Room with a view

For the past 12 years or so, I have had the view in the photograph below from my bedroom window:

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No, the sky has not always been this blue a colour, and it has not always been sunny, but the buildings have not changed in all those years!  Does that tall building look to you as though it could have been a church?  The buttresses, the window…?

The southern end of the building fronts onto Place Saint Aignan, also called Le Plo in local vernacular.  That facade is pretty nondescript, and doesn’t really give us much of a clue.

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The northern end of the building offers more of a helpful hint:

That arch definitely looks as if it could have been part of an old church, wouldn’t you agree??  Turns out that our hunch is right!  Behind that nondescript facade on Place Saint Aignan is what remains of the Eglise des Recollets, the church of the Recollects.

Four of the members of the historical society of Saint Chinian, Les Richesses du Saint Chinianais, have just published a book called La presence de l’Ordre des Recollets a St Chinian – the presence of the Recollect Order in Saint Chinian.  As part of the “book launch”, a guided visit of the former church had been organised.  Of course I went along – how could I not, after all those years of looking at that building!!  And my trusted camera came along with me, so I would have something to share with you :)!

The Recollect order was a branch of the Franciscan order, following the ideals of poverty and recollection, at a time when many orders had given up ascetic living and were more into decadence.  The Recollects arrived in St Chinian around 1643 to “set up shop”.  The church was built probably between 1643 and 1690, with simple materials such as stone, brick and wood.  For the location, the Recollects chose the faubourg, the suburb of St Chinian, which was a populous and poor part of the village, outside the walls.

Fast forward to the present day – we’ll work our way back in time. Right now the building is used as a municipal works depot. It houses some of the trucks belonging to the village, along with other bits and pieces.

The former choir is currently a workshop:

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Prior to being owned by the village, it was in possession of the departmental works commission (DDE) and used as a depot.  The DDE acquired the building in the 1950s. The original doorway was enlarged during the time of the DDE, and the concrete floors and galleries upstairs were put in. Here is what is left of the original doorway:

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Before the DDE, the church belonged to one of the large estates in St Chinian, presumably being used for storage. During the early part of the 20th century the building was used to show silent movies, and also for theatre performances. The winch is purported to be a remnant from the theatre days, and there are other bits of ironmongery stuck in the walls, which could date from that period.

Now we’ll go back to the Recollects. Since they were a poor order, very little has been found in the archives in the way of records. They monks did not lead a cloistered life, and their convent did not conform with what we mostly know to be a monastery, with a cloister and restricted areas. In St Chinian, the Recollects appear to have owned some, but perhaps not all, of the buildings around Place Saint Aignan. On the north side of the church used to be the cemetery for the village, and to the east were gardens, fields and orchards, which supplied the monks with food. To the west of the church was a small garden, also belonging to the monks, bordered by the houses along rue Saint Laurent.

The church building is similar in size to both the parish church and the church of the Benedictine abbey.  As I mentioned earlier, they used very simple materials for the construction of their church.  Some of the elements have stood the test of time – such as the diaphragm arches, which held up the roof structure.  The round holes were there to help ventilate the roof void.

The roof structure would not have been visible.  Some kind of vaulting would have been added, probably made of brick.  You can still see the lines of where the vaulting would have met the wall, in this picture.  look carefully, and you will be able to see the bricked up window which I can see from my window:

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The church had six chapels, three on each side, built in between the buttresses on the outside walls.  Two of them are still in existence and open to the inside of the building.  The locations of the other chapels are visible in the cracks, which have developed in the plaster over the years. The arches of the chapel roofs seem to have been made from thin bricks, in a somewhat unusual way.  They seem to be almost cantilevered rather than the more usual approach to making brick arches. The chapels had lancet shaped windows, and if you look very carefully at the first picture in this post, you can just about make out the outline on the wall.

Some of the chapels were sold off very early on when the church passed into private hands, and today they are incorporated into houses, which have been built against the church.

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So there we are, back on Place Saint Aignan – our visit to this fascinating building over.  Its history holds more questions than it provides answers.  Here is a little more history for you:

The Recollects ministered to the people of St Chinian until 1768, when their numbers had dwindled to such an extent, that the convent was closed down. The monks stayed on for a little while, but eventually all the buildings were sold off. The large building to the east of the church became a hospital. The church became private property, and was used for services during the years immediately after the French Revolution, when the parish church had been turned over to the cult of the Supreme Being, and the church of the Benedictine abbey had been shut down. After that, decline was steady. The bell tower had to be pulled down before it fell.   The roof of the choir rotted away, and the roof was only replaced by the DDE, on lower walls. Part of the roof over the nave collapsed after 1900, taking with it the upper part of the end wall and the opening which would have held the rose window.   The new roof was built with a metal structure, possibly a much cheaper alternative at the time.

The research done by the historians is fascinating. They must have spent hours and hours in the archives, reading one dusty document after another. I should probably write “decipher” – if the postcards I featured a couple of weeks ago are anything to go by. The project seems to have taken them four years to come to fruition, and there are still a fair few unanswered questions. If you are interested, you can purchase your own copy of the book at the Maison de la Presse in St Chinian, for 10 EUR – a bargain when you consider the many hours spent on gathering all the information.

