Spice up your life

Last week it was time again to meet up with my friends for some more cooking and delicious food!  We met up in Caunes Minervois and the theme our friends had decided on was Indian food, to be precise Keralan.  And while I think of it – last year I wrote about the Open weekend at my friends nursery in Caunes Minervois   – so before I get sidetracked I wanted to let you know that this year’s open weekend will take place on June 1 and 2, 2013;  you can find details here; do visit if you are in the area!  The garden was already looking pretty good, and I’m sure you’ll find plenty to keep you interested.

End of digression – back to the food!  The choices for the menu had been made and it ran as follows: peanut salad, spicy prawns, spinach with coconut, fish baked in foil, vegetable sambar, rice, spicy pineapple.  The ingredients had all been prepared and soon we were all chopping, grinding, peeling, shredding and grating away, working on our recipes.  I’d elected to work on the spinach with coconut and the spicy pineapple. I was not entirely sure that I liked the idea of the spinach and coconut combination, but since we vowed to try new things I kept an open mind about it.  First catch your coconut, or in our case crack it open.  In the absence of a machete, we used a small axe and then the extracted flesh had to be peeled and grated, then ground to a smooth paste in a food processor with some chopped onion and garlic, and a little water. In one picture you see the paste along with some chopped green chili.  The sliced shallots and the halved chili pepper in the other picture are also for this dish.  The recipe comes from Madhur Jaffrey’s Flavours of India.

Once it came to cooking it was all very quick.  The shredded spinach was put in a large pan and put on gentle heat until wilted.  The coconut paste and chopped chili were then added in a well made in the middle of the spinach and allowed to steam for a little while.  In a separate pan we heated some oil and fried mustard seeds and rice until they started to pop, then added the sliced shallots, and cooked them to a golden colour.   The halved chili went in right at the end.  Then all was added to the spinach and mixed.  Of course since I was cooking I didn’t take pictures of the progress of that particular dish :-(.  But there are plenty of other photographs!

The spicy pineapple was good too – the pineapple was trimmed neatly, studded with cloves, then fried in a hot pan until golden all over.   It was roasted with a spiced syrup which had star anise, Szechuan peppercorns and cumin and had to be basted every five minutes – quite something!  It did have a gorgeous flavour though, and there were absolutely no leftovers 🙂

Here are pictures of the starters and main courses arranged on plates – very delicious!  Oh, and making chapatis was very easy and good fun!

A walk in the park

On a recent visit to Beziers I had some time to spare and decided to pay a brief visit the Plateau des Poetes, a park at the lower end of the Allees Paul Riquet. The park was created during the second half of the 19th century on a steep, wooded hill, and designed by the landscape architect Eugene Bühler in the English style on nearly 10 acres of land.  There are a few  theories as to origin of the park’s name, but the most likely is supported by the fact that the park is dotted with sculptures and busts of poets and writers born in Beziers.

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The first and rather striking sculpture I came across was one dedicated to the memory of Jean Moulin, who was a native of Beziers and a hero of the French resistance movement during the second world war.  The monument was designed by the sculptor Marcel Courbier, who was a friend of Jean Moulin, and who hailed from Nimes.

I’d come to check out the plantings of spring flowers – each year the Beziers municipality plants the most sumptuous displays – and I was not disappointed.  I was too late for the daffodils, but the rest more than made up for it.

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There are many sinuous paths around the park, snaking across the hillside and there is a lovely walk at the top of the hillside, which allows you some wonderful glimpses of the park and the man-made lake (complete with ducks!).

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One of the nice things is that it’s not all there for you to see at once, it needs a little bit of exploring!   The most dramatic feature of the park is the Titan fountain, sculpted by yet another Beziers native, Jean-Antoine Injalbert.  This sculpture is altogether 17 metres high, although if you approach it from the top you might not think it that grandiose.

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At the top is Atlas carrying the weight of the world – cast in bronze.  He’s resting on a stone base, representing Pan flanked by rearing horses.  If you look carefully at the first picture you can see the face and the horns.

The real drama of the sculpture is revealed as you take one of the paths down the hill and look at it from below.  There’s as much of it again, a base of rock which has water cascading or trickling over it into a basin at the foot.  When I was there all of it had been drained and was in the process of being cleaned.  I’m looking forward to the summer when the water is on again!

