Follow the blue line

Spring has arrived in earnest in Languedoc, and I think it is high time that I shared some of the marvels of nature with you – all too soon spring will turn into summer :)!!

Earlier this week, I went for a walk with my camera and a couple of friends.  The walk started on what had been the old road which connected Saint-Chinian with Cebazan.  Have a look at the map below – I parked the car at the “purple” crossroads, where you see 241.  Here is a link to the map at Geoportail, in case you want to explore a little more.  The purple line which loops around and passes 229 and 277 follows the walk we took.

map

The markings along the walk are in blue, hence the title of this post.

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And here is the first of many plants which are in full flower right now: euphorbia.  I will try to give you plant names wherever possible, but my knowledge of wildflowers is somewhat limited.

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Not long into the walk there are some spectacular views of Cebazan in the distance.

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The scenery is beautiful!, Unfortunately, the camera does not really do it justice.  More flowers along the way: a different type of euphorbia, and my first sighting, this year, of cistus flowers, and spanish broom.  The long spears are the buds of spanish broom, just before it bursts into flower.  Another week or so, and the hillsides will be covered with fragrant, yellow blooms!

Here is another view, down the valley, in the general direction of Cebazan.  These are the ruins of a rather large building, with the walls of a tower still standing.  There’s a little window in the attic part of the tower – it might have been for a pigeon loft.  If you look carefully, there’s a rim of slate all the way around the outside, perhaps to stop rodents climbing up the walls?

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Here is some wild thyme, with almost pure white flowers.  Usually thyme flowers are pink. I wonder if it has to do with the mineral content of the soil?

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The next part of the walk involved a long-ish climb over a very rocky track.  It was almost as if someone had poured a huge amount of limestone rocks down the side of the hill.  In all likelihood, the stones were cleared from the surrounding fields in times gone by, and simply piled up, forming a river of stone.

At the top of the climb we rejoined a more level path, and although this shrub was not flowering, its berries looked lovely.  The plant is a juniperus oxycedrus, and whilst the berries are not the juniper berries used to flavour gin and various other European dishes, they are comestible if used very ripe.

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Next we came to a beautiful capitelle, one of the shelters built from only the stones found nearby, and without any mortar!  This is the capitelle marked on the map, just above Le Bousquet.

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I had walked past the capitelle in February, and made a mental note to come back when the almond trees were in flower, but somehow the note got mis-filed.  🙂  It is still very pretty with the trees just leaving out.

The path then rounded a corner, and became more open as it passed through some vineyards.  Seeing the vine leaves emerge always cheers me up no end!

More flowers to be seen – none of us knew this plant, and I still don’t know what it is – the leaves are almost like those on an apple or pear tree, only smaller, but the flowers bear no resemblance.  If any of you know, please write the name in the comments box below.

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The path rounded another corner, and there was another capitelle, I guess it’s the second one, which is marked on the map, although there are a few others along the way, some of them half fallen down.

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There was an extra attraction to this capitelle – I am not going to hazard a guess as to what make this might have been. 🙂  The body is still very strong – these old cars were incredibly heavy!

The view from the gap in the wall is just wonderful, and it includes my favourite little hut in the middle of the vineyards:

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A semi-abandoned field yielded lots of interesting wildflowers: a tassel hyacinth, two kinds of dandelions, an orchid (cephalantera longifolia), and a clover like flower (anthyllis vulneraria).

Further along there was an asphodel, all by itself:

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This unknown tree or shrub was flowering in an amazing profusion!

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This thyme plant has the more typically pink flowers!  Can you spot the bee?

 

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The almonds are already well advanced:

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And the judas trees are still in full flower:

The path was heading towards the spot where the car was parked.  But there were still some surprises, such as the plant below.  It looks like an orchid, but if I remember from the botanical walk in Cruzy last year, it is a parasite, which grows on the roots of another plant.  Hence the brownish colour, as the plant cannot make any chlorophyll.

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There must have been a fire on this field, perhaps only last year.  The view into the distance is absolutely amazing!

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A little abandoned building along the path…

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… a beautiful blue iris…

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… and some fragrant lilac…

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… and then the path led back to the car!  Except for the climb up the rocky “river” the walk is very easy.  There is a way to bypass that climb, look out for the thin orange/brown line on the map.  At normal speed the walk takes around an hour to complete; with lots of stops to take photographs it took 90 minutes.  On your next visit to St Chinian you should try this walk.  It is well worth it!!