 

 

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Moroccan spice

It’s been a little while since you had a food post, so when I was cooking for a group of friends who were coming for dinner last Sunday night, I thought I would share the recipe with you.  In my heart of hearts I am a fairly lazy cook, and I love dishes which can cook slowly and be prepared ahead of time.  A tagine is just one such dish, and it is infinitely variable.  For my recipe I drew inspiration from a variety of sources:  Nigel Slater’s recipe for Lamb Tagine, The Hairy Biker’s recipe for Chicken Tagine, along with recipes from books in my collection by authors such as Claudia Roden and Sam and Sam Clark (Moro).

While I was revising this post, I found that two of the blogs I follow (www.cookinginsens.wordpress.com and http://www.frugalfeeding.wordpress.com) had also posted tagine recipes recently.  I wonder if this is the effect of a collective psyche?? 😀

To cook the dish, I used an earthenware tagine pot, which is a wide, relatively shallow pan, with a conical lid.  Just for the record, the black pot on the right is used to cook rice!

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Once you have assembled all your ingredients the preparation is pretty straightforward.

The spices I used were cinnamon, cumin, ginger, turmeric, paprika, chili and saffron.  For the meat I used chicken – one leg quarter per person, separated into thigh and drumstick.

The meat is browned in some olive oil – I had to do this in batches.  Once brown, the meat is removed and set aside.

The chopped onions were added next along with the remaining olive oil, and the heat turned down to medium/low.  The sliced garlic was added after about five minutes, and both were cooked slowly until softened, but not browned, which took about 10 minutes.

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Once the onions were nice and soft I added the spices and gave it a good stir.  Be careful not to burn the spices – it’s a good idea to have your chopped tomatoes handy so you can add them if it looks as though the spices might get too hot.

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At this point a very heady aroma will fill your kitchen, and you may be feeling somewhat impatient for a taste.  Be patient – delicious things come to those who wait!!

Once you have added the chopped tomatoes, return the chicken pieces to the pan and add the dried apricots.  Add water or stock to barely cover the meat, and add a good pinch of salt, and some freshly ground pepper.  Don’t be tempted to over-season at this point, you can add more salt later.

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Once the liquid has come to the boil, the lid goes on and you simmer the tagine very slowly for 1 hour – the liquid in the pan should barely move.  Add the dried prunes after an hour, if using Pruneaux d’Agen – they are softer and don’t need to be cooked for a long time.  If you use regular dried prunes, add them after 45 minutes. Continue to simmer the tagine for another 30 minutes, by which time the chicken should be very tender.

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Remove the pulp from the preserved lemon and chop the skin finely.  Add to the tagine and mix in very gently.  Sprinkle with chopped coriander, and serve with couscous or plain rice.  Accompany with harissa paste.

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I served a pumpkin soup to start the meal, made with home-grown pumpkin.  After cheese there was dessert, and for that I had prepared Pecan Pie Cheesecake Squares, found at ChristinaWithCaramel – I think we were all quite full at that point, but everyone cleared their dessert plates all the same!!  😉

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Chicken Tagine

  • Servings: 6
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

Ingredients:

6 chicken leg quarters, separated into drumstick and thigh
2 large onions, chopped
3 cloves of garlic, finely sliced
3 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp ground ginger
2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground turmeric
2 tsp paprika
1 tsp chili powder (vary this according to how hot you like your food)
one good pinch of saffron strands
1 can chopped tomatoes (400g)
250g dried apricots
250g dried prunes (I used Pruneaux d’Agen)
half a preserved lemon, pulp removed and the skin finely chopped
2 tbsp chopped coriander leaves
Harrisa paste to serve

Assemble your spices and other ingredients.  Brown the chicken pieces all over in half the olive oil.  Remove and add the chopped onion to the pan and the remaining olive oil, over medium/low heat, stirring occasionally.  After five minutes add the sliced garlic and continue to cook until the onions and garlic are soft but not brown – about another five minutes.  Add the spices, stir and cook for a minute, then add the chopped tomato.  Return the chicken pieces to the pan and add the dried apricots.  Add stock to barely cover the meat, season lightly with salt and pepper.  Bring to the boil and then simmer very gently for one hour.  Add the dried prunes and simmer for another 30 minutes, if using Pruneaux d’Agen.  Add regular dried prunes after 45 minutes of cooking and simmer for 45 minutes more.  When the dish is cooked, add the preserved lemon and stir very gently to distribute evenly.

Serve with plain boiled rice or couscous, and sprinkle with chopped coriander.  Don’t forget to pass the harissa!

