I was recently invited to join friends for a picnic out in the countryside. We were sitting in an idyllic corner of the countryside just outside Saint-Chinian, in the shade of some umbrella pines, and overlooking vineyards and the rocky ridge, which dominates the Saint-Chinian valley. It was a gorgeous spot, and a wonderful evening, and we were surrounded by the sound of cicadas. If you have visited the South of France during the summer you will know what I mean – it’s a typical summer sound here! I recently managed to shoot a video of a cicada in my garden – have a look and make sure that your speakers are turned on! E-mail subscribers, please visit the WordPress blog site to watch the video.
Cicadas are not the most beautiful of insects, but they are somewhat of an emblem for Southern France. You can find ceramic versions of the animal, in all kinds of bright colours, in almost all the markets. Some versions include a small electronic device which plays a cicada sound each time someone walks by! 🙂
Wikipedia has a fascinating article about cicadas here. The life cycle of the insect is very long, up to 17 years for some species. Most of that life cycle is spent underground, where the nymphs feed on the sap of tree roots. The nymphs emerge in early summer, climb up a plant or a tree where they moult for the final time, and turn into the winged insect you see below.
As for the “song of the cicadas” – that sound is only produced by the males, in an effort to attract females for mating. The Wikipedia article explains the mechanics of the sound production very well. After mating, the females lay their eggs into tree branches, and at the end of the summer the cicadas die, leaving the eggs to hatch in the autumn. The newly hatched larvae drop to the ground, where they start burrowing and start the life cycle all over again.
Fascinating, don’t you think? If you haven’t heard the cicada’s song for yourself, think about a holiday in Languedoc. The cicadas usually sing from early July onwards, always depending on temperatures.
The recipe for the pimientos came from Italian Food by Elizabeth David. As with many of her recipes the instructions leave some room for interpretation. 🙂 The peppers are grilled and peeled, and left to marinate in olive oil with a very little lemon juice. After they have marinated for about half an hour they are cut into strips lengthwise. On each strip is put a chopped anchovy fillet and some chopped capers. Each pepper strip is then rolled up to form a sausage shape.
When the peppers were all done that way, they were arranged on a platter and garnished with some chopped parsley.
The next course was a very refreshing salad made with fennel, cucumber and radishes, all thinly sliced and dressed with lemon juice, olive oil and a little salt and pepper.
No self-respecting Italian meal would be complete without its pasta course. Our pasta course consisted of mushroom ravioli, with a white wine and tarragon cream sauce. Below are the ingredients we used (note, we didn’t use the chicken breast specified in the recipe):
First the pasta dough was made, as that needed to rest for a good half hour before being rolled out. While the dough was resting, the filling was cooked: the onions were finely chopped (in the food processor) and slowly cooked with some olive oil, garlic and thyme. The finely chopped mushrooms (again done in the food processor) were added, and the whole cooked until the mushrooms were tender and had “dried out” somewhat.
Next came the fun part – rolling out the pasta dough!! With he help of a pasta machine it was easy and great fun! We ended up with three long strips.
We deviated from the recipe in that we put the filling all down one side of each sheet and then folded it over to make our ravioli – doing it that way worked very well for us!
Here are the finished ravioli, before being cooked:
The spinach was supposed to be cooked separately and the ravioli served arranged on top of it, but we decided to give the spinach a miss. The sauce was simple to prepare: onions and shallots were cooked over gentle heat until golden, white wine was added and cooked a few minutes to allow the alcohol to evaporate, then the cream and tarragon were added and heated through. Very delicious!!
For our main course our hosts had choosen Osso Bucco Milanese – stewed shin of veal. Since this is a dish which requires long and slow simmering, it was already cooking when we arrived. The recipe again came from Elizabeth David’s Italian Food.
To round off this meal, we baked an Italian almond cheesecake:
It was one of the first dishes we prepared that afternoon, as it required a fair amount of cooking and cooling time. Here’s what it looked like fresh from the oven:
Once all our dishes were pretty much finished we had a little break. I took the opportunity to wander about the beautiful show garden at La Petite Pepiniere, and took a few pictures for you. The flowers are all different varieties of cistus, a native plant to the Languedoc region.
Soon it was time to sit down to our feast:
Pimientos stuffed with anchovies and capers
Fennel, cucumber and radish salad
Mushroom ravioli with a white wine, cream and tarragon sauce
Osso bucco milanese, served with plain risotto
Italian almond cheesecake
And what a feast it was!! A big thank you to our hosts for choosing such wonderful dishes!
