Sunshine after rain

This week I had planned to write about the international kayaking competition that was to be held in Reals this past weekend.  It didn’t happen.  What happened was lots of rain on Saturday and the river swelled and swirled and turned into a raging torrent.  So for safety’s sake the event was cancelled.  I did go on Sunday morning, and there were a few crazy guys in their kayaks going over the biggest of roaring rapids, having fun.  Just a short ride and out they came again and walked 100 yards upstream to do it again.  A bit like children on a slide 🙂

riverpic

The trees on the left are usually not in the water, by the way!

But fear not, the rain subsided as the weekend ended, and all around St Chinian shone lovely and bright.  And so I thought I would take you on a springtime walk, and perhaps we’ll go for dinner afterwards?  Imagine the birds starting to sing, the way they do, tentatively, when spring starts.  And with all the rain we’ve had, the wildflowers are out in profusion!

PICT4167

Here is a bee on what I think is a dead nettle – great bee-food in early spring!

PICT4159

PICT4165

Unfortunately I do not know the names of the two other plants – weeds to some and wildflowers to others.  Somewhere I read that a weed is just a plant growing in the wrong place.  Well then, I have lots of plants in the wrong place in my potager! 🙂

PICT2190

A little further along is this blowsy blossom – a nectarine tree, flowering its heart out!

IMG_1753

Daffodils are called “Osterglocken” – Easter Bells in German – very apt as they generally flower around Easter.

IMG_1771

And there are a few tulips out already too….

Dinner tonight is at Restaurant de l’Orb in Cessenon sur Orb.  The restaurant changed hands about 18 months ago, and is now run by Stephane, the French chef, and Patricia, his lovely Belgian wife, who looks after guests in the dining room.  The welcome will be warm, as it has been on previous occasions, and the service will be attentive.  Stephane changes his menu on a regular basis, so we might not be able to have what I photographed the last time…  A few things are firm favourites with the guests, so they generally stay on the menu throughout the year;  the pate is one of those favourites and it’s delicious.  Be sure to have had a light lunch if you’re going!

IMG_5028

There were two other starters last time – a mouse of prawns served hot, and the other was leeks in a creamy sauce on puff pastry.

IMG_5027

IMG_5029

They also do a wicked version of a Croque Monsieur with foie gras and morels, not pictured, just to pique your interest…  My main course was scallops and prawns with a very delicate sauce.

IMG_5031

Then there were the other main courses – filet of beef with a tarragon sauce, and filet of salmon with a savoury sabayon.  And look at the vegetables, almost too good to eat!

IMG_5032

IMG_5033

IMG_5035

Ready for your dessert?  You can play it safe and go for ice cream or sorbets; they are very good and always nicely presented.  Or if you still have room (trust me, you’ll find room for the desserts!) you can go for something like the chestnut mousse filled crepe, or the crunchy apple pudding/muffin.  Bonne degustation!!

IMG_5036

IMG_5037

IMG_5039

Hope you all have a great Easter weekend!

Occitan Carnival

Last Saturday the 29th Occitan Carnival took place in Beziers.  I was curious, so despite the weather forecast I decided to give it a go, and I hope you’ll be glad I did!

IMG_5749

The carnival procession was due to leave from Place de la Madeleine at 2pm, so I thought I’d get there a little earlier to check out what was going on.  First thing I noticed when I parked, was that there were a lot of people on the Allees Paul Riquet and they looked as though they were part of the carnival.  Yes they were, but the carnival was still starting on Place de la Madeleine and then meeting up with them.  OK, so I snapped a few pictures for you – of the Animaux Totemique, the totem animals of various towns near Beziers.

P1010503First off La Tortue de Lignan – the Turtle from Lignan sur Orb

P1010504

Then Le Cerf de Servian – the Stag from Servian

P1010505

The dragon seemed to be carrying King Carnival, I don’t think he belonged to the totem animal species.

P1010507

This is the head of Le Poulain de Pezenas and I’m stumped to translate Poulain

P1010508

Here we have L’Herrisson de Roujan – the hedgehog of Roujan,

IMG_5732

and finally Le Pelican de Puisserguier.  All these strange creatures are linked by legend to their town or village, and I’ve not yet had a chance to do much research into all those.  Totem animals have been part of the Occitan culture for centuries, and usually play a role in all the festivals of their hometown.

