Shaken, not stirred

… that’s how James Bond liked his martinis!  A classic martini cocktail has only two ingredients – that’s if you don’t count the olive!  Gin and dry vermouth, in the proportion of 6 parts gin to 1 part dry vermouth, make up a dry martini, according to the International Bartenders Association (IBA).

The town of Marseillan, on the Etang de Thau, is the home of Noilly Prat, a company which has been producing dry vermouth since its foundation by Joseph Noilly in 1813.  Purists say that it’s that dry vermouth that should be used to make the perfect dry martini cocktail!

Here’s a little bit of history for you:  Joseph Noilly was born in 1779 in Saint-Bel-les-Mines.  In 1801, the year that his son Louis was born, Joseph Noilly was a grocer and candle merchant in Lyon.  In 1813, the city of Lyon closed down its central wine and spirits depot.  Joseph Noilly seized the opportunity and started his own wine and spirits merchant business, creating his recipe for the dry vermouth which is still used today!

In 1843, a new branch of the business was opened in Marseille.  The man in charge of that new business was named Claude Prat.  The following year, Claude Prat married Anne Rosine, the daughter of Louis Noilly.  In 1855, Claude Prat became an associate of Louis Noilly and the company’s name was changed to Noilly Prat & Companie.  Between 1859 and 1862, a new production facility was constructed in Marseillan, for the ageing of wines.  I’ll come back to the ageing of the wine in a moment.

By 1865, Louis Noilly and Claude Prat had both died and Anne Roisine was at the helm of Noilly Prat, ushering in a period of expansion and prosperity for the business.  In 1878, the Noilly Prat vermouth was awarded a gold medal at the Universal Exhibition in Paris – a very high honour indeed!!

Anne Rosine Prat-Noilly was one of the few women who were running large and successful businesses in the 19th century.  The only other one I can think of right now is Barbe-Nicole Clicquot, the Veuve Clicquot of the famous champagne house, but I’m sure that there were others.

Anne Rosine was succeeded by her sons Louis and Jean Prat-Noilly in 1902, and in 1928 the company structure was changed to that of a PLC, a public limited company.  Information exists on the year 1939, which shows that the Chairman of the Board was a granddaughter of Anne Rosine.

In 1977, Noilly Prat and Company was bought by Martini & Rossi, the makers of the Martini vermouth.  In turn, Martini & Rossi was bought by Bacardi in 1992, and Noilly Prat vermouths joined a portfolio of illustrious brands such as Grey Goose vodka, Bombay Sapphire gin, and Dewar’s scotch whisky.

Now that I’ve told you about the history of the company, we can get back to visiting the production site in Marseillan.  I’ve visited Noilly Prat many times over the years, and the guided visits are constantly evolving and becoming better organized.  The visitor’s reception area is located in a large, spacious hall, with the shop at one end and the ticket desk at the other end.  Old (and now unused) equipment is used for decoration.

Did you notice the green doors in the upper picture above?  The lettering translates to “Behind these doors the first French vermouth is being made”!  The doors were opened with great flourish by our guide and an assistant, to reveal the Chai des Mistelles, the cellar where the mistelle wines are stored.

Huge oak casks line the cellar down both sides.  Louis Noilly had them built in 1859 – they were made from Canadian oak, and they have been in use ever since!  I’d never come across the word mistelle before my visits to Noilly Prat.  Apparently, this is lightly fermented grape juice, to which neutral alcohol has been added, to avoid it turning into vinegar.  This process leaves residual sugars in the wine, and that adds a little sweetness to the vermouth.

I mentioned earlier that the site in Marseillan was intended for the ageing of wines.  In the days before modern transport appeared, wines were sent by boat, with the barrels often tied up on the decks of ships.  The barrels and their wines were exposed to sun, wind, rain, mists and sea air.  On longer journeys, this produced oxidation in the wine, which gave it a taste all of its own.  Louis Noilly wanted to recreate some of this taste for his vermouth, and chose Marseillan since it was close to the sea.

