Season’s Greetings

As the festive season is upon us, I’d like to wish you all a wonderful time over the holidays!  I’ll be taking a few weeks off – look out for my next post in 2018.  Until then, stay healthy and happy!

Olive grove in the snow

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Sailing again

If you have visited Saint-Chinian, you’ll probably know that there is a windmill standing on the hill above the village.  It was reconstructed as a fully functional windmill from a ruin a good many years ago.  During the summer months, volunteers from the association Richesses du St Chinianais used to offer guided visits and would make the windmill turn if there was enough wind.

Unfortunately, at some point the rot set in – in the main beam which held the sails and acted as the drive shaft.  One day, a couple of years ago, the beam just snapped off, and the four sails dropped to the ground.  It was a sad day for the village, but at least nobody was hurt.

The sails were put into storage, whilst experts looked at ways of repairing the windmill.  In the end, it was decided to re-make the sails and the external part of the drive shaft with steel rather than wood.  To my mind it’s been a surprisingly successful repair – you can’t really tell the difference even from just a few meters away.

With the sails replaced, the windmill was opened to visitors again last summer, and the volunteers from Les Richesses gave guided tours once more!  The day I visited, I arrived early enough to watch the sails being unfurled.  I shot a video, which gives you an idea of the tranquility of the spot, and what is required to get this windmill operational!

There was no wind on the day I visited, so unfortunately the sails would not turn.  But don’t be disappointed!  I did write about the windmill back in June 2013,  and I included videos of the windmill turning in that post – you can read the post here.

On your next visit to Saint-Chinian, don’t forget to have a look at the windmill – it’s worth the drive or walk for the views alone!!

Let it flow

A few months ago, I discovered an olive mill near Beziers.  Domaine Pradines le Bas is just a few kilometers from Beziers town centre, in the direction of Murviel-les-Beziers.  Francine Buesa has been planting olive trees on the estate for more than 15 years, and her trees are now in full production.

Olive grove at Domaine Pradines le Bas

I visited again last week to watch olive oil being pressed.  The olive harvest starts as early as at the end of August, when the olives destined for the table are being picked.  The harvest can continue into January.  Once the table olives are picked, the rest of the harvested olives are being processed for oil.  Green, purple and black olives come from the same tree, but are at different stages of ripeness.  As olives ripen, their oil content starts to increase.

Olives ready for pressing

Olives ready for pressing

At Pradines le Bas, the table olives are picked by hand, whereas the olives destined for olive oil are harvested mechanically.  A special harvesting machine is used – the machine spreads what looks like a giant upturned umbrella underneath the tree, and then gently vibrates the tree, shaking off the ripe olives.  The upturned umbrella catches them all!  The olives are then loaded into large crates and taken to the mill for processing.  Here’s a picture of the machine:

Olive harvesting machine

Olive harvesting machine

At the mill, the olives are loaded into a machine which separates the leaves from the olives, and washes the olives.

Starting the milling process

Starting the milling process – the cleaning machine

The black box on top of the machine takes care of the leaves, a bit like a giant vacuum cleaner, whilst the ‘washing machine’ is below.  Once the olives are washed, they are transported to the room next door.  Stepping into the room next door was great!  There was a wonderful scent in the air – difficult to describe – somewhat herby but definitely smelling of olive oil.

From the hopper, an Archimedes screw takes the olives to the mill unit, where they are pulped, stone and all!

Arrival of the cleaned olives

The olive pulp then goes into a malaxer, a machine, which slowly mixes the olive pulp for up to 45 minutes.  This mixing helps the extraction process later on.

Malaxer with the lid closed, to avoid oxidization

Here’s a video for you – unfortunately you don’t get the smell, but you’ll get an idea of the noise!! 🙂  (Note: e-mail subscribers, you may have to visit the website in order to be able to watch the video)

The olive pulp being mixed.

From the malaxer, the pulp gets pumped into the extractor, where the pulp is spun to separate the liquid from the solids.  The solids end up next door and are later spread out in the olive groves, nothing is wasted!

Extracting the juice from the olive pulp.

The yellowish olive juice runs through a sieve into a container, from where it is pumped to a centrifuge.

Olive juice!

The centrifuge separates the water from the oil.  The golden coloured olive oil runs from the spout in a thin but steady stream!

Freshly pressed olive oil

When freshly pressed, the olive oil has a cloudy appearance.  The oil is unfiltered, so tiny particles of olive pulp are still in suspension.

The pressing plant

Once pressed, the oil is transferred to stainless steel tanks, where, over time, the particles slowly drop to the bottom, leaving the oil perfectly clear and sparkling!

Over 900 litres of olive oil!!

The bottom of the stainless steel tanks are v-shaped, and that’s where the solids collect.  A tap at the bottom of the tank allows the solids to be drawn off.  That part is sent to a soap factory for processing into soaps and cosmetics.

Stainless steel storage tank

The oil is now ready to be bottled and sold!  The shop is right next door to the mill.  Large windows in the shop allow the visitors to see the equipment throughout the year.

In the shop you can find a variety of olive oils (you can taste them all!), tapenades, table olives and cosmetic products, as well as a selection of products from partners (vinegars, jams, etc.).  You can also buy via the on-line shop, but nothing beats tasting the oils before you buy!  When you buy olive oil, bear in mind that up to 10 kilos of olives are used to make a litre of olive oil.  At Pradines le Bas, all olive oil is cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil.