 

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Monday in Mirepoix

Monday morning is when the weekly market takes place in Mirepoix!  I’d been to Mirepoix once before, many years ago, when a friend wanted to show me a particularly interesting church, Notre-Dame-de-Vals, which is not far from Mirepoix.  The interesting thing about the church is that it is partly built into the rock, which makes for a spectacular interior.  After visiting the church, we stopped in Mirepoix for a coffee, before heading home again.  On that first visit I was captivated by Mirepoix and its meandering arcades, and I vowed that I would return one day!

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The town of Mirepoix is in the Ariege, an area where Catharism was well established in the Middle Ages. Of course Simon de Montfort, the well known crusader, laid siege to the town and took it in 1209, presumably killing all the Cathar heretics in the process.  In 1289, when the area had probably recovered from the violent crusade against the Cathars, Mirepoix was completely destroyed by flooding.  The town was immediately rebuilt in its present location, across the river from where it had been.

The prevailing style of town architecture, at the time of the rebuilding, was that of the Bastide, a fortified town with the streets laid out in a grid pattern, and with a central market square surrounded by arcades (couverts).  In Mirepoix there is a Grand Couvert  and a Petit Couvert, the second being somewhat smaller than the first, as implied by the name.

Street sign in Mirepoix

Street sign in Mirepoix

At some point Mirepoix outgrew the old fortifications, and the walls and moats disappeared.  Most of the houses in the old centre of town are timber-framed buildings, and some of them are spectacular.

When you look closely at the timbers, you can see that some of them were sculpted.

You’ll also be able to notice that the wood has been around some time – it’s amazing to think that these buildings have stood for hundreds of years!!

The market in Mirepoix was somewhat different to the market in St Chinian.  One of the first stalls I came to sold live chickens!!  I have not seen that in St Chinian for a very long time!!

The old-fashioned knife grinder would be wonderful to have in “our” market – there would be no more excuses for blunt kitchen knives!!

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There were colourful baskets and wonderful plants, fresh vegetables and dried fruit, cheese and sausages, teas, bread, clothes, housewares – you name it…

There was also a small stand selling beautiful pottery:

Just as I got to that stand, I saw two beautiful goblets being wrapped up.  They had been bought by the lady who had gotten to the stall before me.  She saw me eying the goblets with some jealousy/regret, and noticing my disappointment, suggested that I should visit the potter’s workshop, where he would have a lot more stock.  She told me that it was only ten minutes from Mirepoix by car, and assured me that it would be well worth the drive.  One of the friends who had accompanied me to Mirepoix is a potter herself, so we needed little convincing.  We arranged to come by the workshop in the afternoon, and in the process got a recommendation for a restaurant where we could have lunch.

There was still a little time before noon, so we continued to explore Mirepoix.  The Cafe Castignolles seemed to be a popular meeting place, and it boasts a painted ceiling outside:

The former cathedral has an incredibly wide nave, but is very dark, despite a fair number of windows.

Of course I couldn’t resist the door knockers:

And I came across a interesting looking second-hand shop which had the most wonderful tiled floors:

On the way to the restaurant I came across La Fromagerie Chez Lucie, a charming little cheese store on Rue Colonel Petitpied (yes, he really was called smallfoot!!).  The shop was very small, but the selection of cheeses comprehensive and irresistible.  If you go to Mirepoix you should make a point of trying the vieux comte, Chez Lucie!

Since we were not far from our car, we deposited all our shopping, and headed back to the Grand Couvert and the Bar Restaurant Le Cantegril, which had been recommended by the potter.

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The lunchtime three course menu was priced at 15 EUR, and the next menu was at 18.50 EUR, also for three courses.  Both offered good value for money.  Here’s what we started our meal with:  Terrine Maison (home-made pate), Piquillos Fracis (stuffed sweet peppers), Potage du Jour (butternut squash soup), Entree du Jour (gratinated seafood):

For main course we enjoyed cassoulet, grilled duck breast, fried fish and sausages with lentils:

None of us wanted cheese, so we went straight on to dessert:  a cafe gourmand, a crispy wafer filled with raspberry cream, and a rice pudding with salted butter caramel:

What a delicious meal!!

Thoroughly sated, we walked around Mirepoix a little more on our way back to the car, and snapped a few more pictures.  Cafe Llobet is my idea of what a typical French Cafe should look like from the outside: 🙂

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I’m not sure why the cow stood where it did – was there perhaps a cheese shop in the arcades?

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Just before reaching the car we saw what looked a little like a haunted house:

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And right at the top of the facade something seemed to move.

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Maybe we’d imagined it, perhaps it was just a pigeon – but wait

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I’m sure it moved again!  Yes, it definitely did!