From the Chai des Mistelles we stepped out into an enclosed yard, where hundreds of oak barrels were out in the open air, exposed to the elements.  The sun beats down on them in summer, the sea mists impart an imperceptible flavour, and the temperature changes throughout the year affect the ageing of the wine.  Seeing all those barrels lined up was a spectacular sight!!

The picture below is from one of my earlier visits to Noilly Prat – I think it was in 2004, when visitors were still allowed into the modern vermoutherie, where the wines are blended and flavoured with aromatics.  That part of the site is now out-of-bounds for visitors, unfortunately.

The barrels come from many different parts – they are bought once they have been used for a good 10 years, some for the production of whisky and cognac, others from port and wine makers.  They are used purely for storage and ageing – because they are second-hand, none of the tannins and flavours from the wood will be imparted to the wine.  A cooperage workshop on-site maintains and repairs the barrels – being outside in all weathers means that they need some TLC from time to time!

Our next stop was the museum, where the history of the company and its vermouth were illustrated.

To turn wine into vermouth, it is infused with a blend of herbs and spices.  The recipe for the original dry vermouth has not changed since Joseph Noilly first developed it, and the ingredients are still bought all over the world!  To ship them, in the days when shipping meant only transport by boat, special cardboard containers were developed.

The recipes for the herbal blends which flavour the vermouth, are closely guarded secrets.  However, in the museum we got to see approximately what is added:

Noilly Prat produces four different kinds of vermouth:  original dry, extra dry, red, and amber.  The pictures below show a simplified version of the recipe – not everything is listed.  Our guide told us that 27 different aromatics are used in the composition of the amber vermouth.

Here are their displays showing the differences in ingredients in their different vermouths.

Once the wines have been carefully aged and blended, a mixture of herbs and spices is added, and the wine is left to macerate with the aromatics for 21 days.  This maceration is done in casks like the ones in the following picture – 14 kilos of dried herbs and spices are added to each cask!

During the 21 days, the wines are stirred  by hand for three minutes every morning, to ensure that the herbs and spices infuse evenly.  A special tool was developed for that purpose.  You can see it in the picture below:

The curved blade at the end of the handle allows the cellar man to lift the herbs which have fallen to the bottom of the cask.  After the 21 days, the wine is strained and decanted into large refrigerated tanks, where all small particles settle to the bottom over a period of time, leaving the vermouth sparkling clear!  Finally, the finished vermouth is transported to Beaucaire by tanker, where it is bottled.

The last stop on our guided visit was the tasting bar – our appetites had been whetted, and finally it was time to taste the results of all that work!

Our guide poured samples of the four different vermouths for us to taste, starting with extra dry, then original dry, followed by the red, and finally the amber.

The original dry is exported all over the world, the extra dry is sold mostly in anglophone countries, the red is sold only outside of France, and the amber is only available in Marseillan!  All four taste very different, and I’m not entirely certain which one I prefer.

Following our introduction to the four Noilly Prat vermouths, our guide took us to the room next door, the so-called cocktail bar!

Large glasses were lined up on the shiny brass top of the bar, and into each glass our guide dropped an ice ball.  Yes, an ice ball!!  Apparently this takes 40 minutes to melt and is therefore far superior to ice cubes!!  Guess what? The moulds were for sale in the shop, and of course I bought one!!  🙂

Everyone could pick their favourite vermouth, and our guide prepared them as follows:

  • A slice of lime zest with the extra dry
  • A slice of lemon zest with the original dry
  • A slice of orange zest with the red
  • A slice of grapefruit zest with the amber

Adding the citrus zest and the ice brought out completely different flavours in the vermouth – it was somewhat of a revelation for me!

We’d come to the end of our visit, next stop the shop, where I bought a bottle of each of the four vermouths as well as the ice ball mould – it was too good an opportunity to miss!  Enjoy – but please remember to drink responsibly!

To find out more and/or to book a guided tour, visit https://www.noillyprat.com

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This post was kindly written by Annie, my trusted proof-reader who corrects all my mistakes!  Thank you so much, Annie, for this article and for all the work you do for this blog!!