Making olive oil is not the only activity at Pradines le Bas.  Up the stairs from the olive mill is a gallery for contemporary art.  Don’t miss it if you visit – the exhibitions change on a regular basis, and are always worth a look!!

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A new cracker

This past weekend, I went to the annual Cracker Fair.  I wrote about this Christmas market in December 2013, when it took place at the Chateau Abbaye de Cassan (you can find the article here).  This year, the cracker fair was hosted for the first time by the Abbaye de Valmagne, located between Montagnac and Villeveyrac.  This market was established ten years ago, and in the early days it was very much aimed at the British expat community in the area, who felt deprived of their Christmas crackers.  If you don’t know what Christmas crackers are have a look here.

Valmange was founded in 1138, and at one point in its history, it was one of the richest Cistercian abbeys in France!  During the French revolution, the last monks fled the abbey in 1789, and it was sold by the French state in 1791.  The abbey church, which dates from 1257 and which is 83 metres long and 24 metres high, was converted into a wine cellar.  It is probably for that reason that the church has survived.  Enormous wooden barrels were installed in the side chapels, and several are still in place today!   I was watching a number people enter by the door at the end of the church, and most of them had a kind of “wow” look on their faces!

The church is impressive at the best of times, but the fact that it was filled with stalls, people and noises added another dimension!

Around 100 stalls had been set up in the church, offering a large variety of goods, from soaps to syrups, marbles to mushrooms (dried) – you name it!

The church was built in the classic gothic style, and true to the Cistercian rules, it is without much in the way of decoration.

From the side of the church, a door led to the cloister, where there were more stalls!!

The cloister consists of four arcaded galleries around a garden.  There is a fountain, which would have been used by the monks for ritual ablutions.

The chapter house is off the cloister, and it too was occupied by stalls!

A barrel-vaulted passage housed an exhibition of paintings.

In the former refectory there were more stalls and a cafe.

Valmagne was bought by the Comte de Tourraine in 1838, and he and his descendants have taken very good care of the former abbey over the years.  Today the estate is run as a winery, and the visit would not have been complete without a stop in the shop.  The tasting room is right next door to the shop, and there was a lovely fire burning in the fireplace!

Since 1999, the wines at Valmagne have been produced as organic wines!

Outside, there were more stalls and – most importantly – a selection of food trucks!!

Saturday was a very cold day, and I’m sure that the stallholders outside must have been freezing, but they all remained cheerful!

Despite the cold, this was a wonderful Christmas market to visit – one you should add to your diary if you are in the area in early December.  The Cracker Fair is organised by Languedoc Living. You can find details on their website.

The Abbaye de Valmagne is open to visitors throughout the year – you can find details of opening hours here.

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Aperitif anyone?

In French, the word aperitif has several meanings.  At the base, an aperitif is an alcoholic beverage, taken before a meal.  The meaning also includes all the food and nibbles served with this drink, and it also means the convivial time spent with other people.    If you are invited for an aperitif (or apero) in France, there will be a selection of drinks of varying strengths:  whiskey, beer, pastis, vermouth, flavoured wines (more about those in a moment), kir (white wine with blackcurrant liqueur), straight wine, sparkling wine, muscat, cocktails – you name it!

Then there is the food, which can range from the simple – a few nuts and crisps – to the very elaborate aperitif dinatoire, which is a meal in itself.  I tend to go the middle road, below some pictures of aperitif tables laid out with a variety of food:  crisps, pate, cheese, sliced sausages, radishes, dips, crackers, cut up cucumbers and carrots, tapenade.

Last year, I was given a recipe for a  flavoured wine which is typically French: Vin d’Orange. Thank you Anne!!  This drink is made with Seville oranges, white or rose wine, clear spirit, sugar, vanilla beans and lemons.

The clear spirit is 40% alcohol and in France it is called Alcool pour Fruits. For the wine I used locally made chardonnay.  The oranges (also locally grown) and lemons were washed and cut up into quarters.

Gratuitous picture of cut-up Seville oranges 🙂

The wine, spirit and sugar were put into a large enough non-metallic receptacle, and the oranges and vanilla beans added.  The whole was given a good stir, covered and left to macerate for two months.  I gave it a stir from time to time – the aroma was heavenly!

After the two months, I fished out the oranges, strained the wine through a double layer of cheesecloth, and bottled it.  It is best served chilled!  Cheers!!

Below you’ll find the recipe in a printable format.  Please drink responsibly.

Vin d'Orange

  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

A slightly bitter orange flavoured wine, perfect for a summer aperitif.

Ingredients

  • 5 litres of white or rose wine
  • 1 litre of clear spirit (40% alcohol)
  • 1.5 kg sugar
  • 1 kg Seville oranges
  • 2 unwaxed lemons
  • 2 vanilla beans

Directions

  1. Prepare a non-metallic recipient, large enough to hold all your ingredients.  It should be scrupulously clean and you should be able to cover it hermetically.
  2. Wash and quarter the oranges and lemons.
  3. Add the wine, alcohol and sugar to the recipient and stir to dissolve the sugar.
  4. Add the fruit and the vanilla beans, stir and cover.
  5. Leave to macerate for two months, stirring from time to time.
  6. After two months, remove the fruit and vanilla beans and strain the wine through a double layer of cheesecloth.  Bottle and cork.

Notes: As I prefer my drinks dry, I only used 500g of the sugar for my vin d’orange.  You could start with that quantity and add more sugar later if you prefer.  If you are unable to find Seville oranges, you can use regular oranges and add 20 g cinchona tree (quinine) bark.

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