Pass the salt please!

There’s salt and then there’s sea salt – one of the many things I learnt on a recent visit to the Salin de l’Ile Saint-Martin in Gruissan.  The salin is located west of the old town, on a site that stretches over 360  hectares – add four zeros to that and you get 3.6 million square meters, and that’s over five hundred football fields!!  And if you think that’s large, the salin in Gruissan is the smallest on the mediterranean coast!  The largest one is at Salin de Giraud, and is over ten times the size.

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Our guide welcomed us to the Salin de l’Ile Saint-Martin and asked us to switch our mobile phones to silent – a good start I thought, shows that this lady is serious!  Our visit began with some vocabulary.  A salin is the place where sea salt is produced by evaporation in the south of France.  A marais salant also produces sea salt but along the French Atlantic coast.  A saline is a salt mine where rock salt is produced.  That out of the way we moved on to another term: a saunier is the man responsible for a salin and to become worthy of the name, you have to have at least 10 years of experience.  The saunier usually works on his own for most of year, with extra staff drafted in only during the harvest in August.

The saunier’s work starts in February, when he starts to pump sea water  into the largest basin, the salin being above sea level.  The water is captured 170 metres from the shore, to avoid any pollution.  After a few days in the first basin, the water commences its long journey through a further 99 basins. To start with, the sea-water contains 26g of sodium chloride per litre (NaCl), along with several other salts (magnesium, calcium, sulfur and potassium).  The saunier’s job is to ensure that the end product is pure sodium chloride and he achieves that by progressive evaporation, moving the water from one basin to another, on the way covering 100km.  When the water reaches the last basin, the concentration of sodium chloride has reached 260g per litre, and some of the other salts will have crystallised out along the way.  At that point the saunier lets the brine flow into the crystallisation basins, the last stop on the way to becoming sea salt.  This is where the magic happens – as more water evaporates the sodium chloride starts to crystallise on the bottom of the basins, forming a layer of sea salt crystals, which can be up to 15cm thick in a good year.  The crystallisation basins have a beautiful purple pink hue to them – we had to wait right until the end of our visit for our guide to explain the reason: of all life forms only one species of algae can survive in what is deemed a sterile liquid.  The colour comes from beta carotene contained in the algae and as soon as the salt is harvested it starts to disintegrate and disappears.

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At various times during the season the saunier harvests what is called fleur de sel.  This is a very fine salt, which crystallizes spontaneously on the surface of the brine in the crystallisation basin.  It has to be skimmed carefully whenever it appears as it will sink to the bottom during the day.  The resulting salt flakes are of course more expensive than regular sea salt.

The harvest of the sea salt takes place in August.  When the saunier decides the moment has come he will drain one crystallisation basin at a time, the water draining away any other salts still in suspension, leaving behind the pure sodium chloride.  Harvesting can be performed two ways: either by hand with flat shovels, or by machine – the end result is the same, a big mountain of sea salt, which is then processed further.

Before the end of our walk our guide told us to put our hands into one of the crystallisation basins and to take out some salt crystals.  It looked as though that would be very easy – just scoop some out – but to my surprise it was more or less impossible to dislodge anything!  Luckily one of the members of our small group had his trusted pocket knife and prised out a few lumps!  In the brine the sodium chloride crystals are translucent;  it is only on contact with the air that they become opaque and white.

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Our guide advised that we should have two kinds of salt for cooking – regular coarse sea salt (gros sel), which is added during the cooking process,  to allow the water to dissolve the strong bond between the Na and Cl ions, and fleur de sel, which is sprinkled over food at the end of cooking (think of a grilled steak :-)) or used in salads, because the bond between Na and Cl is not as strong and dissolves more readily.  Finely milled sea salt still has a very strong bond between the ions and will not dissolve readily, so she thought it was a waste of time to use that at the table.  Another useful piece of advice was to check the labelling on any packet of salt.  A lot of table salt has fillers, which can be anticoagulant agents, and other salts, which do not have a salty taste (only sodium chloride tastes of salt!).  With pure sea salt you are getting what you’re buying, and the coarse salt is not very expensive.