There was an article on this blog a couple of weeks ago, about CNN (followed by several other prestigious organizations) which came out with lists that specified the ten best places to retire to. There was only one choice listed for France:  Saint-Chinian!  Ours is a very different story, but it definitely is related.

When my husband, Ted, and I first saw that CNN list, we gasped and then we laughed – because it had taken us several years of visiting over 200 towns and villages in the South of France to come to that same conclusion!

When Ted was a few years away from retiring (I had retired earlier), we both knew that he would have to find a new adventure, when he no longer had the excitement of a job that he loved.  He was the one who came up with the idea of selling our house (yes, that same house about which he had said, “The only way they’re getting me out of this house is feet first!”) and buying a house in the South of France, plus a ‘pied-à-terre’ in the United States, where our family lives.

We didn’t even have any concept of whether we wanted to live in a small city, a town, or a village.  It was our travels that helped us to determine that.

Many people love Paris and the areas around it.  Paris is definitely an outstanding place to visit, and for some people it’s an exciting and wonderful place to live.  But I had fallen in love with the South of France, as the result of a study-summer that I had spent in France as a student, and when I introduced my husband to that area of France, he fell even harder than I had.

When you say, “the South of France” to most people, they immediately say, “Oh, Provence!”  We, also, had been in that category, and our initial travels to determine where we wanted our French home to be were through Provence.  Oh, Provence is so beautiful – but most of the beautiful towns that we visited were so invaded by tourists, that many had immense parking areas at the entrance to the town, with people taking money and directing us where to park.  No, we definitely didn’t want to live in a tourist trap, no matter how beautiful!  AND the prices for houses in Provence were really more than we had been hoping to spend.

And then I read an article which specified that living in Languedoc-Roussillon was significantly less expensive than in Provence, with most of the same advantages!  From then on, that was the area of our research and travels.  We were immediately impressed by how beautiful this area was, and we were astonished by how much less expensive everything was in Languedoc-Roussillon.  Even at the marchés (the markets) we found that the prices were significantly lower than they had been in Provence.  But the most impressive difference was in the house prices!

And so every time Ted had some time off, and we could find an inexpensive airfare from the United States to the South of France, off we went.  I would do a lot of research in advance, to plan out our basic route and decide where we would be spending nights, generally in towns that looked especially interesting.  But the main basis of our research was formed simply from driving around.  I would follow a detailed map, and whenever I saw a town listed near to where we were, I’d direct Ted to it.  In this manner, over a period of several years and trips, we visited and took notes on over 200 towns and villages in the South of France, rating them as we went.  I also would add, amongst my notes, some of Ted’s comments, such as, “This town doesn’t speak to me.  I don’t really think it speaks to anyone!”

Saint-Chinian had not originally been of special interest to us.  In fact we had not even heard of it.  I simply routed us to go through it.  I still remember the impression of that first visit.  The beautiful, mountainous entrance to the village thoroughly overwhelmed us!

And then we entered Saint-Chinian, and were struck by the large, lovely green, treed-over area at the center of town, which we learned was a combination of the garden of the Town Hall and the Promenade (where the markets and special events take place).

The promenade

We also were impressed that a town of this small size had several restaurants and three bakeries.  (We had negated quite a few lovely villages because they did not have even one bakery.)

When we got out and walked around, so many people greeted us with “Bonjour” . . . it left us feeling incredibly welcomed and comfortable there.  We ate lunch at one of the restaurants, and my notebook is filled with joyous descriptions of the lovely, treed-in area of that meal, the delightful wait-staff, the excellent food, AND the incredibly affordable prices!

We walked around a little more, loving the Vernazobre River that runs through the village – and too many other things to detail.  We ultimately had to leave to get to our destination for the night, but we unhesitatingly gave Saint-Chinian the highest rating that we had.

After several years and vacations of traveling and visiting different towns, it was approaching Ted’s retirement year, and we knew that the time had come when we would have to decide where we wanted to have our French home.  We sat down over our notebooks, where we had evaluated the more than 200 towns we had visited.  Because of our rating system, it was not difficult to focus on our favourites. From these, we chose the six that had our highest rating and most positive comments, and made plans to spend a week in each of them, so that we could get at least a little concept of what it would be like to live there.

