Happy Holidays!

For as long as I can remember, the festive season has been synonymous with light for me.  In Germany, the nights draw in very early around Christmas, and the festive illuminations make those dark nights brighter.  I grew up there, in the days before everybody had electric lights on their (sometimes artificial) Christmas trees – we had real candles on a real tree.  I would only lay eyes on the tree on Christmas eve, when the candles were lit as if by magic (my parents never appeared to have anything to do with that!!), and the whole tree was sparkling with glass ornaments, tinsel and sparklers.  At the time you read this, I will be decorating my own tree, with tinsel, glass ornaments AND electric lights!  As I am writing this post before that tree will be trimmed, I won’t be able to share any photographs with you, I’m sorry!

But I do have some other photographs to share with you – I visited Montpellier very recently.  On my meanderings through some of the narrow streets, I passed by the entrance to a church, which had in the past always been locked.  That day the doors were wide open, so I had to have a look in – and I’m very glad I did!  The church was the Chapelle des Penitents Blancs, the chapel of the white penitents. This lay brotherhood was founded in Montpellier in 1517.  In 2013 it had 49 members, aged 25 to 103 years!  The chapel, which dates from the 17th century and earlier, serves as their headquarters.

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The interior is richly decorated, with much gold leaf in evidence.  Parts of the decor have been restored, whilst other parts are still awaiting much needed work.

On the balcony at the rear of the chapel are two mannequins, dressed in the traditional white robes of the penitents.

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There was a reason why the chapel was open to the public that day:  the very large Provençal creche or nativity scene!

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The popular Provençal nativity scenes appeared during the French Revolution, when la Terreur had closed churches and forbidden worship.  In 1793, at Christmas, people in Marseille started to make small figures, which could easily be hidden in case of police checks.  They used clay, paper, the white of a loaf of bread – whatever was to hand.  The figures represented the faithful, who could not go to midnight mass.  They were given the names santouns, little saints in Provençal. Today they are usually called santons.

The tradition became very much part of Christmas in Provence, and spread to Languedoc too.  In 1803 a santons fair was held in Marseille.  The traditional costumes of today’s figures hark back to the days when the santons were first made.

Did you notice the chapel with the white penitents?  And did you notice that baby Jesus was missing?  He will be placed in his crib with great ceremony on Christmas eve!

After that wonderfully unexpected stop, I made my way to Place de la Comedie and the Christmas market.  The centre of Montpellier was beautifully decked out in lights.  Here are some pictures of the Opera Comedie, of the Place de la Comedie, and of the streets surrounding the Place de la Comedie:

This year, the Christmas market stretched from the Place de la Comedie all the way down the Esplanade Charles de Gaulle – there were over 100 stalls in all!

IMG_3724There was a nice assortment of edibles:

. . .  and gift ideas:

Note how I have far more pictures of food 🙂 – somehow I’m drawn to that!!

This will be my last post for 2015, and so I would like to wish all of you and yours a wonderful festive season!!  See you again in the New Year!

 

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Let there be plenty

Soon the festive season will be upon us all – a time of getting together with friends and family, sharing good cheer, good food, and presents – a time when most of us will eat too much, and some of us may drink a little too much…  It’s all part of the festive celebrations, a time-honoured tradition – and seriously, who can resist all that delicious food and drink??

Mindful of the excesses which may be heading our way I thought I would share a special meal with you, which I recently prepared and ate with some very dear friends.  The starting point was “Plenty”, a book by Yottam Ottolenghi, a British based cookery writer with Italian, Israeli and British passports.  “Plenty” is Ottolenghi’s second book, a collection of vegetarian recipes, which he developed for his column in the Guardian Weekend Magazine.  It is a book that draws on many different cuisines and influences.

 

My friends and I selected three dishes from the book:

“Plenty” is not strong on recipes for desserts.  I wanted to stay with a recipe by Ottolenghi for dessert, so I did a search on the net and turned up an interesting sounding recipe for strained ricotta balls with banana fritters, on the Guardian website.

I started the dessert recipe days ahead of our meal, as the ricotta balls need to drain in the fridge for several days.

For the Soba noodles and wakame, I searched the internet for an on-line retailer, and found a Japanese store in Paris which did mail order!!  Great!!  The package arrived on time – five out of five to http://www.kioko.fr !

I had never eaten or worked with wakame before, so it was interesting to try it.  Wakame is an edible seaweed, most often used in soups and salads.   It was very easy to re-hydrate the required quantity:

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Other ingredients for the salad were soba noodles, which are made with buckwheat flour; shredded cucumber (skin on), which is salted and left to drain for some time; as well as toasted sesame seeds, coriander and mint leaves, and radish sprouts.

