Wonder no more

The drive from La Croisade to Cruzy is a very picturesque one.  First you cross the Canal du Midi, and then you pass into open countryside, surrounded by vineyards.  The road makes a slight curve to the right and then you see it, ahead of you, slightly to the left, behind the trees.  You can take that drive on google street view, if you like!!

It’s the Chateau de Seriege which is the subject of this post, and it has intrigued me for more years than I care to remember!  The Chateau stands majestically on its own, surrounded by a mini park, and a cluster of buildings behind it.  Every time I have driven past it, all the shutters have been firmly closed, and there has never been any sign of life in the imposing building.  Over the years I had heard various stories about its history, and had heard that it had never been completed nor occupied.  But the mystery surrounding the Chateau was about to be lifted last Saturday, when its doors were thrown open for a guided visit.

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The visit had been announced for 3pm, and when I arrived there the car park was already very busy.  The lady who was registering the visitors told me that 200 persons had reserved in advance and that they were expecting an additional 200 visitors on top of that.  Groups of 50 would be taken around the property, and she apologised for the wait.  I didn’t mind in the slightest – I had waited for years already to find out more and get close up, so an extra half hour would not make the slightest difference!!

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When it was time for our group, we assembled around the steps to the Chateau, where we were welcomed by Gilles d’Andoque de Seriege, the owner of the Chateau, and Alix Audurier-Cros, Professor Emeritus at Montpellier University.

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Alix Audurier-Cros explained the history of the Chateau, and how it came to be built.  The Andoque family were first mentioned in the annals of Cruzy in 1495, and over the centuries they increased their wealth and power, to the point where they were able to buy the manor of Seriege in 1775.  With the manor came the right to call your home a chateau, even though it might not fit into the category of what we imagine a chateau to be like.  Alexandre Andoque decided to build a new Chateau at Seriege, and work started in 1884.

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At that point Alexandre Andoque was aged 69, unmarried, and without children.  He died at Seriege in 1902, without the Chateau being completed.  The property then passed to one of his great-nephews, who by all accounts was a city person and spent his time in Montpellier rather than at Seriege.

Let’s have a look at what Alexandre had built:  on a basalt base the Chateau is entirely built with quarried stone – one of the reasons why it has withstood the test of time and being abandoned without coming to too much harm.  The facade is highly ornamented, but here and there you can see bits missing – on the parapet, where bits of the balustrade never made it.  It was wonderful to see the Chateau with almost all the shutters open, and interesting to see that some windows had window frames, and others not, and some window frames had glass in them and others not…

Once the introduction was over we were invited inside – how very exiting!!  The walls of the entrance hallway were entirely tiled up to the ceiling, and the same pattern carried on into the staircase hall.P1080633

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An interesting effect, but I’m still not sure what to make of it…  The plaster work on the hallway ceiling was beautiful, and in fairly good condition, but you can tell the overall state of things by the peeling paint/plaster.

Because of the large number of people, only part of the ground floor was made accessible, and the first floor was unfortunately out-of-bounds.  The salon to the right of the staircase had been partly decorated, again with tiles.  In this room dark brown, embossed tiles were used as the background for some bright (tile) picture panels.  Our guide explained that the decor inside the Chateau was inspired by the Japanese art shown at the 1900 World Fair in Paris.  The graffiti on the wall seems to be Japanese inspired too; perhaps someone knows what they might mean??

The next room was another salon, which overlooked the front of the Chateau, again with some beautiful plaster work, but no decorations on the walls.

And then there was the tower room, a lovely, small room with windows on two sides, and the windows had glass panes in them!

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On the way out I shook hands with Gilles d’Andoque, and thanked him for allowing me to have a look at this wonderful building.  With that, the visit of the inside of the Chateau was finished – we went back out and down the stairs, where the next group was already lined up for their visit, and we then continued around to the side of the Chateau, for the next part of the visit.

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At the side of the building the abandonment feels more acute.  As it is east facing there was no sunlight on this part of the building, and it looked somewhat sad.  I’m not sure what is peeling from the cast-iron pipes – perhaps some insulation?

The reason for being here was a briefing about the genealogy of the Andoque family, and a little more information about how the manor developed over the centuries.  We were now outside the “old Chateau”, a U-shaped building, with the open side closed off by a curtain wall.  This is where members of the Andoque family still live!