The small village of Saint-Jean-de-Minervois is home to one of the oldest AOCs of the Languedoc region. AOC stands for Appellation d’Origine Controlee – a geographical quality certification. The wines of the AOC Saint-Jean-de-Minervois are sweet wines, produced from the muscat grape, with a high amount of residual sugar. Fermentation is stopped by adding alcohol, before the yeasts have had time to consume all the sugar. The result is an amazingly fragrant sweet wine, which should be well chilled before drinking. The growers also produce a number of other wines, such as dry muscat (white), rose and red wines, which are not classified under the AOC Saint-Jean-de-Minervois.
On June 7th, 2015 the winegrowers of Saint-Jean-de-Minervois organised their second Balade Gourmande, a gourmet walk; last year (2014) was the first time they had organised this kind of event. A Balade Gourmande is a walk with a number of stops along the way, where you eat and/or drink, allowing you to enjoy the countryside without having to schlep the picnic! Numbers were limited to 300 persons, and for this year’s event, the participants were assigned a time to depart in groups of around 30. A guide or two led each group, to ensure that nobody got lost on the walk through the vineyards. I had booked with a few friends and we had been assigned the first departure at 11am. Somewhat early, I thought, but as it turned out it was perfect!
The reception area for the walk
The reception area was just across the road from the cooperative winery in Saint-Jean-de-Minervois, and there were plenty of parking spaces. Upon registration every participant was issued with their walking “kit”: A yellow hat, a glass with a kind harness to hang around the neck (very important 🙂 ), a book of vouchers for the food we were to eat along the way, a pen, a set of cutlery, a napkin, and a booklet giving details of all the food and wine, along with prices of the wine, and contact details of the domaines.
Walking kits at the ready
Walking kit for the gourmet walk
Soon everyone was wearing their hats and getting quite excited!
Getting ready for the walk
Our guides were Anne and Karine, both of them winegrowers with an intimate knowledge of the terroir.
Meeting our guides
The walk was about 6km long, and there were stops approx. each kilometer, either for something to eat or…
So off we went:
The vineyards at the start of the walk
The trail was well signposted, just in case anyone struggled to keep up or had to take a little break.
Signpost along the way
Our first stop was for a welcome drink: a glass of sparkling Muscat sec.
Sparkling muscat sec being poured
First stop: a glass of fizz!
After a brief rest, we followed our guides as they led us down little known tracks – only someone who had spent their entire lives here could be truly familiar with them all!
Walking along the vineyards
I could not resist this lovely clump of poppies along the way:
Poppies along the way
You’ll notice the white rocks surrounding the poppies. The area of the AOC Saint-Jean-de-Minervois is on a limestone plateau, and the sun bleaches the rocks to an almost pure white. It is quite a dazzling sight!
We next came to another dazzling sight – one of the canyons which cross the plateau:
Canyon crossing the limestone plateau
And here is a vineyard with the typical “white” look.
A typical Saint-Jean-de-Minervois vineyard
Before long we reached our first Etape Gourmande, a food stop! This was where we would eat the starter:
First “Etape Groumande” – starter
A tent had been set up, in what seemed to be the middle of nowhere, and the chefs from Les Cuisiniers Cavistes in Narbonne were hard a work to prepare our starters:
Starters at the ready
Food prepared by:
The starter was named “Du Causses a la Mediterranee” – a crispy puff pastry base covered with sheep’s cheese (from the Causses), topped with crunchy vegetables and pieces of home-smoked fish (from the Mediterranee). The whole was dressed with a vinaigrette prepared with vinegar made with Muscat. It was a very delicious morsel!!
After this very pleasant break we continued on our walk.
Walking through the vineyards
Our next stop was a Halte Artistique, a break to rest and enjoy some art. In this case it was music:
I took a video for you also – e-mail subscribers, please remember to visit the site for the video.
There was chilled water available, both still and fizzy. Suitably refreshed and rested, we headed off to find the next stop! 🙂 On the way we passed a wonderfully fragrant spot – Spanish broom was flowering all around us, almost intoxicating us with its beautiful fragrance.
A wonderfully fragrant spot
Before long we reached the next stop – the second Etape Gourmande, where we were to be served our main course.