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On our way back to the starting point, we were asked to think of uses for sea salt.  All of us came up with gritting and use in food, but nobody had any idea that there are around 14,000 uses for sodium chloride!!  Staggering for sure.   It is used in a wide variety of chemical processes (no PVC without it), in the cosmetic industry, food preservation etc, etc.

Life on this planet would not be possible without salt, as all animal life requires sodium chloride for the cells to function. Next time you use sea salt, take a moment to think of all the work that’s gone into it.

On the way out (or on the way in) you’ll see a few other buildings, which have been converted to new uses.  One houses the salt museum and shop, where you can buy the locally produced sea salt and fleur de sel along with a number of other local products (wine and cookies/sweets).  Closest to the salin is the restaurant, where you can eat fish baked in salt crust, along with locally produced oysters and other delicious food.  Oysters are also available to be taken away.  The last building open to the public contains an art gallery, which houses regularly changing exhibitions of work by local artists.

For more information visit the website of the Salin de l’Ile Saint-Martin. To rent a holiday villa with a view of the salin visit www.midihideaways.com/clos

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Milling around..

Last weekend was the European Mills Weekend.  Each year the whole of Europe celebrates its milling heritage on the third weekend of May, with demonstrations of the millers craft, and buildings being opened to the public which are often not accessible for the rest of the year.  Once upon a time there were lots of mills in Languedoc; St Chinian alone had in excess of 10 water powered wheels and one windmill.  I visited Roquebrun on the Sunday, and the St Chinian windmill on the Monday, and since I don’t want to make this post overly long I will split it into two.

I’ll start in chronological order with Roquebrun.  Until 1870, when the bridge across the Orb was completed, Roquebrun was somewhat cut off from the rest of the plain by the river.  On the carte de l’etat major a map from between 1820 – 1866 the road to Beziers led via Causses et Veyran and it was probably no more than a track.  There was a ferryman at Roquebrun, so that the arable land on the other side of the river could be accessed, but that was it.  The village was more or less self-sufficient, and the mills played an important role.

The first mill I visited was an oil mill, which was in operation until the 1920s.  Waterpower was provided by the stream from Laurenque, and the mill consisted of a crushing mill to reduce the olives to pulp, and a press to extract the oil.  In the 1920s the oil mill transferred to a location on the edge of village, now the site of the cooperative winery.  In the old days every possible spot of land was cultivated, and olive trees provided families with their supply of oil for the year.

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Across from the oil mill stand the other two mills: on the edge of the river is the grain mill, which ground the locally grown cereals into flour or cattle feed. The inside of the mill can be visited, and usually houses exhibitions of local artists.

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At the entrance level there is a reproduction mill,  and on the next floor the beautiful roof timbers are visible.  The wheel room can be accessed from the outside, and the entrance to the mill-race is still visible from the banks. The old mill stone is now outside, propped up against a wall.

Next over and now surrounded by water is the moulin a genet, a mill which was used to process plant fibre extracted from the spanish broom which grows abundantly on the hillsides.  At one point this mill could be reached on foot, but a change in the river bed on the opposite side has meant that there is now water all round it.  In case you are wondering, the round structure atop of the building was a pigeonnier, providing meat for the table.  The broom fibre was used to make sheets and sacking and produced a somewhat coarse fabric.  A lot of houses had their own looms, and the open loggias at the top of a number buildings indicate that this is where the drying of the fibres and weaving was carried out.

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The mills look a little like stranded ships, the pointed bows have helped them withstand the floodwaters of the Orb river for centuries.  The dam which fed both mills used to be made with bunches of twigs, and was replaced in the 1960s with a new dam made of concrete.  It’s due for a major refurbishment shortly.  Both of the water mills fell into disuse at the end of 19th century, when the villagers no longer relied on self-sufficiency.

As part of the mill weekend in Roquebrun a guided visit of the Jardins de Limpach was on the program.  We were met by the president of the association Patrimoine et mémoire de nostre pais, which researches and promotes the history and heritage of the village.  Our visit started just a few yards down from the mills, and took us along the Laurenque stream, to the site of the first gardens in Roquebrun.  This area of France was occupied by the Moors from the 4th to 7th centuries, and the Moors brought with them a certain amount of know how where irrigation was concerned.  The water was captured in a canal further up the valley, and each garden along the valley had a beal, a channel made of stones, which in turn filled up a basin called a tane.  From the tane the water was distributed on to the ground with the aid of a large and slightly curved paddle, more of a large soup spoon perhaps.

