Splish splash

Where there’s fresh water there is life!  The Benedictine monks knew all about the importance of water when they founded their monastery, and with it the village of Saint-Chinian, near the banks of the Vernazobres river in the 9th century!

They harnessed the power of the water to drive mills, and built a canal to irrigate the fields and gardens.  The Vernazobres river still flows through Saint-Chinian, and although the water mills are long gone, the canal which irrigates the gardens still exists!

When the summer weather has arrived and the cicadas sing their seemingly endless songs in the languid heat, there’s nothing more inviting than a refreshing dip in the water. The river is perfect for that!

Upstream, just a little outside the village, is an area called Les Platanettes where the water tumbles over the rocks and flows through a series of pools.

The area is shaded by mature plane trees  (platane is French for plane tree) and there’s usually a light breeze – heaven on a hot day!!

A few years ago, picnic tables were installed at Les Platanettes, and there’s plenty of space if those are already occupied when you get there.

There are more river pools farther upstream from Les Platanettes, just walk along between the river and the vineyards, and you’ll get there!

Saint-Chinian also has a semi-olympic swimming pool, for those who prefer to do some serious swimming!

At Cessenon, the Vernazobres river flows into the Orb, a river which ends its journey at Valras plage.  Up-river from Cessenon is the picturesque town of Roquebrun:

The Orb makes a sort of right turn at Roquebrun – you get a great view of that from the Mediterranean garden just below the ruined tower at the top of the village:

The pebble beach on the opposite side of the river is very popular and the plane trees provide welcome shade.  To the right of the bridge (in the picture above) is a canoe and kayak base – there’s great canoeing and kayaking all along the river Orb!  You can rent a canoe or kayak, and once all the formalities are dealt with and you’ve been kitted out, you’ll be driven farther up the river so you can just paddle your way down to where you started from.

There are several other locations along the river for renting canoes and kayaks.  My favourite is in Reals, where the rapids are used for competitions!

Those rapids are downriver from the boatyard in Reals.  They are not for the use of an amateur like myself – I prefer calmer water, even though that might mean more paddling!! 🙂

On the way to the base in Reals there is an exhilarating water slide!

Cessenon, which is located halfway between Saint-Chinian and Roquebrun, is also on the river Orb.  The pebble beach there is near the old suspension bridge – very picturesque!

The Golfe du Lion is famous for its sandy beaches – the nearest beaches for me are at Valras Plage and Vendres Plage. In the summer it can be quite busy, but there’s plenty of space for everyone!

My favourite time of day at the beach is late in the afternoon, when there are fewer people and the heat is less intense!

With all this glorious weather it’s time I took a little blogging vacation – but I promise I’ll be back!! And don’t forget: I’ll be here if you need any help with booking accommodation – you can always drop me a line!  Enjoy your summer!!

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Inn joy!!

It’s time I shared a few restaurant visits with you – be warned, don’t read this post if you are already feeling hungry!! 🙂  I’ll be taking you to Auberge de l’Ecole in Saint-Jean de Minervois and Auberge de la Tour in Montady.

Auberge is the French word for inn, designating a small hotel or bed and breakfast with a restaurant, often in a rural location.  These days, the word auberge is often used by restaurants that do not offer lodgings (as is the case with these two restaurants).  Perhaps it’s because the word might evoke certain nostalgic feelings in people?

I’ll start with Auberge de l’Ecole in Saint-Jean de Minervois, which is closest to Saint-Chinian.  Formerly the village school-house, the building was transformed into a restaurant a long time ago.  The Auberge de l’Ecole has been run by Brigitte and Patrick Grau since 2001.  Over the years I’ve been to the restaurant numerous times, and I feel that I’ve gotten to know Brigitte and Patrick quite well – they are both lovely people!

Brigitte is in charge of the kitchen, where she cooks down-to-earth country-style food.

She is famous for her cassoulet, the well-known bean stew of the region!  I decided that I would start with a light salad, knowing that the cassoulet would be substantial!

The cassoulet came to the table in an oval dish, straight from the oven and still bubbling! It was heavenly, and I finished every last bit of it! 🙂

I did manage to have a few spoonfuls of sorbet for dessert, but I did not need anything for dinner that evening!! 🙂

My dining companions enjoyed their food too!  For their starter they had little round parcels filled with prawns and spring vegetables.

Everyone, except me, chose the grilled squid as their main course – it was delicious and tender, and served with sautéed potatoes and a medley of peas and beans.

My dining companions managed somewhat more ice cream than I did!!  We had a very relaxed time – good food and a great meal with friends!!

The next auberge that I promised to tell you about is in Montady: Auberge de la Tour, so-called because of the tower at the top of the village.  This restaurant has the most wonderful views out over the Etang de Montady, a marshy lake which was drained in the Middle Ages.

There’s a very handsome terrace in front of the restaurant, and the dining room is lovely too!

The prix-fixe lunch menu is a great deal, and people come from far and wide to this restaurant.  The food is always delicious, and the restaurant is always busy.  Here is what we ate on a recent visit:

Salt cod puree, guacamole and crab layer (starter)

Crispy samosas filled with curried chicken (starter)

Tuna steak with tomato salsa (main course)

Guinea fowl breast with thyme ‘jus’ (main course)

Strawberry ice cream (dessert)

Creme brulee (dessert)

Reservations are essential for both restaurants.  You can find contact details for L’Auberge de l’Ecole here, and for Restaurant La Tour here.

We’ve got it all!!

This week, I want to share with you all the great events that will be taking place in Saint-Chinian this summer.  It’s quite a list already, but there will be more events as we move through the summer!!

