History unearthed

On my last visit to the Salin in Gruissan I came across a leaflet advertising guided visits of an archaeological site on the Ile St Martin at Gruissan.  I’m forever curious when it comes to things like that, so off I went recently to explore, as the site is only open for July and August.  Before going I tried to pinpoint the spot on an aerial view, without any success.  So I just drove past the Salin and hoped for the best :-).  After a few kilometers I noticed a small sign followed not much later by another, which directed me to where the site is.  I really didn’t know what to expect.

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The guide was already at the far end with a group of people, but there was a waiting area with information panels and display cases, and some benches.

The items in the display cases were fascinating :

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After a little while of waiting I decided to explore outside the site, since it looked as though there would be a little while before the start of the next guided visit.  And the exploration was well worthwhile, the views were fantastic!

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P1040187Soon it was time to get back to the site for the tour.  Our guide gave us some of the history of the present site.  When a vineyard was ploughed up in 1986 a number of items were found and as a consequence the land was acquired by the municipality in exchange for another piece of land.  Preliminary explorations between 1988 and 1990 allowed the experts to date the occupation of the site between the 1st and 5th centuries AD, and in 1999 the real digging began.  It became apparent that there had been a number of buildings on the site. The archaeologists found evidence of stone walls and remains of a hypocaust, the Roman version of under-floor heating. The site was then closed until digging resumed again in 2011, and since then work has been carried out in June by a team of archaeologists helped by groups of students.

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The guide explained that the site was probably part of the port administration – the sea would have been much closer 2000 years ago than it is now, and the Ile St Martin was really an island then.

We started off where the upper part of a mill had been found.

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The upper part of the mill was in pretty good condition, but of the lower part only pieces had been found.  Nearby was the bottom part of a bread oven, so the archaeologists deducted that that particular building must have housed a bakery.  A few steps away the base and capital of a column had been found and left in-situ, and just in front of that were the remains of some kind of drain, amazingly intact.

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IMG_8098Then we came to an area which our guide explained must have been a kind of store house as many amphorae had been found embedded in the floor.  Some of them had been broken whilst others remained pretty intact.  Next year the one which is still more or less in one piece will be filled with sand, to stop it collapsing when the earth around it is scraped away!

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The next “find” was a drain, beautifully and solidly built nearly 2000 years ago!  In the second picture you can see the red colour of the soil near the drain.  Effectively the drain was for the balnea, the Roman bathhouse just next door

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In the balnea the water was heated by a wood fire for the basins.  Our guide explained that it was assumed that the port was providing services for merchant seamen, who came ashore after lengthy voyages, and who needed a good bath!  That, he thought, also accounted for the sturdy drain close by, as there would have been lots of dirty water :-)!  One of the basins was round and the one next door rectangular, and the floors are still very smooth.

IMG_8105 IMG_8107Next we admired the remains of a dolium, a large terracotta storage container, much larger than the amphora we had seen earlier.  This particular dolium had unfortunately been broken during exploratory work, but an intact one had been extracted and shipped off somewhere (perhaps the local museum?).  The archaeological museum in Narbonne has several impressive examples on display.

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The next part of the site had not been fully excavated, but according to the guide we were at first floor level rather than ground floor level, looking into what could have been a courtyard.  The stone wall had been beautifully made and an exploration this year in the far corner showed that the wall continued a fair way below soil level.

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The well will be excavated over the next few years – it might yield a great many artifacts!  An almost identical well exists on the adjoining property, where it still supplies fresh water.

IMG_8117 IMG_8118The next interesting exhibit was a Roman rubbish heap – if you look closely you can see layers upon layers of debris, which accumulated over time.  IMG_8121

The channel might have been for drainage or supplying fresh water?

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The square bricks were part of the hypocaust, the Roman underfloor heating, and apparently the hollow bricks were there to stop the others from bursting due to overheating!  This was where the second balnea of the complex was located.  Smaller than the first, and perhaps more for the officers than the sailors?

