What’s coming up

Grands Crus Classiques, Saint-Chinian – 5 May 2019

The pianist Conrad Wilkinson is organising a series of classical music concerts in Saint-Chinian during 2019.  The next concert takes place on May 5 and features baritone Igor Morosov.

Vide Grenier, Saint-Chinian – 1 June 2019

The vide grenier (flea market) season will be starting in Saint-Chinian on April 27, 2019!  There will be a vide grenier every Saturday throughout the summer (from 7am to 4pm), and each one will be organised by a different association/club from Saint-Chinian.  On June 1st, it will be the turn of the association Institut de l’Ancienne Abbaye, of which I am a committee member.  So, come along on June 1st, buy some of the bric-a-brac that we’ll be selling, buy some raffle tickets, or better still, book your own stall!  Proceeds from the event will go towards organising concerts in Saint-Chinian.

Saint-Chinian wine walk – 2 June 2019

A 6 km guided walk through the vineyards of Saint-Chinian, punctured by wine tastings.  Departures every 15 minutes from 9am to 11am.  Details and reservations via this link.

Festival Scenes dans les Vignes, Chateau la Dournie, Saint-Chinian – 6, 7 and 8 June 2019 at 9pm

Three evenings of humour and music in the beautiful park at Chateau la Dournie, a wine estate located on the edge of Saint-Chinian.  Details and bookings via this website.

Rendez-vous aux Jardins, all over France and Europe – 7, 8 and 9 June 2019

If you enjoy visiting gardens, then this event is for you!  All over France and Europe, gardens will be open to the public.  Some of these gardens are normally closed to the public and can only be visited during that weekend.  The full programme for France can be found here.  I have earmarked three gardens around Narbonne for my visit!

Marche des Potiers (pottery market), Marseillan – 22 and 23 June 2019 from 10am to 7pm

If you enjoy pottery then this will be a ‘must visit’ for you – dozens of potters displaying their wares in the village of Marseillan!  I can always find something to buy at this kind of fair!! 😀  For updates, have a look at the Facebook page for the event.

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Festival de Carcassonne – 29 June to 29 July 2019

The Carcassonne festival is one of the biggest in the area, attracting stars such as Elton John (some years ago).  This year’s star-studded line-up includes Joan Baez, Sting, Liam Gallagher and Eros Ramazotti.  You can find the full programme here.

I’ll be back back to let you know about more events in our area a little later in the season!!

Hot and cross

Since today is Good Friday, I thought I should  write about Hot Cross Buns for today’s post.  I looked at recipes in several cookery books:  Elizabeth David’s English Bread and Yeast Cookery, Angela Piper’s The Archers’ Cookbook, and Reader’s Digest’s Farmhouse Cookery: Recipes from a Country Kitchen.  For good measure, I also looked at Felicity Cloake’s recipe for Hot Cross Buns on the Guardian website.

The origins of the hot cross bun are somewhat hazy – Elizabeth David has not a great deal to say about the history, and other articles on the subject don’t offer much more.  During Elizabethan times a law was passed forbidding the sale of spice buns except at funerals, on Good Friday and at Christmas.  Elizabeth David does not relate whether the spice buns sold on Good Fridays in Elizabethan times had a cross on them, but she’s fairly categorical in her dismissal of putting a cross on the buns in pastry or with candied peel as “unnecessary fiddling work”.  I do love her no-nonsense style of writing!!

I also love Elizabeth David’s sweet spice mixture, which she gives in her book.  It consists of two parts nutmeg, two parts white or black peppercorns or allspice berries, one part cinnamon bark, one part cloves and one part dried ginger root.  I mis-read the recipe, or perhaps wanted to, and added white peppercorns AND allspice berries! 🙂

My new kitchen scales seem to be fairly precise, so I weighed the nutmeg and used that weight as the basis for the other spices.  My small electric coffee grinder did a great job of reducing the spices to a fine powder.  The smell of the ground spices was divine and filled the whole kitchen!

Once I had studied the recipes on my kitchen table very carefully, I decided to use the proportions of Felicity Cloake’s recipe, but with some modifications.  In her recipe, the milk is heated and left to infuse with the spices – I used Elizabeth David’s spice mix and added it to the flour.  Instead of regular white wheat flour, I used Type 130 spelt flour, which is not quite white but not quite wholemeal either.  Felicity Cloake’s recipe also had the highest amount of currants, so I reduced their weight a little, to 125g.  Other than that, I followed the ingredients of her recipe.

I made the dough at lunchtime, so it could have a slow rise during the afternoon.  After the initial mixing I let the dough sit for five minutes so that the flour could absorb the liquid.  After that “hydration” period, the dough was still a little too soft for my liking, so I kneaded in an additional three tablespoons of flour.  Then I covered the bowl with a lid and let the yeast cells do their work!

