Get on your soap box

… or perhaps the title of this post should read, “Get in your soap box”?  May 14th was Ascension Day, and in France that day is a public holiday, and thus the perfect occasion for Saint-Chinian to host a soap box race, for the first time ever.  “But how would you race a soap-box?” I can just hear someone asking.  In France, home-made go karts are called Caisses a Savon, because at one time they would have been made from old soap crates.  These days a Caisse a Savon can take all kinds of shapes – follow this link for a look at the amazing variety and shapes there are!

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Ascension Day is always on a Thursday, and so the market was taking place that morning in the main square of the village, just next to the finishing line for the race.  The organisers of the race had been hard at work since before dawn.  During the morning, rehearsals were taking place, so the participants could get a feel for the hillside!  The official starting time for the races was set for 2pm and it started promptly!  There were five heats altogether, with a little break after the third heat.  I went a little ahead of time, to get a good look at the various vehicles. 🙂  As you can see, a great deal of work and imagination had gone into the making of each vehicle:

For the first race I positioned myself near the chicane at the lower end of Avenue de Villespassans – I figured the cars would have to slow down a little and that they would be easier to photograph.

First down the hill was a group of three-wheeled bikes – the drivers did all kinds of crazy manoeuvres, such as going through the chicane backwards and more!

Then came the cars:

It appeared that one of the little cars must have gone too fast – it had what looked like flames and smoke coming out the back!!  On closer inspection, it was “only” red smoke – what fun!! 😀

The last contestant of the first race had a wonderful vehicle, made with a cement mixer and a wheelbarrow, amongst other components.  Unfortunately, it came unstuck at that chicane.  Somehow it got entangled with one of the straw bales – the wheels got rather badly damaged, and it had to limp down the hill to the finishing line. 😦

For the next race, all the Caisses had to get back up the hill to the starting point.  Nothing simpler: the various vehicles got hitched to one another and towed up the hill – what a laugh!!

For the second race I took up position on the hairpin bend, halfway up the road to the windmill.  A professional looking cameraman stood there, filming the race for the relay on the big screen near the finishing line.  Here’s what the screen looked like.  I didn’t take a picture of the cameraman! 🙂

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From my position at the hairpin bend, I got a good look at some of the vehicles and their drivers!

Take a close look at the rear end of the “bull” car!  The shopping cart can’t have been very comfortable to sit in, but it looked such fun. I absolutely adored the idea of the sardine can on wheels, and check out the two guys in the Super Mario car with the GoPro helmet cam – their video has been uploaded to YouTube here.

The bicycles came down the hill last, in this race; you can see how they are all over the place! 🙂

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The atmosphere was wonderful, and there were many spectators along the “race track”, encouraging and applauding the contestants.  A few of the market stall holders had stayed on for the afternoon, so there was food and drink to be had.  It was a great day, finished off with a concert in the evening.  To be repeated again in 2016 – see you there??

And to finish off, here is another video of the day from YouTube:

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Call of the wild

Last Sunday I went for a trip down memory lane.  About 20 years ago, whilst going for a walk along the canal from the pretty village of Le Somail, I came across a little restaurant on the banks of the Canal du Midi.  It must have been at about the same time of year as now. The restaurant was called La Cascade, after the water which cascaded through an overflow sluice in the canal right next to the terrace of the restaurant.  The terrace looked very inviting, and so I stopped for a drink or an ice cream, or maybe both.  The owners were very friendly and chatty, and I returned there many times for meals and celebrations.  Sadly the restaurant closed down a good many years ago, but the memories remain!

When I arrived at Le Somail I was surprised to see many cars parked everywhere.  Yes, it was wonderful weather, and it was Sunday, but why would there be so many people visiting?  The answer appeared soon enough – the village was hosting a gigantic vide grenier (flea market)!!  There were stalls on both sides of the canal, and lots of people browsing.  The pictures below are taken from the bridge across the canal – you can probably see just how far the stalls stretch into the distance.

Vide Grenier in Le Somail

Vide Grenier in Le Somail

 

View from the bridge in Le Somail

View from the bridge in Le Somail

I was headed in the direction of the big barge in the picture above.  Once I had made my way through the milling crowds and reached the towpath, the peace and quiet of the canal descended.  The plane trees here had not escaped the fungal disease, and for the first several hundred meters of my walk there was no shade.  Boats were moored along the opposite bank to where I was walking – the little cruiser has definitely seen better days!!

Submerged boat on the Canal du Midi near Les Somail

Submerged boat on the Canal du Midi

Yellow irises were flowering along the banks for most of the length of my walk:

Yellow Irises along the banks of the Canal du Midi

Yellow Irises along the banks of the Canal du Midi

I’m not sure what the flower below is called – any suggestions?

