Saint-Jean distilled

You may recall my post about the gourmet walk in Saint-Jean-de-Minervois – if you missed it you can find it here.  When I returned to the reception area at the end of the walk, there was coffee and a tasting of spirits from the Distillerie du Petit Grain in Saint-Jean-de-Minervois.  I did taste the gin from the distillery that day, which was wonderful, but with the heat, and after all the food and walking, I could not really do it justice.  

The occasion to go for a (proper) tasting presented itself this summer, when I had friends visiting.  My friends are connoisseurs of fine spirits, and so I called Patricia and Laurent Gaspard, the owners of the distillery, to make a date.

Patricia and Laurent are both teachers, and the distillery is a hobby for them.  They are both passionate about what they produce.  To visit the distillery and to discover their products is to share in their passion.  The distillery is installed in a former stable, right next door to their home.  On the ground floor, the old manger is still on wall, joined by the some very up-to-date stainless steel tanks, where the fermentation and maceration take place.  When I first visited in the summer, the apricots were in the process of fermenting!

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The smell was delightful – but unfortunately the picture doesn’t really convey that!  I had expected it to smell of alcoholic fermentation but it was more like apricot jam!

Very steep wooden stairs lead to the first floor, where the boiler and still are located.

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The still was made by Jean-Louis Stupfler from Begles, who is renowned for his unique stills.  The process allows remarkable spirits of great elegance and finesse to be produced by single distillation.  The copper boiler is encased in a stainless steel base, and is heated by a gas burner located directly underneath the copper.  The copper columns to the left of the boiler separate and concentrate the alcohol.

All parts of the still gleam and shine – lovingly (and no doubt laboriously) polished by Laurent!  The wooden crates in the picture below hold glass demijohns or carboys, which are used for storing the spirits between distillation and bottling.

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Patricia and Laurent’s production is 100% artisanal – everything is done by hand.  To them, the quality of their spirits is everything, and they go to great lengths to capture the flavours of the fruits which go into making their eau de vie.  Not long before my visit, they had carefully sorted through 1000 kilos (that’s a ton!!) of apricots, using only the perfectly ripe fruit, from which they removed the stones.  Laurent had to return around 200 kilos to the producer, as the fruits were not ripe enough!  When they prepare the Williams pears they remove the stalk and blossom end from each fruit before cutting it up, and of course only perfectly ripe pears are used.

The results are worth all that work!!

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The apricot eau de vie has an amazing smell and taste of apricots, and the same goes for the pear eau de vie.  The taste of both lingers in the mouth long after you have swallowed the alcohol, and develops and changes with time – just like with a good wine.

Two gins are produced:  one with locally collected herbs and aromatics and the other with citrus fruits.  To my mind, both of them are far too good to mix with tonic water, but then why not?  It would make for an outstanding gin and tonic, no doubt!  The muscat eau de vie was out of stock at the time of my visit 😦  I’m not a great connoisseur of spirits, but these were delicious.  I came away with the very last bottle of apricot eau de vie from the 2014 production :D, and it has been the delight of my dinner guests ever since.

I was very intrigued by what Patricia and Laurent were doing with the distillery, and asked them if I could possibly come along on a day when the still was in operation.  They kindly agreed, and I went to Saint-Jean-de-Minervois again on a beautifully sunny but cold day in October, to watch the distillation of pear eau de vie.

Laurent had already fired up the boiler, but the alcohol had not yet started to flow when I arrived.  It wasn’t long though, before the first stream of clear alcohol started to pour from the spout.

Laurent caught some in a glass and held it out for me.  “Smell this”, he told me.  I had a bit of a cold and my sense of smell was deserting me, but I could detect a distinctive smell of acetone.  “That’s right”, he said, “that’s the poison!”.  He explained to me that this was the “head”, the most volatile of the alcohols, and that it was not to be used in the eau de vie.  Instead, he uses the “head” for rinsing out the demijohns, before rinsing them with filtered water.

Laurent kept sampling the alcohol, and every so often he would hold out the glass for me to sniff.  Sometimes he would instruct me to taste as well.  From time to time he made adjustments to the still, cooling it to increase the purity of the alcohol.  All the while a steady stream of alcohol was running into a large jug.

Here is a video for you – e-mail subscribers, please visit the website to see the video.

I am so sorry that this is not a “scratch-and-sniff” post, the aromas were really wonderful!

After about an hour or so, Laurent detected a change in the alcohol and told me that he had now arrived at the “tail” of the distillation.  Some of the tail gets mixed in with the spirit.  The remainder is not used for the eau de vie, but added to the next batch of fermented pear pulp.  After another 15 minutes or so, Laurent turned off the gas, emptied a valve to drain the contents of the boiler, and started to unscrew the brackets which hold down the top of the boiler.  First, the pipe connecting the boiler to the still was removed and carefully placed on brackets on the wall.