So on I went to the Place de la Madeleine in search of Beziers’ own totem animal Le Chameau de Beziers – the camel.  And sure enough it was there, surrounded by a group of participants, who looked like they were being briefed by the man in the multicoloured coat.

IMG_5761

And then I spied yet another camel…

IMG_5764

As more and more people arrived, so did the band which was responsible for the “warm-up”, and they did a pretty good job keeping everyone entertained!  Here’s a little video clip.

IMG_5785

IMG_5799

P1010518

And then they were off, the camel leading the procession through the roads of Beziers, to Place Jean Jaurres, to join the other totem animals waiting for them.

IMG_5803

P1010514

On the Allees Paul Riquet the atmosphere was great, with lots of children and their parents dressed up in costume.  The carnival is organised by the Calandretas, the Occitan schools of Beziers and their parent-teacher associations.  I loved the look of those two selling confetti!

IMG_5812

After a little while the procession started in earnest up the Allees, led of course by the camel!

IMG_5814

IMG_5816

You might just be able to see it, there is a real live camel on the very left….  All the animals were followed by a band and groups of children, whose costume reflected the totem animal they were following.  After the camel came the turtle with the lovely eyes!

IMG_5823

and then the pelican from Puisserguier.  He was a bit wild, swaying from side to side and  trying to fly off!!

IMG_5839

IMG_5837

IMG_5838

And most of the children accompanying the procession had bags of confetti, which were liberally thrown in every direction.  Some seasoned carnival spectators had come prepared to ward off unwelcome confetti 🙂

IMG_5829

But it was all very good-humoured, even though I got a bit of dusting of flour by some passing children, who had “cleverly” mixed their confetti with flour.

IMG_5841

IMG_5843

The stag from Servian was followed by the drum band we had seen earlier, and then came the Poulain from Pezenas.  This is one of the more famous totem animals in the area, and it did have “star power”, dancing, swinging and running all over the place!

IMG_5847

IMG_5851

IMG_5852

After the Poulain came a group of beautifully dressed dancing-girls – they did have a slightly scary look, but had put a lot of effort into their act!

IMG_5859

P1010547

There were a good number of people on stilts, and I didn’t see one of them tripping over!!

P1010552

Somehow we missed the hedgehog, perhaps because he was so small, but there were various other animal costumes, frogs, snails and wait, is that a cow or a bull?

IMG_5871

P1010556

P1010559

Outside the theatre the whole procession came to a stop, to pick up the dragon carrying King Carnival, and that’s where I got a good look at the real camel!

IMG_5874

IMG_5876

IMG_5880Great wig!!  King Carnival was taken with the procession on to Place du 14 Juillet, where the children would be sitting in judgement, and of course he would be condemned to be burned on the spot.  Out with the old, in with the new – a good old pagan springtime  festival, tolerated by the catholic church over time…

P1010588

One last gold hat, and the confetti, and we’re done with Carnival for another year!

P1010562

Almost springtime

Spring is very much on the way in Languedoc – the almond trees have been blooming for some time now, and I just had to share the wonderful flowers with you!

PICT4136

And what better way of celebrating spring than to cook some wonderful food with good friends.  We got together once more in Narbonne, this time to try our hand at tapas, fish baked in salt, and key lime pie.  As before we started our food-fest with a trip to Narbonne market halls.  The selection there is just too wonderful, and great discipline is required not to come away with far more than one needs!

IMG_5562

IMG_5564

The sepions are tiny squid and we got some for the tapas.  The fish came from the stall just around the corner.  We decided that we needed two and ended up with around 3kg of seabream for the seven of us – too much??

IMG_5565

One of my favourite stalls is to one side and stocks a selection of wonderful dried hams and other Spanish charcuterie.  The hand-cranked machine is used to cut beautifully fine slices of dried ham, and it’s fascinating to watch the ham falling like silk ribbons onto the waiting paper.  We got some for our tapas, and I bought some more to take home for later in the week.  After a few more stops for creme fraiche, bread and a few vegetables we headed back to the ranch again, weighed down with bags.