Unknown flower on the banks of the Canal du Midi

Unknown flower on the banks of the Canal du Midi

This beautiful butterfly sat still just long enough for me to get a picture:

Butterfly on a thistle flower

Butterfly on a thistle flower

The nightingales were singing away, and in the distance there was a cuckoo calling.  I took a brief video for you – make sure you turn on the speakers!  E-mail subscribers, please go to the website to view the video.

Along the way I came across this mother with her children – what a wonderful sight!  I counted a total of nine chicks!!

Mother duck and her chicks

Mother duck and her chicks

When I eventually reached what had been “La Cascade”, I was not surprised to see that it had changed – not beyond recognition, but it had lost the rustic charm it had once had.  It appears that the building is now used as a private house.  I hope that whoever lives in it now, is enjoying it as much as I enjoyed it when I visited all those many years ago.

On my way back to Le Somail I took this picture – any ideas of what it could be?

Mystery picture - answers  in the comments section please

Mystery picture – answers in the comments section please

There are many wonderful walks along the Canal du Midi, and this was definitely one of them!

Walk along the Canal du Midi

Walk along the Canal du Midi

 

Not’s Pots

You may have read the post about my visit to Castelnaudary a couple of weeks ago – if not, you can find it here.  One of the friends who came to Castelnaudary with me is a potter.  For years I had been wanting to visit a rather mythical pottery not far from Castelnaudary, so that day was the day!!  After our lovely lunch, we left Castelnaudary in the direction of Mas-Saintes-Puelles, a small village west of Castelnaudary.  We crossed over the Canal du Midi, then we crossed under the A61 motorway, and finally we arrived in Mas-Saintes Puelles.  We had come to visit Poterie Not Freres, but except for the village I had no address.  The pottery is rather well-known: as we arrived in the village we saw a signpost for the pottery, followed by a second one a little further down the road.  The signs put us on a road which left the village, and went, seemingly, into the middle of nowhere.  We crossed under the motorway again, and then over some railway tracks.  Our excitement grew when we spotted a fairly squat and sturdy brick chimney in the distance – we were on the right road after all!!  Finally we arrived at Poterie Not Freres!  The pottery is right by the Canal du Midi and very close to a lock.

Our arrival was not long after the end of the lunch break, and except for one other couple we were the only ones there.  To step inside the workshop was to step back in time – a time when there were no plastic containers or non-stick pans, and when people would use their pottery dishes every day.

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Behind that open door lies a room which is dominated by the enormous wood fired kiln, which has a capacity of 40 cubic metres!  Just that morning, the kiln had been emptied, after cooling down for three weeks.  It would have been wonderful to see all the pots being taken out!  In the picture below you can just see the doorway into the kiln and the hood, hanging down in the centre of the pictures, is above the fire pit.

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All around us, pots were stacked up to dry.

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These were all garden pots, more or less ready to be loaded into the kiln for the last firing before the summer.  It takes great skill to load such a wood fired kiln – a large part of the success of the entire operation depends on it.  The kiln is fired for 36 hours using only wood, to reach a temperature of over 1000 degrees.  The fire-box is then walled up and the kiln left to cool.  Here is what the pots look like once they are finished:

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The garden pots only form a small part of the output though. All in all, the pottery produces around 500 different models of pots, and 80% of the production consists of cassoles, the traditional dish in which cassoulet is cooked, and from which the name cassoulet derives.  Here’s a look at some of the wares for sale:

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The finished garden pots are impressively stacked outside.  The visitor season had not yet started at the time of our visit, so the pots were stacked high.  By the end of the summer most of the pots will have been sold.

I was particularly intrigued by this pot, which had holes in it and a lid on top.  It took a little while before the penny dropped.

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It’s a snail pot!  Of course, the snail on it was a give-away! 🙂  The snails are collected and put in the pot.  The lid stops the snails from escaping and they have air while they purge, before being cooked.  They are supposed to be delicious…

Back inside there were pots everywhere.  In a corner were some old-fashioned money boxes, the kind which have to be smashed to get at the stash!  I like that idea!! 😉

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Eventually we got to the workroom with the potters’ wheels, where the action was just about to begin.  The pottery by the Canal du Midi at Mas-Saintes-Puelles was started by the Perrutel family in the 19th century.  In 1947 Emile Not took over the pottery in partnership with his brother-in-law, Francois Gleizes.  Emile Not’s two sons started to work in the pottery when they were old enough, and today the third generation is also working at the wheels.  The work area has changed very little over time.  There are four wheels, each with a window in front of it.