Other systems existed to get water into the gardens, where the ground was too high to be fed by the stream.  Along the valley are cisterns, into which the water would flow.

Some of them are barely visible, but others still seem to be in good repair and use.  To get the water out of the cisterns there were various methods.  One was something called chaine a godet, literally translated as a bucket chain, which was hand-cranked.  For larger amounts of water there was also the noria, which worked on a similar principle as the chaine a godet, but was operated by a donkey.

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But the most common and probably least expensive was the chadouff (or shadoof), which is called pousalanque in Occitan and which involved a stone pillar, a slender tree trunk, some stones and a bucket.  Examples of this can be seen today in India, Egypt and elsewhere.  There are many stone pillars left in the jardins de Limpach but only one which is more or less working at the end of the walk.

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The bucket hangs on a chain, and is lowered into the water by pulling the chain downwards to lower the arm.  The counterweight at the end of the arm helps pull the full bucket up without much effort, and the water is then emptied into a channel, which spills into a tane, from where it is splashed ont the surrounding crops.  At the top of the valley there was also the fontaine intermittante – a spring which overflows at certain times.  In the days before running water, the women of the village used to come here with their pitchers to get water and no doubt have a chat.  Later the water was pumped up to a reservoir at the top of the hill, from where it fed a number of fountains.

I followed the path the women would have taken for centuries, and it looked as might have when they did.  I couldn’t resist the Iris which were flowering along the way.

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Looking into some fo the gardens there are series of stone pillars, some of them connected by iron hoops.  According to our guide, the first orange trees were planted in this valley, and the structures were orangeries, which could be covered in winter to protect against frost.

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After that interesting visit I went for a little walk around Roquebrun, there’s a lot more to see and of course there is the jardin mediterranean to visit at the top of the hill, but that’s for another blog.

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Now for two last pictures!  The giant asparagus is the beginning of an agave flower stalk, and the pale blue patch in the distance is a field of blue iris.

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Sparkling all over

Earlier in the year I visited Limoux to experience the famous carnival.  But Limoux is a town worth a visit at any time of year. The reason?  A great drive, some wonderful architecture, AND sparkling wine!  Legend has it that sparkling wine originated from the Abbey of Saint-Hilaire near Limoux and a first recorded mention of sparkling wine dates from 1531.  The legend goes on to say that towards the end of the 16th century Dom Perignon stopped by the Abbey of Saint-Hilaire on a pilgrimage, and found out the secret of how to get the bubbles into the bottle, which he then applied to the wines in Champagne on his return there.

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Strawberry Hill Vineyards in Gloucestershire, England has it on their site that an Englishman called Christoper Merrett was the inventor of the process as he published a paper on it in 1662.  Wikipedia says that an Italian Doctor called Francesco Scacchi first wrote about the production of sparkling wine, and that Dom Perignon’s mission at his abbey in Hautevillers was to prevent the bubbles from forming in the wine. The more I read the more confusing it all gets – one of the problems with the internet of course…

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But I digress.  Limoux is along the banks of the river Aude, with the larger and perhaps older part on the west bank.  At the top of Rue Jean Jaures, where you enter the old town proper, are gate piers, nicely reminding me of the fortified walls which would have been here at one point.  As you walk down this road towards Place de la Republique you pass some beautiful facades such as this one.

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This house must be ancient,yet the carvings are still crisp in most places.  There was also a great shop window, and I have a feeling that they probably keep it going for some time!

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The people in Limoux really live their Carnival, and work on it year round!  Place de la Republique has arcades around three sides, which you can see in my Carnival post.  Just a few steps from there is a church, which has been made over many times, but I found some interesting stone carvings in one of the side porches.

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I wonder how long these guys have been there?

Walking through the narrow streets turned up a fair few interesting things.  I guess the imprisoned door knocker was to stop kids from playing with it?  Those iron grilles with the stylised cockerels are just amazing and I couldn’t pass by all those door knockers without taking a picture :-).

