Mardi Gras in Southern France

in Limoux (not all that far from Carcassonne) to be precise.  Limoux has a carnival tradition which reaches back unbroken to the middle ages, and the carnival takes place each weekend from early January to mid March.  You’ll find the 2013 programme here.   Now, the carnival in Limoux is not like the famous one in Rio, or like some in Germany or elsewhere in France.  There are no floats, nothing particularly showy, just costumed people.  It is a lot about tradition, and it is “by the town for the town”, so not designed to be a magnet for tourists.  My experience of it started on Mardi Gras 2013, mid morning, when I arrived in Limoux with a small group of friends.  The town square, Place de la Republique, where the carnival takes place, looked deserted.

P1010366

For a moment we were wondering if we’d picked the wrong day.  But then we came across a poster, and sure enough today was marked, so perhaps we were just a little too early.  So off we went to the Cafe du Commerce for some coffee and hot chocolate.

IMG_5370

When we re-appeared the square already looked a bit livelier.  The carousel in the middle was being uncovered, and a stall had set up, selling carnival masks and such.

P1010351
P1010349
P1010350

Place de la Republique has arcades around three of its sides a feature in several towns in the area (Mirepoix and Revel).  On the fourth side a mock arcade had been set up, and we thought the action would start there.  Wrong!  It all started outside the Brasserie la Concorde, with the band playing a tune, and the costumed characters emerging from that establishment, to dance a waltz with some of the bystanders.

P1010298
P1010297

The group then proceeded along to the corner, and into the next bar, for a glass of Blanquette de Limoux, what else?

IMG_5390

Limoux has a great many different bandes des carnavaliers and each group is allocated a day, during which they entertain the public three times.  They first come out at 11am, again at 4.30pm and finally with flaming torches at 10pm.  The morning “outing” is dedicated to local events, the afternoon and evening have a “Pierrot” theme.  I saw the morning outing of “Les Anciens” and the characters were superb.  The most fascinating face was the one we called the sweetie lady – she had a cart loaded with sweets and biscuits which she offered to the bystanders.

P1010306

IMG_5394

Then there was what I thought was the town crier, who carried a drum and later on a megaphone.

P1010312

I don’t know who the man with the big wig was supposed to represent, but his mask was particularly life-like.

P1010314

The waiter was also very good and later on he would turn into Monsieur le Maire.

P1010337

Not to be missed was the curé or town priest

IMG_5406

And even the pope had made the effort!

IMG_5392

Leading the dance (for it was a dance) was Mr Andrieu, the grain merchant who also sold small livestock – he had chickens, pigeons and goldfish on his cart!

IMG_5410

The miller is a traditional character of the Limoux carnival, the millers are the ones opening the very first session each year.  Tradition has it that he carries a whip, why I don’t know?

IMG_5447

The barber was carrying a huge comb and pair of scissors, and occasionally he would try to comb someone in passing 🙂

IMG_5433

The butcher had a clothes rack with him, where he’d suspended a selection of goodies!

IMG_5436

There was a gent who could have been a chauffeur with his peaked cap.

IMG_5444

And then there was a rather large lady with long hair, who had a slightly crazed look about her.

P1010333

I’m fairly certain that there was no woman hiding behind that mask.  In fact it was not all that long ago that women were admitted to the carnival groups, before that it was all exclusively male!

There were a few other characters, who could have been anything, local gangsters or mafia or just guys dressed in dark suits.

P1010331

Back to the action.  After that first brief dance everyone had piled into the first bar, just off the square for a quick drink.  Meantime everyone outside was eagerly awaiting their reappearance, and as time went on the crowd seemed to be growing.  And then they came, the band struck up again, and they were off in their dance, one or both arms held aloft, turning with graceful movements.  Every so often the grain merchant would throw a shovel-full of wheat or maize over the bystanders, and so they went through the arcade at the bottom of the square and into the next bar!  One thing though, there was an air of solemnity about the procedings, an earnestness that was not spoilt by cheering or clapping from the crowd (except that we did of course, instantly marking ourselves out to be strangers!).

Here’s the video I took for you – sorry about the shakiness, and no the sweet lady is not going to beat the children with her stick!!

Re-emerging thoroughly refreshed, they headed for the third arcade, where they made a pit-stop at the Cafe du Commerce, all that dancing must make one mighty thirsty!!  Or perhaps the rubber masks make you incredibly hot and you just need to take them off for a moment or two?

