The hills are alive…

… and they really are, but the “alive” in the title is there more because I expect you have all heard Julie Andrews singing that line – at least I imagine that you will have heard it at least once!!  Before you think that I might have lost the plot, the “alive” should have been “awash”, but “The hills are awash” doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.  To get to the point, the hills around here ARE awash with un-discovered secrets and treasures, just waiting to be found!

A couple of years ago a friend mentioned that there had been a Roman settlement on one of the hills near St Jean de Minervois.  I spoke to some other friends about it and together we decided that we would try and find a trace of it.  I had been looking at aerial maps on the internet, and narrowed it down to a certain area.  Then I spoke with some more people who knew their way around, and was told that there had been a Roman fort on that hill, and that on the path leading there one could still see a great big stone, which had no doubt been part of the gate into the complex.

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I had also been told that at some point there had been excavations on the site, and that there were a fair number of pottery shards, etc.  So, nine intrepid explorers set off for a walk one beautiful late-summer afternoon, with sturdy shoes and long trousers, and our trusty binoculars and cameras.   The path started out well trodden, but as we went on it became more and more overgrown.  The plateau where the fort would have been was covered in vegetation typical for the garrigue:  green oak, Euphorbia, grasses, arbousier and heather.  We scrambled through the brush and kept looking for clues.  The views were magnificent!

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We did come across two interesting discoveries:

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The ruin, I found out later, used to be a chapel, and the car is undoubtedly a Citroen 2CV, albeit somewhat dishevelled.

After about 45 minutes of searching the ground for clues and getting scratched whilst trying to penetrate the wilderness, we thought we’d call it a day and give up. Perhaps we were on the wrong hill after all.  But a few of our group were a little ahead of the rest and when I caught up with them there was great excitement!!  They had found a big stack of crates, partially covered by a tarpaulin!!

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From the marks on the boxes it looked as though the excavations had taken place some time in the late 70’s, and after a couple of years the site had simply been abandoned. There were a couple of deep holes, and over one of them there was a steel structure which would have allowed a cover to be rigged up. The pieces of terracotta in the boxes could have been from anything, but my guess is that most came from amphorae – they were thick-walled and showed finger marks from the turning on what would have been the inside of the vessel.

After that excitement our little band of explorers carried on just a little further to get to the highest point of the site, from where the views were simply divine!

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On the way back I examined that old 2CV a little more – it’s pretty amazing the way cars were built way back then.  The chrome on the bumpers was still in great condition, the steering wheel still turned, and the car even had the petrol canister still in place.

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Look closely at that petrol canister – you might be able to discern the writing stamped on it?  When I saw that it all fell into place – that’s why it’s called a Jerrycan!! I’ve since had a look on Wikipedia, and of course that’s the case.

When we finally caught up with our friends they had started to worry a little, wondering if we’d fallen into a hole :-), and of course they were sorry to missed out on our finds!  On we went to have our picnic – well deserved!  Everyone had brought some food and it turned out to be a real spread.

Delicious quiches and salads, followed by some wickedly rich chocolate brownies, all eaten in the open air one balmy evening!  And here’s one last picture for you!

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Autumnal pleasures

Autumn seems to have arrived here all of a sudden, last Thursday.  It was cold in the morning, so cold that everyone was wearing their thick jackets to go to the market, and cold enough that you could see your breath.  The sudden arrival of autumn always puts me in a little panic – will I be able to get everything done in my garden before winter sets in?  And then, after a few days of grey and chilly weather, it brightened up again.  On Sunday the sun shone brightly and I went for a long walk with friends in the afternoon.

But I get ahead of myself!  During the week before that sunny Sunday walk I gathered up all the tomatoes from the garden, the red ones, the yellow ones, the purple ones and the green ones.  And then I went through my recipe file and looked for Nigel Slater’s Mixed Tomato Chutney recipe (you can find it here).  This is a recipe which I’ve cooked many times, and it always turns out well.  It is also pretty easy and almost fool-proof, though you do have to watch and stir towards the end of the cooking time, so that it won’t stick and burn.

A couple of days after the chutney-making marathon our “cookery group” got together again, to cook an autumnal meal, and what a feast it turned out to be!!  Pumpkin soup to start with, followed by a salad of pears, blue cheese (Bleu d’Auvergne) and walnuts, on a bed of rocket leaves.  The salad was sprinkled with pomegranate seeds for prettiness, which was effective, but the pomegranate seeds didn’t make very good eating.

