A walk through the woods (and the market halls of Narbonne)

My father has always been an avid mushroom gatherer, and I’ve inherited his love for wild mushrooms, despite the fact that he’s able to spot a cep a mile off and I usually see one when I almost tread on it…  This hasn’t stopped me going out mushrooming with my parents while they were staying these past two weeks, though.  The weather had been wonderful, sunny/warm days interspersed with some rain, just perfect for growing mushrooms.  The last time we set off for a walk we found plenty of mushrooms, but none of them the kind that we would want to eat.  There are many comestible mushrooms, but a lot of them don’t taste fantastic, so in the main we’ve been sticking to ceps.

A few years ago I organized a guided mushroom walk for a group of us, which turned out to be a fantastic experience.  Benoit, our guide met us in Ferrals-les-Montagnes, and from there we drove a little way into the forest, where he gave us our orders:  pick every mushroom you find, regardless of what it is!  After an hour and a half of searching we pooled our loot and our guide explained the different types of mushroom and how to recognize them. He also sorted the safe ones from the poisonous ones, and we ended up with a nice pile of ceps, which were then turned into an omelette.

Whilst we’d been searching the forest, Benoit had been busy preparing for lunch:  He’d brought along pate and ham for starters, eggs already beaten in bottles for the omelette, and he had thought of everything, to the point where he had brought real glasses for our wine!

Soon we were munching away, thoroughly enjoying the fruits of our labour!!  Here are some pictures of the mushrooms we DID NOT eat, magnificent thought they were :

Back to now:  since we did not find any ceps ourselves on our last outing we made do with the mushrooms for sale in the market in St Chinian – and that was no great hardship!

Once cleaned my mother cooked the ceps with a cream sauce, and we had them with home-made bread dumplings, a Bavarian speciality – yummy!

Later in the week we all went to Narbonne – I’d heard about a great place for lunch in Les Halles of Narbonne, and decided we’d give it a go.  We arrived at the halls around 11.30, in plenty of time to have a good look around and do some shopping.  First though, we stopped off Chez Bebelle and asked to reserve for lunch.

The olives looked every bit as good as they tasted, and there was lots more – I just couldn’t keep up with pictures.   After a good look at everything we headed back for lunch.

The main attraction at Chez Bebelle is the fact that you all sit around the bar and watch as your food is prepared – well almost, there are some tables next door, but I think it’s much more fun to sit up close to the action.  Giles, the proprietor is a well known rugby player from Narbonne, and he has built up a great place to have lunch at.  His sister did the cooking when we were there, and she was a model of calm.  Giles had written our name on the place mats to reserve our seats, and when he came to take the order that name went on the docket.  Then he got his megaphone and called our order across the aisle to the butcher stall.

The meat came neatly wrapped sailing across the aisle (yes, I kid you not – that man knows how to catch!), and then our name got written on it, and it queued up with the rest of the orders.

Right in front of us was the plate with tomato bread – did that look tempting!!  By now there were people waiting for seats all over the place and the atmosphere was buzzing!

Soon enough our order was ready – yummy entrecote steaks and hamburgers (one topped with a fried egg) with home made fries!  And the tomato bread tasted fantastic!

There was a good choice of desserts, and even though I should not have I did all the same!

There was quite a choice but we plumped for apple and pear crumble and moelleux aux chocolat.  And the coffee was one of the best in a long time!  I don’t think we’ve ever had this much fun at lunch anywhere.  And I know I risk Chez Bebelle getting ever more busy by writing about it, but I think it’s a piece of “real” France that is too good not to share.

After all this food a walk around Narbonne was called for, and I’ll leave you with a few impressions of centre ville.

A ride on the yellow train

A few weeks back I was headed for Villefranche-de-Conflent in the foothills of the Pyrenees.  The reason?  To ride the famous Train Jaune or Canari as it is also called.  I set off early in the morning to catch the 9.50 from Villefranche to Latour-de-Carol, from a drizzly St Chinian.  I had family staying, and we’d decided that if we didn’t go that day we’d never make it, so despite the dismal weather we were on our way.  As we got nearer Perpignan the rain stopped and it got a little brighter, although no blue skies in sight.  The station in Villefranche has an enormous car park, but since it was out of season we were one of the first to arrive and patiently queued up behind the rope.

Once the driver and the guard had arrived we boarded the train and managed to get seats in the one open carriages – yess!!  Whilst waiting we had debated the merits of being in the open at length, but decided the views would be well worth it!
And soon we were on our way, climbing into the Pyrenees, past villages, looking down into ravines and past abandoned stations.  The railway line was built in the early 1900s with the aim to connect the Cerdagne region to the rest of France.  Planning had started in 1800s but the complications of the terrain and the intervening first world war meant that the last section from Bourg-Madame to Latour-de-Carol was only opened in 1927.

As we continued our climb the clouds started to lift and bit by bit it got warmer!  The last picture above is of Le Pont Séjourné, one of the most famous bridges along the line. Unfortunately from the train you don’t get to see the full extent of this impressive structure, it’s better viewed from the road :-(.

