocks are built on the former royal collections, with each successive government adding new works.  The website for the Mobilier National is only in French but gives you a good idea of the scale and scope! Time for some pictures:

After the film our guide took us to the exhibition area, where several finished carpets were on display. One thing I must mention is that nothing here is for sale. The entire output of the workshop belongs to the state and goes into the collection of the Mobilier National, except for the rare pieces which might be given as gifts of state.  Savonnerie carpets are velour pile carpets, with the thread being knotted around the warp and looped at the front.  Once a row of knots is finished a linen thread is woven in, which forms the fabric and consolidates the structure of the carpet, and the loops are then cut to form the velour.  Depending on the size and pattern, one carpet can take up to 10 years to complete!  At that rate you do however have several people working on it at the same time, so in reality it only takes two people five years – oh the patience!!

Each carpet is a work of art, both in the design and the execution. Generally the Mobilier National commissions the design from artists, who then work very closely with the weavers to translate their design into a finished carpet. Currently there are some very beautiful modern carpets on the looms in Lodeve, and new techniques are constantly explored, such as the raised discs for the “lobster”  carpet.

Traditional Savonnerie patterns are often very involved and have a high knot per square centimetre ratio, in order to bring out the complicated detail.  On the carpet below over 50 different colour yarns are used, and the detail and finesse of the work is staggering.  It’s been worked on for three years, and will be on the loom for about another three years.

With another recent carpet the weavers were challenged to translate the design of Julian Gardair into reality – not an easy task by all accounts, but the result is spectacular.  You can see the design and work in progress here.  The final photograph is a of Savonnerie carpet to a traditional design, in this case two torches.  Not my favourite, but still very impressive!

In my garden this last week the grapes were flowering – the blossoms are so insignificant you can hardly see them.  On the same plant further along the vine some bunches had flowered a little earlier and the little grapes were developing well already. The little furry things are kiwis, which have also set well this year, and the dahlias have started flowering also.  I always think of them as autumn flowers, but in St Chinian they usually start blooming at the beginning of summer.  The tomato plants continue to shoot up, and this week the Linden (lime) trees are in full bloom – I adore their heady perfume, which wafts around the village!  And lastly the raspberries have started ripening – I hope I’m not going to make you jealous when I tell you that I’ll have some for breakfast most mornings until the end of the season.

Plant fairs, carpets and doorknockers

At the start of the week was a visit to La Petite Pepiniere in Caunes Minervois, last Sunday, for the annual Open Weekend. Despite all expectations to the contrary, Sunday turned out to be a little wet, but we set off undeterred. Gill Pound who runs La Petite Pepiniere has created the most magnificent garden from a former vineyard, and at 11am she welcomed us for a guided tour of her kingdom. The range of plants is vast, but all are planted with the same aim – to withstand the dry climate and the sometimes cold winter. If you’re a keen gardener a visit is a must, there is much to interest and of course Gill has a great range of plants for sale.  Towards the end of our visit a lady came to take a picture of our group – you can find the picture and accompanying article here –  yours truly is hidden behind the lady in the purple raincoat!

As part of the open weekend a number of artists and artisans were exhibiting their works over the two days, but because of the rain several had to pack up and leave early. One of the few who stayed was Garth Bowden, who was showing a range of wooden furniture and sculptures. I was particularly taken by his wooden benches, where the surface textures were simply wonderful. After lunch the drizzle stopped and it brightened up a bit. There was much excitement, when a rare orchid (see picture above) was found by one of the visitors, growing near the riverbank.

I treated myself to two plants for my garden, a verbena bonariense, for which I’ve yet to find a spot and an Amicia Zygomeris which is planted and getting established.  The rain was good for the garden, and I’ve managed to do a fair bit of weeding and general work.  The tomatoes are growing well and need to be tied to their supporting canes.  The kiwis have finished flowering and there a good many little furry fruits dangling!! On the grapevines the flowers are incredibly unspectacular, the petals are almost non-existent, but this year’s flowering looks very promising! The air is heavy with the heady perfume from the linden tree outside the garden, and there is a loud buzz from the bees in that tree! Oh, and the raspberries are starting to ripen – always a good sign!!
On the way home from Caunes I found one of the most spectacular fields of poppies ever – so much for me writing that there was not much of a show this year!  And the handsome flower-pot-man was found in Caunes Minervois too.