Postcards from another time

Over the years I have accumulated a small stash of old postcards, showing Saint-Chinian as it once was.  A little while ago I decided it would be fun to try and show you some now and then pictures, so one day, not long ago, I set off with my camera.  The photographers of most of the original images would have had quite a lot of equipment to carry with them.  The camera would have been a large and heavy box on a tripod, with bellows attached to the front, and the negatives would have been on glass plates – you can still see cameras like that in some museums.  I am very thankful that things have evolved 🙂  I am able to carry my camera without giving myself a hernia, and taking pictures is definitely easier these days! In the early 20th century, postcards were commonly used to send short messages or greetings, much as we use our mobile phones today to send SMS. This first postcard is of Avenue de Cessenon – today called Avenue Raoul Bayou: avenue de cessenon.fw  avenue de cessenon reverse.fw The postcard was sent as a New Year’s card on January 2, 1916 to a Mr Dispens, and it appears to have been sent in an envelope, because of the missing postmark and address.  I’ve not been able to decipher all of the handwriting, but it could have been a wife writing to her husband at the front. It talks about little Michel, who has grown and talks so well, and looks so much like the addressee.  There’s also a bit about “if you don’t have enough to do you could come and paint a few cars”, and it signs off with “we cordially shake your hand”.  Perhaps some of that was coded language? Or perhaps it was not the wife at all but a friend writing to his buddy?  In all likelihood, Mr Dispens was probably a soldier at the time, either in barracks nearby, or fighting somewhere.  Avenue Raoul Bayou has changed over the intervening years, but the houses are pretty much the same as they were then: avenue de cessenon todayThe card below with the view of the river was sent on July 23, 1908 from a son to his father.  The father was staying in Lourdes, and the son was glad that the father had visited Pau on his way to a town whose name I cannot decipher, nor find on google maps.  The son tells his father that the wagon de pierre (I am assuming a cart to transport stones with) would be delivered on Thursday, and he mentions that he is behaving himself very well. vue de la rivere.fw vue de la rivere reverse.fw With the way the access to the riverbank has changed, it has been impossible for me to get the same viewpoint as the photographer in the early 1900’s.  The land where he would have set up his camera has become inaccessible, and trees have grown up in the riverbed, obscuring much of the view, but I had a go at it all the same! vue de la riviere today   The postcard below showing the Mairie, was written by a girl called Evelyne, who was in the first class at school.  She tells Michel and Mme Dispens that everyone is well and that Ponponne and ratonne are having a fun time. la mairie.fw la mairie reverse.fw The trees in the Mairie gardens have grown, the roofs over the towers have been changed, and there are no more horses in the street, but otherwise the view hasn’t changed all that much. la mairie today The postcard below of Grand Rue was written on March 8, 1916 – that’s almost 99 years ago!! The handwriting on the back of this card is a little tricky to read, but I have found that the writer hopes that the war would be over soon and that they would see each other in good health.  So this is possibly another postcard sent to a soldier somewhere. grand rue.fw grand rue reverse.fw Although Grand Rue has undergone a great deal of change during the past 100 years, the buildings are all still there.  The building of the Hotel Bouttes houses today Le Vernazobre restaurant and bar, and the pharmacy.  The building which once housed Au Bon Marche has undergone a fair amount of transformation.  Gone are the ornate cornices above the doors, and the shutters have all disappeared along with the wrought iron railings.  Today the building houses Credit Agricole bank, and the three windows just before Le Vernazobre have become a private house. grand rue today I’ve enjoyed trying to re-create the views!  Since there are more postcards in my stash I will call this a work in progress!  Do let me know if you find any old postcards of St Chinian!  And don’t forget, today’s postcards will be tomorrow’s heirlooms…

Frozen in time

At the beginning of November last year, I visited the Fete de la Chataigne in Olargues.  Whilst walking around the village, to see what was happening where, I discovered a gem of a place:  the Taillanderie Galibert or the Galibert Forge!

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I had walked down this street many times before, and admired the ancient, timeworn doors and shop fronts, but nothing had hinted at what lay hidden behind some of these shutters.

Outside the door stood an old bicycle and a few pieces of old equipment, as well as a storyboard.  My curiosity was piqued when I saw the open doors – I couldn’t resist having a look!

To step inside is to step back in time – to a time when mobile phones and internet were totally unknown, and when colour TV was still in its infancy!  The Galibert forge closed its doors in the 1970s.  After the last blacksmith died, the workshop was shut up and left as it was – since then almost nothing has been sold or removed.  The house still belongs to one of the descendants, and it was one of the grandsons of the last blacksmith who was demonstrating the machinery and giving the visitors some insights.  Here is the video I took of the machinery in action (e-mail subscribers, please visit the blog site to view the video):

This grandson created an association last year, with the aim of bringing his grandfather’s workshop back to life.  It will be open for educational visits (school classes) and prearranged groups, and to the general public on special days, such as the Fete de la Chataigne.

Have a look at this Aladdin’s Cave of amazing stuff:

All the machinery is driven by a belt and pulley transmission – every health and safety inspector’s nightmare!  But the electric motor still works, and so do the machines – they were built to last!!

It’s a fascinating visit – well worth the trip to Olargues.  For details of opening hours please contact the Tourist office in Olargues: avenue de la gare, 34390 Olargues, Tel +33 (0)4 67 23 02 21, e-mail olargues@ot-caroux.fr