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Here is a close-up of the clock – have a look at those two obedient greyhounds on either side of the clock face, they must have been sitting there for centuries!   I was puzzled by the greyhounds, until I found out that they are part of the Andoque coat of arms.

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Once we had listened to all the history of the family, we went on our next and last stop of the tour:  the wine cellars!  The estate has been a working winery for a long time, and Gilles d’Andoque took up the reins of the Domaine in 1945 from his grandfather, Andre d’Andoque.  In turn he passed the reins on to his grandson, Barthelemy d’Andoque, in 2003, and it was the latter who welcomed us in the cellar.  The winery at Seriege is huge, the cellar building is more than 100 meters long and has a capacity of 20,000 hectoliters.  A hectoliter is 100 liters, so that makes it 2 million liters of wine!!  In its heyday the domaine employed a small army of workers in the vineyards and the cellar.  Over the years, Gilles started to modernise the way of working, introducing the first grape picking machine in the area in the 1970’s.  His grandson continues with innovations, using temperature controlled fermentation to produce today’s wines.  The long history of the estate was well in evidence in the cellar, where the old equipment was still in place.

Unfortunately the wine tasting was only later in the afternoon, and I couldn’t stay for that, but I’m sure I’ll be trying the wines from the domaine some other time soon!

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A big thank you to the d’Andoque family of Seriege, for throwing open the doors to the hundreds of curious people, and to the organisers at the Office du Tourisme in Capestang!

Here are a few more pictures, from on the way to the car park…

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Marmalade Marathon

What do you do on a drizzly and grey Sunday afternoon?  Make marmalade of course!!

In truth, the marmalade making marathon had been planned for weeks!  First of all there was the question of getting the Seville oranges.  This being the South of France they are not always easy to come by.  The Fete de la Bigarade in La Caunette, where I usually buy my Seville oranges, had unfortunately been cancelled this year.  I was bemoaning the demise of the fete with Valerie Tubeau (of Le Jardin de Valerie) a few weeks ago, when she offered to get some oranges for me via her wholesaler.  So I rashly said, “I’ll have six kilos then, please”, in French of course.  I wasn’t daunted when, a couple of weeks later, Valerie handed me a great big bag full of lovely orange globes.

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And so last Sunday I set to work!!  I have a tried and tested recipe which came from the “Constance Spry Cookery Book”, which I’ve used for the last 20 years or so.  It’s simplicity in itself and it works for me every time, without fail.  I don’t have the book to hand but the recipe goes something like this:  Pierce the washed oranges with a skewer and put into a large pan in a single layer.  Cover with water (they float, so I just put in enough water that they would be covered if they would not float) and bring to a boil.

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Simmer gently, with the lid on the pan, until the skin is soft enough for the head of a pin to be pushed into the orange without resistance (this takes about 1½ to 2 hours).

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Remove from the water and allow to cool, reserving the water.  When cool enough to handle, cut in half and remove the pips.  Put the pips into a basin.  Chop or shred the orange peel as you prefer and weigh the resulting mass (or mess :-));  add the fruit to your preserving pan.

Next measure the water you cooked your oranges in – the same amount cooking water as fruit, so if you added 500g fruit to your pan, you would add 500ml of cooking water. Add the sugar – double the weight of fruit, i.e. if you had 500g of fruit you would add 1000g of sugar.  Add lemon juice – for the above amounts I would use the juice of 1 lemon.  Lemon is very important as it helps the marmalade to set and will prevent the sugar from crystallising.

Finally tie the pips up in a muslin square and tie the resulting bag to the handle of your preserving pan, so that it can float in the marmalade yet be easily retrieved at the end.

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Now let the boiling begin!   Start slowly to allow the sugar to dissolve, then bring to a rapid boil, stirring with a long-handled wooden spoon.  I have a large wooden spoon which is used solely for jam and marmalade making.  While you wait for the marmalade to come to a boil, slip a small saucer into your freezer – you’ll need it later to test for the set.  Once the jam boils make sure you don’t get splattered as you stir – sugar burns can be very painful.  Keep the jam at a “rolling” boil  and start testing for a set after 5 minutes by drizzling a little of the syrup onto your cold saucer.   Leave to stand for a moment, then push the liquid/jelly with the tip of a finger.  If the surface wrinkles the marmalade will set.  The marmalade can take anything from 5 to 20 minutes of boiling to reach setting point.  I also use a sugar thermometer, and I would recommend that you use one if you can.  Most jams and jellies set at 105 degrees Centigrade / 220 degrees Fahrenheit, so I start testing once the boiling mass has reached that temperature.

