Knights in shining armour and New York?

What do the two have in common?  The answer is at the end of this post 🙂  !  Each year in mid September France along with most of Europe celebrates its heritage; museums are open free of charge, there are guided visits, and often buildings which are not accessible to the public offer visits.  In honour of the occasion the village of Olargues put on a Fete Medievale this year, and I just couldn’t resist to see what it was all about!  Olargues is listed as one of the most beautiful villages in France, and when you approach from the direction of St Pons the view from across the river is just gorgeous.

On this picture you don’t quite get the full effect, the branch is obscuring the tower at the top of the hill, the only remainder of the château which once stood there. Anyhow, Olargues has plenty to remind us of its medieval past, such as the small narrow streets, and the remains of the gates into the village.

All along the “main street” through the old village, market stalls had been set up, selling all manner of things.

I was particularly taken by the nougat – can you tell?  It’s made with lavender honey and almonds and there were all kinds of flavours:  pistachio, fig and date, cinnamon and orange, chestnut, caramel….

The chapel in the former headquarters of the Knights of St John of Jerusalem (there must be a better name for them in English?) was open and in the courtyard one of the associations of the village had set up tables selling spiced wine and cider.

Eventually I came to the square where the MEDIO EVO group had set up camp.  Beautiful tents, and just opposite a spit roast – in readiness for the communal meal.

The communal dinner looked great, but I’d already made other plans.  As I arrived there sat a knight waiting for his adversary.

Soon enough someone showed up, and they went for it – very good fighting with swords…

After all that excitement there was still time for a little more walking around Olargues, and more to discover of course.

On the drive back home I caught the most stunning view of Caroux, fabulous blue skies!

And then on along the way I took a little detour via New York!

There she stands, Lady Liberty in all her splendour!  And in the village of Lugne!  A plaque on the pedestal explains that this scale copy of th statue of Liberty graced the bow on the Maxim’s des Mers in 1987 (perhaps on a voyage to New York?), and that the captain of the ship, Albert Abelanet is a native of the village.  From the meager info I could find on the net, the Maxim’s des Mers was a small luxury cruise ship designed by Pierre Cardin.  And there you have it all!

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Late summer food – Tomato Pie

Last week I teased some of you on facebook with a picture of a Tomato Pie – since the summer is not yet over I would like to share the story behind that delicious looking picture.  Let me tell you  now, it tastes every bit as good as it looks!!  The recipe comes from Florence, a friend from North Carolina, who first cooked it for me last year.  When Florence came back to St Chinian this year and asked me for dinner, I persuaded her to make tomato pie again.

The following week I got together again with Florence for a cooking lesson in how to prepare this delicious dish from the South.  I’d prepared a basic shortcrust pastry, to which I added a couple of tablespoons of freshly grated parmesan cheese.  Rolled out thinly, lined a flan tin and pre-cooked it.  This is not absolutely necessary: if you don’t have the time you don’t have to pre-bake your pie shell (or even make your own pastry), but I prefer it to have that little extra crunch.  Here are the remaining ingredients (almost all of them anyhow):

A tablespoon of Dijon mustard is spread in the bottom of the pie shell, which is then filled with thickly sliced tomatoes.  Thickly means about 2cm thick, and you use your thumbs to remove the seeds and watery stuff from the tomatoes.  If there are gaps, cut a slice into pieces and fit them in where necessary.  Sprinkle some chopped shallots over the tomatoes, a little salt and pepper, then sprinkle over some fresh basil, torn or chopped.

Spread grated cheese evenly over the whole thing; I used Comte, but you can use Cheddar, Gruyère or Cantal or a mixture.

Now comes the final step – mix some home-made mayonnaise (or use good store-bought) with some grated parmesan and spread evenly over the grated cheese.  A little tricky, but if you drop blobs of the mix onto the cheese and use a rubber spatula to spread it, you’ll achieve a good result.

Bake in a pre-heated oven at 190 celsius for 20 minutes and you’ll end up with a golden looking tart with a slightly puffed top, and a delicious smell in your kitchen.

Leave it to stand for as long as you can resist it (about 20 minutes?) and serve warm.  What did we have with it?  I don’t think anything, except for some very nice wine, but I imagine that a green salad would go extremely well with it.  The key to success for this dish is to use only the sweetest, ripe tomatoes at their peak.  Search for them – it’s worth it.  If necessary bribe a gardening neighbour to give you some of his crop.  Don’t bother making it in the winter or with supermarket tomatoes, you’ll only be wondering what the fuss is all about!  And the other thing to watch for is not to over cook the pie.  The idea is for the tomatoes to be warmed through, but not cooked, so they retain their fresh taste.  Enjoy!

And they’re off

Earlier this week I was driving along and noticed the car suddenly making a very strange noise, a kind of loud hum, as if the cooling fan was going flat-out.  It disappeared again after a few seconds, but not long after I heard it again.  I started to worry a little.  Then I opened the window and the reason for the noise became clear: sticky grape juice all over the road!  I’d completely blocked out of my mind that the grape harvest had started on Monday in a lot of villages, and of course with the harvest come lots of small tractors all over the countryside, taking the grapes to the wineries.  The machine-harvested grapes get a little more squashed than the manually picked ones, and inevitably some of the juice leaks out on to the road, dribbling as the trailers bounce their way along.  And then the tyres stick to the sugary road and make a very strange noise indeed 🙂

At the cooperative winery in Saint Chinian things are well under way and incredibly well organised.  Weeks before the harvest each vineyard is visited and analyzed, and later on grape samples are taken to check for ripeness and sugar content.  Then the different parcels of land are picked in succession, generally the same kind of grape variety at the same time.  Once the tractors bring the grapes to the cooperative they queue up for the weighbridge, where the grapes are also tested for sugar content.

