The Village Voice

Florence Nash has very kindly written another post for this blog!  I’ve lived in Saint-Chinian for so long that I take the sounds around me for granted, and as such I don’t really pay attention to them any more.  So it’s wonderful to be reminded of those particular sounds which make living in a village (as opposed to a town/city) so very special – thank you, Florence!!


I usually arrive in Saint-Chinian, at the end of August or early September, as a refugee from the sweaty, buggy, late-summer slump of the southern United States, where people dash from one air-tight, air-conditioned haven to the next. Maybe that’s why one of my favorite images of this many-splendored place is a surprisingly modest one: My waking view of dawn lighting the red roof tiles outside the wide-open casement window, and the curtain sheers, dotted with little Fleurs de Lys, stirring slightly in air just cool enough to require a blanket. This air is sooo delicious! And virtually bug-free, with the sky criss-crossed by swallows (or martins, or swifts — I never can tell the difference) swooping and darting helpfully after their airborne breakfast. I wouldn’t dream of closing these windows at night, even if it were to take three blankets.

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That may explain how I have become so conscious of the voice of Saint-Chinian, the particular texture of sounds human and otherwise that seems almost a sonic portrait of the village. Especially in early morning as the village wakens, but throughout the day as well, I find myself listening for and collecting its distinctive sounds.

To begin with, there’s the town clock that rings each hour and then, just to make sure everybody gets it right, does it again. The local doves join the daily aubade with their soft hoo, hoo-hooo. (One morning a few years ago I heard gunshots blasting through their peaceful calls. To my relief, it turned out to be someone chasing marauding boars out of his vineyards; they have a destructive enthusiasm for ripe grapes.) As the sun climbs, there’s the creak and clack of shutters being opened and secured and, on Thursdays and Sundays, the thrum of van engines as marchands converge on the market square and set up their stalls, calling and clattering and laughing. Plenty of dogs are quick to voice their territorial imperatives — there’s some indignant barking under my window as I write.

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I’m renting Acanthus, as usual, the house occupying the two stories over Andreas and Anthony’s headquarters on Rue Cours La Reine, and throughout the day I hear the companionable murmur of many a conversation — in French, English, German, and who knows what — below my windows as friends stop by for a word. The mail carrier on her rounds usually has time for a little chat, too.  This street is one of the few actually wide enough for two passing cars and even a bit of parking. But just in back, and all around, there are “streets” you’d swear a car could never fit through — until you find yourself leaping frantically into a doorway and mashing yourself against the wall as one squeezes past with a few inches (really!) to spare, rear-view mirror practically snatching at the market basket clasped to your bosom. These tiny streets, separating dwellings by only a few yards, are one of the factors contributing to what amounts to a village-wide conversation; that, along with the fact that every sound reverberates full force off these ancient stones. One morning as I lay in bed savoring the rising light and the twitter of birds, I heard the clear ting ting of a teaspoon against a coffee cup in someone’s kitchen across the way. It was extremely intimate, somehow.

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To be fair, I have to mention the occasional roar and clatter of huge trucks that shoulder their way along the main drag, momentarily challenging conversation under the trees at Le Balcon, and Vernazobre, and the Café de la Paix. They’re not my favorite noise, but they are part of the real life of all these old villages now strung like beads along a narrow, busy trucking route. I’ve come to love Saint-Chinian because it’s not a Hollywood-glamorous South of France destination, but an ancient town in a surrounding of dramatic beauty — and equally dramatic history — where people work hard and live in close community, mostly either making wine or providing services for those who do. And, for my money, instead of seeing famous beauties in full make-up and stage lighting, I find it a lot more interesting — and  privileged — to get to know what they’re like after a hard day’s work, or first thing in the morning!