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After that, a kind of clip was fixed to the hole in the lid, and the lid carefully winched up – it was all very hot – think of the boiling contents inside!!  Patricia was holding on to the lid to stop the agitator from hitting the sides.  The agitator is the blue part on the right of the lid.  Think of it as a type of immersion blender, designed to keep the contents of the boiler moving about.

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Once the boiler was empty, it was carefully rinsed clean.  Laurent then added some water, lit the fire once more, and filled the boiler with fermented pear pulp, which Patricia was pumping up from one of the tanks downstairs.

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Here’s another video for you:

And that was the start of another batch – kind of “here’s where we came in earlier”!!

Before I left, Laurent showed me the tanks with the fermenting pears.  I was amazed at the colour of what was in the tank – whenever I prepare pears they go brown almost immediately, and these were beautifully white!  Apparently it’s all to do with the fact that oxygen is excluded during the fermentation.

In one vat, Laurent had to mash the crust which had formed on the top, so that the batch would ferment evenly – afterwards it looked like a lovely pear puree, really yummy!!

There is a lot more technical detail, but I’ll leave it to Patricia and Laurent to explain that to you when you visit them.  Do remember that they both have full-time jobs, so contact them before you go to Saint-Jean-de-Minervois!!  You can find their contact details here.

 

Beautiful noise

The parish church in Saint-Chinian, Notre-Dame-de-la-Barthe, houses a rather fine 18th century organ – fine enough to be listed as a  Monument Historique, a historical monument, under the same protection as some of the most illustrious and iconic historical monuments in France, such as the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame de Paris, Versailles, the Louvre . . .

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The origins of the organ in Saint-Chinian are slightly mysterious.  The archives show that a new organ was ordered for the parish church from a certain Louis Peyssy, organ builder in Beziers, in 1784.  A major restoration of the organ was completed in 1995 by Jean-Francois Muno.  During the restoration, it became apparent that the workings and pipes of the organ bear more than a passing resemblance to those of the organ in the former cathedral in Saint-Pons-de-Thomieres, which was built by Jean-Baptiste Micot, organ builder in Toulouse.

Jean-Baptiste Micot started his organ building in Paris, where he built instruments for the great and the good, including one for Queen Marie Leszczinska, wife of Louis XV – you can see a picture of that organ by following this link.

In 1758 Micot moved to Toulouse, and spent the next 20 plus years repairing and building instruments.  Three of the organs he built during this time are still in their original locations and playable:

All three of these organs have been more or less restored to what is perceived to be their original pitch and temperament.  A fourth instrument by Micot can be heard once more in its original location in the parish church of La Reole (Gironde) from November 14th onwards.  That organ has had a very chequered history, having been moved twice and modified several times.  You can read all about this organ’s history here.

The Micot organs have somewhat of a fan club amongst organists, and each year a group of organists meets at one of the three locations that house a Micot organ (soon to be four locations) for a day of music.  This year it was the turn of Saint-Chinian to host this get-together.  On September 6, 2015, thirteen organists from all over the region got together to enjoy 18th century music played on an instrument typical of those it would have been written for.

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I could not possibly miss this event!  There are too few occasions, aside from Sunday mass, when the organ can be heard.

Each piece was briefly introduced by Henri Barthes, one of the organists of Saint-Chinian.  I filmed a number of videos, four of which I am including at the end of this post.  E-mail subscribers, please visit the blog site to view the videos.

For those of you who are into technical details, the organ has 29 ranks which together number 1919 pipes.  The console has three manuals.  You can see the full technical specifications by following this link (in French).

And now for the videos:

Hendrik Huyser, playing the Präludium by Hans Friedrich Micheelsen (1902 – 1977)

Henri Barthes, playing the Offertoire “Vive le Roy des Parisiens” by Andre Raison (1640 – 1719)

Bernard Verdier, playing the Plein-jeu de la suite du 2e ton by Louis-Nicolas Clerambault (1676 – 1749)

Christopher Hainsworth, playing La Bataille de Waterloo by George Anderson (1739 – 1876)

To my knowledge, two CDs are available with recordings of the organ in Saint-Chinian.  One, by Marie-Helene Geispieler, is available on amazon.fr; the other, by Bruno Fraisse and Henri Barthes, is available locally in Saint-Chinian.

Eggplant bonanza

My garden produced an abundance of aubergines – or eggplants, depending on which side of the Atlantic you’re from – this summer.  I love aubergines, they are like a canvas for almost any flavour, blending with whatever you want to cook them with and enhancing flavour and texture.

A few years ago, I was fortunate to be given a recipe for caponata by a friend of a friend, after having heard the praises of that particular recipe sung for several months.

