Through the vineyards…

This post was kindly written by Margaret Smythe, a long time friend and resident of St Chinian, as well as a dedicated walker!

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It started as a daily exercise routine and has become much more; the exercise part is now almost incidental and the routine is one of pleasure, mostly. So what is this exercise? Well, we are talking about the early morning walk through the vines and gardens of our village, a brisk-ish 45 minute circuit which takes us through history and nature and seasons from equinox to equinox. The route is the same, with minor variations; the routine is the same unless it’s raining: up at 7-ish, out by 7:30, back around 8:15 for much-needed coffee. It’s not an iron discipline; we are not trying to prove anything, but have grown to enjoy it so much that we miss it when it doesn’t happen.

I am going to lead you through our walk on a beautiful spring morning in late May or early June, when these photos were taken. When we begin in March the cold air stings our faces and ears and fingertips but we want to be ready to savor the first signs of spring: slowly day by day buds appear and open, birds begin to chatter and the sun is more than just a lamp in the sky. By the end of April spring has exploded and we have exchanged our hats, gloves, scarves, and heavy coats for sunglasses and jackets.

We set off down Rue de la Digue, towards the Vernazobres river and the scene of a tragic disaster for the village. In 1873 there was a terrible flood which swept away a lot of houses and killed more than 100 people. The ruins of some of the houses remain, now incorporated into gardens. The Digue (a flood protection dyke) was built to prevent this ever happening again. In fact the river was canalized for the part that runs through the village. Now the river is well-behaved and is a peaceful place for swimming and fishing.

Before we get to the ford we stop to look at the three ancient mulberry trees, one of the few remaining signs of the silk industry that went on here until the early 19th century. They still sprout leaves in their ruined condition, but no fruit. Read the plaque.

Here are inaccessible peaches – too bad some are rotting on the ground already – and unripe figs.

After passing the ford and the swimming hole, known as Les Platanettes for its sheltering plane trees, we emerge into the open spaces of the vineyards. Ahead we see the rocky outcrop “la Corne” an important landmark for the village. Wild flowers, olives, a sloping wheat field and vines and more vines. As we tramp along we listen out for the birds: I cannot claim to recognize them all but the cuckoo is obvious and so is the hoopoe with its distinctive four tooting notes. I saw one once, years ago, and long to see another. They are shy and getting rarer to see, they say. We hear nightingales and larks, and sometimes ducks flying over. Photos do not capture too well the beauty of the wild flowers, different ones coming out every week. Have a look at the last lingering poppies struggling to stay red but fading fast.

Soon we are back at the river, this time crossing by a metal bridge, a “passerelle.” At one time I used to drag a bicycle over it with not too much difficulty and there are signs for the routes of rallies for heavy 2-wheelers, mountain bikes and the like, to cross over too. On the other side we come to a group of houses, site of an old woollen mill known as la Rive. Here we meet the first of the dogs – these ones are ferocious barkers and not friendly. La Rive lies at the foot of the Corne which is now very close – we are almost underneath and able to make out the cross on its summit. On the west side, not visible from here, there is a chapel, Notre Dame de Nazareth, with a steep Way of the Cross leading up to it, where people make an annual pilgrimage followed by the habitual feast and verres d’amitie.

Our route is flat however, no harm first thing in the morning. We are now on a paved road for a short stretch until we swerve into the vines again and say hello to the other dogs, the friendly ones – caged for hunting. They always greet us leaping up with wagging tails as if to say let us out to play. The meeting of the waters comes next, that is a place where the canal and the stream meet. The canal disappears into some trees and when we see it again it has started its course along the many gardens leading into the village. It’s a very important feature of the village, which in the late middle ages (1460s) was tamed by the abbot (Abbe) of the local Benedictine monastery to irrigate his vegetable gardens in the center of the village. The monastery now houses the municipal buildings. Today for an annual 32 euro fee owners of the gardens all along its length can join the Association and water their crops. The flow of water is controlled by a number of vannes (sluices) which we show in the photos. For the rest of our walk we are more or less following the course of the canal.

After another stretch of tarmac we take a short cut and say hello to the donkeys who live with some ponies in a field bordering our path. This short cut between the canal and a damp-ish hedge – being near the water — is lined with different kinds of flowers. There are myriads of the wild pink pyramid orchids, wild garlic and earlier in the season yellow irises and kingcups.

Back on the road again we are nearing the village. We turn into the Martinet and pass a row of houses built almost on top of the canal. The machinery at the entrance to Le Martinet was taken from a sulphur mill before it was converted into a modern dwelling. We pass the vegetable gardens and wave to some of the gardeners and then join the top of the digue to view even more gardens.