Be sure that you have your clean jam jars ready and close to the cooker, and the jam funnel and a ladle to hand.  I use only twist off jars, and usually I have enough of the same kind for each batch of marmalade – I find them easier to store that way.  As soon as the marmalade has reached setting point, ladle it into your jars, and immediately put the lid on.  I keep my jam pan on a very low burner during the jar-filling process in order for the marmalade to stay hot to the end.  I used to turn the jars over, and leave them to cool that way, but I find that it’s not really necessary and only results in messy lids (or worse, the air gap at the bottom of the jar if the jam/marmalade sets well :-)).

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So there you are – that was the Constance Spry recipe!!  I ended up with 23 jars of marmalade from two batches.

Next up I made a recipe from a book called “Sensational Preserves” by Hilaire Walden:  Apple and Ginger Marmalade.  This recipe uses 225g Seville Oranges, 675g cooking apples, 1.6kg sugar, 2 teaspoons ground ginger and 115g preserved ginger.  I hadn’t planned all that well, I realised, because I’d forgotten the preserved ginger;  but I did have fresh ginger and decided to substitute that.

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The oranges were to be peeled and the peel finely shredded.  Being lazy I decided that I would let the food processor do the shredding, or rather the chopping in this case.  The orange flesh was chopped (by hand), with the pips being reserved and tied into a muslin bag with a length of string left to tie the bag to the handle of the pan.  Also into that pan went the chopped orange peel and flesh, the muslin bag, and 1.4lt of water and the whole was then simmered for 1 to 1½ hours until the peel was soft and pan contents reduced by half.

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Meanwhile the apples were peeled, cored and chopped and put into another pan with 150ml of water, and cooked for about 8 minutes until pulpy.  My apples were called Tentation, a beautifully fragrant apple, but not strictly speaking a cooking apple, so I mashed them up a bit at the end.  Once the orange peel is soft, the muslin bag is removed (squeeze well with the back of the spoon to extract all the pectin), the apple pulp is added, then the sugar, along with the ground and preserved ginger (fresh ginger for me this time), and the whole brought to a boil once more.  I also added the juice of one lemon, which was not called for in the recipe. The recipe indicates that it may take as long as 25 minutes of hard boiling to reach the setting point.  I made a double quantity of this recipe but only added one quantity of water and simmered the peel with the lid on.  My reasoning was that there is no point in boiling all the excess water off once the sugar is added.  The jam set beautifully and filled 10 jars.

This was a marathon, so we’re not at the finishing line yet!!  From the same book as the Apple and Ginger Marmalade I decided to try the recipe for Oxford Marmalade.  This recipe used 675g Seville oranges, 1.7lt boiling water and 1.4kg sugar.  The recipe called for the oranges to be peeled and the peel to be cut into chunky strips.  The flesh is to be chopped, with the pips reserved in a basin.  The pips are then covered with 300ml boiling water, and the chopped peel with the remaining boiling water, and both are left to stand  (covered) overnight.

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Next day the contents of the bowl with the pips are tipped into a sieve set over a bowl – all around the pips a jelly has formed, which is natural pectin.   Citrus pips have a particularly high pectin content, and the pectin helps jam and marmalade to set.

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The aim is to wash all the jelly from the pips, so the water from the bowl is poured over them several times, and then the pips are discarded.  The soaked peel and the pectin water go into the jam pan, and are simmered for 2 to 2½ hours – the longer the boiling the deeper the colour of the end result, said the recipe. Unfortunately, after that the instructions of the recipe became somewhat vague.  There was “top up with more water during boiling if necessary” – which made me wonder as to how much water was supposed to be left with the peel at the end of the boiling time.  Next the sugar is added and it said “boil gently until the desired colour is reached”, another question mark for me, I thought that the preliminary boiling time of the peel was influencing the colour of the marmalade.  Undeterred I brought the pan to a rolling boil and stirred and waited.  The indication was for 15 to 20 minutes of hard boiling to reach setting point.  It took a good 20 minutes before the thermometer reached 105 degrees, but even then the saucer test proved unsatisfactory.  I continued to boil for another five minutes, before I decided to stop and pot the jam – I was worried that it might turn into a nasty sticky mess, but as it turned out the marmalade set – a very soft set but still it set.  There is not a lot of fruit, but the colour is nice and dark – and the final proof will be in the eating.  I filled 14 jars with Oxford marmalade.