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The flower beds around the lower part of the fountain were just spectacular – lots of anemones in a riot of colours!  And here’s a closer look at Atlas, carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders!

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Injalbert also sculpted some smaller pieces, a little less dramatic, but very charming.  Here’s the centrepiece of another fountain in the Plateau des Poetes.

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And there’s lots more to see.  The wrought iron gates at the lower end of the park, opposite the railway station are spectacular, but I didn’t get that far.  It was time for me to get back to my car and head off.  I hope you enjoyed your walk with me – we can go for another before too long, if you like?

Dinner with friends

I went for a drive this week, on the D612 heading north out of St Chinian.  My destination? A small village in the Lauragais called Cuq-Toulza.  Google it, you’ll see that it’s very small, several dozen houses strung out along the N126, which runs from Castres via Puylaurens to just beyond Cuq-Toulza.  But if you look at the marker it is placed just outside the village, and sits atop of the hill where I was headed for:  Cuq-le-Chateau!  I’ve not verified this, but I would imagine that the original settlement was there, a small village built around the château and the church, at the top of the hill and easy to defend.  I had come to visit my friends Philippe and Andonis, who own and run Cuq en Terrasses, a small boutique hotel in the former 18th century presbytery.

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The building is one of those wonderful houses which doesn’t give everything away at first glance.  There it is, on the little square just across from the church, a lovely honey coloured two-storied house with white shutters.  Enter into the hall and you see a staircase going up to the first floor, but there are steps down too.

Philippe showed me up to the yellow room, which had just undergone a transformation with the addition of a new opening on one side, adding a dramatic view to this room.

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P1010911The whole of the first floor has exposed roof beams, showing the beautiful carpentry work from centuries gone by – especially impressive on the top floor landing!

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Once I was unpacked and settled I ventured downstairs – and here’s the surprise.  At the front door the building may only look two stories high, but because it’s built on a hillside, there are actually two more stories below, all with a fantastic view over the valley and hills all around!

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First a quick look into the salon, which runs the whole depth of the house from front to back, on the ground floor.  It’s ever so cozy and there are rows and rows of books and magazines to read, DVDs to watch and CDs to listen to.

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So downstairs, passing the “ZEN” landing where the calming tinkling of water is heard…

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… until two floors further down I reach the terrace and the restaurant.  You’ve already seen the view from the terrace and if you look at that picture again you can just see the corner of the conservatory, which was added the winter before last, to create a stunning dining room.  For some strange reason I don’t have a picture of the dining room, but i am sure you can find one on the hotel website.

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There was still time before dinner, so I enjoyed the lovely sunshine and explored the garden.  Gardening on a hillside can be difficult, but here the challenge has been superbly met and despite the fact that we’re only just coming out of winter there was lots of interest.

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On the lowest level to the left, in the furthest corner of the garden, is the potager and right next to it the hen-house.

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I counted six happy hens, two of each colour, and I got an inkling of what I might have for breakfast the following day :-)!!

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On my way back up to the dining room I saw more of those quirky details which make the place so very charming!

Philippe and Andonis had invited several friends for dinner, and I met up with one I’ve known for a very long time, and made new friends too.  It was a delightful evening, not least because of Andonis’ cooking.  We had superb food as the sun was setting:  a Roquefort flavoured pannacotta with home-grown walnuts, and an asparagus cream with Serrano ham for nibbles; followed by a wonderful salad of avocado, mango and prawns.

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For main course there was a delicious chicken dish – chicken breasts encased in Serrano ham and pastry, with a spinach filling, served with a morel sauce.  I’m salivating as I type, and I hope you don’t feel too hungry.

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We all decided that cheese would be too much, so moved straight onto dessert!  Creme brulee served with a tagine of pears and marzipan cigar.

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I loved that dessert, it had just the right combination of creamy, crunchy, sweet, and that marzipan cigar was just wonderful.  I was so lucky to get some seconds of that – thank you guys!!  I went to bed wonderfully replete after a great evening with very special people.

Guess what I had for breakfast the following morning??  A newly laid boiled egg, and yes, I am gloating :-)!  There’s nothing like a newly laid egg from real hens, the flavour and texture is incomparable!  And I sampled Andonis’ famous home-made orange marmalade, which is to die for!