But the views more than made up for that, as we were leaving the clouds behind us.  The line is single track for most of its length, so the up and down trains have to pass one another at certain stations along the way.  Here we are at Fontpedrouse, waiting for the down train.

After a short stop, to allow passengers to change trains and for the drivers and guards to have a chat and a cigarette, we were on our way once more.

The Pont Gisclard is a suspension bridge, 80m above the river Tet, built between 1905 and 1908, in a particularly difficult spot.  Getting 873 tonnes of steel to the middle of nowhere is no mean feat!

Et voila, we have arrived at Mont-Louis, where we board the down train!  On the winter timetable the wait between trains can be around 4 hours, and with the weather starting to cloud over we decided not to take a chance.  Mont-Louis is very close to the highest railway station at Bolquere (1593m), but we’ll explore that another time!  Oh and can you guess why the train is nicknamed Le Canari?

Red and yellow are the Catalan colours, and we were in the midst of French Catalunya.  Oh, and I’ve forgotten the tunnels – there are a good many of them, and they are great fun – everyone in the open cars took pictures of one-another in the dark and some howled :-)!  The little huts along the way were built as a means of turning off the electric current on sections of the line.  The trains are powered by means of a third rail and 850 Volt.  On the left of the picture above you can just see the hydroelectric power station which generates the electricity needed for the trains.

Here’s another view of the Pont Séjourné, and below the ancient bridge across the Tet river, linking Villefranche-de-Conflent to the fort on the hillside above.

I leave you here with a picture of the rocks above the station in Villefranche – the rocks have the most wonderful colouring, they almost glow.  The Train Jaune is definitely a trip to take at some time; if you suffer from vertigo you can always sit inside in one of the covered carriages.
I’ll tell you about my visit of Villefranche in another post…

Let the juice loose…

I spent some more time this week in the vineyards and the wine cellar of Domaine La Madura – and learnt some more about wine!  Cyril Bourgne’s winery is not large but very clean and tidy as you can see from the pictures!

The first time I went to watch some of the work which goes into the vinification process.  Cyril was preparing to mix some of wine in fermentation, drawing must off at the bottom of the tank and pumping it over the “crust” at the top of the tank.  A large basin was set up, a spout attached to the outlet of the tank, a stainless steel filter basket hooked onto that and then the juices started to flow.

A pump had been set up to pump the juice from the basin at ground floor level to the first floor, and a device with a propeller had been attached to the end of the pipe over the top of the tank.  It was great to see the propeller jump into action, spraying beautifully smelling liquid all over the floating grapes.

During the procedure Cyril measured the sugar density and temperature of the must and carefully noted the results.

Once the task was complete and all the equipment carefully rinsed with clean water (same as before starting up!) another job was waiting:  that of pushing the grape skins which had collected into a crust on the top of another tank into the juice and thereby allowing a better extraction of colour and flavours.

Hard work, pushing the stainless steel tool down and pulling it back up again, trying to get into all of the corners of the tank!  While Cyril was working away I managed to snap a quick picture of the barrels used to mature the Grand Vin”.

The following morning I passed by as some grapes came back from the vineyard.  That day the vineyard below the Col de Fontjun was being picked, and the grape variety on that particular parcel of land is called Mourvedre.

The de-stemming machine had been set up just inside the doors, and the van pulled in just far enough so that the crates could be lifted up to the hopper. 

Each crate full of grapes weighs around 40kg so it’s heavy work, even for two people.

As the grapes are slowly tipped into the hopper every bit of leaf is removed, and any bunches which aren’t up to scratch are taken out.

Inside the de-stemmer is a drum with holes and the grapes are pushed through those holes by flexible paddles.  The stems stay behind and leave the drum at the opposite end, whilst the grapes drop into a tub below the machine, from where they are pumped into the tank.

And all of this accompanied by the wonderful smells of ripe grapes!

Heavenly spheres

One sunny afternoon this week I took my camera and went into the vineyards, to watch the vendanges of my friends Nadia and Cyril of Domaine la Madura.  The vineyard I visited was planted with a variety called Carignan, appreciated for the elegant structure it can bring to a wine and the plants in this vineyard were pruned in goblet fashion (we’re getting very technical here!).


The leaves had already started to change colour a little and the plants were hung thick with beautiful bunches of grapes.

Nadia and Cyril’s harvest is picked entirely by hand; each bunch of grapes is snipped  and then dropped into a small basket, so as not to crush the grapes.

Once the basket is full it is emptied into a crate, carried by one of the porteurs who follows the vendangeurs through the vineyard.

The crates get pretty heavy, and it I’m sure it can’t be an easy job to be doing all day long.  But the atmosphere in he vineyard is relaxed and the pace is not frantic, and the team enjoy a good banter despite the hard work.

There’s always some interesting wildlife to be found in amongst the plants – I’m not sure if this spider would bite, but it was impressive in size with the body about 2cm across!

The full crates get stacked, ready to be transported to the cellar where the transformation of the grapes starts in earnest.

And the taste of those grapes?  Absolutely divine: ripe, juicy, sweet, explosions of concentrated sun as you bite them…heavenly!  I bet they’ll make good wine!