   
 

Thursday I made a trip to Lodeve with friends, to explore the town and to visit the Savonnerie carpet workshop.  Let’s start with Lodeve:  from the middle ages onwards this was an important town for the manufactue of woollen fabrics because of its location and the pure water of the two rivers running through it, and from Louis XIV it received the monopoly for supplying the fabric from which all soldier’s uniforms were made.  Booming during war times but poor during peace times.  Of course that monopoly did not last, and by 1960 the last mill closed in Lodeve, leading to the decline and depopulation of the town.  Go for a walk through the centre – it’s well worth it!! The architectural history is all there, be it the cathedral or humble lanes. One thing which holds much fascination for me are doors and door knockers – Lodeve has a great deal and  I could have found many more with a bit more time!  The shap of the knockers are only limited by the imagination of the creators:  hands (with and without a ring on the ring finger), animal heads, cornucopias, and some incredibly ornate designs.  The sad pictures are of the doors where you can see that the knocker has been removed, sometimes stolen, sometimes sold…. but I won’t include any of those here.There are many quirky details, such as the bell-pull on the side of an ancient doorway, and the bell still above the door inside!

   

And then we found an incredible mural at the end of a little alleyway.  The artist really got his perspectives right, from afar it’s difficult to distinguish what is real and what is painted on.

A few more bits and pieces, before I wrap it up for today – I think I know what a Frigoriste is, but what about Ressemelage?  I have no idea!!

In the next post I’ll tell you about lunch and the visit to the Manufacture Nationale de la Savonnerie.  And before I forget, the riddle photograph from last week showed the leaves of a cyca unfurling!

Flowers, flowers, everywhere!

With the arrival of the warm weather there is an explosion of blooms everywhere!  In my garden the roses are particularly good this year, and Mme Meilland (also called Peace) is really going for it.  She starts of with a tame and decorous bud of the palest yellow, with splashes of pink along the edges of the petals, but once fully open she turns into one of the blowsiest roses you’ve seen, just amazing!  That rose always reminds me a bit of some of the hats the Queen Mother was famous for at one time.

With the help of two friends I spent most of Wednesday gardening, trying to catch up!  Between the three of us we managed to get a fair bit done:  weeded and butted the potatoes (lots of tasty purslane in there – edible weeds which are good for you!), planted aubergines, peppers, chilis, melons and courgettes, and did a lot of other general weeding and clearing up.  As you’ll see the in the picture, watering in my garden is mostly done by gravity.  There is a canal system which brings water into the village and so long as I level the earth well enough I can just let the water run along the rows of plants!  This morning I managed to get lettuce, beetroot and onions planted, as well as carrots and parsnips sown and watered in – it’s slowly taking shape!

Earlier in the week on a visit to Bize Minervois I came across these charming sights.  Above the door you can just about see that something was once written there – could it have been CAVE? But what was the rest??  The street signs in Bize Minervois are all individually hand-made by a ceramicist and they look delightful!  Placette St Genies is the home of Les Remparts, and the picture with the wonderful irises and roses was taken in the garden of Le Figuier – both holiday homes for rent (a few weeks only remain at each for this season!)

On the way back to St Chinian I just had to stop to snap this for you.  It’s Valerian (Centranthus Ruber) in its red and white form.  Valerian seems to grow very well in our area, and right now forms great big patches of pink in areas.  When combined with the yellow broom it is simply stunning.  The poppies this year have put on a good show, but not quite as spectacular as the ones in Monet’s painting of the poppy field in Argenteuil, perhaps next year?

Last Sunday I stopped at Villespassans for their annual fete – a charming affair with a small brocante (flea market), some old cars and a number of stalls selling artisan made products and wine.  The field next to the old cars was home to hundreds of Pyramidal Orchid (Anacamptis Pyramidalis) and there was some cistus and broom blooming as well.  The birds were singing all around and the sun shone – what more could I possibly want?  The top of the bell tower in Villespassans always looked pretty interesting from afar.  But looking at the close-up I noticed a raft of aerials and last year’s Christmas decorations – ho hum…

A walk around St Chinian brought some more delights:  Yellow irises growing alongside a stream (there are masses along parts of the Canal du Midi),  a white climbing rose on a fence, a wild cherry beginning to ripen and some Spanish broom caught in the evening light.  May really is one of the best months to spend in Languedoc!!

The last picture in today’s post is a riddle – I wonder if anyone knows the name of this plant? It’s growing in a pot in my garden 🙂

Versatile Blogger Award

A few weeks ago I was nominated by Peri from Peri’s Spice Ladle for the Versatile Blogger Award – I was very surprised and deeply honored – THANK YOU Peri!!  Peri writes wonderfully about Indian food and I enjoy her blog a great deal!

The Rules of Acceptance:
Thank the person who gave you this award

  • Include a link to their blog
  • Next, select 15 blogs/bloggers that you’ve recently discovered or follow regularly (I’ll go for 10)
  • Nominate those 15 bloggers for the Versatile Blogger Award
  • Finally, tell the person who nominated you 7 things about yourself.
  • In the same post, include this set of rules.
  • Inform each nominated blogger of their nomination by posting a comment on each of their blogs.

I’d like to nominate the following blogs for the Versatile Blogger Award

Sky Hacienda
Cathy Bidini
The Craving Chronicles
Cooking in Sens
Five and Spice
Pholloyo
Frugal Feeding
Tasting Tales
Lula Harp
The Soulsby Farm