They all were wonderful towns, and we had a great time in each of them, but we were able to eliminate four of them after our week there as being too large or too tourist-filled or too dark.  With one town remaining as a possibility, albeit with some qualifications, we still had one more to visit …

And then we spent our week in Saint-Chinian.  It was so strange, and I’m not sure what to attribute this to, but after only a couple of days, we felt that we had come home.  I remember the exact moment when I looked at my husband – just looked, but he read something in that look and said, “Yup!  This is it!”

This is lovely, old Maison Thomas, where we stayed during our visit, a house dating back to the 1600s, if not earlier:

It’s in one of the older areas of town and has an amazing, seemingly ancient stairway:

Yes, there were so many wonderful and beautiful things in Saint-Chinian:  The cloisters; the church with its amazing pipe  organ; the cool and lovely town hall  garden; the wonderful markets (two a week!), filled with villagers, and also attracting people from neighboring villages; the beautiful hills and mountains surrounding the village; the Vernazobre River, rolling softly (usually!) through the village, but having one area (les Platanettes), where large rocks create a widening, turning it into a glorious, treed-over swimming area.

 

But beyond that, there were so many things going on.  The day we arrived, there was a Vide Grenier, like a very extended yard sale with a large number of different vendors.  What made this different from the yard sales that we were accustomed to was that some of the ‘junk’ that people had cleared out of their attics, etc., were treasures to us:  beautiful hand-embroidered sheets and pillowcases, ancient tools, old books, dolls, toys, dishes, glasses, paintings, lamps, mirrors, furniture, etc.  It was as much a museum as a sale!

And then the following day was the annual Women’s International Club’s Vente de Charité (charity sale).  My first overwhelmed reaction was to the fact that this was being held in the Abbatiale, the beautiful building that had previously been the abbey church, complete with its vaulted ceiling.  [Saint Chinian was founded in 825 as a monastery].  For me, the juxtaposition of the tables laden with goods and the wonderful vaulted ceilings and arches struck me as one of the most delightful things I had ever seen:

While this was happening, the large, Sunday market also was going on, with beautiful fruits and vegetables, cheeses, fish, meats, plants and flowers, jewelry, shoes, dresses, olive oil tastings, baked goods, take-home meals, kitchen knives and implements on and on.

And our delight in Saint-Cninian just increased all through the week that we were there.   We loved the beauty and the activities of Saint-Chinian, but we also loved, at least as much, the warm and welcoming atmosphere that we found there.

The following winter, we again visited Saint-Chinian. A wonderful real estate agent had been recommended to us.  She showed us a number of properties, none of which was exactly what we were looking for, and then she said, “I have one other house up my sleeve.”  We both remember that phrase, because up her sleeve was our house.  It was like a miracle!  It had all that we wanted and more!

This will be our sixth year there, splitting our years, with about six months in Saint-Chinian and six in the United States.

We have loved it from the start, but every year that we’ve been there, we have loved it increasingly and have constantly thanked whatever forces it was that had originally led us there – and all of this without a list!

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Let’s meat again!

At the end of February, I got together with friends to explore the making of terrines and pates.  Some were to be for the store cupboard and others were to be eaten right away.

A recipe for rabbit terrine came from Simon Hopkinson’s book Roast Chicken and Other Stories; the recipe for perfect smoked mackerel pate came from Felicity Cloake; and from Jamie Oliver’s website came a recipe for pork rillons.

We started our cooking session with the rillons, which we had planned to eat for our lunch.  The pork belly had been cut up and salted the night before.  After being rinsed and dried, the pieces went into a frying pan with a little lard, to be browned all over.

The smell of the sizzling pork was wonderful!!

The remaining ingredients for this dish had already been prepared.

The browned pork cubes were put into an oven-proof dish, along with the herbs, the garlic, some lard and white wine.  The dish went into the oven for an hour and a half!