Caponata has its origins in Sicily, and uses similar ingredients to ratatouille.  The first time I prepared caponata, I was somewhat daunted by the process:  grilling and peeling the peppers; salting, draining, rinsing and drying the chopped aubergines; cooking all the vegetables separately, then together – it seemed like a never-ending process!!  BUT when I tasted my first mouthful of caponata, I knew that it was worth every minute of the time which had gone into the preparation!

The main ingredients are aubergines, peppers and tomatoes.  My recipe calls for equal quantities in weight of each of these three.  The recipe also calls for onions, celery, capers, green olives, sugar, vinegar, and salt and pepper.

The aubergines are washed, trimmed and cubed, then sprinkled with salt and left to drain in a colander for 60 minutes.  Older recipes state that the salting will remove any bitterness from the aubergines, but I’ve never come across a bitter aubergine in all the (many) years I’ve been cooking.   What the salting does do is improve the texture of the aubergines when you cook them.  They seem to hold their shape much better.

After the aubergines had drained, they were rinsed to remove the excess salt, and dried with a tea towel.  I fried them in batches with a small amount of olive oil, turning them from time to time to ensure they cooked evenly.

While the aubergines were draining I grilled the peppers on the BBQ, as it meant that I did not have to use the grill in the kitchen.  You can also blister the peppers over an open flame on your gas cooker.  They need to be nicely charred with the skin blistered all over.  Once they were done to perfection, I put them into a glass bowl and covered it tightly with plastic wrap. You could also put them in a plastic or paper bag – they will be easier to peel if the moisture is kept in!

After the peppers had been peeled, they were cut into strips in readiness for the next part of the preparation, which involved cooking the peppers with some olive oil for 15 – 20 minutes.

While the peppers were cooking,  I attacked another part of the preparation.  I fried the chopped onions together with the sliced celery until golden, then added the blanched, peeled, and chopped tomatoes, and cooked that sauce until most of the moisture had evaporated and the sauce had thickened.  At this point the fried aubergines and peppers were added to the sauce, and the whole left to cook very gently for about 30 minutes.

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Are you exhausted already?? 🙂  It does sound like a lot of work, so it’s worth making a large batch of this – I promise you’ll find ways to eat it!!

After 30 minutes the olives and capers were added, along with the sugar and vinegar, and the whole left to simmer gently for another 20 minutes, stirring regularly.  The result was a fragrant and delicious vegetable stew with an almost jam-like consistency.  The recipe says that it should be served up cold, in an earthenware dish! 😉  It also suggests that it could be decorated with pine nuts or hard-boiled eggs.  I’ve never bothered garnishing it, I find it needs nothing added!

Since I made a very large pan of caponata, which wasn’t going to be eaten right away, I bottled part of it in clean jars, and briefly sterilized them – now I can enjoy caponata all winter long 🙂

Caponata

  • Time: 2hrs 30mins
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

Ingredients

  • 600 g aubergines
  • 600 g red peppers
  • 600g ripe tomatoes (plum tomatoes if possible)
  • 2 onions
  • 60 g green olives, stoned
  • 60 g capers
  • 1 to 2 sticks celery
  • 6 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 tbsp vinegar
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • salt and pepper

Method

Wash and trim the aubergines, and cut them into 1.5cm cubes. Put the cubes in a colander, sprinkle with salt and mix well.  Leave to drain for 1 hour.  Rinse, drain and pat dry.  Fry them with a little olive oil over medium heat for approx. 20 minutes.  You may have to do this in several batches, depending on the size of your pan.

Grill the red peppers until the skin is blistered all over and charred.  Leave to cool, covered, and peel.  Cut the peeled peppers into strips and fry the strips over medium heat, with a little olive oil, for 15 – 20 minutes.

Peel the onions and chop them.  Slice the celery sticks and fry them together with the chopped onions in some olive oil until golden.  Blanch, peel and chop the tomatoes and add to the fried onions and celery.  Cook until the sauce starts to thicken, then add the fried aubergines and peppers, and simmer for about 30 minutes.

Add the capers and green olives (I cut the olives into quarters).  Mix the sugar and the vinegar with 2 tbsp water and add this to the pan.  Mix thoroughly and continue to cook over gentle heat for 20 minutes, stirring from time to time.

Serve cold or at room temperature, garnish with pine nuts or hard-boiled eggs, if desired.

This recipe is modified from the original French recipe, given to me by Marie Helene Laurens.  Merci beaucoup, Helene!

