Hey, “Mr. Blue Sky”

I’ve been wondering how to follow up last week’s Cassoulet – until it hit me just now – we’ll go for a walk, of course!!

There’s a great walk from St Chinian to the chapel of Notre Dame de Nazareth – why don’t you join me?   Put on your sturdy walking shoes, and bring some water, and perhaps your camera?

We’ll walk to the end of Rue de la Digue and on until we come to the Croix de Treize Noyes, which remembers a tragic episode in St Chinian’s history:  In 1875 a flood swept through the village and killed all 13 members of one family when their house was destroyed by the raging flood waters.

The low water crossing will take us across the Vernazobre River, and you’ll wonder how such a little stream could have been such a destructive force.

On our right we’ll pass a beautiful olive grove, and after that you’ll see vineyards in all directions – and you’ll get a good view of what is called locally the Rocher de Notre Dame, the Rock of Our Lady.  A geologist would be able to tell you exactly what this huge outcrop of rock is made of, and how it came to be formed; unfortunately I am totally lacking in that department 🙂  Perhaps someone out there would like to write a guest-post on the geology of St Chinian??

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At the end of the vineyards we’ll cross the river once more.  I know the iron bridge looks a little fragile, but I assure you it is perfectly safe!!  Just below the bridge there are some great river pools – make a mental note for your summer visit!

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On the other side of the bridge lies the hamlet of La Rive, a handful of houses, surrounded by vegetable gardens!

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Soon we’ll start our climb up to Notre Dame.  The paths are well-marked and well-trodden, both by walkers and wildlife; I wonder if that print in the mud is a wild boar hoof?

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Here and there wildflowers are already in bloom!

Just a little further up the path we’ll have a lovely view of this little mazet, a hut which would have been used to store tools and for shelter.  It looks very well maintained, so someone is still using it today!!

IMG_6636Well, we’ve made it – we are at the top!!  And here is a cross, the first of many crosses you’ll see on our way down!!

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The Chapel of Our Lady of Nazareth is a place of local pilgrimage. Legend has it that the Virgin Mary appeared on the rock (perhaps to a local girl, tending sheep or goats?) in 840 and left an image of her foot imprinted in the rock. I did look but could not see a footprint there…

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A chapel on the rock is mentioned in 1102, but the present structure dates from much later.

The views from up here are beautiful and sweeping – there’s a bench over there, take a seat and rest your feet for a little while.

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I’ve promised you some more crosses on the way down – we’re not using the same path we used for the climb up.  All the Stations of the Cross are along this path, which is used by the faithful when mass is being read at the chapel in May.  The crosses are made from cast-iron and the bases bear inscriptions, which explain the Station of the Cross they are representing.

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And look, here’s another little chapel, almost squashed by the cypress trees around it!!  I’m sure the trees seemed a good idea when they were planted about a hundred years ago, but today they look as though they are about to crush the little building.

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The chapel is dedicated to the memory of Monsignor David, “born on the 25th of March 1842 and buried in St Chinian on the 21st September 1915.  He was good and faithful.  He loved and honoured his country”.  He might also have been behind the Stations of the Cross along the path!?  The plaque on the first of the crosses bears the date 1897, so he almost certainly would have been. On one of the bases I was able to make out the name of the foundry: Corneau Freres a Charleville. Here are all the plaques:

And all the crosses:

The way back to St Chinian takes us along the D177, the road which leads from St Chinian to Assignan.  We’ll take a little shortcut at Le Martinet, another little hamlet, with what was once a sulphur mill at its centre.

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Where the houses end, the potagers start – these vegetable gardens have a good amount growing even in the middle of winter!  I am always impressed by the way some of these gardens are so incredibly tidy!

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So there we are, back in St Chinian, and back to where we started!  I hope your feet aren’t aching – it’s been a great walk!

P.S.  The “Mr. Blue Sky” of the title refers to a song of the same name by ELO…

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Centennial Celebrations!

When I posted last week’s article about the Canal du Midi, WordPress told me – much to my amazement – that I had published my 99th post!  Which makes this the 100th post on this blog – and a centenary calls for a celebration!!

But first of all, my thanks to everyone who has been reading, liking and commenting, to my partner for his unwavering support, and to Annie for her dedicated proof-reading!!  It’s been highly enjoyable for me and I hope you’ve enjoyed it too!  I love reading your comments and if there’s anything you would like me to write about then please let me know!

Now, how about celebrating with some Cassoulet??  It’s a typical winter dish from the Languedoc, and it is very special!  According to some sources, making a “proper” Cassoulet takes three days, and I can well believe it.  We’ll have our Cassoulet at  L’Auberge de l’Ecole in Saint Jean de Minervois – Brigitte makes her Cassoulet the way her grandmother taught her, and it is delicious, I’m sure you’ll enjoy it!

L’Auberge de l’Ecole is in the former schoolhouse of St Jean de Minervois, and we’ll find the menu written on an old blackboard, which can be tilted in the direction of our table.  The fireplace at the other end of the room is great for cooking a steak or lamb chop on, and the fire is always a cheery sight on a cool day!

Before we start our meal, here is Brigitte’s recipe for Cassoulet:  she starts by soaking the beans in water overnight, with a pinch of baking soda.  The following day she rinses the beans well, brings a pot of water to a boil and adds the beans.  She then lets the water come to a boil again, drains the beans; brings fresh water to a boil and adds the beans again; she repeats this once more, then simmers the beans until tender.