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The head of it definitely moved, at random intervals.  I would imagine that it is a device designed to scare off the pigeons, but they didn’t take too much notice of it 🙂

Once we got to the car we set off on our short journey to Rieucros, where Jean Napolier was waiting for us at his pottery Le Gres du Vent.  The workshop and shop were just across from the post office, so we had no trouble finding them.  Jean showed us his workshop, where he works with his wife, Francoise Louste.  He explained the techniques he uses, and the materials (stoneware clay and porcelain clay), and covered a fair bit of technical detail with my potter friend.  I just stood by and marvelled!

Afterwards we visited the shop:

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It doesn’t look like much from the outside, but inside it was an wwwAladdin’s cave of beautiful pottery.  Because of space limitations, only so much could be displayed in the shop, but seeing our enthusiasm, Jean allowed us the run of his store-room !  I was too preoccupied with looking at everything, so didn’t photograph any of the pots.  You will just have to visit Rieucros and look for yourself!!  Le Gres du Vent is on Place de la Poste in 09500 Rieucros.  Do call ahead on 05 61 68 73 51 to make sure Jean and/or Francoise will be there.

A little brown bag…

…arrived on my doorstep last year, a present from my friend Carole.  In the bag were the makings of Chocolat Chaud a l’Ancienne or old-fashioned hot chocolate!  Carole shares my passion for all things chocolate, and she has discovered a cafe in Beziers (Le Mathi’s), not far from the Theatre Municipal on the Allees Paul Riquet, which serves old-fashioned hot chocolate amongst a myriad of treats.  The little brown bag contained a copy of the recipe Carole uses to make her own hot chocolate, along with dark chocolate, cocoa powder, cinnamon and vanilla!  Just add milk… 🙂

Ingredients for old-fashioned hot chocolate

Ingredients for old-fashioned hot chocolate

Before I made my own hot chocolate, I had to go on an expedition in Beziers, to taste the chocolat chaud a l’ancienne at Le Mathi’s.  The things I do for the sake of writing this blog!! 😀

Cafe Le Mathis in Beziers

Cafe Le Mathi’s in Beziers

Le Mathi’s is one of a number of cafes which front onto Beziers’ main square – in the summer there is a large terrace outside, but as it was still a little too cold for the terrace, I was cozy inside.  Somehow I cannot imagine myself having hot chocolate in the summer.

Inside Le Mathis in Beziers

Inside Le Mathi’s in Beziers

The patrons of Le Mathi’s seem to be an eclectic bunch:  groups of older ladies, office workers, students, perhaps the odd travelling salesman?  The menu board lists the old-fashioned hot chocolate right at the top!  There is also traditional hot chocolate and Viennese hot chocolate, along with eight different kinds of cafe and 20 different kinds of tea!!  And there are cakes!!

The menu at Le Mathis

The menu at Le Mathi’s

I’d come to try the old-fashioned hot chocolate, but the Viennese hot chocolate intrigued me.  I decided to try the Viennese hot chocolate, and my companion ordered the old-fashioned hot chocolate  Here’s what they looked like:

Now I know – Viennese hot chocolate has a whole lot of whipped cream on top!! I guess I should have thought of that!! 🙂  The old-fashioned hot chocolate was thick and rich – perfectly delicious!  We didn’t really need any cakes to go with the chocolate, but what the h*** –  you only live once!

And then the hot chocolates were finished, and it was time to go for a walk!

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Here are some of the beautiful buildings I saw on my walk:

Some time later, at home, I tried out Carole’s Recipe for old-fashioned hot chocolate.  To the ingredients Carole had already presented me with, I added milk, cream, and brown sugar.  Here is the picture again:

Ingredients for old-fashioned hot chocolate

Ingredients for old-fashioned hot chocolate

The milk and cream were put into a saucepan along with the vanilla and cinnamon and some water.  I deviated from the recipe somewhat, in that I mixed the sugar and cocoa powder to a paste, with some of the milk.  That paste dissolved beautifully in the milk.

A stage during the making old-fashioned hot chocolate

A stage during the making of old-fashioned hot chocolate

After the paste of cocoa and sugar was added to the milk mixture, the whole was brought to the boil, and then the chopped chocolate was added.  The preparation was then kept at a simmer for 15 minutes, before being strained to remove any lumps and spices.  The recipe says that the hot chocolate will taste better if prepared in advance and re-heated.  I couldn’t wait that long though!! 🙂  It was delicious, rich and thick – a chocoholic’s dream!!

Chocolat chaud epice a l’ancienne

Chocolat chaud epice a l’ancienne

The recipe makes a fair amount of hot chocolate, so you will have some left over.  I’ll let you be the judge if it is better the day after.

The next time I prepare the recipe I might reduce the amount of chocolate a little, and perhaps add some more sugar, but I’ll definitely be making it again!!  Thank you so much, Carole!!