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The rounded wall is not Roman but medieval and part of a storage silo.  The site was apparently inhabited quite late.

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And finally we came to what is thought to have been the main building of the complex.  The walls were formed by huge stone blocks.

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Internally the building was divided into four rooms by lathe-and-plaster walls.  The holes of the wooden uprights are still visible in the floor.

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In one of the rooms a Roman weighing scale was found and there were many coins which were dug up, leading to speculations that this could have been some form of customs post.  The red colour of the earth floor could indicate that the building was destroyed by fire.

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Now a few words on some of the finds in the display cases.  On the site a good number of pieces of terra sigillata have been found.  Terra sigillata is a kind of Roman pottery, which literally means “clay bearing little images”, and which was widely distributed throughout the Roman empire.  I adore the smooth, silky surface and the exquisite decoration on some of the pieces.  Apparently the maker’s mark is always stamped on the inside of the vessel

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In the one box there was some other pottery, among them a very delicate bowl, the base of an amphora and also two oil lamps.  The larger one in the bottom right hand corner is very interesting as it is made of bone rather than the usual terracotta.  To my amazement the guide handed it round for everyone to have a good look, along with a few other delicate pieces of pottery.  It’s the first time that I’ve had anything this old in my hands!

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Box number two contained other interesting bits found on the site.  In the top right hand corner is part of the mill stone (remember the mill at the beginning?).  Just to the left are four metal objects:  a hook and three nails.  The large encrusted piece is what a nail looks like before it is cleaned up.  On the very left is a piece of lead pipe and bottom left is an iron tool which was a kind of hoe.  The two small bits of bone are bovine teeth and I cannot for the life of me remember which animal the vertebrae came from.

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So, if you are in the area during July and August, make the trip to Gruissan and see what the ground has yielded during the next season of excavations!

P.S.  Here’s a special thanks to Annie, my dedicated proof-reader, without whom you would have to endure many typos and errors!!  Thank you, Annie!

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Something fishy…

If you’re in the vicinity of Grau du Roi, whether for a visit to the arena for a bull-fight, or on your way to Aigues Mortes, a visit to the Seaquarium is going to be fun, especially if you have children with you.  You can plan your visit so you have time for walk on the beach, or along the seafront in the centre of town.

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IMG_6623-001The outside of the Seaquarium is somewhat unprepossessing, but there is plenty of parking just next door.  Once you’re inside it’s another story though.  The fish tanks are amazing and you’ll be able to see nearly 200 kinds of marine animals on the way round.

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The very first tank contained some extremely interesting looking creatures from the Mediterranean.  I’m not sure that I’d want to swim with any of them  🙂 ?

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Most of the fish were really difficult to photograph because of the low light levels and their constant movement, but I hope you’ll get the idea.  Some underwater life is incredibly colourful.

And some of it is hard to distinguish from its surroundings – those two really look like rocks on first glance.

P1020738The sea horses are my all time favourites and they are pretty extraordinary creatures!

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The Seaquarium’s main claim to fame is the Requinarium, a 1000 square metre space dedicated only to sharks, and unique in Europe.  Walking through a glass tunnel with sharks swimming all around you is impressive, and walking over the top of the enormous tank gives you an idea of the size and scale of some of the sharks!  There are many species of shark, from the very small to the enormous!

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The accompanying displays were highly informative and interesting, and I learnt a lot, but all the same I was very happy that the sharks were behind glass :-)!  Over the public address system I heard an announcement that there would be a training session of seals and sea-lions in a moment, so I made my way to the outdoor pool and watched for a little while.

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P1020775The trainers were amazing with the animals, but it lacked a little excitement.  And they kept talking in a kind of intercom which hung around their neck.  In the end I figured out that the real “show” was to be seen on the floor below.   And there they were – the side of the tank was one enormous glass wall, and there were two more trainers, one with an intercom, and the other with a microphone, explaining what the animals were about to do.  It was fascinating to see what the seals and sea lions would do at the wave of a hand, and of course they were always rewarded with a fishy treat by their trainers upstairs!