Brigitte also makes her own confit de canard, pieces of duck simmered slowly in duck fat.  It is an interesting process, but unless you can buy fat ducks readily it’s best to buy your confit ready-made, in a tin.

Once the beans are cooked and the confit ready, Brigitte assembles the Cassoulet:  in a large casserole she slowly cooks chopped onions in duck fat until they are golden but not browned.  To the onion she adds some tomato paste, garlic, herbes de provence, lardons (diced streaky bacon) and the cooked beans.  Brigitte then seasons this and leaves it to simmer until the beans are impregnated with the flavours;  halfway through the cooking time she adds the pieces of confit – as the confit is already cooked she doesn’t want it to get cooked to the point of disintegrating. Before serving, she puts the Cassoulet in a nice gratin dish, sprinkles it with breadcrumbs and grills it until the top is crisp and golden.

So there you have it – this is Brigitte’s recipe!  One thing Brigitte seems to have left out is the sausage!! I know that whenever I have her Cassoulet, there is always a nice piece of Toulouse sausage in it, in addition to the confit.

But now you’ve been salivating long enough – it’s time to sit down and eat – à table!!  What shall we have as a starter before our Cassoulet?  How about some starters to share?  A platter of boudin noir (black pudding) with apples, and some foie gras (this one made with duck liver) – both very delicious!

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And now for the Cassoulet – one dish per person!!

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Will you have room for dessert?  In case you do here is some home-made pear tart.

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If you had eaten all that food you would certainly not want anything for dinner tonight, but seeing that this has been a virtual lunch you might be more hungry than ever?!  All the same, I hope you’ve enjoyed our little celebration!!  Thanks for coming along and à bientôt, I hope.

If you’d like to spend more time in St Jean de Minervois have a look at www.midihideaways.com/anciencafe

Don’t let the sun go down on me…

After all the excesses of the holidays it’s time for a walk to get rid of some of those extra calories!  How about a walk along the Canal du Midi?  I promise you it’ll not be too strenuous, and there won’t be any steep inclines!

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A walk along the Canal du Midi puts you in the footsteps of Pierre-Paul Riquet, a native of Beziers, who had the vision and the tenacity to get the canal built.  As you walk, think about the people who built the canal – 12,000 “head”, men and women – with three women counted as one head – working away with only the most basic tools.  And yet they got the canal built from Toulouse to Agde in just 14 years, from 1667 to 1681.  240 km of canal, 20 to 24 m wide and about 2.5 m deep, with 64 locks (single, double, triple or quadruple), numerous bridges. a few viaducts and an enormous dam – all built entirely by hand!  A colossal undertaking, and even more impressive when you consider the times during which it was built!

Nowadays the Canal du Midi is mostly frequented by pleasure traffic, and its chief glory lies in the fact that its banks are lined by tens of thousands of mature trees.  Initially Riquet only planted trees to stabilise some of the raised banks overlooking the plains, using mostly willows because of their rapid growth.  Later, mulberry trees were planted along the canal, the leaves being used to feed silkworms.  When silk production came to an end, Italian poplar trees replaced the mulberry trees as a productive crop, and it was only during the First Empire that the plane trees took over as the dominant tree along the canal.

Today the plane trees are becoming the victims of globalization:  towards the end of the second world war a fungus was imported from North America, brought to France on wood used to make ammunition crates.  The canker stain of the plane tree is a microscopic fungus which develops inside the tree and blocks its sap channels, thus eventually killing the host plant.  So far no cure has been found, and the spores of the fungus can be distributed by air and water.  Over the years the fungus has slowly spread across southern France, and it is estimated that more than 40,000 plane trees along the Canal du Midi will have to be felled and re-planted over the coming years.  They will be replaced by plane trees resistant to the fungus, as well as a host of other species such as ash and lime.  So the landscape along the canal will change, but think of it as an evolution – in some places the canal may look “naked” for a little while, but the new trees will soon grow!

If you want to know more about the replanting campaign along the banks of the Canal du Midi have a look here – your donations will help to ensure that the canal will look beautiful again!

I hope you’ve enjoyed our little walk – time for a cup of tea??

P.S.  Apologies to all e-mail subcribers to the blog – I accidentally hit the “publish” button while preparing this post, so you had a semi-finished version of this piece in your inbox on Monday.

Here’s to a new start

Happy New Year, to all my dear readers!!

I hope the New Year started well for you, and that you haven’t yet broken all your New Year’s resolutions. I purposely didn’t make any this year as I fail miserably each and every time.

For me the start of a new year is always a time for reflection, a time of renewal – out with the old and in with the new – and a time of anticipation, with the days starting to grow longer again! Soon it will be time to get started with my potager, pruning and clearing, planning what I will be sowing and planting, and what is to go where. All sorts of lists will be made: of things to do in the house, in the garden and of places I would like to visit – there’s always something to be explored or discovered.

I’m sure a lot of you will be making plans for your holidays, trying to work out where and when and how many times. If Languedoc is on your list then let me know, I’m always happy to hear from you!

This week I would like to whet your appetite, quite literally, for the year that lies ahead, with a little trip to Marseillan. Fancy a spot of lunch by the seaside? Marseillan has it all, whether it be quirky murals and shops,

… interesting doors and door knockers,

… boats in the harbour,

… views,

… and good food!

I’ll be raising a glass to all of you – bonne annee!

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