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Last up I made a recipe given to me by a friend and neighbour in St Chinian.  Margaret’s marmalade is always very nice and I thought I would give her recipe a try.  The recipe is for 700g of Seville oranges, 2.5lt water, juice of 1 lemon, and 2.5kg sugar.  The washed oranges are halved and squeezed to extract juice and pips.  The peel is chopped and put into a bowl, with the juice and the pips tied into a muslin bag.

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The whole is then covered with the water and left to stand for 24 to 48 hours, covered.  I used the food processor once more to chop the peel.  I remembered Margaret’s comment about enjoying more fruit in her marmalade, so I tweaked the recipe somewhat :-).  I doubled the quantity of oranges, but kept the rest of the recipe the same.  When ready to make the marmalade the soaked peel (with the muslin bag) is cooked for approx. 1½ hours until soft.  The muslin bag is squeezed, removed and discarded, and the sugar and lemon juice added. The boiling to setting point took a bit more than 10 minutes and the marmalade is a lovely golden colour!  This recipe filled 12 jars.

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And that is the end of the Marmalade Marathon – I think I’ll have enough marmalade to last the next couple of years, don’t you??   There’s nothing nicer on hot buttered toast than some good marmalade!

Don’t get your feet wet!

World Wetlands Day occurs every year on February 2nd, the anniversary of the signing of the Ramsar Convention, an international treaty for the conservation and sustainable utilisation of wetlands.

The significance of all this for me?  In a magazine published by the Herault Department I noticed a little snippet about a guided visit at Domaine de la Plaine near Nissan-lez-Enserune (yes, there really IS a town called Nissan in southern France!!).  I’m always on the look-out for interesting outings, so I headed to Nissan with a group of friends and we met our guides in front of the Mairie on a beautiful, sunny afternoon.

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The Mairie building has an incredible 1900 facade, improbably grand and glamorous, and a real surprise to find in such a small village.  Once everyone had arrived, we set off in a minibus and an assortment of cars, all provided either by the municipality or the Department.  As we got nearer the site I was very glad that they had provided the transport: some of the tracks along the way were incredibly muddy!!  🙂

Once we got to the site, our three guides introduced themselves:  Rodolphe Majourel from the Conseil General de l’Herault, Remi Jullien from the Conservatoire du Littoral, and John Holliday from the Syndicat Mixte de la Basse Vallee de l’Aude. It took me a little while to figure out the role of each, but I think I got it right:  The Conseil General owns the land at Domaine de la Plaine, 42 hectare in total; the Syndicat Mixte de la Basse Vallee de l’Aude is responsible for the management of the land; and the Conservatoire du Littoral has an advisory capacity.

That out of the way we went for a little walk to an abandoned bergerie or sheepfold on the property.  The bergerie is built on a small, raised part of the land, designed to keep the building (and the sheep) dry when the surrounding lands flooded.  Have a close look at the building; can you see the little niche above the door?  In olden days it would have held the statue of a saint, who would have protected the shepherd and his flock!  The niche is still used today, albeit by birds of prey; our guides told us this with authority – apparently the white traces on the wall are a giveaway.  Our guides were also very excited by stuff they found inside the bergerie:

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These pellets are regurgitations from birds of prey, the ones near the fingertips are from an owl species, the larger ones in the palm from a raptor.  I had forgotten to take my note book and they were talking so fast that I cannot tell you the name of the birds, I’m sorry!  The presence of the pellets means that the birds regularly visit and hunt here, adding to the biodiversity of the site.  The bergerie was connected to dry land by a raised path, which is currently mostly overgrown.  Restoration of the path is on the list of things to do, as is the restoration of the building itself.

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While we were talking, something was soaring overhead – too high up for my lens to capture it properly, and my knowledge of birds is too sketchy to be able to identify what was gliding up there in the sky.

The land at Domaine de la Plaine is almost at sea level, and the river Aude is only 1.8km away, so it’s easy to see how the land would flood reasonably frequently.  Because of the land lying so low the soil contains salt, which during periods of draught rises to the surface.   The salt presents a very challenging environment to plant life, but there are many plants which are adapted to these conditions.  The lands around Domaine de la Plaine were used in the main for two purposes:  grazing and making hay.  Sheep were very much a part of everyday life in the old days, and the village of Nissan had three herds of around 500 sheep each.  Today, the Conseil General is in partnership with a local shepherd, M. Henriques, who grazes his 900 sheep on land all across the lower plain of the Aude River, including Domaine de la Plaine.  He came to meet us at the bergerie to talk a little about his way of working.