With the rillons out of the way, we started on the rabbit terrine.  The recipe called for a small rabbit, pork back fat, skinless belly pork, pork fillet, bacon rashers, onion, garlic, butter, egg, herbs, breadcrumbs, cognac, salt and pepper – quite a list!!

The butcher had already boned the rabbit, which was incredibly helpful!  In his introduction to the recipe, Simon Hopkinson calls for all ingredients to be chopped by hand, as the resultingtexture is nicer.  We chopped everything into small pieces, but the results were still a little too coarse for our liking.

We chopped some of the meat using two very sharp knives – that worked fairly well!

The hand-chopping took a lot of time and elbow-grease, so we put some of the meat through an old-fashioned meat grinder.

The remaining ingredients were mixed with the chopped meat..

… and then we packed the mixture into terrine jars – the kind that seal with a clip and a rubber band.

The terrines were put in a deep baking dish.  Hot water was added to come halfway up the jars, and then the dish went into the oven for just over an hour.

At that point, we were ready for a little aperitif!!

After a few sips of vin d’orange, we made the perfect smoked mackerel pate.  The recipe was very simple.  Smoked mackerel fillets were skinned (and any remaining bones removed), then pureed in a food processor with cream cheese, creme fraiche, and horseradish.  A few grinds of black pepper, some lemon juice and some chopped dill were folded in, and that was it!

I had dug up a horseradish root from my garden – somehow it looked a little like a sea creature, don’t you think?? 🙂

We ate the smoked mackerel pate with some toast – it was absolutely delicious and a perfect start to our meal!!

The rillons were our main course.  They had been filling the kitchen with the most delicious aromas for far too long!!

We served them very simply, with a salad of ‘bitter’ leaves and blood oranges.  The ‘bitter’ leaves were endive, chicory and radicchio.  It was the perfect accompaniment to the rich taste of the pork.

At the end of that delicious meal, our terrines were ready to come out of the oven:

They were looking very good! Of course the jars would have to cool completely before the clips could be taken off, and then they would have to stand for a week or two for the flavour to develop fully.

Prior to writing this, I opened a jar to taste it.  The pate is absolutely delicious – well worth the effort, and definitely one to make again!

Spring into action

With Spring in the air, it’s time to come out of hibernation!  There are many events coming up which will tempt you, I’m sure!!

Journees Fleurs et Jardins, Chateau de Perdiguier, Maraussan – 7 and 8 April 2018

This coming weekend, Chateau de Perdiguier in Maraussan is opening its doors to the public for the annual flower and garden show.  I wrote about the event a few years ago. Here is the link to that post.

Journees des plantes rares et collections, Beziers – 28 and 29 April 2018

Spring is a time for gardening, and to continue with that theme, this event is taking place in Beziers for the first time this year.  The official website gives a list of exhibitors – it sounds as though there’ll be some interesting plants there!  I’m sure I’ll be able to find something for my garden!! 🙂

Farm open days, various locations in Herault – 28 and 29 April 2018

You may remember my post about my farm visits last year – if you don’t, you can find the article here.  The next open days are coming up soon, and you’ll be able to find details of all the participating farms via this link.

European museum night – 19 May 2018

Since 2005, European museum night has been enchanting visitors every year.  It’s a free event and it gives visitors the chance to discover the treasures of museums all over Europe in different ways.  You’ll be able to find the programme for Herault via this link.

Fete de la Musique, all over France – 21 June 2018

This one is an absolute must for your calendar!!  There will be concerts everywhere, from small recitals of classical music to large pop/rock concerts!  Saint-Chinian will be hosting a concert that day, details are yet to be announced.

Festival MusiSc, Saint-Chinian – 23 to 29 July 2018

The music festival will take place from July 23 to 26 this year.  Two concerts on each of the six days (no concerts on Tuesdays), in the historic surroundings of the former abbey church, the cloister, and the parish church of Saint-Chinian.  A variety of concerts with different styles of music which are sure to appeal: Classical, jazz, Latin rhythms, world music etc…  Full details can be found on www.festivalmusisc.wordpress.com