The dressing was made with rice vinegar, lime juice, grated lime zest, chillies, fresh ginger, sugar, salt, sesame oil, garlic and sweet chilli sauce.

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It was quite a challenge to mix all these ingredients, but the result was worth all the effort – a wonderful combination of flavours and textures!

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The roasted butternut squash called for ingredients which were easy enough to find!  Butternut squashes are plentiful at this time of year, and I think they are the best of all winter squashes for flavour.  The squash was cut into slices, put on a lined baking sheet and liberally anointed with a mixture and oil, ground allspice and coarsely ground cardamom.  A little sprinkle of salt, and 15 minutes in the oven.

The dressing called for Greek yoghurt, lime juice, tahini, a little water and salt.  The sauce was poured over the cooled squash slices, and the whole decorated with lime segments, finely sliced green chilli and chopped fresh coriander.  Another winner!!

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The recipe for the caramelised garlic tart called for an incredible amount of garlic – three whole heads!

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The peeled garlic cloves were blanched in boiling water, drained, fried and then simmered with balsamic vinegar, rosemary and thyme until tender and caramelised.

The tart case was made with ready rolled puff pastry, which was blind-baked (pre-baked).P1010018

For the filling, two types of goat’s cheese (soft and hard) were crumbled and scattered over the base of the pastry case.  The garlic cloves were added, and the whole covered with a custard made of creme fraiche, double cream and eggs.

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The aromas which came from the oven while the tart was baking were heavenly, and the finished tart absolutely delicious!!

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When the time came, the dessert was very simple to prepare.  Having made the ricotta balls ahead, all that was left to do was to slice the bananas, prepare a tempura batter and deep fry the banana pieces.  I love fritters, and these were very delicious!!

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I would definitely make all these recipes again!  They were all straightforward to prepare and oh-so-delicious!!  Vegetarian food does not have to be boring, and “Plenty” is a testament to that!

If you want to try any of the recipes, the links at the beginning of this post will allow you to print them off.  Happy cooking and eating!

 

 

Behind the scenes

During the summer months there are so many things going on in the area – it’s hard to keep up with it all, and harder still to write about it all at the time that it happens.  So some stories get put by for later, when it’s a little calmer, and when a reminder of summer is welcome.

The tourist office in Beziers had a full programme of guided visits during the summer.  I found time to go on one guided visit, which was a tour of the Arenes de Beziers, the arenas where the Feria, the annual bull fight festival, takes place each August.  This impressive building is located on Avenue Emile Claparede, a little way from the centre of town.

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Bull fighting has a history in Beziers which pre-dates the opening of the arenas in 1897, no doubt having been introduced from Spain.  Before this present structure was opened, there had been a number of temporary and makeshift arenas in Beziers.  In the above picture you can see some of my fellow visitors, waiting for our guide to arrive.  At the time of my visit, the Feria had only recently taken place, so the posters were still all in place.

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Once our guide had unlocked the enormous gates and let us in, he explained a little about the building.  The outside walls are made from stone and brick, and the internal structure for the tiers is made from reinforced concrete. The diameter of the building is 107 metres and it can seat up to 15,000 spectators.  With that information we set off to explore the building.

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A number of plaques lined the corridor we walked along.  The first reminded us that from 1898 onwards several famous French composers created works under the impulse of Fernand Castelbon de Beauxhostes, a patron of the arts from Beziers.

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The symbols on the tiles are the branding marks of the various manades, the farms which raise the bulls.

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The plaque below commemorates a prize which had been awarded to the Guardiola ranch, for their bulls.

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We finally came to the end of the tunnel, and into the light:

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Standing inside this huge arena is awe-inspiring to say the least.  The pictures below don’t really manage to convey the sheer scale of the place!

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We walked across the arena to the toril, where the bulls and the toreadors enter the ring.  Our guide took us behind the scenes!  Here’s a good look at the underside of the tiers:

This is what a changing room of one of the bull fighters looks like – stark and spartan:

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Apparently there is also a chapel on site, where the fighters pray before going out into the arena, but we couldn’t see that.

Our guide explained that the arena is used throughout the year by the Beziers bull fighting club for training.  He showed us two contraptions used by the aspiring bull fighters to practice their skills.  The first is for working practising with the fabric, which does not have to be red, apparently it’s the movement of the fabric which irritates the bull.

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The second contraption is for practising with a wooden sword.

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At that point our guide also explained a fundamental difference between the bulls used in the Corrida, and those used for the Course Camarguaise. The horns of the bulls which appear in the Corrida point forwards, at the toreador, whereas the Camarguaise bulls’ horns point upwards.  If you have been following this blog for some time you may remember my article about bull fighting in the Camargue.  If you want to read it, this link will take you there.