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All in all a great visit, highly interesting and enjoyable!

Food, glorious food

The past few weeks have been incredible where food is concerned.  With friends who were staying in St Chinian I cooked and ate in, barbecued in my garden and on their terrace, picnicked, went to fetes and to restaurants….  With all that food you’d think that I would have put on quite some weight, but luckily for me that was not the case.  I put it down to my reduced intake of bread and other wheat based foods, but perhaps I just managed to balance calories and exercise?

Most of the meat we cooked on the BBQ was lamb, but there were some delicious pork sausages too, from Boucherie Peyras, one of the local butchers in St Chinian.

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These wonderful lamb chops were accompanied by vegetable millefeuilles, stacks of grilled aubergine, courgette and tomato slices, interspersed with goats’ cheese and basil, and drizzled with some olive oil just before serving.

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On another occasion we grilled a leg of lamb – M. Peyras had expertly boned and trimmed it, and I marinated it following a recipe from the Moro Cookbook (Spanish marinade), which uses garlic, thyme, smoked paprika and red wine vinegar.  The result was absolutely divine!

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Our friends also introduced me to Yaki Onigiri:  cooked Japanese rice is formed into triangles or balls and grilled until crispy.  They can be finished in a variety of ways: spread with sweet miso paste and dipped in sesame seeds, or glazed with soy sauce, and I am sure there are other ways too!  They were very delicious and somehow they disappeared so fast each time we made them, that I have no pictures!

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But here are some tomatoes instead – the first of the season and very sweet and tasty.  As always I’m growing many different varieties and this year I have just over 20 different kinds of tomatoes in my garden.   I haven’t  quite decided which I like best – yet.  I’m sure Tomato Pie will figure on the menu again very soon.

For dessert I had made a raspberry and chocolate tart, and my friend Janet had prepared flan.  The flan had the most beautiful silky texture and there was only one little piece left over at the end of the meal.  The raspberry and chocolate tart was not bad either, but might be better suited for when the weather is a little cooler (spring or autumn).   I froze a lot of raspberries this year, so I’ll be able to make it again, and the texture and calories will be lovely as the days get shorter :-)!

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All of the restaurants we went to as a group were great! We went to the Salin in Gruissan again, for another visit, and this time had dinner at Cambuse du Saunier afterwards.  The food was very fresh and tasty.   Service started off very good but deteriorated somewhat as the restaurant got very busy.  When night fell we were attacked by swarms of mosquitoes, despite the repellent we had all put on.  So it’s a great place to eat at, but go for lunch!

Our starters were prawns and oysters, a pate of john dory, fresh crab, and mussels.  For main course there were different kinds of fish and chicken, both baked in salt crust, and a seafood cassoulet.  Desserts were pretty good too, but by then I’d put the camera away.

A total change from the rustic simplicity at Gruissan was Restaurant Le Parc in Carcassonne.   Franck Putelat, the chef, has been awarded two stars in the Michelin Guide, and the food and surroundings are just what you would expect.

The meal started with an Amuse Bouche of Gazpacho, accompanied by a platter of various nibbles:  thin cheese straws (one lot dipped in squid ink, the other in parmesan butter), radishes (buttered again) with summer truffle,  a macaroon filled with foie gras, and a biscuit topped with half a cherry tomato and a chorizo crisp.  Fantastic flavours and gorgeous presentation!

A second Mise en Bouche was served in a double walled glass – very simple and yet refined – a salad of fresh peas and seafood, topped with crispy garlic and onion slivers.

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The “real” starter came up next.  A most gorgeous looking confection made from potatoes for the crispy rings and the cannelloni wrap.  The cannelloni were filled with fresh sheep’s cheese, and the plate generously decorated with shavings of summer truffle – oh what a feast!!

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The next course was a soufflee of haddock, served with aioli and a selection of perfectly cooked vegetables, along with some crab claw meat and a langoustine sauce.