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Recognize that house?  Have a look at the second picture in this post, this is the reverse of the sign.  Widow Tailhan on one side and Tournie and sons on the other – I wonder if they were related?  After the walk I headed for the east bank of the river and to Maison Guinot – the oldest Blanquette house in Limoux, established in 1875.  I first came across this producer back in 1998, when I bought their Blanquette for a birthday party, and I’ve been back a good few times since.  If you want to find out more about the technicalities of what goes into Blanquette there are good articles on Wikipedia in English and French, the latter being the more exhaustive of the two.

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The tasting room at Guinot is packed with cases of different Blanquettes, and the tasting is pretty interesting, the range is definitely worth a try, and I’m sure you’ll be able to find space for a bottle or maybe even a case or two.  The website for Guinot has some lovely pictures from the cellars, and also information on their products.  Sorry we can’t do virtual tastings over the net yet!  The guided visits are by appointment only, but they do look pretty interesting – next time perhaps…

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Of course alcohol should be consumed in moderation, and please don’t drink and drive!

Remembrance and flowers

On May 8 sixty-eight years ago the guns in Europe fell silent and the second world war came to an end.  France celebrates VE day as a public holiday, and each village holds a ceremony of remembrance.  Saint-Chinian is no exception and at 10.30 on the dot the procession of flags made its way through the gardens in front of the Mairie.  Following closely behind were the members of the town council, delegations of the Sapeurs Pompiers and the police, and the war veterans.

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Everyone lined up around the war memorial in the gardens, and flowers were laid to remember those killed in the wars.

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Of course the local brass band was there too!

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To start with the mayor thanked everyone for being there, and then asked all to observe a minute’s silence.  The president of the veterans association then read a letter from the Minister for war veterans, and after that the mayor spoke.   One of the points in his speech was that De Gaulle and Adenauer signed the French-German friendship agreement 50 years ago this year.  Europe has never known a period this long without any wars, and long may that continue.

To round off this post, I wanted to share some flowers which have been blooming in my garden recently.  This year the wisteria was a waterfall of blooms and simply magnificent!

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The California poppies have gone wild and popped up absolutely everywhere, creating wonderful splashes of colour.

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The comfrey is planted under one of the roses, and seems to thrive in the semi-shade.

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This exotic looking flower is probably a weed and will spread all over the garden if I don’t manage the seed heads 🙂 – does anyone know the name?

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The pelargonium is another early bloomer and despite being chopped back quite severely it has been flowering for a couple of weeks now.

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The next one is not a flower but a praying mantis (I think so anyhow).  I had a hell of a time getting a shot of this beastie, discovered while I was weeding the roses, and I hope you’ll be able to see what so fascinated me.  The back-end of it looked so very much like a stem bursting into leaf – very clever.  I’m glad I got the pictures I did, as the mantis had vanished the next time I looked, never to be seen again.  From what I’ve found on the net, it could be a juvenile Mantis Empusa fasciata or Empusa pennata – but don’t quote me on that :-)!

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And finally, here are some flowers not found in my garden, but on a recent walk!  Wild tulips, growing in a meadow.  A sight to gladden the heart!

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Saints and Camels

I wrote in a previous post that Beziers had a camel (or more accurately a dromedary) as its totem animal.  So, how did the camel arrive in Beziers?  Apparently with Saint Aphrodise, Beziers’ first bishop. The legend has it that Aphrodise was from Heliopolis and met the holy family on their flight to Egypt.  He converted to Christianity after the crucifixion of Christ and decided to spread the gospel in Roman Gaul. His mode of transport?  Not Ryanair, but the camel, perhaps the Ryanair of its time?

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He settled in Beziers, where he was eventually condemned to death by the governor for his overzealous proselytising.  After he was beheaded his head was thrown in a nearby well.  But, miracle of miracles, it didn’t sink and the water rose right to the brim of the well, bearing the head.  Now, you have to stretch your imagination a little more:  St Aphrodise reached in and picked up his head, and walked back to the cave where he withdrew from the world.  Along the way locals put snails in his path (why??) which he did walk over but did not crush.  Along the way a group of stonemasons were making fun of him, but god punished them and turned them into stone.  The camel was adopted by a potter.