We then looked at the area where the bulls enter the arena, carefully separated from any other animals or humans.

On we went, to the platform above the toril, where an orchestra is usually placed to entertain the spectators in between fights.  From there I got a good picture of the prized seats, the boxes, right at the top of the arena.

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That’s where we were headed next, so we went down again, into the ring, and across to the other side.

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The sign below indicated that we were going in the direction of the boxes.  Vomitoire is the name of the wide corridors, which allow lots of people to enter and exit quickly.  I imagine that the word has Latin roots!  And no, it’s not a place where the Romans would have vomited

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The staircase up to the boxes was quite something, especially if you looked down from the top:

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Finally, we had reached the boxes.  Our reward for climbing all those steps was a most amazing view:

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The seating inside the boxes was not all that much more comfortable, but the big difference was cover and shade!!  A Corrida lasts two and a half hours, and in the blazing sun that could be uncomfortable!!

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After a good look around the boxes, we descended the stairs and headed down some more corridors – it felt a little like being in a rabbit warren.

We emerged into the sunlight once more, and made our way to the very top of the arena.  Another great opportunity for a panorama shot!!

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From the top we could see outside the arena, and the views of Beziers were amazing.  When the arena was first built, it would have been mostly surrounded by fields!

What about the bulls, you may ask.  In a Corrida the bulls always come to a sticky end. Each fight lasts for 15 minutes, and at the end of it the bull is usually dead.  I must admit that I have a difficult time with the idea of killing as a sport or an art, but I respect other people’s views on that.

Now, going back to the composers that I mentioned earlier and the patron of the arts, Fernand Castelbon de Beauxhostes, there is a period in the history of the arenas, when they were famous for other things apart from bull fighting!  Beauxhostes realised very early on that the acoustics inside the arena were superb, and ideal for outdoor opera!  He persuaded his friend Camille Saint-Saëns (remember the Carnival of the Animals?) to cooperate.  Legend has it that Saint-Saëns was totally against bull fights, and that he was only persuaded to participate after having listened to the acoustics whilst wearing a blindfold, thus not knowing where he was.  Whatever the truth, in 1898 Saint-Saëns premiered the precursor to his opera Dejanire in Bezier.  This marked the start of a very successful opera festival, which took place annually until 1929, and for which people travelled from all over France.

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If you are interested in visiting the arena yourself, the guided visits take place during July and August.  Bull fights take place during the Feria, which takes place during the second week in August each year.

Pictures at an exhibition

For those of you who wondered what happened to last week’s post: I took a week off, following a small surgical procedure, which went very well, but left me with a little more need for relaxation than I had anticipated :).  I had meant to drop you all a note – I hope you didn’t get worried!

One of the relaxing things I managed to do later in my recuperation, was a visit to a new art gallery, La Remise du Fada, in Ginestas, not all that far away from Saint-Chinian.  The gallery has been created in a former barn, so the space inside is large and airy.  The conversion has been beautifully done, with floors made from reclaimed wood and natural stone, and the new barn doors are impressive to say the least.

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The inaugural exhibition is showing the work of seven different artists – the show will be on for three months!  I had received an invitation to the vernissage from Pierre-Regis Dides, whose pictures I have previously written about here.  Pierre-Regis was showing a selection of his paintings, and one of them (my favourite from the last exhibition) had been framed by the gallery owner for the show.  It looked even better, but alas, I don’t have a wall large enough for it!

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I was also very pleased to see the work of Thomas Darnell, a painter I have known for a very long time.  In this exhibition Tom is showing fine art prints of some of his paintings.  I did not realise that the pictures on show were prints, until Nicole, Tom’s wife, pointed it out to me.  Tom’s paintings tend to be very large, and the advantage of the prints is that they come in three different sizes.  They are also a lot easier on the pocketbook than one of Tom’s original paintings :).  You can find Tom’s site for the prints here.

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I also saw the work of Thalia Reventlow, a Danish artist, whom I met through friends many years ago.  I loved her chickens, but don’t be deceived, Thalia is a very serious ceramicist!

Gilles Chapel, painter and sculptor, was showing some of his ceramics:

as well as some of his paintings:

Serge Griggio’s paintings had an air of mystery about them, as if the empty chairs were waiting for someone to sit down.

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Lionel Laussedat‘s steel sculptures are made in his workshop in Serignan.  The sculptures range in size from the very manageable, such as the two in the pictures below, to more monumental pieces which are on display in public spaces all over the world.

Flores Alders‘s paintings are bold and colourful.  He draws his inspiration from the Fauvism movement.

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So there you have it – a very interesting exhibition in a wonderful new gallery.  If you are in the area, do go and visit, but I would suggest that you telephone ahead (+33 679 673 475) to make sure that the gallery will be open.