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Just when you think it can’t get much better along comes the next course:  breast of duckling, cooked at low temperature and accompanied by a stuffed courgette flower, and a condiment made with kumquat – Heaven!

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The cheese course was beautifully presented: Cabretou de Bethmale cheese, served with the thinnest slices of melba toast imaginable, and a melon chutney made with Banyuls vinegar.

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Dessert was quite simply spectacular, even on looks alone!  But the taste was pretty spectacular too:  cherries cooked in red currant juice, accompanied by elderflower sorbet; the biscuit tube was filled with a yoghurt emulsion and the whole topped by a cherry meringue disc.  And all the flavours complemented each other beautifully.

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Of course there was coffee at the end, and some more small sweets, and we were probably the last table to leave the restaurant.  The terrace is great to sit out on, and the dining room is very stylish and air-conditioned, for when it’s too hot outside.  The whole meal was accompanied by beautiful wines, all local to the area, and expertly chosen by the wine waiter.

The children had their own menu, less elaborate and with fewer courses, but none the less expertly prepared and beautifully presented.  And of course we went for a walk around the castle at Carcassonne afterwards to get rid of some of the calories :-)!

The last meal I’ll tempt you with in this post was at La Cave Saint Martin in Roquebrun.  This is a wine bar/restaurant with a terrace overlooking the river, and it specialises in tapas.  Since there was a crowd of us we ordered a number of different dishes and just passed them round to share.  All of the food was delicious and the service very friendly and relaxed, but efficient all the same.  The peach and tomato salad with basil was outstanding, and a fantastic idea for a summer salad; the pesto ravioli were bursting with basil flavour.  And then the peach crumble…  If you’re in the area and enjoy desserts then that is an absolute must!

If you’ve gotten this far without the slightest hunger pang then you deserve a medal!  And if you want to visit any of the restaurants, please be sure to reserve your table to avoid disappointment.  You can always tell them you saw it on the midihideaways blog 🙂

Just bull! Well, almost!

You’ve probably heard of bull-fights, and many of you will be totally put off by the thoughts of an animal being killed for the sake of the amusement of the spectators, in the name of sport.  I have heard that those bull-fights are supposed to be beautiful, but I admit that I’ve never been to one and I have no desire to go either.  All the same, I was intrigued to find out about another kind of bull-fight earlier in the year:  the Course Camarguaise.  The Course Camarguaise is the sister of the Corrida, the Spanish bull-fights where the bulls are killed.  For both fights bulls are specially bred – but that’s where the similarities end, because where the Corrida always ends in death, the Course Camarguaise has a happy ending for the bull.

I went to see a Course Camarguaise earlier in the year at Grau du Roi, a town on the edge of the Camargue.  The setting is simple, a fairly basic arena with concrete steps (bring your own cushions) and a small area with fixed seating (bring cushions for those too).  The centre is surrounded by a fence of red boards.  The boards stand out beautifully against the creamy coloured sand, which was being watered when we arrived (to keep the dust down).  It was Mother’s Day, the sun was shining and the arena was steadily filling up.  I  sat right at the top in the last row, so I could rest my back, and still get a good view.

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Someone turned on the sound system, and music started to play.  I’m not sure what it was but it sounded very beautiful. Then a lady in a beautiful silk dress walked into the ring, slowly, looking around, and then there were more ladies, and children, all dressed beautifully and with traditional coiffes, the Provençal hairdo of a bygone age.  All of a sudden a white mare with her foal joined the small crowd in the ring, and then another and still more, until there were maybe 20 horses.

And then there was a gardien, mounted on a horse, who rounded up the other horses and moved them around the arena.  A group of women dressed as gypsies had come in at a round the same time, and with some of the children they performed a dance. And when I felt that it couldn’t get better the sound system blasted the opening strains of George Bizet’s Habanera from Carmen – and sure enough I spotted a lady amongst those in the ring, who sang the aria.  At the end the men who were going to participate in the bull-fight all walked in to a big round of applause.   I was deeply touched by the beauty of it all, what an opening!