The plane trees along here have been infected with an unusual canker. You can see the ones destined for the chop. Many have already been felled. The canker apparently came from wooden pallets containing ammunition brought over to France by the US Army at the end of WW2. It has taken all this time, more than 60 years, to destroy the plane trees. The fate of the plane trees along the Canal du Midi is the most disastrous: all 40,000 of them have to go. The trees were originally planted for shade for the horses and people who worked along the canal through the centuries, and also to secure the banks. Today, classified as a UN World Heritage site, it is extra important to replace them, and this work has begun. We see places along the canal now which are bare, bereft of their welcome shade, but with new trees already growing. The replacements are of varied species so as not to risk the same danger another time. Our village is just one of many who have been dealt this blow.

At the top of the Rue de la Digue we take a right down Rue des Jardins, wide enough for only one car at a time, and then a left into Rue du Canal de l’Abbe, nearly home. If you think life before washing machines was too tough, take a look at this ‘washing machine’ – le lavoir, on the edge of the canal. Some French villages have really elaborate lavoirs, washing places, with wonderful architecture. But the best that we can say about this one is that it is unpretentious. I’m told it was used in living memory. It is hard to imagine being on one’s knees, bending over scrubbing at some garment here without falling into the canal. Actually the olden days were not all bad; for example, there was a law on the books of the village that the mill owners could not discharge their effluent into the canal between certain specific hours of the day, which means a definite awareness of taking care of the planet, and/or consideration for the washerwomen.

And so around the next corner we are back at home.

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When you follow the same route every day, naturally you barely notice what has changed from day-to-day. On the other hand a month later it all looks different. Later on in early autumn when the grapes have been picked and the green vine leaves have turned a rainbow of colors from yellow to orange to deep purple, the end of our walking season is signalled by the low autumn sun which transforms the early morning scene into a land of sloping shadows and sudden flashes of light on the hilltops.

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Potting away

After I visited Saint-Guilhem-le-Desert last fall, I stopped off in the village of Saint-Jean-de-Fos – it was on my way home, so how could I not! 🙂

Saint-Jean-de-Fos has been famous for its pottery workshops since the Middle Ages.  In days gone past, these workshops produced a huge range of everyday items for use inside and outside the home.  Think of items we take for granted today, such as cooking pots and pans.  Until not that long ago, a lot of people in France used terracotta cooking vessels, just as people in parts of India and Africa still do to this day.  Clay is very versatile, and objects were cheap and easy to produce.

In recent years the production of pottery in Saint-Jean-de-Fos has been revived, and one of the former factories has beentransformed into a museum, aptly named Argileum, “argile” being the French word for clay.

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The part of the building with the rusted exterior/roof is the new addition to the old factory, and it houses the visitors centre and reception area, as well as a gallery.  Looking at the main picture above I feel as though the building could be somewhere in Colorado or New Mexico…

The visit of the museum starts in a gallery which was added to the old building.  Just outside the door into the gallery is an installation of sculptures, which sit on a bed of broken terracotta.

The display in the gallery charts the history of this particular factory, as well as the history of ceramics production in the village.

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Here are some examples of items produced in Saint-Jean-de-Fos:

Pitchers, jars, jugs, bowls, plumbing pipes, roof tiles, sugar-loaf moulds, roof decorations, strainers…  There’s much more on display in the gallery than I am showing you in my pictures!

Here is a model of the old factory – the new additions are not shown.  The red dot (if you enlarge the picture) marks the location of the model in the gallery building, which was added to the old factory.

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Also in the gallery are cuttings from a clay pit – this is what clay looks like when it is extracted from the ground:

The first room in the old factory is the throwing room, where the lumps of clay would be turned into pots and other objects – not by throwing the clay around, but by throwing it on a wheel. 😀

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The wheel shown here is a “kick wheel” so-called because the potter kicks the weight at the bottom to turn it.  In this room there was also a video explaining how clay is prepared: once it is dug from the ground it is mixed with water, then sieved to remove impurities such as stones.  The sieved liquid was then left to settle and dry in large basins outside.  You can see the basins on the model above.

When the clay was the right texture it was cut into squares, and the squares stacked inside and left to mature.  Heavy work!!

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In the yard outside, where the basins were located, an exhibition of Raku pottery had been installed.

Raku is a particular technique of firing, where the red-hot objects are pulled from the kiln and put into sawdust, which results in the black surfaces.

Back inside the museum we came to the drying room, where the pots would be left to dry before being fired.  A video in this room explained the decoration particular to pots from Saint-Jean-de-Fos, where different oxides are applied to the clay before being glazed.

The final room was where the big kiln was located – an important part of every pottery!  In days gone by, pottery kilns were always wood fired.  Modern factory kilns can be gas or oil-fired, or powered by electricity.  Some potters still use wood, and the results from a wood fired kiln are very different from what is fired in other kilns.  In the picture below you see the upper level of the kiln, where the pots were stacked.  The hole would be walled up for each firing, and the wood was burned in a chamber beneath.

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If you want to know how an artisan pottery such as this would work in modern days, here is a video for you.  The workshops of the Not brothers are located close to Castelnaudary, and I will get there one of these days!