As so often I got too stuck into the cooking and as a consequence did not take nearly enough photographs.  I promise to try harder next time!! 🙂

IMG_5566

The recipe we used for the fish came from Jamie Oliver;  I’ve included a link to it here.  The salt mix contained lemon zest and fennel seeds, along with egg and a little water.  So here are the two seabream,  already stuffed with parsley and basil, on a bed of salt.  The fishmonger had gutted the fish for us, and explained that one of them had the roe inside, so he’d emptied them both via the gills instead of cutting the belly open.  Soon they were covered with the remaining salt mix and set aside while we prepared the rest of our feast.

IMG_5569

Our tapas selection included some stuffed cherry bomb peppers, bought at the market, tomato toasts (slices of toasted french bread, rubbed with a garlic clove and half a tomato and drizzled with a tiny bit of olive oil), serrano ham, and baby squid.  Have you ever prepared squid?  Well, I hadn’t either!!  There’s a kind of hard, bone like plate inside the soft body, which needs to be removed and the tentacles need to be pulled off the body, which needed to be emptied and cleaned.  Messy work!  the “beak”, the squids mouth, needs to be cut off the tentacles along with the eyes.  Eventually I got them all done, and after rinsing the larger bodies were cut into pieces.  The squid were cooked very briefly with some olive oil, garlic, lemon juice and parsley.  There must have been some ink left as they turned black-ish (no, not burnt!!), and they did taste delicious.

IMG_5574

For dessert there was key lime pie.  Well almost, as the limes came from Mexico instead of Florida, but that was good enough.  The recipe we used comes from this website.  We’d initially planned to make two different versions, one which was to be baked and the other which sets without baking.  In the end we made two different types of crust but only made one filling, which turned out to be more than enough.

IMG_5572

Making the filling is very simple, the lime peel is grated into a bowl, the limes are then juiced and the condensed milk and creme fraiche mixed with the remaining ingredients – it does thicken magically as the recipe says!  Poured into the prepared crust and chilled for a couple of hours, then decorated.  We decided that the creme fraiche to decorate/serve would have been overkill.

IMG_5584

IMG_5582

Look at those beauties!!  They did taste every bit as good as they looked and we did eat them both!

Now back to the fish:  Jamie’s recipe says “Pre-heat the oven to full whack” and to cook the fish for 15 minutes.  I do like his ideas but I intensely dislike sloppy instructions like that – every oven is different and “full whack” just doesn’t do it for me.  The fish monger in the market hall had told us to cook the fish at 180 degrees for 40 – 45 minutes and that’s what we did.  It turned out absolutely perfect, juicy and tender.  I found that the fennel seeds and lemon zest in the salt mixture added no flavour whatsoever, so I would skip that next time.  Interestingly enough, the fact that we had left the fish to stand for about 45 minutes meant that the salt had had a chance to penetrate the flesh of the fish.

We did attempt Jamie’s recipe for aioli, which promptly split, despite following instructions.  So we started again using an egg yolk as the base and added the split mixture slowly, resulting in a very delicious aioli, which went very well with the fish.

We also opted to make a different salad to go with the fish, with endives and citrus fruit, to counterbalance the richness of fish and aioli.  All in all a wonderful meal, and everyone agreed that they would be happy to cook the fish in a salt crust again. Do give it a try, and let me know what you think!

And here is one last picture of the almond blossom for you…

PICT4121

Three little piggies…..

What a difference a week makes!  As I am writing this (Sunday March 3) the weather couldn’t be more different to what I experienced last Sunday in St Pons!  An arctic wind, blasting the falling snow horizontally at the Fete du Cochon, chilling me to the bone.  I’d decided to go come what may, so that I could write about it, and I’m very glad “you” made me go :-)!

poster

The fete has been going for some 20 years, and this year the organisers had wisely commandeered the covered bouledrome for the market and the show.   It had been billed as a pig fest and truffle market, and it lived up to both.  I’ll spare you the truffles, you’ve already read about them no doubt.  Suffice it to say that there were a good number of producers, selling some wonderful truffles, and that I bought another one, this time to have with scrambled eggs, and very delicious they were too!