Clay is brought in on a sack cart – each block weighing 20 kilos.  With the help of a wire, the block is sliced into smaller pieces, and then the clay is turned on the wheel into whatever shape the potter is making.  I took a few videos for you to watch – probably easier than trying to explain the process (e-mail subscribers, please visit the website to view the videos):

I have also found two videos in French, which give a good idea of the whole manufacturing process.  The second video shows the firing of the large wood fired kiln:

The big kiln is used almost exclusively for the garden pots; for the other items there are two gas fired kilns, which are fired on alternate days.  This is hard, physical work, and whilst some of the work is the same day in day out, no two pots are ever identical.

The clay is prepared in the yard behind the workshops.  The fact that there is a clay seam just outside the door, must have determined the location of the pottery.  The clay extracted here is of a beige colour;  a red clay is extracted at another quarry at Issels, not far away.  The clay is left to dry on a concrete slab in the yard, and once dry it is broken up with steel rollers. before being milled to a fine powder.  The clay powder is then mixed in various proportions with grog, depending on what kind of pots are being made.

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This basic clay mix is then put into a machine which is definitely from the early 20th century.

Great big teeth work away at the clay inside the machine, mixing and kneading it, to make it supple and pliable.  Great big lumps of it drop from the mixer into the next machine, a pug mill, which compacts the clay and removes as much air as possible.  The pug mill extrudes the clay in a long block, which is then cut with a wire cutter.  The resulting 20 kilo blocks are loaded into a wheelbarrow and transported to the store-room next door.  This process happens every other day, and thousands of kilos of clay are prepared this way each year.  Here are two more videos for you:

The pottery produced by Poterie Not Freres has a very honest, down-to-earth feel to it.  There is nothing fancy whatsoever about the pots.  You could call it rustic, coarse or even crude, but it has a goodness that will improve with use and age.  I was tempted by many things, but in the end I came away with a small, round, yellow gratin dish, which is delightful to use.

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I leave you with the opening times of the pottery.  You should visit this place if you have even the slightest interest in potteryl!  Be warned though, it is very tempting to come away with more than you can take home :)!!

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Flower power

This week’s post is going to be a short one, and it will rely heavily on photographs! 😉  The reason is that right now I am spending most of my spare time in the garden, where everything seems to be happening at once!!

At this time of year, a lot of plants are in full flower or starting to flower, such as the thyme, campanula, and Papa Meilland rose in the picture below.

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Other plants, such as the salvias and lavenders, which I cut back not all that long ago, are producing lots of lush new growth.

 

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There’s a patch of weeds in my garden, which has been heavily invaded by escholtzia, the Californian poppy.  Such a cheery sight!  Eventually the weeds and the escholtzias will be weeded out, and some vegetables be planted in their place.  But fear not, there will always be weeds and escholtzias somewhere in the garden…

 

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The bees are having a wonderful time on the borage…

 

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… and on the thyme!  It’s hard to beat thyme when it’s in full flower – the generosity of the blossom is astounding.

 

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The potatoes are up and out, and after some hoeing the patch is more or less weed free. 🙂

 

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The broad beans, which I sowed last November, are producing a very good crop right now!

 

 

The artichokes have just started to put up flower buds – I think I’ll be enjoying some of those lovely globes for supper tonight.

 

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I’m growing a few spare plants for a charity sale, which will take place in Saint-Chinian on June 21st, 2015.  There’ll be garlic chives, two kinds of mint, gaillardia, and a plant whose name I cannot remember, but it has white furry leaves 🙂 .  Of course there will be a lot of other plants too!

 

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The tomato forest is ready for planting out – one of my chores this week!

 

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The wisteria has all but finished flowering, but there may be some more flowers later in the summer!

 

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The bearded iris are also in full flower right now.  If you look carefully at the pictures you’ll be able to tell why it is called “bearded” 🙂

 

 

The flower buds on the kiwi plants are looking good, another week and they should be open and ready for business – or should that be beesiness?!

 

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These seedlings and plants need to be pricked out or planted very soon!

 

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Here’s a medley of flowers: escholtzia, allium, roses, heuchera, wallflowers, gaillardia, gerbera, salvia and bulbine frutescens.  All of them are blooming in my garden right now.  This really is a fabulous time of the year in Languedoc!

 

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Cassoulet in Castelnaudary

A recent visit by friends prompted an outing to Castelnaudary, a market town between Carcassonne and Toulouse.  You might have come across the name of the town in connection with cassoulet, which is undoubtedly the region’s most famous dish.  Castelnaudary is the capital of the Lauragais region, an area which has been called the granary of the Languedoc, because of its large output of wheat, maize and other cereals.