IMG_5448

IMG_5411
IMG_5452
IMG_5423

When they emerged from their third bar-stop, they made their way up to the fake arcade, and opposite that the crowds were now eagerly awaiting what was to come next.  I had no idea what to expect, but it turned out to be great fun!  Even the chickens thought so, they’d started exploring the cart, and wait, where did the enormous ears come from on the guy with the big wig?  Monsieur le Curé was destined to have a good time with his bottle of blanquette!

IMG_5459
IMG_5462
IMG_5467
IMG_5474
IMG_5484

So it turns out that the guy with the big wig was in need of a haircut.  The barber tried with his yellow scissors, but they proved to be useless for the job, so he fetched a pair of hedge clippers!

IMG_5486

Off came bits of the wig, and of course later on the whole wig.  Swiftly followed by first one and then the other ear!!  Ouuch!!  Then it was time for a shave!

IMG_5490
IMG_5487

The poor man was covered in shaving foam, and the whole then rinsed off with a bucket of water that was thrown over him!!  Lucky there was a plastic sheet covering him!  Meantime the butcher had been cutting up bits of offal and throwing it to the crowd, the curé had popped the cork and showered everyone with bubbly, and the grain merchant slung out several more shovels of barley over the heads fo the crowd.

Just when I thought it was about over, I could hear the band play again.  Oh yes, where had the musicians disappeared to?  Now they were coming down a side street, preceded by the loveliest majorettes I have seen in a long time :-), closely followed by the driver and M. le Maire.

IMG_5494
IMG_5498

And then they all started up again, not going far mind, because there was another cafe just by the corner…

IMG_5507
IMG_5513
IMG_5514

The crowds started to disperse and we thought it was time we should look for somewhere to eat.  We had a look into Brasserie La Concorde and saw that they were advertising vin chaud; since it was cold we thought it was just what we wanted.  And while warming ourselves with that we had our last glimpse of Limoux Carnival as the characters came into the bar for their last stop, or perhaps it was their headquarters, as they all disappeared downstairs.

IMG_5521
IMG_5523
IMG_5524

My first experience of this famous carnival and I’m very certain that I’ll be back before too long!  We finished our morning with lunch at Le Cafe Gourmand on Place de la Republique, which I can heartily recommend.  The lunch menu was EUR 14.50 for three courses and included a glass of wine and coffee.  The food was freshly prepared and delicious, and the service very friendly.  We all had Potee aux Choux for main course, a wonderfully warming stew with beef ribs, smoked sausage, potatoes, carrots, celery, and of course cabbage.

IMG_5530

After that we went for a walk around Limoux and bought some Blanquette, but I’ll leave that for another post!

Advertisements

The great big mimosa party …

… takes place each year on the second Sunday in February in the village of Roquebrun, in Languedoc.  Why, I hear you ask?  Well, Roquebrun, also known as Le Petit Nice because of its microclimate, is a perfect place for growing mimosa, and at that time of year the trees are in full bloom in Roquebrun and nearby.

IMG_5265

The Fete du Mimosa is now in its 22nd year and the main event is the parade of the decorated floats in the afternoon.  This year’s theme was “comic strip heroes” and we saw Tintin, the Smurfs, Becassine, Marsupilami, Lucky Luke, Boule et Bill, Bob the sponge, Titeuf and the Simpsons, all made by the local association Les Amis du Moulin and decorated with over 100,000 colourful paper flowers over the course of the winter.  More about the procession later, first some impressions of mimosa blossom!

P1010157
P1010171
IMG_5261
P1010189

The yellow mimosa bloom seems to be especially pretty against a deep blue sky.  There’s something incredibly generous about a mimosa tree in full bloom, it almost shouts out that spring is only around the corner.  If you arrive for the fete in Roquebrun, you are most likely going to walk across the bridge.  Straight ahead of you you’ll see the mimosa stall, where you can buy your very own bunch of mimosa blossom to take home.  The scent is beautifully delicate and will make your house smell lovely.

IMG_5335

All along the main street are stands selling a variety of local produce and handicrafts, and there’s plenty of street food too!  On the Place de la Rotissoire the organising committee had their own food stall, with a great BBQ to one side!  Those guys were prepared for some serious cooking!