At the end of the afternoon, the dough was well risen and had a lovely aroma!  The partially deflated dough looked like this, you can see lots of air bubbles around the edges:

The currants and mixed peel were kneaded into the dough after it was deflated.

Then it was time to portion out the dough.  I weighed the entire dough and then divided it into 16 individual portions, weighing about 70g each.

I shaped the pieces of dough into balls and flattened them slightly.  Once I had my two baking trays filled with the buns, I used my dough scraper to cut a cross into eight of the buns – pushing the straight side of the dough scraper right through and effectively cutting the buns into quarters.  As the dough was quite soft, the cuts ‘healed’ up again but stayed visible.  On the other eight buns I used a knife to cut a cross into the top of each bun.

Whilst I was doing the shaping of the buns, I had turned on my oven on the defrost setting, which warms to 50 degrees – perfect for proofing yeast dough.  Once the buns were shaped, I turned off the oven and put the trays in.  It was just a little warmer than in my kitchen, and produced beautifully risen buns within 30 minutes.

Once the buns were risen enough, I mixed a couple of tablespoons of plain flour and some water into a stiff-ish paste and put it into a piping bag fitted with a small nozzle.  Then I piped crossing lines on the buns.  I had prepared some egg-wash to brush the buns with before piping on the cross, but forgot to do that – oh no!!

Some of the buns which I had cut with the dough scraper did not get a cross piped on – I had run out of the mixture. 😦

I put the trays into the cold oven and turned it on to 200 degrees centigrade.  With yeast dough, I have found that starting with a cold oven can produce wonderful “oven spring”, as the yeast goes into overdrive before being killed off by the heat.  After 10 minutes the buns had puffed up nicely and were starting to brown.  I removed one baking sheet at a time and brushed the buns with egg wash, before putting them in the oven again.  After a further 10 minutes the buns were fully cooked and there was the most beautiful smell permeating the whole house!!  If only this could be a scratch-and-sniff post!!

Traditionally, the buns should be brushed with a sugar glaze as soon as they come out of the oven.  I have done this in the past, but I found that it makes the buns sticky and doesn’t add much more than that, so I gave it a miss this time.

What special foods will you be eating this Easter?

A monumental loss

The whole of France and people all over the word are grieving, following the fire that burnt down Notre Dame de Paris cathedral.  As I was reading the reports of the fire on Tuesday morning, tears started to well up in my eyes.  I was so fortunate to have been able to visit the cathedral on July 14, 2015, and to have been on the gallery linking the two towers during the fly past that celebrated the national holiday.  The internet is awash with pictures and videos of the fire and its aftermath, and there are many speculations as to how and why the fire started – I hope you won’t mind that I will not repeat any of that here.

One thing seems to be certain – Notre Dame will rise again!  In the process, some long forgotten skills will be learnt anew, and discoveries will be made about the building and the structure of the cathedral.  If it feels like doom and gloom now, think of the many churches and cathedrals that lay in ruins at the end of WWII.  Most of them rose from the ashes and are as beautiful today as they were before the war.

I have every hope that in years to come, Notre Dame de Paris will be once more the pride and joy of Paris and France!

I leave you with a picture from happier days, taken from one of the towers during my 2015 visit.

Easter traditions in Perpignan

The colourful town of Perpignan is worth a visit at any time of year, but if you are interested in real spectacle you have to visit just before Easter.

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Every year on Good Friday, a procession winds its way through the narrow streets of old Perpignan, to commemorate the passion of Christ.  The origins of the procession can be traced back to Saint Vincent Ferrier, a Dominican monk who lived between 1350 and 1419.  La Confrerie de la Sanch, the Fraternity of the Holy Blood, was founded in October 1416 at the Church of Saint-Jacques in Perpignan, with the aim of accompanying those condemned to death, as well as their families, before and after the execution, and at the same time commemorating the passion of Christ.

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Perpignan Cathedral

The participants of the procession are called penitents – the men wearing black robes with hats pointing to the sky, their faces completely masked, some of them barefoot or only wearing sandals.  The women wear black veils on their head and are dressed head to toe in black.  The procession is always led by the Regidor, a figure dressed in a red robe, carrying an iron bell, which is rung intermittently, followed by a group of drummers.  The solemnity of the procession as it approached sent shivers down my spine.

In 1777 the authorities decided to confine the procession to the church grounds of the Saint-Jacques church, as it was deemed too baroque and Spanish.  The tradition of taking the procession through the streets of the old town was revived in 1950 and it’s been taking place ever since.

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Baroque is certainly a good term to describe the procession today, and the tradition is typically Catalan.   Other processions exist in Arles-sur-Tech and Collioure, where they are still being held at night.

After the Regidor and the drummers comes a very large cross, carried upright by just one man, which is decorated with a great many symbols, which I imagine are instruments of the Passion of Christ, but I could not make sense of all of them.