P1010425

As I got to the bouledrome a sheep dog show was underway.  It really was amazing to watch the dogs herd the ducks and geese, especially the ducks.

P1010407

P1010413

P1010412

IMG_5629

I met up with some friends from St Chinian and we decided that we would see if there were any tickets for the big communal meal in the Salle des Fetes next door.  Usually it is completely sold out in advance, but that day was our lucky day and we got four seats.  The food here is always cooked the old-fashioned way, in big cauldrons set over a blazing fire. That alone is worth the visit!

IMG_5636

IMG_5635

IMG_5707

IMG_5632

Just across from where the cook-house was set up, a whole row of shops had been created with printed canvas – great job.  And there were volunteers showing how to make sausages and bougnettes!  They really deserved a medal for braving the cold!

IMG_5709

IMG_5702

IMG_5705

IMG_5703

We traded the cold for the relative warmth of the Salle des Fetes and found our alloted seats – there were probably about 300 other patrons in the hall with us – and sat down to be entertained for the aperitif by a local band.

P1010440

P1010444

P1010446

The tables had all been set beautifully, and judging by the plate we figured there would be some kind of soup for starters.

P1010450

And we were right!!  After a brief introduction and welcome by one of the organisers, an army of young helpers arrived with cauldrons and ladles to serve the first course – a beautiful vegetable soup.

IMG_5640

IMG_5642

Then came a brief interlude, while the bougnettes were prepared.  The bougnettes are a speciality of the bougnette triangle, which is formed by the towns of Mazamet, Lacaune and at the southern tip by St Pons of course.  It is a kind of large dumpling, made from stale bread, pork, eggs and seasonings.  The pork is meat from the neck and head, which is simmered in stock and when tender the meat is picked off any bones.  The bread is cut into cubes, moistened with some of the seasoned broth, the egg and meat added, and well seasoned.  Balls are formed and wrapped in caul fat, and they are then slowly simmered in fat.  A bougnette is cut into slices and either eaten cold or the slices fried or grilled and eaten hot.  Either way it’s delicious – you can buy them at Boucherie Peyras in St Chinian. In honour of the bougnette the brotherhood formed to promote this delicacy, had prepared a song-and dance routine.  I took a video of it for your enjoyment:

IMG_5643

IMG_5647

The bougnettes were delicious and again served by a small army of helpers.  By this time some of the other helpers had come by to replenish the bottles of wine and water on the table, and so we waited for our main course.  I’d seen the hams being grilled outside, so knew what was coming.  When our compere told us there would be a little wait he offered to sing a few songs for us!  And he did sing them very well.  Before we knew it the next course was being served.  The cauldrons came out once more, this time filled with a wonderful bean stew.  Almost like cassoulet but without the meat, and I’m sure that the flavour owed some to a liberal use of garlic.

IMG_5649

The roast pork came along a little later, and because I was so busy with the beans I didn’t get a picture of it – sorry!  But then you’ll probably know what roast pork looks like, and you wouldn’t be able to smell the flavour – unfortunately!  There was just a hint of smokiness and the meat was juicy and tender.  There were seconds of both beans and pork for those who felt the need 🙂

And so on to dessert, which was rather simple and just as well really!  Oreillettes were really rather apt, being that it means ear and that the colour is not unlike a pig’s ear.  But they are made of pastry, deep-fried and sprinkled with sugar.  When they are well made, as they were in this case, they are light, crunchy and not at all greasy.  Ours were flavoured with orange flower water – yummy!!

P1010429

Once we’d had our coffee we headed back to the bouledrome, where the afternoon’s entertainment was about to begin.  But first there was the piglet race:  four cute looking piglets, each with a different colored ribbon round its belly were put into a ring made of straw bales.  Somehow, the piglets were then motivated to go around the course – I couldn’t quite figure out how – and then the order of the colours was announced.  I’d missed the bit where I could have bought a ticket or a betting slip, but a lot of people were there checking theirs to see if they had won!