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Speaking of working, I have to share with you one more little item in Saint-Chinian’s voice. The other day I drove up behind the Cave Cooperative to have a look at Domaine La Madura’s new winery, built since I was last here by my friends Nadia and Cyril. On the way up I spotted Nadia out talking with the pickers, so we only exchanged a hasty wave. At the winery, though, I found Cyril in rubber boots hosing off a concrete floor, the air tinged with new fermentation. He showed me around the sleek, modern building crowning the hill (and uncannily harmonious with the landscape): lab, tasting room, sales area, offices. We entered a low-ceilinged space filled with solemn rows of large, apparently identical barrels; but each bore its own markings: contents, origins, age; each had a personal history of weather and work and worry. The room felt like a kind of chapel of wine. Cyril removed the bung from one of the barrels nearby and said, “Come listen. You can hear the wine working.” I put my ear down close to the bung hole, held my breath . . . and there it was, faint but steady. Sssshhhh. Just like holding a seashell to your ear to hear the ocean, hundreds of miles from the coast. The voice of the wine! Delicate and astonishing and new, this voice of Saint-Chinian is now, without doubt, my undisputed favorite.

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****

Before I sign off, just one or two more words about the pleasures of driving in the Languedoc countryside. Because every road wriggles and squeezes through village after village —often without room for two cars to pass and always with two or three badly parked vans in the way— drivers encounter over and over the need to slow down, calculate relative maneuvering ease, and cede right-of-way in the most practical direction. This is accomplished fluidly, quickly, and without fuss by the great majority of drivers I’ve encountered, in a sort of car-ballet of accommodation. It makes me feel better about human behavior. It makes me feel less good about driving in the US. Lastly, my very favorite road sign in all of France is the one that says “TOUTES DIRECTIONS.” No message could be more welcome or more comforting than this, to us strangers wandering in a strange land: “Wherever it is you are trying to go, friend, you are — so far — on the right road!”

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After the rain

Last week we had two full days of rain – the first real rainfall since the spring!!  I was thinking of all the parched plants everywhere, and how this rain might just save some of them.

With rain, it’s either feast or famine here in our area – very rarely do we get a steady drizzle which lasts for days, and which would be so good for nature.  No, here it was heavy rainfall, torrential at times.  Slowly but steadily the ditches filled up with water, and the dried up gulleys turned into raging torrents.  The river in Saint-Chinian rose some, although not as much as I have seen it rise in the past.

The rain stopped Friday morning, and I had arranged to meet friends for lunch in La Caunette that day.  On the drive to La Caunette the sun started to peek through the clouds.  Before passing through Agel, there’s a spot where the river Cesse runs very close to the road.  For most of the year, the river here is dry, and in the winter there is sometimes a little water flowing, as in the picture below.

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After the rain, the river looked very different!

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With the sun coming out, the countryside looked sparkling, as though it had just been scrubbed clean – well, it really had had a good clean with all that rain!

Lunch at Restaurant La Cave in La Caunette was lovely; the food was good home-cooking, and as tasty as always, and the company was great!

Everybody chose the same starter from the daily menu, a tart with bacon, comte cheese and grapes.  The pastry was crisp and flaky, the tart hot from the oven, and the salad leaves were perfectly dressed.

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Everyone agreed on the same main course too: Parmentier of ox tail.  Succulent pieces of ox tail meat were hiding under a layer of mashed potatoes and carrots – a bit like a shepherd’s pie, really, and very tasty!

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When it came to dessert, opinions differed, and we finally had some variety on our table! 🙂

Pear poached in red wine:

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Chestnut mousse:

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Speculoos flan with caramel sauce (speculoos are spiced cookies from Belgium):

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All three were excellent.  We drank a very nice red wine with the meal, which came from Domaine Le Cazal, just outside La Caunette.

After lunch, a stroll around La Caunette was de rigeur.  Here’s a view of the village from the iron bridge, with the river below.  For most of the year there is no water in the river!  The founders of the village knew why they built the houses a way up the hill from the river!!