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Reliquary of St Vincent Ferrier

The penitents carry the Misteri on their shoulders, which show scenes from the passion.  So there are all kinds of statues, which are brought from the churches and chapels of Perpignan and the surrounding villages, including one enormous cross, which had to be lowered every so often to pass below the power lines crossing the road.  The statues of the Virgin are dressed in black with mourning veils, some carrying the crown of thorns in outstretched hands, and all with strong expressions on their wooden faces.  The Misteri are heavy,  and the Penitents are doing this not for the spectators who line the streets, but for their faith.  At times I felt very much like an intruder taking photographs, and I did not shoot any videos (sorry!).

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The procession passes in silence; the penitents do not speak, and most of the bystanders watch in awed silence.  The only noise comes from a PA system, where someone is explaining the origins of the Sanch and reading what sounded to me to be sacred texts, some in Occitan. The PA system is also playing the Goigs, the traditional Catalan Easter songs.  I would have preferred for there not to been any of that.  For me it didn’t add to the atmosphere.

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The start is at 3pm in Rue de l’Eglise Saint-Jacques, and the procession returns there at 6pm.  In between there are four stops to give those carrying the Misteri a break.   When there is a break, even a short one during the walk, each one of the bearers has a stick on which to rest the handles of their heavy load.  Some of those sticks look as if they’ve been used for a very long time.

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So there I stood, awed by the whole thing, watching it go by, taking photographs of all the Misteri.  There had been a little wait before the procession arrived, and just across the street from where I stood was this rather fun sign, so here it is to lighten the mood 🙂

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There are many Misteri in the procession and many photographs I took, so I thought I would try and insert a slide show for you.

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So, if you ever are in the area around Easter, I would urge you to visit Perpignan on Good Friday, even if the weather does not look too good.  The procession will not leave you indifferent, and neither will the town of Perpignan!

Sepia toned

About a year ago, I discovered a restaurant in Valras Plage that I’d not been to before!  The restaurant was called Le Sepia, and at the time it had only been open for about 18 months.  I thoroughly enjoyed my meal there and had planned to write a blog post about my experience, but for one reason or another that never happened.

So, a few weeks ago I went to eat at Le Sepia again – purely in the interest of research, you understand!! 🙂

Le Sepia is located close to the seafront, and there’s a big car park close by.  The decor of the dining room has a nautical theme, very apt for a restaurant in a seaside town.  It’s all very discreetly and tastefully done though, so don’t expect ropes and fishing nets to be hanging from the ceiling and such!

The restaurant is run by Yann, the chef, and Isabelle the maitre d’hotel, who bring experience, professionalism and passion to their enterprise!

Our little group went for lunch one Sunday, for a special treat!  While we sipped our aperitifs, we “amused our mouths” (a very overly direct translation of amuse bouche!!) with the following:  parmesan shortbread, fish pate and little savoury chorizo “cakes”.

Two different starters were chosen by our party:  Brittany scallops and foie gras.  The scallops were cooked in their shells with coconut oil and dressed with a coconut sauce.  The scallop shells rested on delicious vegetable crisps, and they were topped with the lightest and crispest of crispy pastry shapes.  Yann hails from Brittany, and he does know how to cook fish – the scallops were cooked to perfection and the whole dish was divine.

My choice of starter was the foie gras – I’m a sucker for that, and I tend to order it whenever I find it on a menu.  The foie gras was accompanied by verjuice jelly (verjuice = juice pressed from unripe grapes), marinated onions and a lovely refreshing salad.  There was also some wonderful toasted country bread to go with the foie gras!

For the main course we had a choice of two dishes – fish or meat!!  🙂  The fish of the day was monkfish: it was cooked in the form of a grilled steak, served on a bed of mashed potatoes, with artichokes, clams, pea shoots and a saffron sauce.  Totally delicious!!

The other choice for main course was fillet steak – the meat came from the Aubrac region of France, which is famous for its beef.  Like the fish, the steak was also perfectly cooked, and it was divinely tender!  It was served with carrot puree, brussels sprouts, spinach and potatoes.

We skipped the cheese course, even though it was very tempting and the selection looked excellent.  Truth is, the portions were not skimpy, so we thought we had better save some room for dessert!!

The desserts were fantastically good!  Here they are:

Vanilla souflee with salted caramel ice cream:

A symphony of chocolate: chocolate shortbread, chocolate mousse, white and dark chocolate ice cream!  Heaven for chocolate lovers!!

Citrus and meringue: a marriage made in heaven!  A crisp meringue basket holding scoops of lemon and gin sorbet, topped with citrus foam and accompanied by a selection of citrus fruit and lemon cream.  Mmmmhhhh!

What a fabulous ending to a great meal!! Be sure you book your table if you want to enjoy the delicious food at Sepia.  You can find contact details on the website for the restaurant.

After that wonderful lunch, it was time for a walk along the seafront!  It was a beautifully sunny day,  perfect for a stroll!

Thank you, Kay, for such a special Sandy Sunday treat!