History was made in Castelnaudary when the Canal du Midi was inaugurated here in 1681.  The town elders had the good sense to pay to have the canal come right to the town.  Pierre Paul Riquet built the Grand Bassin below the town walls, an expanse of water 7 hectares large – that’s 70,000 square metres or 17 acres!!  It is the only man-made lake of its kind on the whole Canal du Midi, and it was important for the economic development of Castelnaudary in the 17th century. Today the Grand Bassin is a pleasure port.

Before I get carried away with the history of the town, I’ll just state that we had come to Castelnaudary to eat cassoulet.  We found a space to park the car on Place de la Republique, and went straight to the tourist office, which is located in one corner of that same square.  The staff there were very friendly and helpful, supplying us with maps and brochures.  They also encouraged us to take the historical walk through the town.  I had looked up a number of restaurants before we set off for Castelnaudary, and asked for their advice as to where we could eat the best cassoulet.  Very diplomatically they confirmed that the two restaurants I had short-listed served very good cassoulet 🙂

It was still early enough, so we went on the walk to discover the town.  Our first stop was on Place de Verdun.  We couldn’t miss the market halls, which occupied centre stage on the square.

To one side of the market halls was a tall building, with an incredibly ornate facade.  The brochure explained that this used to be the Grand Bazar, an offshoot of one of the first large department stores in Paris, the Bazar de l’Hotel de Ville.  The Castelnaudary store was built in 1874, and whoever designed the facade certainly had fun!!

Our walk took us past many splendid buildings, witnesses of the riches which Castelnaudary had in a bygone age.  Of course there were also door knockers – wouldn’t you know that I just couldn’t resist them? 🙂

The mansion below is called the Hotel Latapie, and it is one of the most beautiful 17th century houses in town.  Today it is a listed building, and it belongs to the municipality.  The postman obligingly shifted his van so I could get a better picture of the amazing door. 🙂

More beautiful buildings followed:

We reached a spot where we had a good view towards the Grand Bassin:

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Once we had wended our way down the hill and around a few corners, we finally stood at the water’s edge:

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We walked along the water to the Pont Vieux, the old bridge, passing a charming cottage, and the remains of an old mill.  When we got to the bridge we got a good view of the Petit Bassin on the other side of the bridge.

A lot more architectural detail on the way to one of the restaurants on my list.  I hope I am not boring you, I just love all those wonderful buildings!

The restaurant, La Belle Epoque, looked nice enough, with tablecloths and napkins – almost too classy for a cassoulet restaurant.  What made us decide against it?  There were hardly any guests inside, and from the outside it looked a little too starchy.  Perhaps we were totally wrong.  I will give it a try on my next visit, and I’ll let you know what it was like, I promise!

So we headed back towards the Place de la Republique.  La Maison du Cassoulet, the other restaurant on my short-list is just to one side of it, right next door to the town hall.

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The restaurant was busy, the decor pretty modern and the seats comfortable.

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The place mats had a recipe for cassoulet printed on them – perhaps the one they use in the restaurant?  The waiter was kind of intimidating, so I didn’t bother to ask.

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We all opted for the cassoulet menu, which was simple:  cassoulet plus a light salad for main course, and a choice of desserts;  no starter!  Just after we had ordered we saw that the people at the table next door had some delicious looking French fries served to them.  We asked our waiter if we could have a portion.  What a faux pas!! There was no way he was going to let us have fries!  Did we know that there were beans in the cassoulet?  Did we not know that cassoulet certainly did not need fries as an accompaniment?  Head shaking in disbelief, eyes rolling – I told you he was kind of intimidating…  Maybe it was too early in the season, and he wasn’t yet used to tourists asking for strange things. 🙂

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However, the cassoulet more than made up for our disappointment over the fries.  The beans were beautifully flavoured and perfectly tender, without falling to pieces.  I recently read an article where the writer could taste “a bouquet of forests, meadows and succulent meats” in her very first bite of cassoulet.  The meats in my cassoulet were certainly succulent, but forests and meadows?  Seriously?

The serving was a perfect size. It contained a piece of preserved duck, two kinds of sausage, and a piece of pork, along with the beans.  We all managed to finish our portion, and have a little, although it was very little, room for dessert.  Mine was a “de-constructed” banoffee pie.  Wickedly delicious!!

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La Maison du Cassoulet does have its own website here, as well as branches in Carcassonne, Toulouse and Saint-Lary Soulan.  I Imagine that it can be busy in the summer months, so a reservation is probably a good idea.

Oh, I almost forgot – on the way out I spotted this:

If you want to have your cassoulet AND eat it (at home), you can buy the tins and a dish to cook it in!