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Next came a dish of chanterelle mushrooms, cooked simply in the frying pan with some olive oil and chopped garlic.

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And then, long-awaited, the main course:  Roti de Porc au lait, found at The Vigneron’s Wife, another great wordpress blog :-).  It was very easy to make and the result was simply delicious!!  In a departure from Kat’s recipe we cooked the roti without a lid on the pot, in the oven at 150 degree centigrade, turning the meat over halfway through the cooking time.

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To accompany the pork there was some lightly braised spinach, and Ratte potatoes boiled in their skins.  One of the members of our little group is very fond of crackling, so we had cooked some of that too.  A condiment made from Limequats (from the trees our hosts have growing on their terrace), dried cranberries and port was perfect and would be ideal for Christmas (think turkey!! :-)).  You can find the recipe here.

Cheese was totally out of the question after all that delicious food, but dessert was a must.  Years and years ago, our hosts had planted a Bramley apple tree in the garden beside their house, and this year there had been a good crop.  So for dessert we had baked apples – again a very simple dish, but oh so very delicious!  The apples were cored and scored about a third of the way down, to allow the apple to puff up. The void in the centre was filled with raisins, cinnamon and honey, and the apples were baked until they were tender and fluffy.  They made a perfect end to a delicious meal!!

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Thank you, D&J, for hosting us and sharing those precious Bramley apples!

Something sheepish

The sun was shining in St Chinian when I set out a few weeks ago for Boisset, a little village in the hills up above Minerve.  There had been rain the previous day and the forecast wasn’t good, but the sun was there all the same :-).  The reason for my visit was this:

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The Fete de la Rouge du Roussillon celebrates a rare breed of sheep, which is still being kept in Boisset.  It’s as good an excuse as any for a fete!  The approach to the village is breathtaking, as the road winds along hillsides and overlooks steep drops, but don’t worry, there’s enough space for cars to pass one another.  The fete was being held on a piece of land just next to the church, and for some reason the church at Boisset is a little distance outside the village.

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From my vantage point the village is not even visible, but it is there, hiding below on the right.

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I arrived just around midday, and the fete was already in full swing.  The first thing I did was to say hello to the Rouge du Roussillon sheep, since they were heading the bill.  And before you ask, the rouge in the name refers to the reddish-brown head and legs of the animals.

I’ve not been able to find out a great deal of information about this breed, as not a lot of history appears to be known.  It is certain that there have been “red” sheep in the Roussillon for around 200 years, and it is thought that the ancestors of the race might have been brought over from North Africa at some point. Up until about 30 years ago it was estimated that there were at least 10,000 “red” sheep between Narbonne and Perpignan and the hills beyond, but the decline of the population was rather rapid.  In 1981 the last shepherd to raise this race sold his flock, and ever since then conservation efforts have been made to preserve the breed, both in France and in Germany, by a number of dedicated individuals.  The Rouge du Roussillon is a multi-purpose race: it produces fine wool, and good meat.

As part of the fete there was a sheep shearing demonstration – and I managed to shoot a little video.  For e-mail subscribers, please go to the site to watch the video.

I am always amazed at just how calm sheep can be whilst they are being shorn.  They struggle a bit when they get on the platform, but once the shearing begins it’s almost as if they are putty in the shearer’s hands.  The lady who was doing the demonstration was being very careful and took her time.  Look out for her shoes, they are made of felt to avoid any injury to the animal.  The black stuff you see dabbed on is an antiseptic – the clippers must have nipped the sheep a little, despite the shearer’s careful attention.PICT7072

Back to more serious matters though – which of course means food! It was midday and I had to get something to eat before it all sold out!!  There were several stands, offering a variety of yummy things!  I had seen that a whole lamb was being spit-roasted at one stand when I arrived at the fete.  When I went to look for food it had pretty much all gone, but they were grilling other bits of meat.  Don’t you just love the contraption for turning the spit??  Unfortunately there was nobody pedaling!