IMG_5267

I found some delicious Bugnes at one stall, strips of dough, deep-fried and dusted with powdered sugar.  Wikipedia has the English version of this as angel wings, but I also give you the French entry, in case you are tempted to make this!  A search on one of the popular search engines will turn up a sleigh of recipes.

IMG_5288

There were also the requisite sausages, along with lots of other food, from frites to pancakes and crepes made with chestnut flour.

IMG_5353

But back to the parade…  I got a sneak preview as some of the floats were driven down the main road (there really is only one in Roquebrun) to the starting point.  And they looked pretty good!

IMG_5273
IMG_5281
IMG_5283
IMG_5287

After some lunch and a walk around the market I was ready to find my spot for the parade.  One of the walking bands entertained the waiting crowds for a little while, before heading off to the assembly point.  And then, after some waiting, there was this almighty bang – it really made me jump.  Apparently the sign that the parade had set off at the other end of the village!!  The master of ceremonies preceded the first tractor and it was Becassine who opened the fun!

IMG_5300

IMG_5302

The floats and tractors were by now extravagantly decorated with mimosa bloom, and the floats were full of costumed children throwing confetti at the spectators (and each other!).  The Smurfs and Bill et Boule were next, and following each float was a band.

IMG_5307

IMG_5315

Lucky Luke came next, and in my book this float won the prize!  Check out Lucky Luke’s cigarette!  And the horse was having such a great time!  AND the band following were all dressed in mimosa yellow!

IMG_5326 IMG_5328 IMG_5329 IMG_5330

Tintin was next, followed by a brass band in green.

IMG_5333 IMG_5337

And finally there was a float with three comic strip heroes:  Bob the sponge, Titeuf, and one of the Simpsons, I think it must have been Bart.

IMG_5340

Next came the Buffatiere and I doubt that you’ll have seen anything like it before.  A group of dancers, dressed in white (night) gowns with white nightcaps on their heads, dance around a wheelbarrow full of flour, with bellows in their hands.  Sounds pretty innocuous, doesn’t it?  Well, the dancers get to have their fun by blowing the flour-filled bellows at each other and the audience, and giving some of the bystanders a floury hug.  (For some history about the Buffatiere I found this website, in French only.)  I took a brief video for your amusement.

P1010276
P1010278
P1010284

But the party wasn’t over quite yet – there came the Fontaine a Vin, a mobile wine bar kind of thing, sponsored by the Cave Cooperative, and distributing small cups of red wine all along the way, with the ladies all dressed up as Becassine.

IMG_5350

Now, with Roquebrun being a one-street-town, the whole procession went as far as the Cave Cooperative, where it turned round and came back again!  So another chance to wave at the children (one enterprising boy started to throw branches of mimosa from his float at the bystanders, as the confetti had run out :-)), listen to the music and get covered in flour.  Oh yes, and then the wine came by again.

One of the bands consisted entirely of drums, and they were pretty good, so I’m sharing a video with you.

IMG_5354
IMG_5356

And then it was over for another year!!

IMG_5351

Black diamonds – truffle markets in southern France

On a blustery and cold Saturday I braved the elements for a trip to Talairan in the Corbieres hills for a truffle market.  The weather got worse the closer I got,  and my heart sunk when it started to pour – would anyone be there, would there be a marche du terroir or would it be a total wash-out?  After another 10 minutes drive the sky looked a bit brighter, and the rain slowed to a fine drizzle.

IMG_5255

I’d not been to Talairan before, but it was easy to find where the truffle market was taking place.  The old schoolyard proved to be a perfect place, as there was a big shelter by the side of the school building, where the long table for the trufficulteurs had been set up.  A few stalls selling local products (honey, wine, saffron, lavender essences, charcuterie, etc) were dotted about the yard, and those hardy souls were doing brave battle with the elements.

IMG_5253

If you have the space and inclination you can buy truffle trees, which might produce some tubers after about eight years!  But I’d come for the truffles and so I bypassed the rest and went to where a few people were huddled around a small table.  And that’s where I got my first whiff and knew we were cooking with gas!   A bare wooden trestle table, an electronic scale, a plastic box, and a man with a knife.  It turns out that the man with the knife is the commissaire, the official in charge of quality control.  The producers bring along their stash, and he carefully examines every truffle.  Cuts off a slice here and there to see if it’s ripe and ready, and gives it a sniff, before placing those truffles which pass the quality test onto the scales.  The white marbling is a sign of ripeness and the smell is a good indication too.  He’ll cut off bits which are overripe or not ripe enough, they’ll end up in the box, and perhaps in the trash?  His adjudication is fair and final, he’s a kind of god of the truffles, sitting in judgement and assuring that the public which come to buy do not get any counterfeit or sub-standard tubers.  For at a mere 1000 EUR a kilo a little bit of unscrupulous dealing could earn a fair bit of extra money!