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In the main he moves his flock from pasture to pasture on a very regular basis, leaving the sheep on any patch for only a short period, to avoid overgrazing.  He also moves his sheep to the mountains in the summer months, into the high Pyrenees.

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And of course he works his flock with the help of several dogs, two of which he had brought along for us to meet.  After all the explanations, we made our way back to where we started, to see some of his flock, waiting in a trailer for us.  On the way back our guides found some partridge droppings!! 🙂

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The sheep were pretty excited to see us (who wouldn’t be? :-)) and they had a bit of a gambol around the meadow.  When the sheep and the dog had calmed down a little they even managed to graze a bit.

I learnt a lot during my time with the shepherd!!  Apparently you can tell the age of a sheep from their teeth – they have milk teeth to start with, and then the adult teeth appear in pairs.  From about four years old sheep can start to lose their front teeth, which in turn can lead to problems with feeding.  Sheep only have lower front teeth, and they cut against a bony plate in the upper jaw.  Most shepherds start sending their sheep to the abattoir after they are four years old.  Not M. Henriques, he prefers his sheep to have a long and happy life!

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One of our group asked about the purpose of the crook at the end of a shepherd’s stick.

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As soon as the question was asked, M. Henriques swung into action to demonstrate just what it was for!!

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Look, no hands!!  Apparently this is a very good position for examining the hooves and the teeth!   After the “ladies” were once more safely in their trailer, we made our way back to Nissan for a slide show about the fauna and flora to be found at Domaine de la Plaine.  Winter is, of course, not the best time to visit, but it is such an interesting place that I’m sure I’ll be back!  And no, I didn’t get my feet wet!

Kung Hei Fat Choy – Happy Chinese New Year!!

Our cookery group gathered on January 31 and, as that day was marked as the start of Chinese New Year, there was no question as to what the theme for our session would be!!  Our hostess had decided on the following menu:

  • Crab meat soup
  • Chicken with green peppers and cashew nuts
  • Sweet and sour pork
  • Special fried rice
  • Choi sum in oyster sauce
  • Carrot salad with sesame seeds
  • Aromatic and crispy duck
  • Fruit salad

When we arrived two tables had been set:  the kitchen table with all the ingredients and recipes we would need, and the dining table in readiness for our feast!  Since this new year is the Year of the Horse, our hostess had placed a beautiful sculpture of a black lacquer horse at the centre of the dining table.

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P1080305The very first task was to cut the duck in half and to get it simmering in a broth which contained all kinds of wonderful ingredients: fresh ginger, soy sauce, yellow bean paste, sherry, star anise, five spice powder, sugar and stock.

Once the duck was on the stove we ran through the menu and recipes, and decided on who would cook what.  Soon everyone was busy, peeling, chopping and slicing.  I had taken on the task of preparing the special fried rice, and was to help with the aromatic and crispy duck later.

You can see how much progress we were making!  Of course a glass of champagne helped speed the preparations along nicely!! 🙂

Our hostess decided that we would start our meal with the crab meat soup,  follow that up with all of the other dishes, except for the duck, which was to be eaten last.  So that’s what we did.  Here is the soup:

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It was very delicious, with just the right balance of flavours and textures!  Next came some more cooking;  first the sweet and sour pork,

…then the special fried rice.

IMG_8931Here is the chicken with green pepper and cashew nuts,

… and finally it was the turn of the Choi sum:

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And what a feast it turned out to be!!

Each dish had a very different character, but they were all equally delicious!!  We didn’t gorge ourselves too much, being mindful of the aromatic and crispy duck that was yet to come!  After having been simmered until tender and left to cool, the duck halves were deep-fried to crisp the skin.

And after only about 12 minutes in the bubbling oil, the duck was ready to serve!!  Our hostess thought that pancakes might be a little on the heavy side to wrap the duck in, and had opted for leaves of iceberg lettuce instead.  Good move!

IMG_8963The duck was as yummy as it looks, the meat shredded and wrapped in lettuce with shreds of spring onion and cucumber, and with a dab of plum sauce – heavenly!

And here is the fruit salad to end our New Year’s feast!!

IMG_8965We all felt very happy that we’d been able to mark the start of the Year of the Horse in such a splendid way!!