2nd “Etape Groumande” – main course
The installation was very impressive – a covered seating area with big kitchen area behind, AND there were toilets!
The title of the main course was “De L’Aubrac au Causse”. The Aubrac region is famous for raising high quality beef and we were served a piece of beef filet with a sauce prepared with Grenache (wine) and veal jus, accompanied by spring vegetables. The beef was perfectly cooked and ever so tender – I’m salivating at the memory of it!!
The main course being served
Looking through my pictures I realised – horror of horrors – that I do not have a picture of the main course!! “Oh no” – I can hear you say – “how could that have happened??” Perhaps I was too distracted by the lady who was singing popular French chansons whilst accompanying herself on the accordion.
After this wonderful interlude, our guides led us to a marvellous spot. From the top of one of Karine’s vineyards we had the most wonderful view over the whole area covered by the AOC Saint-Jean-de-Minervois.
View towards Saint-Jean-de-Minervois
We were now well past lunchtime, and you can see a bit of a build-up of clouds in the above picture. Over on the far left it started to look a little black, but the sun was still shining!!
Our next stop was another Halte Artistique and there was more music. In a shady copse, benches, deck chairs and even a hammock had been set up, so we could rest our weary legs and relax with some music.
Here is a video for you:
After the rest and relaxation we were ready to walk onwards to our next Etape Gourmande: the cheese course!
3rd “Etape Gourmande” – cheese
A selection of three cheeses were accompanied by Muscat from Domaines Barroubio and Montahuc and Cave Le Muscat.
The two goat’s cheeses were from Combebelle near Villespassans; the blue cheese was a Fourme d’Ambert and served with a muscat jelly. Below is Anne Camelot from Combebelle with a helper.
Cheese course being prepared
It looked as though the storm building in the distance was headed our way, so we needed no encouragement from our guides to get to the next and ultimate Etape Gourmande: Dessert!!
Final “Etape Gourmande” – dessert
The chefs were busy putting the final touches on our desserts.
Desserts being prepared
The title of the dessert was “Quand St Jean devoile son exotisme”. Dessert was an exotic composition of tender sponge cake, mascarpone with passion fruit, and roasted mango and pineapple, served with a mango and passion fruit coulis. With that there were three different muscats to choose from – perfect harmony and sheer bliss!!
Exotic and tasty dessert
All too soon it was time to move on and return to the reception area and the car park. On the way I photographed the remains of the windmill near the Cooperative winery in Saint-Jean-de-Minervois. The light was extraordinary!
Ruined windmill in Saint-Jean-de-Minervois
Back at the reception area there was coffee and a tasting of spirits from the Distillerie du Petit Grain. I was lucky and did not have to drive that day. Their Gin is absolutely exquisite! All of the wines we had tasted throughout our walk could be bought at the end.
The end of our gourmet walk
What a wonderful day!! The storm which brewed in the distance, and which made for such dramatic skies, stayed in the distance, and we didn’t get wet!! 🙂 I came home with some wonderful wines, and I am planning to sign up for next year’s walk!! Why don’t you join me? If you want to stay close by, you can rentL’Ancien Cafe in Saint-Jean-de-Minervois
“What on earth is a dolmen?” I can hear some people say 🙂 In a nutshell, dolmen are megalithic tombs, consisting of upright stones supporting a large flat stone. Most dolmen were built during the early Neolithic period, 4000 to 3000 BC. You can read a very detailed description here.
I recently visited the largest dolmen in the Midi, which is located between the villages of Cesseras and Siran. This dolmen is commonly known as the Dolmen de las Fadasor Dolmen des Fees, the Fairy’s Dolmen.
This dolmen was excavated by archaeologists several times, the last time between 1997 and 1998, when the dolmen was extensively restored to save it for future generations.
Dolmen des Fees
The dolmen des fees is around 24 metres long, and would have been covered by a mound of earth of about 35 metres in length. There are three distinct parts to this dolmen: a corridor, an antechamber, and the funeral chamber. In the picture above you can see the corridor formed by megaliths and dry stone walls. The megaliths would have supported stone slabs which formed a roof.
Following on from the corridor is the antechamber, which still has one of the roof slabs in place! In the picture below you can see the remains of the porthole shaped entrance to the antechamber. The stone slab on the antechamber is estimated to weigh between 9 and 10 tons!!