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P1040921Then there was a stand which offered lamb sausage sandwiches (sausage in French bread), but since I’m not eating bread for the moment I gave that a miss.  The savoury cakes and such from a caterer in St Pons  had sold out, but there was the stand selling fish…

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…  well, you could buy the trout fresh out of the tank, take it home to cook and eat it, but for eating sur place they had prepared other things: ecrevisse (crayfish), which are like miniature lobsters, truitelle, which is very small trout, prepared like whitebait (the fish are about as long as your middle finger), and accras a la truite, deep-fried fritters made with trout rather than the usual salt cod.  No prizes for guessing what I had for lunch – of course the accras won! And I’m sorry, you won’t see a picture of what I had, as holding the camera with one greasy hand whilst holding the food in the other proved just too tricky :-)!

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After the food there was more entertainment!  First a visit to the church, which dates back to the 12th century! It is very small, but then a village of around 27 inhabitants would not need a very large church.

The church had certainly seen better days, but there are still two splendid crystal chandeliers, and you can tell from one of the altars that they must have been very proud of their church once.  But what’s with re-painting the statue of St Michael? Who ever thought that bright-red would be a good colour for his lips??  It seems to have faded a little since the last time I saw that statue a few years ago, but still!

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A couple of stands had been set up inside the church.  One was a historian who was selling the books he had researched of all the villages which had once belonged to the Seigneur of Minerve.  I couldn’t resist the book about Saint Jean de Minervois, and will be reading all about that in due course!  At the other stands paper things like cards and drawings were for sale.

Back outside the church there was a display of weapons and armour, which would have been used by knights in olden days.  The helmets were beautifully shiny, and the one which was not (i.e. slightly rusty) reminded me that originally these items were all made before the days of stainless steel, and required hours and hours of polishing to maintain them looking good.  And these replicas were made in the same way and I imagine require the same TLC!

There were guys who were going to give us a demonstration on how these “tools” were put to use…

…and there was music!

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I spent a most enjoyable afternoon at this small fete!  Make sure you go if you are in the area when it takes place next year.  Just one thing before I leave you – this sculpture stands by the church – any ideas what it might represent?

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Goodbye Boisset, til next year!

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Food Fest

I feel that of late I’ve been neglecting the food side of things.  You all know that the best foods and restaurants are to be found in France ;-), so I thought I’d give you a glimpse of some of the restaurants I’ve been to over the past few months.  Who knows, it might whet your appetite to try them for yourself!  But just one word before this food-fest starts:  don’t think that I do nothing but eat out in restaurants!!  I’ve just not been very diligent in writing about the restaurant visits this year!!

Restaurant Le Petit Nice in Roquebrun has a lovely location overlooking the river and the bridge built in the 1870’s.  The menu has not changed much ever since I’ve known this restaurant, but the food is good, the service friendly and the views superb!

I have written about Restaurant de l’Orb in Cessenon sur Orb before, and I’ve been back for another couple of meals since my first visit.  It’s been very good each and every time!

Restaurant Fleurs d’Olargues in Olargues has the best view of the village, with a terrace overlooking the bridge and the village on the hillside beyond.  The restaurant is owned and run by a Danish family, who have created a wonderful place for good food!  Summer evenings on the terrace don’t come any more romantic!

L’Auberge de Mauroul is located in Mauroul, a tiny little village lost in the hills.  The drive is stunning and the food very good.  Don’t miss their aligot, a wonderfully rich potato puree with cheese!

Demeure de Flore is a hotel and restaurant in Lacabarade, on the D612 which connects St Chinian to Mazamet.  I went for lunch there with friends and had a lovely afternoon.  Lunch was inside as it felt a little too cool on the terrace, but we managed to take our coffee outside when the sun came out and the wind had dropped.  Francesco di Bari, the owner of Demeure de Flore, keeps the grounds looking pristine, and it was lovely sitting outside soaking up the sunshine.

L’Asphodele in Oupia is a fairly recent and modern restaurant, and seemingly the only restaurant in this post without a dedicated internet site.  The service was friendly and efficient and the food very good, even though it was not quite as photogenic as it might have been.

I have probably posted about L’Appaloosa in Bize Minervois before.  Rachel and Jean-Marc are always very welcoming, and the food has never disappointed!

La Selette in Cabezac is always reliable, and generally very busy, so it’s important to book a table, especially in the evenings!

Bon Appetit!!