Here is a video of the last part of the opening spectacle (e-mail subscribers, you may only be able to see the video on the website).

There was a quick turnaround, some of the horses had left their calling cards and all that had to be cleaned up, followed by some more watering of the sand.

And then we were ready for the main event!  I had not done any reading beforehand so knew very little about what I was going to see, except that the guys chasing the bull had to try and get a string or two off the bull’s horns.  What I did realise as I queued to buy my ticket was that the bulls were the real stars of the show – the names of the men were printed much smaller on the poster than those of the bulls.

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In addition to the bull there are two groups of men in the arena, all dressed in white from head to toe.  One group is called the raseteurs and they have their surnames printed in black on the back of their t-shirts.  The other group is called the tourneurs and their surname is printed in red on the back of their t-shirts.

The bull enters the arena to a fanfare and is then given a minute to survey and get used to his new surroundings.  When the fanfare sounds again the fight begins.  The tourneurs are mostly former raseteurs and they aim to distract the bull, so that the raseteurs can run up to the bull, arm outstretched, and try to snatch one of the trophies attached to the bull’s head.  At the base of each horn is wound a string and in between the horns is a cocarde, a small coloured ribbon.  The raseteurs hold a razet in their hands, a strange-looking metal contraption with four branches, which have teeth on them.  With the aid of the razet they try to snatch one of the trophies.

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So the bull has taken it all in, checked out the guys and once the signal is given the tourneurs and raseteurs start the action by running up to the bull.  They have to be incredibly fit, because those bulls can run!  Imagine being chased by a ton of muscle with sharp horns and hoofs!  And those guys can jump!  The way they hop over the barrier around the arena, or jump up onto the metal railings almost a floor up is something else.  In the video below you can see that the bull is just playing with them, but all the same, the guys have a lot of respect!

Some bulls are more aggressive than others, and some have learnt a lot of strategy over the years.  They are all loath to give up their trophies, and none of them have to chase the guys around the ring for more than 15 minutes.  All the bulls leave the ring 15 minutes, except where an animal is injured, in which case the fight can be cut short.  I can’t quite remember but I think three of the six animals did not give up any of their trophies, and only one bull lost both his strings.

All the while a bull is in the arena, the compere announces the prize money for a string, which goes up and up, being added to either by the organizers of the fight or by local businesses whose name are, of course, announced.  The more difficult a bull, the higher the prize money can climb.

After three bulls had stood their ground, there was a break – time for an ice cream, before the action resumed.  To begin with I had thought that I might stay and watch a few before leaving, but I got totally hooked and stayed right to the end!

I didn’t really know what to make of this when the announcer said something along the lines of “since it’s Mother’s Day, ladies especially for you, the last animal into the ring today is a cow”.  Nobody seemed to bat an eyelid, so I guess they all thought that was great, and the cow really was one of the better chasers – very frisky!

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The next fight at Grau du Roi is on August 15, 2013, but on the website of the FEDERATION FRANCAISE DE LA COURSE CAMARGUAISE you can find a listing of all the fights taking place in the area, and I would urge you to go and watch just once.

All change, all change!

August 2, 2013 marks the end of an era of sorts – the last ever firing of the old bread oven in the village of Azillanet.  The story started in 1900, when Monsieur Bertoz senior had a new oven built in his bakery at 16 Avenue du Minervois in Azillanet.  The oven was built by Gustave Carrier from Nimes, with several tons of brick and cast iron, and occupies a quarter of the ground floor of the building.

Dell Backup and Recovery ManagerIt gave 67 years of loyal service to Monsieur Bertoz and his son, and when Monsieur Bertoz junior retired in 1967 it sank into a Sleeping-Beauty-like sleep, abandoned but not forgotten!