Magic in the moonlight

In a little valley near the village of Cazedarnes, hidden away from sight, lies the Abbaye de Fontcaude.  This monastery was founded in 1179 as a Premonstratensian monastery, and stayed in the possession of the Premonstratensian Order until the dissolution of the monastery during the French Revolution, in 1791.  Today the buildings of the former monastery are in private ownership, and members of an association, the friends of Fontcaude Abbey, have been working on restoring what is left of the monastic buildings.  The church and remains of the cloisters are now open to the public throughout the year.  It is well worth driving down the winding roads to the hamlet of Fontcaude, and I will write about a visit to the abbey at a later date.

Fontcaude Abbey

My most recent visit was on the eve of the European Heritage weekend, which always takes place around September 21 each year.  It has become a tradition at Fontcaude that a concert is held at the abbey then, and this year the concert was by an ensemble called Aire y Fuego, air and fire.  The group was made up of two guitarists and two singers:  Ariane Wolhuter (soprano) and Philippe Mouratoglou (guitar) made up the “air duo”, and Sandra Hurtado-Ros (soprano) and Jean-Francois Ruiz (guitar) made up the “fire duo”.

The stage and seating were in the open air, against the magnificent backdrop of an old stone wall, with the apse of the Romanesque church to one side.

Backdrop at Fontcaude Abbey

It was a cool evening, and a lot of people had come prepared, dressed in warm jackets or carrying blankets.  As I sat waiting for the concert to start, I wished I had thought of more than just a scarf – but it turned out to be OK :).

The Aire y Fuego website describes the concert as follows:

Recital English and Spanish melodies
The passion for Spanish and English melodies, with the voices of two magnificent sopranos, is expressed here with talent and generosity in the duets with guitars : Ariane Wohlhuter, accompanied by Philippe Mouratoglou, sings John Dowland, Benjamin Britten, Dusan Bogdanovic and weaves ample arabesques under the Romanic vaults, and the Sevillane Sandra Hurtado-Ròs, with Jean-François Ruiz, inflames Manuel de Falla, Manuel Oltra, Antonio Machado and Federico Garcia Lorca’s songs… Air and Fire. It is an unforgettable moment !

An unforgettable moment it definitely was!!  Ariane Wolhuter sang the English songs with perfect diction and great interpretation.

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E-mail subscribers, please visit the website to view the videos in this post.

Sandra Hurtado-Ros’ interpretation of the Spanish songs was passionate and earthy – you could tell that she was living the songs she was singing.

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Both guitarists were fantastic, and the concert culminated with both duos singing and playing together.  Even the moon cooperated 🙂

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The concert was part of the 10th edition of the festival Les Troubadours chantent l’art roman en Languedoc Roussillon, which runs from May to October – watch out for next year’s edition!

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Below are three more videos to give you an idea of what a wonderful and magical  evening it was!

 

Bike cavalcade

At the very beginning of the 1990s, a group of friends, who called themselves the “Harley Davidson Club of Cap d’Agde”, organised a barbecue on the other side of the Etang de Thau, a beautiful ride away from Cap d’Agde.

That first barbecue grew – first into a weekend, then a short week, until it ended up being a nine-day event three years ago.  It is now known as the “Brescoudos Bike Week“.  Each year, the event attracts a big crowd of bikers from all over France, who come to explore the Languedoc area during the organised rides.  The barbecue is still part of the agenda, but now upwards of 300 bikers are served, instead of the 15 or so who were there for the very first one.

This year, Saint-Chinian was on the itinerary of one of the days out – the bikers visited on the last Sunday in August, which was a beautifully warm and sunny day.  The event had been meticulously planned, and the market square had been given over to the bikers, with the Sunday market shifted onto the roads around the square.  I decided to watch the arrival of the convoy at the hairpin bend on the Route de Villespassans (D20) – the bikes would all have to slow down for the turn and I would get a good look 🙂

Seeing them all come down the hill was impressive and exciting!  There were hundreds of bikes, all polished to within an inch of their lives!!  I’ve never owned a motorbike, but I could tell that every one of the riders was mighty proud of his/her bike.  Forget any preconceived ideas you have about bikers – this was a very diverse group of people who were enjoying themselves and the ride.

The convoy did a tour of the village, so that by the time I had walked back to the market square, the bikes were just about starting to pull up to park.

There were motorbikes everywhere – hundreds of them!! 🙂

The bikes were all beautifully styled and most of them appeared to have been customised.  The attention to detail was amazing!

Nobody can ride on an empty stomach, so lunch had been organised for everyone.  Tables and chairs had been set up in the shade of the plane trees, and three huge pans of paella had been prepared to feed the hungry crowds.

In the afternoon, once everyone had eaten and had a little chance to rest, a competition was held for the best looking biker.  It looked as though all the participants had had great fun choosing their outfits!!

The prize for the best looking biker went to this lady:

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Route 66 was her thing, she said, adding that it was also her age!!  Well done Stephanie!

The visit of the Brescoudos was a highly enjoyable event, which set the whole village buzzing.  To be repeated next year!!