Antechamber of the dolmen des fees
This is a view down into the antechamber. You can see how the stone slab covers pretty much all of it!
View into the antechamber
Behind the antechamber is the cella or funeral chamber, where the burials would have taken place. Access to the cella appears to have been by a similar porthole shaped door as to the antechamber.
Cella at the dolmen des fees
Some people believe that wherever dolmen are built, a crossing of energy lines (ley lines) can be found. I found one article about this dolmen (in French), in which it was suggested that the funeral chamber at this dolmen could be the portal to another plane!!
View of the dolmen from the funeral chamber
Whatever anyone believes today, a dolmen was a site of spiritual importance for neolithic people. The reasons as to who built the dolmen or why will probably remain shrouded in mystery.
View of the dolmen from the side
When I recently visited the Dolmen des Fees, I found an installation right next to it! Colourful fabrics had been wrapped around tree trunks and other bits of fabric were fluttering in the breeze.
Installation by the dolmen des fees
A little farther along a kind of stone circle had been created, with some of the stones wrapped in shiny foil. The opening of the circle seemed to point towards the dolmen. I’ve not been able to ascertain exactly what it is – I leave it to your imagination!!
If you are in the area, do visit the dolmen. It is located just off the D168 between Siran and Cesseras, on the right about 1.5km after you leave Siran.
With the apricot season under way, I thought I would give you a little virtual taste of a few ways these wonderful fruits can be enjoyed.
This year I was lucky enough to have the pick of the crop from a tree belonging to friends – they were away while their tree was full of ripe fruit!!
When I started to think about what to do with this bounty, the first thing which came to mind was apricot jam – beautifully orange coloured, and full of the flavours of the sun!!
Whenever I make jam these days, I try to use the kind of jam sugar where you can use 500g of sugar for 1kg of fruit, which makes for a much fruitier jam.
For this apricot jam I cut the apricots in half to remove the stones, and then cut each half again into four pieces.
Once all the apricots were cut, I mixed them with the sugar, and put them in the refrigerator to stand overnight.
Whilst the apricots are standing, the sugar draws out the juice, and the fruit tends to hold its shape better during cooking, rather than simply turning into mush. This time I also cracked some of the apricot stones open, and added the ‘almonds’ to the mixture, hoping they would impart some of their lovely almond flavour to the jam. Apricot ‘almonds’ do concern small amounts of cyanide, so if you are at all concerned about this, please leave them out.
The following morning the mixture looked like this:
The sugar had done its work, drawing out lots of juice from the apricots. Boiling time is only four minutes, so that the vitamins won’t get boiled to death altogether! The sugar which I use contains the right amount of pectin, so that the jam will always set. In France it is available under the name of Fruttina Extra, and you’ll be able to find the international websites for the company here.
Et voila!! Apricot jam always seems to froth quite a lot, so use a large pan and keep stirring! I potted my jam the moment the boiling time was over, in twist-off jars. It keeps well, except for when it gets eaten!! 🙂
I still had a fair amount of apricots left, so I started to wonder what else I could prepare with them.
Some time ago a friend told me about grilled peaches, so I thought I would try that with the apricots. For this recipe I chose the firmest apricots I had, as they could otherwise turn to mush very quickly. I pressed my trusted cast-iron griddle pan into action, and grilled the apricots on the pre-heated griddle, cut side down, for about 5 minutes.
I topped each apricot with some fresh goat’s cheese, and sprinkled them with freshly ground black pepper and fresh thyme leaves.
A final drizzle of olive oil, and I had a plate full of the most delicious appetizers.
They were every bit as good as they look, and really quick and easy to prepare!!
Another recipe I came across during my search was Mary Berry’s apricot frangipane tart. I followed the recipe pretty much to the letter, except for using fresh apricots where the recipe indicated tinned. And I’ll admit it right now: I used ready rolled pastry – time was short, as was the pastry!! I also ground my own almonds, which accounts for the darker colour of the frangipane.
The recipe is very straightforward and quick to make, especially if you use ready rolled pastry.
I was getting a little worried when I started to spread the frangipane mixture over the apricots – there seemed to be far too little!
But I needn’t have worried – Mary Berry is not called the ‘Queen of Baking’ for nothing!! After 40 minutes in the oven the tart was looking beautiful, and after a couple of hours of cooling off it tasted divine!! 🙂
There are many more delicious recipes out there, which use apricots – what is your favourite??