IMG_5651

The piglet race over, the next spectacle was set up right away.  It was a re-enactment of the day the pig was killed in the olden days, by the Compagnie de la Source, a local amateur dramatics society.  The backdrop had been installed already and the scene was set very quickly, and so the play took its course.  From the farmer having breakfast with his helpers, to the arrival of the postman, then the farmer finding that the pig has gone missing, to the neighbour telling him that it’s eating his crops.  Then the priest comes along, having heard that someone has died, and so it went.  They did a pretty convincing job of wrestling with the pig, which was of course already dead. I heard from our friends that they carried on for some time, cutting it all up, but by then I had left – the cold was getting to me.

If you’re of a squeamish disposition don’t scroll all the way down!

IMG_5657

IMG_5660

IMG_5662

IMG_5666

IMG_5671

IMG_5673

IMG_5674

Please don’t scroll past this picture if you are squeamish.

IMG_5712

IMG_5682

IMG_5687

IMG_5690

IMG_5692

IMG_5698

Oranges and Lemons

You wouldn’t really know from looking at these photographs, but the weather last Saturday was particularly cold and windy.  I braved it to go to La Caunette for the Fete de la Bigarade, an annual event which always happens towards the end of February.P1010375

The Fete de la Bigarade takes place over two days, and for me there are always plenty of reasons to go:  Pepinieres Baches from Eus have a huge stand selling all kinds of wonderful citrus trees AND Seville oranges for making marmalade.

P1010391

This year I treated myself to a Kaffir Lime tree, whose wonderfully fragrant fruit and leaves are a “must have” ingredient for a Thai green curry.  Try it if you can get some fresh leaves!  There are so many different citrus trees and it’s all very tempting, especially when they have all the various citrus fruits laid out for inspection.

P1010398

P1010390

P1010380

P1010382

P1010388

There certainly is variety, and if I had more space in the garden and perhaps a greenhouse I would try some of the more tender varieties.  As it is I will have to make sure that I bring the Kaffir Lime tree inside before the first frost.  Another reason to go to this fete is that there are lots of other interesting plants, many of them from specialist nurseries, which come from far and wide.

IMG_5612

IMG_1314

IMG_5613

IMG_1319

A lot of these plants are hardier than we imagine, and tolerate frost pretty well.

P1010372

P1010373

P1010379

I was very intrigued by the aloes, but could not think where I would put them without giving up something else in my garden.  Several of the exhibitors had their stands outdoors, among them my friend Gill from La Petite Pepiniere de Caunes, where I can always find something interesting – another reason for the visit.  Other exhibitors are located in one of the tents – Valerie Tubau from Le Jardin de Valerie in Agel was one of the lucky ones.  She was selling her new range of marmalade along with her regular preserves and jellies.  Her lemon marmalade is sensational and you can find her at St Chinian market every Sunday!

IMG_5607

IMG_5617

IMG_7015

This Clivia was found in another tent – I love the flowers but have not been very lucky growing this plant. Close by was a stand selling nothing but mimosas, and at another stand I found the beautiful Equisetum.  In the tent next door was a stand by Boulangerie Patisserie Claude Coussy from St Marcel sur Aude – they had some delicious crunchy cookies, which were orange flavoured.

IMG_1309

The fete takes place in and around the village hall in La Caunette, and in the hall there were several more stands, including a wonderfully colourful display of orchids,

IMG_5601

a stand selling all things saffron (Daniel Cazanave from Soual in the Tarn), among them this wonderful looking saffron syrup,

IMG_5602

and then there was chocolate!!  Emmanuel Servant of Douceurs d’Oc had brought along some great things.  Emmanuel is based in Marseillan (home of Noilly Prat – that’ll be in another post some time!) and produces wonderful hand-made chocolates.  He had some gorgeous looking (and tasting) chocolates involving oranges!

IMG_5590

IMG_5589

IMG_5600

IMG_5596

And the pistachio cakes were great too!  Of course I also  came away with a bag of Seville oranges, which I’ll use to make a Seville orange tart, and my take on key lime pie, using Seville oranges instead of the limes.  No marmalade this year!  Oh, and somewhere I have a recipe for a Seville orange rice brulee, which is divine!  I can just see that this could be devastating to the waistline 🙂

This year I gave the lunchtime meal in the village hall a miss – it’s usually good fun and the menu looked great, but I’d arranged to see friends in La Caunette for lunch, so perhaps another year?