After breakfast and more chats with our new friends, I had a look at the church just across from the hotel.

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Inside all the walls and ceilings are decorated with painted ornamentation and there are many statues. The blue ceiling is particularly unexpected, but apparently not atypical for the region.  The whole has a wonderfully serene feeling about it, somewhere to sit and pray or meditate or to just enjoy the peace and quiet.

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As with so many old buildings, costly repairs are needed to preserve what’s there, and an association has been formed which organises a series of concerts each summer, to pay for restoration projects.  Ask Philippe and Andonis for details!

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Thank you Philippe and Andonis for a wonderful stay, it’s a great privilege to count you among my friends!

If you are tempted to experience the magic and charms of Cuq en Terrasses yourselves do mention that your read about it on the midihideaways blog :-)!

Strange happenings in Perpignan?

The colourful town of Perpignan is worth a visit at any time of year, but if you are interested in real spectacle you have to visit just before Easter.

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Every year on Good Friday, a procession winds its way through the narrow streets of old Perpignan, to commemorate the passion of Christ.  The origins of the procession can be traced back to Saint Vincent Ferrier, a Dominican monk who lived between 1350 and 1419.  La Confrerie de la Sanch, the Fraternity of the Holy Blood, was founded in October 1416 at the Church of Saint-Jacques in Perpignan, with the aim of accompanying those condemned to death and their families before and after the execution, and at the same time commemorating the passion of Christ.

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Perpignan Cathedral

The participants of the procession are called penitents – the men wearing black robes with hats pointing to the sky, their faces completely masked, some of them barefoot or only wearing sandals.  The women wear black veils on their head and are dressed head to toe in black.  The procession is always led by the Regidor, a figure dressed in a red robe, carrying an iron bell, which is rung intermittently, followed by a group of drummers.  The solemnity of the procession as it approaches sent shivers down my spine.  In 1777 the authorities decided to confine the procession to the church grounds of the Saint-Jacques church, as it was deemed too baroque and Spanish.  The tradition of taking the procession through the streets of the old town was revived in 1950 and it’s been taking place ever since.

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Baroque is certainly a good term to describe the procession today, and the tradition is typically Catalan.   Other processions exist in Arles-sur-Tech and Collioure, where they are still being held at night.

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After the Regidor and the drummers comes a very large cross, carried upright by just one man, which is decorated with a great many symbols, which I imagine are instruments of the Passion of Christ, but I could not make sense of all of them.

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Reliquary of St Vincent Ferrier

The penitents carry the Misteri on their shoulders, which show scenes from the passion.  So there are all kinds of statues, which are brought from the churches and chapels of Perpignan and the surrounding villages, including one enormous cross, which had to be lowered every so often to pass below the power lines crossing the road.  The statues of the Virgin are dressed in black with mourning veils, some carrying the crown of thorns in outstretched hands, and all with strong expressions on their wooden faces.  The Misteri are heavy,  and the Penitents are doing this not for the spectators who line the streets, but for their faith.  At times I felt very much like an intruder taking photographs, and I did not shoot any videos (sorry!).

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The procession passes in silence; the penitents do not speak, and most of the bystanders watch in awed silence.  The only noise comes from a PA system, where someone is explaining the origins of the Sanch and reading what sounded to me sacred texts, some in Occitan. The PA system is also playing the Goigs, the traditional Catalan Easter songs.  I would have preferred for there not to be any of that, for me it didn’t add to the atmosphere.

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The start is a 3pm in Rue de l’Eglise Saint-Jacques, and the procession returns there at 6pm.  In between there are four stops to give those carrying the Misteri a break.   When there is a break, even a short one during the walk, each one of the bearers has a stick on which to rest the handles of their heavy load.  Some of those sticks look like they’ve been used for a very long time.

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So there I stood, awed by the whole thing, watching it go by, taking photographs of all the Misteri.  There had been a little wait before the procession arrived, and just across the street from where I stood was this rather fun sign, so here it is to lighten the mood 🙂

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There are many Misteri in the procession and many photographs, so I thought I would try and insert a slide show for you.

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So if you ever are in the area around Easter, I would urge you to visit Perpignan on Good Friday, even if the weather does not look too good.  The procession will not leave you indifferent, and neither will the town of Perpignan!