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In the village, there was water flowing seemingly everywhere – from under houses, above a garage, down gulleys…

Usually, la fontaine is a steady jet of water, rather sedate – the extra water pressure made for a very different jet!

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All too soon, the water will stop running and everything will go back to what it was like before all the rain!  I leave you with two pictures, both showing beautiful autumn colours.  One is of fruits on a vigne vierge, a Virginia creeper, the other is of pomegranates.  I hope you’ve enjoyed our little outing as much as I did!!

 

The French Market – Taste of France

This week’s post is a little late, I’m sorry! I came across a bit of a challenge when it came to re-blogging this post from http://www.francetaste.wordpress.com.  The writer of this blog lives in Carcassonne and writes on a variety of interesting topics.  I particularly enjoyed the post below and have wanted to share it with you for a little while now.  As autumn is setting in, it’s high time I posted it!!  I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.


Tomorrow is Saturday, the best day of the week. Market day.

There are markets on Tuesday and Thursday, but they’re smaller. Saturdays bring more sellers and buyers. It’s a big social event, centered on food. So very French.

I have my favorite vendors. I try to stick to seasonal produce. It is better in season, and the lack of it out of season makes it all the more special when it’s available.

The apples have appeared. The nectarines and peaches are still going strong, but you can tell they’re going to get farineuse–mealy–pretty soon.

There are plenty of tomatoes, and now that the heat has broken, it’s time to make spaghetti sauce.

An adieu to summer….

That’s per kilo…

Hot peppers

Rotisserie chicken….just TRY walking past!

Yellow melons

Ham or jambon

Almonds or amandes

A little entertainment

Snails or escargots

Figs or figues

Apricots, or abricots, still in late summer! Our tree’s fruit was ripe and eaten in July!

Cucumbers, or concombres

White and purple eggplant, or aubergine

Do you cook from scratch? What will you miss most about summer’s bounty?

My shopping caddy, stuffed to the gills.

Source: The French Market – Taste of France

And still more to come …

Just because summer is coming to an end, it doesn’t mean that there’s nothing going on in and around Saint-Chinian!  Far from it!!  The theatres in Beziers, Narbonne, Pezenas and elsewhere are starting their seasons and there’s much to see and do.  Here is a selection of events:

11eme Festival Les Troubadours Chantent L’Art Roman – 7 May to 25 November 2016

This festival pairs romanesque architecture with ancient music, such as in the concert I went to last year at Fontcaude Abbey.  This year I went to hear the Troubadours Art Ensemble in the church in Cruzy, where the picture below was taken.  There are still a few concerts left this season!

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Orchids at Fontfroide, Fontfroide Abbey – 7, 8 and 9 October 2016

An orchid exhibition in the magnificent surroundings of Fontfroide Abbey is taking place this weekend.  A great excuse (if you need one) to visit this wonderful abbey – the picture below shows the cloisters.

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Grand Deballage, Pezenas – 9 October 2016

This Sunday will see another mega flea market, the second this year, in this town well-known for its plethora of antique shops.  There will be over 2km of stalls!!

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Fete du Marron et du Vin Nouveau, Olargues – 29 and 30 October 2016

The chestnut festival in Olargues is always enjoyable!!  Whilst it is not as large a festival as the one in Saint-Pons-de-Thomieres, it has a great selection of stalls, and the roasted chestnuts are always great!!

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Conilhac Jazz Festival, Conilhac – 29 October to 26 November 2016

The little village of Conilhac (850 souls) has been hosting a jazz festival every year since 1987, staging concerts by musicians of world renown!  The programme can be found here.

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Truffle fairs and markets – 10 December 2016 – 24 June 2017

The truffle markets are much-anticipated by some people.  If you have ever tasted a real truffle, you’ll know that, love it or hate it, the flavour is unlike anything else!  A good introduction to truffles is to visit a truffle market, to smell their heady perfume and to taste the scrambled eggs.  A list of events can be found here.

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