After the visit to the museum I wanted to see some of the modern-day potters and their wares.  The village itself is very nice for a stroll: narrow roads, squares, fountains…

… and then there were the shops 🙂 – very tempting and subversive to ever-diminishing cupboard space!!

If you visit St Guilhelm le Desert, be sure to leave some time to stop off at Saint-Jean-de-Fos, especially if you enjoy pottery!!

Fit for kings

For those of you who have been following my blog for a few years, I’ll confess now:  I have written about this topic before.  I had planned to re-run that post again.  In the end I decided to write a new post altogether, and I hope you’ll enjoy it just as much.

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In France, Twelfth Night is celebrated with the galette des rois – a wonderful confection of buttery puff pastry, which is filled with almond frangipane.  The galette is usually eaten with friends and/or family, and can be found for sale in French bakeries throughout the month of January.  A small feve (bean or charm) is usually hidden in the filling, and the person who finds the feve in his or her slice is crowned king or queen for the day.  The feve can take all sorts of forms, from a simple dried bean to a porcelain figure such as this:

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If you don’t live anywhere near a bakery where you can buy a ready-made galette des rois, here is how to make your own.  The basic ingredients are very simple, especially if you buy the puff pastry ready-rolled: butter, almonds, sugar, cornflour, eggs.  I’ll be listing quantities at the end of this post as a printable recipe.  I had planned to add some dried yuzu (Japanese citrus) peel to the filling, which is in the yellow packet.  In the end I decided against it.

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To make the frangipane filling, beat the soft butter with the sugar until white and fluffy.

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Add the eggs and beat until incorporated.

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Add the ground almonds, cornflour and amaretto or brandy, and stir until well mixed.

Unroll one sheet of puff pastry and put on a lined baking sheet.  I used the bottom of a cake pan (25cm diam) to cut a neat circle, as the rolled sheets are always slightly oval.  Spread the apricot jam on the base to within 2 cm from the edges…

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…and top with the frangipane mixture.  Don’t forget to put the feve into the frangipane filling!

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Unroll the second sheet of puff pastry, and trim again.  Moisten the edges of the base with water and place the second sheet on top.  Press the edges to seal in the filling.

Mark the top of the pastry with a pattern of your choice:  spirals, zigzags or diamonds – whatever you like.  Glaze the top with beaten egg, which will give the finished galette a wonderful shiny finish.

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Bake the galette in a pre-heated oven (200C, 185C fan, gas 6) for 25 to 30 minutes.  When it comes out of the oven it should look somewhat like this:

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Leave the galette to cool to lukewarm, before you cut it!

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A few notes on the recipe:  I’m not sure whether I’ll be using the apricot jam the next time I make this.  I thought the tartness would complement the rich filling, but having tasted it, I’m not sure that it does.  You could roast the almonds before grinding them.  If you prefer a more pronounced almond flavour, you could add almond essence to the frangipane.  I brushed on too much of the beaten egg so that it went over the edges of the pastry, which stopped it from rising correctly.

 

Galette des Rois

  • Servings: 8
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

Ingredients:
2 rounds of ready rolled puff pastry
2 tbsp apricot jam
100g butter at room temperature
75g caster sugar
1 egg
1 egg yolk
125g ground almonds
1 1/2 tbsp cornflour
2 tbsp amaretto or brandy
1 beaten egg for glazing

Pre-heat the oven to 200C – fan 185C – gas mark 6

To make the frangipane filling, beat the softened butter with the sugar until white and fluffy.  Add the egg and egg yolk and beat until incorporated.  Add the ground almonds, cornflour and amaretto or brandy, and stir until well mixed.

Unroll one sheet of puff pastry and put on a lined baking sheet.  I used the bottom of a cake pan to cut a neat round (the rolled sheets are always slightly oval).  Spread the apricot jam on the base, to within 2 cm of the edges, and top with the frangipane mixture.

Unroll the second sheet of puff pastry, and trim again.  Moisten the edges of the base with water and place the second sheet on top.  Press the edges to seal in the filling.

Mark the top of the pastry with a pattern of your choice:  spirals, zig-zags or diamonds – whatever you like.  Glaze the top with beaten egg, which will give the finished galette a wonderful shiny finish.

Bake the galette in a pre-heated oven for 25 to 30 minutes.  Leave to cool to lukewarm before cutting.

Hoping for peace

As I am writing this, events are still unfolding in Paris, following the carnage at the Charlie Hebdo offices.  I pray that the hostages are going to be released, and that no more lives will be lost.

Being in this sleepy village in Languedoc I am far removed from all the madness, but touched by it all the same.  At midday yesterday, the municipality observed a minute of silence, to remember the victims.

My heart goes out to the families who have lost their loved ones in this atrocity, and to those who are fearful for the safety of their nearest and dearest, who are being held hostage.