 

Just gorgeous

Springtime in Languedoc is a wonderful and almost miraculous time.  All of a sudden Nature bursts forth, and seemingly dead branches burst into lush flowers almost overnight!

Almond blossom near Minerve

Almond blossom near Minerve

 

On one of those glorious days which herald spring, I went with friends to have lunch in Minerve: not a cloud to be seen, bright blue skies, endless sunshine, not a breeze stirring, and the almond trees in full bloom.

I don’t think I’ve written about Minerve before.  It is a little village which ranks amongst the most beautiful villages of France.  Its location is on a rocky outcrop, a natural oppidum, where the gorges of the Cesse and Briant rivers converge.  A perfect location for a safe haven in pre-historic times, as attested by archaeologists, who have dated occupation of the site to around 850 BC.

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View of Minerve across the gorge of the Cesse river

If the setting of the village is spectacular, it also meant isolation in more modern times, because access was so very difficult.  The road which brings us to the village today was only finished in 1901, and the viaduct, which allows cars and pedestrians to cross the gorge, was completed in 1912. Electricity only came to the village in 1931/32!

From the early Middle Ages, Minerve used to be the seat of the Viscounts of Minerve. The village gave its name to the surrounding area, which is called the Minervois unto this day.  During the Cathar crusades, the village was besieged by Simon de Montfort and his army of Christian soldiers, in the summer of 1210 to be precise.  After five weeks of bombardment, the villagers and the Cathars, who had sought shelter in the village, ran out of food and water.  Guilhelm of Minerve surrendered to Simon de Montfort.  The Cathars were given the option to give up their faith or be killed – 140 Cathar Parfaits (ministers) opted to die by being burnt at the stake, rather than renounce their faith.  It seems that the ordinary Cathar faithful abjured the heresy, and were saved from the flames.

If you want to read a little more about Minerve I would recommend the French Wikipedia entry for the village here.  The English entry is rather brief and concentrates mainly on the Cathar history.

Today, a reconstruction of the Malvoisine, one of the catapults used at the time of the siege, stands across the gorge of the Cesse river, to remind us of the history.

Reconstructed catapult at Minerve

Reconstructed catapult at Minerve

The two rivers which flow in the gorges on either side of the village, have a strange particularity – they flow in the winter, but dry out and run underground in the summer.  The Cesse river has bored through the rocks and created two large tunnels.  The larger of the two is over 200 metres long, and starts just below the viaduct.  The second one is “only” 126 metres long, and a little upstream from the first one.  Do go and have a look if you are in Minerve and if the river beds are dry – the tunnels are spectacular!

The village of Minerve is enjoying a steady flow of visitors year round, and in recent years much has been done to make it more attractive to visitors.  Houses have been renovated, the roads repaved, and of late some of the remaining fortifications have been restored.

The village streets are narrow, and the houses huddled close together.

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If you visit Minerve, make sure that you climb the steps up to the church, and have a look at the stone monument, which commemorates the 140 Cathars burnt at the stake in 1210.  The sculpture was carved by J.L. Severac, a local artist.

 

Memorial stele at Minerve

Memorial stele at Minerve

Not all that far from the church is the Paroli bookshop and tea room.  It’s a wonderful place for those who love old books, and great for resting your weary feet and enjoying some refreshments.

We’d come to have lunch at the restaurant at Relais Chantovent, which overlooks the gorge of the Briant river.

From the street, there is not much to be seen.  The restaurant is on one side of the road, and the hotel, to which it belongs, is on the opposite side.

Inside, the dining room is lofty and spacious, and all along one side are sliding glass doors, which open onto the terrace and the gorge of the Briant.  For those of you who have been to the restaurant in the past, a few years ago the terrace was completely remodeled and enlarged.

Since the weather was so glorious, we jumped at the offer of dining on the terrace.  We had a table right by the railing, and could hear and see the river far below.

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Once we had placed our order, a little mise en bouche arrived:  a small bowl of wonderfully creamy asparagus soup, with asparagus flavoured oil drizzled over.

Mise en bouche

Mise en bouche

 

Our starters were all beautifully presented, and tasted even better.  I have captioned the photographs of the food in the following galleries  – simply move your mouse over the photographs to make the captions appear.  If this does not work for e-mail subscribers, please visit the blog website.

Main courses:

Some of us had cheese!!

Cheese plate at Le Chantovent

Cheese plate at Le Chantovent

 

And finally came dessert:

We lingered over coffee and tea – the sunshine was just too nice!!

Thank you to Nicolas and his patient staff – we had a wonderful time!!

Relais Chantovent is closed Sunday evening, Tuesday evening, and all day Wednesday.  Reservations are highly recommended.