I can just imagine you thinking “where is he going with all that?”  Well, in Beziers there is a church dedicated to St Aphrodise, and for years I’ve been trying to visit it.  Each time it was locked up and I could not find out when it might be open.  Then I came across the programme for the Fete de St Aphrodise, which advertised guided visits of the church and the crypt.  The cave which St Aphrodise withdrew to is now the crypt of the church, allegedly.

I got there for 12.30, just in time for the last visit.  From the outside the church is only partially visible, most of its perimeter has been built up, and the only access is currently via the small square on the south side.  What is visible is impressive – a large square bell tower looms over the square and the stone walls are incredible.  Up some steps to get to the entrance.  We were ushered into a chapel to the left of the door, where we waited for our guide.  The chapel had been beautifully restored, and I got the feeling that the visit would be interesting.  Our guide introduced himself as having worked for the archaeological department of the town of Beziers until his retirement, so he was familiar with several aspects of the church.  He explained that there are two parts to the present building – the Romanesque nave and the 14th century choir and apse.  The chapel we were standing in was in the base of the 14th century tower, and during work on the stairs it was discovered that there was a room below the chapel.  Indications showed that this room had been used for black masses – the priest at the time was not happy with that discovery!  We went past that staircase and into the choir by a small door.  Only a little light filtered through the stained glass windows of the apse, there was no light and our guide had only a small torch.

The first impression was wow – a huge space, which had a totally abandoned feel.  And it turned out that was exactly what had happened.  As the population of the centre of Beziers dwindled, the congregation of St Aphrodise slowly declined to the point where the parish was no longer viable, and the church shut up.  The church buildings belong to the French state, and of course there is very little money to maintain the thousands of churches, cathedrals and chapels all over France.  An association was formed, the Friends of St Aphrodise, with the aim of protecting the cultural heritage of that church.  And there is a lot which needs protecting.  The interior of the church was remodelled at some point in the 18th century, with a beautiful baldachin added over the main altar.  At that time someone decided that it would be a good idea to unify the appearance of the Romanesque nave and the gothic choir by adding a vaulted ceiling in the nave.  Unfortunately the Romanesque walls of the nave had not been designed to carry that kind of weight and over the centuries they have been shifting outwards ever so slightly, to the point where it became too dangerous to enter that part of the building.  In the 1920’s someone had the idea to repaint the interior of the church – at that point a lot of the original 14th century paintings were still intact.  It seems that what was there was scraped off and plastered over, not much left to uncover, unfortunately.  So what our guide showed us was essentially the choir and apse – beautifully panelled walls with choir stalls along the walls.  Apparently one bishop sold them to Abbey of Cassan near Beziers, and another one bought them back one hundred and fifty years later.  Behind the main altar is a chapel which houses a strange display case.  All kinds of bone and other things in an enormous reliquary.  On the walls either side are marble plaques, detailing the treasures which the church owned.  Makes fascinating reading, but I would imagine that most of it has disappeared.

The painting in the chapel has disappeared, leaving a gaping hole and the view of the original 14th century walls behind.  Then we went into the sacristy – and that’s where it really felt like the Marie Celeste.  All sorts of paraphernalia were stacked up and standing about, including lots of paintings, all of them in dire need of restoration.  Our guide then allowed us a glimpse of the nave, and explained that the end had been excavated and found to contain a large number of gallo-roman sarcophagi.  In fact the whole area around the church was a vast necropolis.

Then it was time to go down to the crypt.  A wooden ceiling was protecting the visitors from the possibility of falling stones, and the access was down a small staircase.  Again, there was no light, only our guide’s torch to show us what there was.

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Our guide suspected that the crypt had been extensively reworked over the centuries.  There were brick walls visible through small windows but they could not have been put up from within the crypt.  Then there were the stone slabs which formed the ceiling, which had all been tombstones – an early form of recycling!  On some of them the inscriptions were still quite visible.  As we went round the crypt there was a rather gruesome representation of St Aphrodise’s head, and then it was up the steps and out towards the entrance.  The stained glass window was beautiful (most of the stained glass in the church is 19th century) and the restored part gave a good idea of what the church could look like once fully restored.

This visit was the very last one to the church in its present state – what a lucky coincidence.  Work is due to start later in the year to consolidate the building and make it safe.  Then the real work of restoration will have to begin, and so will the fundraising!  I hope you’ve enjoyed this historic visit!!