In 2009 Stephane Marrou came to the Minervois looking for old wood-fired bake ovens, to open his own bakery, making bread with organically and locally grown cereals.  Someone told him of the two bread ovens in Azillanet and that’s where the story picks up again.  Marie-France and Jean-Louis showed him the old bakery, where Marie-France’s father had plied his trade, and Stephane was smitten by the beauty of the old oven (note: there is another disused bread oven in the village).

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It took two months of patient work to warm up the dormant oven, which hadn’t seen service in over 40 years.  Great care was needed to make sure that it didn’t crack, but in the summer of 2009 the time had come for the first bake and Stephane was overjoyed to be able to revive a piece of local history in the process.

I was lucky to meet Stephane when he first started to sell his bread on Sundays in the market in St Chinian – it was the kind of bread I had been looking for for years!  When you think of French bread most people automatically think of baguettes – but that’s really a typically Parisian bread which has conquered all of France and elsewhere since the 1920’s.  Stephane’s bread is different:

  • heavier, because he does not use pure white flour generally used for baguettes;
  • tastier, because of the long fermentation required by the natural sourdough he uses;
  • more nourishing, because the flours used range from wholemeal to bise, the latter a flour which contains a fair amount of bran/fibre;
  • and it keeps far better than any of the modern breads because of the use of natural sourdough.

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“So, how is it made” – I hear you ask?  On baking days Stephane starts mixing his different doughs from 7am, in one of those large food mixers.  The dough is then kneaded by hand to develop the gluten, the elastic strands of protein which give the bread its structure and which allow it to rise.  The dough is then left to rest and ferment for several hours.

PICT6412Once it’s risen sufficiently the dough is portioned up and given a pre-shape and another rest.  In between times, Stephane has to get the oven stacked with wood so he can light the fire.

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Once the dough has risen enough, work starts to give it its final shape, and then it is left to rise once more.

Meanwhile, the oven is being lit – just a little taper is all that’s needed, the wood is perfectly dry and catches in seconds.  The flames lick the logs and soon the mouth of the oven is filled with flames.

While the fire is burning, work continues on the shaping and forming of breads, the speciality breads such as the ones containing dried fruits, and of course brioche!   The fire burns hot and lively, but after about 45 minutes it starts to die down and Stephane spreads out the coals to evenly distribute the heat.  Some time later the hot ashes are raked out, the oven brushed, and once the heat has spread throughout the oven over 100 kg of risen dough are loaded into the oven.

Then comes the time when a beautiful smell permeates the bakery and the bread is ready to be pulled out of the oven.  Open the oven door and have a look in – all you can see are perfectly baked loaves.  And while you’re there take a deep breath – the fragrance is divine!

PICT6136With a long-handled wooden peel Stephane pulls the loaves from the oven;  each loaf is tapped to check that it’s done, and any excess flour is brushed off the underside. Then it is stacked into a crate.  I was awestruck by the way Stephane seemed to caress each loaf.

After over half an hour’s work the oven is finally empty and the bread neatly stacked.  And now it’s time for tender breads such as the brioche to be cooked; these breads need a lower temperature and shorter baking time.  They are given a brushing of egg-wash and a sprinkling of sugar, before being slipped in the oven.

Everything is going great, so time to open shop!  Stephane has developed a loyal customer base over the years, first and foremost amongst the villagers who were ever so pleased to have a bakery on their doorstep once more.  People also come from far and wide, and trade is brisk from the moment the door is unlocked.

Of course Stephane does not forget the Brioche – half an hour is all it takes…

So there you have it – tradition is still alive!  On August 2, 2013 the oven in Avenue du Minervois will see its last ever firing and baking.  From 3pm you can come and watch the bread being pulled from the oven, and from 5pm you can bring a dish to be cooked in the oven.  There’ll be a communal meal later on, and a toast to the oven.  I’m far too sentimental and as I am writing these last few sentences I feel rather emotional.  But all is not lost:  Stephane will continue to bake in Azillanet, at new premises at 10 Avenue d’Olonzac, and you’ll be able to buy fantastic bread made in the traditional way either there or in St Chinian market on a Sunday.