Then they are sent to the various dropping points.  I am sure that it takes lots of skill to reverse the trailers to exactly where they are supposed to be.

In a great big whoosh the grapes are tipped into the stainless steel container and start their way to becoming wine.

An Archimedes screw takes the grapes up to the de-stemmer, the machine which removes all the stems from the bunches of grapes (and any leaves too).

The grapes then go on to be either pressed or go directly into tanks for fermentation.  It really is a wonderful time to be on holiday in the area; the weather is generally very good, the smell of ripe grapes lingers in the air, and it’s fun to watch all the activity in the villages!  And of course soon the wine fetes will be under way…

This post would (of course) not be complete without a mention of food!!  Last Sunday I was invited to a mechoui at the house of friends near St Chinian.  According to Wikipedia,  “In the cuisine of Northern Africa, Méchoui is a whole sheep or a lamb spit roasted on a barbecue. The word comes from the Arabic word šawa, which means “grilled, roasted”. This dish is very popular in North Africa.”  And it was just that.  A whole lamb (15 kg) which was spit roasted over an open fire for about four hours.  I didn’t know what to expect but the meat was just amazing, tender, juicy and oh so tasty!!  I leave you with a few pictures of the process.  Needless to say I ate far too much; there were aperitifs while we enjoyed the beautiful evening, and then everyone was invited to pick at bits as the roast was carved.  Finally we all sat down and accompanied the choice cuts with couscous, vegetables, roast potatoes (also cooked in the fire) and harissa sauce.  Cheese followed, and then came three desserts, and the whole meal was accompanied by wines from Domaine la Madura.  Life really can’t get much better than an evening spent with good friends sharing great food and wine!

Going potty

For two days in August the village of Salleles d’Aude hosts a potters’ market, with potters from near and far exhibiting their wares.  The range is wide, from everyday traditional dishes to very artistic creations and everything in between.  The market always takes place on the 14th and 15th of August, and I can always find yet another piece to buy; this year I purchased a couple of bowls, perfect for serving nibbles in!

One of the highlights of the market for me is the demonstration of how a potter would have made pots in Roman times – not all that easy I imagine!

The reason for the demonstration is that just outside the village is Amphoralis, a museum dedicated to the Roman pottery village which once existed there.  Excavations of the site started in 1976, and over the years the archaeologists have discovered what was one of the largest sites in France for the production of pottery during the 1st to 3rd centuries AD.  After 17 years of excavations a total of 17 kilns had been discovered, as well as the sites of various workshops, houses, clay pits, wells etc. To make all the finds accessible to the larger public a museum was built on part of the site, and opened in 1992.  The design is reminiscent of a butterfly with outstretched wings.  The central body contains exhibition space, offices and workshops, and the wings float over the site, protecting the exposed  artifacts from the elements, whilst walkways above the excavations allow visitors to look directly down.  All very clever!

The visit of the museum starts with a film which explains the history of the site in Roman and modern times.  The film also showcases an exciting experiment which started about 10 years ago:  the reconstruction of one of the kilns on the site, with the aim of firing pottery as the Roman potters would have. Over the years the kiln has been used a good few times, firing a range of items such as roof tiles, pots, jugs, bricks and more.  Some of the items such as bowls, jugs and oil lamps can be bought at the museum, others such as the roof tiles and bricks are being used in the reconstruction of buildings on the site.

After you’ve completed your visit of the museum, you can walk around the rest of the site.  Wander along the marked route and see where some of the clay came from, remains of the aqueduct which supplied the village with water, until you come to first of the reconstructed buildings, which houses a bread oven (seemingly used regularly).  The building next door shelters two replicas of smaller kilns.

The larger building a little further on is the workshop and also shelters the large kiln.  On the day I visited, someone was showing how bricks were made, with the help of a form.  First the inside of the frame is wiped with a damp sponge, and then dusted with wood ash, to help release the clay.  The form is then placed on a board, also dusted with wood ash (from kiln firings), and then the soft clay is thrown in, to ensure that there are no air pockets.  Bit by bit the form fills up and then a wooden stick is used to scrape off of the excess and to level the brick.  The form is then lifted carefully, tapped a little on its side, and the finished brick slid on to a little board and set aside to dry.  Drying takes several days and the bricks have to be turned regularly during the process.

   
   

The path leads on to the next building, a reconstruction of a building where the potters might have lived: a beautifully made, wood-framed barn of a building, with a thatched roof.  The walls are filled in with a variety of materials: partly woven with twigs and covered with earth/clay, partly filled in with bricks.  Inside, at one end of the building is a reconstruction of what the living quarters might have looked like – sparse!

The visit continues past the potters’ garden – a somewhat overgrown maze of beds growing plants which would have been known to the Romans.  By then the the skies were turning very dark and threatening – the famous orage du quinze aout was looming – so I didn’t linger, and once back in the car the heavens opened.  Time for a little reflection on what life must have been like 2000 years ago…