IMG_5163
IMG_5154
IMG_5152
IMG_5149
IMG_5157
IMG_5171
IMG_5174
IMG_5201
IMG_5165
IMG_5212
IMG_5190

Once the truffles are graded and weighed, they go into hessian bags, and the bags are then closed with a lead seal and handed to the producer, who takes up position behind the long table.  The grading goes on until about 10.40am.  The sale is due to start at 11am and a rope is now strung about 1m from the table to keep the eager buyers at bay.

IMG_5191

IMG_5215

IMG_5213
IMG_5219
IMG_5187

Meantime at the other end of the shelter an older gent is standing behind another table, preparing what promises to be a treat.  On a gas burner, the kind usually used for paella, he has a bain marie simmering away.  To the side he’s just about breaking eggs into a bowl.  A little salt and pepper, and then the treat – a generous grating of fresh black truffle!!  All beaten up, and poured into the saucepan which stands in the bain marie, along with a nice lump of beurre demi sel, which has been left to infuse in a hermetically sealed box with a truffle for two days.  The whole is now stirred until the eggs are a creamy scrambled consistency.  And then a little spoonful of scrambled egg is put onto slices of fresh bread and everyone is allowed to have a taste – heavenly!!  I can tell you that the pieces of bread disappeared as soon as they were put down!

IMG_5250
IMG_5175
IMG_5177
IMG_5179
IMG_5181
IMG_5185
IMG_5183
IMG_5186
IMG_5194
IMG_5195
IMG_5197
IMG_5196

Meantime, we’re getting close to the start of the sale. The commissaire and his helper now go along the table, opening the bags and putting the truffles out in front of the growers in full view of the waiting crowd.

IMG_5226
IMG_5229
IMG_5240

The mayor of Talairan arrives and declares the market officially open with four blows of the bugle, the rope is dropped and there’s a big surge to the table followed by a great deal of excitement, money changing hands and happy smiling faces on both sides of the table.

IMG_5238
IMG_5236
IMG_5248
IMG_5247
IMG_5241
IMG_5245

I came away with the small truffle in the bag, which weighed 21 g and cost 20 Euros – it’s been put into jar of rice in readiness for a truffle risotto.  On the way home the whole car smelled of truffle, and every so often I open the jar and give it sniff.  I’m sorry that this is not a scratch-and-sniff post, I wish you could experience that amazing smell!  So hard to describe, but once you’ve smelled/tasted real black truffle you know what I mean.

IMG_5258

Oldies but goodies

Last Sunday night there was a good deal of excitement in an otherwise sleepy St Chinian!  The Rally Monte Carlo was stopping off in the village!  Now before you get too excited – it was not the rally everyone has heard of, but the classic car version!  The Rallye Monte Carlo Historique, as it is officially called, aims to recreate the look and feel of the Rallies of the 60’s and 70’s and they are doing a pretty good job!  The Rally starts in five different European cities:  Copenhagen, Glasgow, Reims, Warsaw and Barcelona, and over 300 cars will meet up at Valence, for the final two legs to Monaco.  I can’t begin to imagine what that must be like, already the just over 50 cars in St Chinian felt like never-ending excitement.  There was a good number of Renault Alpines, Porsches, Golfs but some other cars of which I’d never heard of (can you tell that I’m not a car-nut?).  Most of them looked pretty interesting, and the roar of an old Porsche engine has something special about it. If you want to read a little more about the event you can click here.  If cars aren’t really your thing then you might not want to drool over the pictures which follow :-). Don’t ask me what they are though, I can just about identify the Mini Cooper, Beetle, Porsche and Alfa Romeo, but the rest…  And if you are crazy about old cars then you may want to mark your diary – it’ll probably come through town again next year!

IMG_1037 IMG_1050 IMG_6897 IMG_1051 IMG_6911 IMG_6883 IMG_1068 IMG_1085 IMG_1072 IMG_6909 IMG_6870 IMG_1071 IMG_6862 IMG_1069 IMG_1093 IMG_1099 IMG_1100 IMG_1106 IMG_6932