Throughout the summer months a number of events are recurring every week:

  • Saturdays: vide greniers (flea market) on the market square
  • Tuesdays: marches nocturne (night markets) with music and food on the market square
  • Wednesdays: cinema sous les etoiles – open air cinema in front of the town hall
  • Thursdays: music in the cloisters

A detailed list of activities is available from the town hall and the tourist office!

Tremplin Musical Talent Contest – Cave Cooperative – 29.06.2018 from 7pm

An evening of free music at the cooperative winery in Saint-Chinian.  There’ll be a wine bar, oyster bar and food trucks, and you can vote for your favourite band!

Wine, tapas and music at Chateau La Dournie – 05.07.2018, 19.07.2018, 09.08.2018 and 23.08.2018

Three evenings of wine, food and music in the park at Chateau La Dournie.  The events are by reservation only – details on the poster below.

Concert Les Petits Chanteurs de France, Saint-Chinian parish church – 07.07.2018 at 6pm

For those who need a break from the football matches, the concert of the Petits Chanteurs  is timed to be just between two games!!  They’ll be singing a mixture of religious and secular music.

Bastille day celebrations – 14.07.2018

There’ll be fireworks in Saint-Chinian again – followed by a concert in the market square!  The full programme will be available from the town hall nearer the date.

Fete du Cru – 22.07.2018

A day packed with wine-tasting! The winemakers of the AOC Saint-Chinian set up their stands on the market square – paradise for wine-lovers, who’ll be able to taste and buy their way around Saint-Chinian wines!!  There will be food trucks, music, games and a tombola (prize draw)!!

8eme Academie Musicale, Saint-Chinian – 14 to 21 July 2018

For the eighth time in as many years, Herve Hotier and Lauranne Chastal, with the collaboration of Michel Lavignolle and Laure Zehmann Lavignolle, are running a week of classes for flute students.  Masterclasses will be given by Michel Moragues, 1st flute of the Orchestre Nationale de France on July 15 and 16; he will also give a mini recital on July 15 at 7:30pm.  On July 20th the students will give a concert in the Salle de l’Abbatiale at 7:30pm

Festival MusiSc – 23.07.2018 to 29.07.2018

Twelve concerts over six days – this music festival has something for everyone!  There’s classical music, jazz, world music and even gospel.  The full programme is at www.festivalmusisc.com

Open day at the Cooperative winery in Saint-Chinian – 03.08.2018

During the day, there will be guided visits of the winery.  At 6.30 a newly commissioned mural will be unveiled in the winery.  Outside the winery, there’ll be a dinner with live music from 7.30pm – reservations are essential!

Jazz au Cloitre – 07.09.2018 to 09.09.2018

Four evenings of jazz concerts in the wonderful surroundings of the cloisters.  Full details can be found on www.festivalmusisc.com 

If you haven’t already planned a visit to Saint-Chinian, this should be an incentive!! Accommodation can be found on www.midihideaways.com

Quick ‘n easy!

The apricot season has started!!  Last Sunday I bought my first apricots of the season from one of the vendors in the market in Saint-Chinian.  Mr Cathala grows all kinds of fruit in Argeliers, not far from Saint-Chinian, and he sells his fruit at the market on Thursdays and Sundays!

I bought two different kinds of apricots from Mr Cathala.  I’m no longer sure what the names of the two varieties were – they were both delicious even though they were very different from one another!

The red ones were somewhat smaller than the apricot coloured ones, and their flesh was softer.  Both were juicy, with the apricot coloured ones tasting sweeter.

When I went last fall to visit Top Fruits, a pick-your-own farm also in Argeliers, I signed up to their mailing list.  With the fruit-picking season now under way, I receive weekly newsletters from Sarah Pearce at Top Fruits.  She always concludes her newsletter with a couple of recipes, and this week’s apricot recipe was perfectly timed for my purchases!

I decided to use the firmer apricots for Sarah’s Poele d’abricots aux pain d’epices, pan-fried apricots with gingerbread.  The ingredients are simply apricots, butter, and pain d’epices.

Sarah’s recipe called for 16 apricots, 15g butter and four slices of pain d’epices.  Since my apricots were on the large side, I decided to use only five (they were about double the size of a regular apricot), but kept the butter and pain d’epices quantities of the original recipe.

I cut the apricots in half, removed the stones and sliced the apricot halves thickly.  The pain d’epices was cut into small dice.

As my frying pan is on the small side, and since I didn’t want the apricot slices to be too crowded in the pan, I fried the apricots in two batches.  I heated the butter over high heat until it started to brown, then added the apricots.

After about a minute I gave the apricot slices a gentle stir.

After a further minute of cooking, it was time to add the diced pain d’epices.

Another gentle stir, and voila, dessert was ready!!

This was a wonderfully tangy dessert with great flavour!!  There was too much for two people, so we ate the leftovers on the following day.  It tasted even better, as the flavour of the  pain d’epices had had a chance to meld with the apricots!  Better still was the scoop of vanilla ice cream I had bought to go with the leftovers :)!!

How do you like your apricots??

Red all over

As a result of our wetter-than-usual spring, we’ve had the most amazing display of wildflowers this year.  Poppies have been truly exceptional!  One field in particular, just by the roundabout in Cabezac, was simply extraordinary, to the point where I made a special trip just to take pictures to share with you!!

Papaver rhoeas is the latin name of the common poppy, also called field poppy, Flanders poppy or red poppy.  It grows particularly well in recently disturbed soil, and hence it’s association with the churned up WWI battlefields of northern France.  In Cabezac, the field had been ploughed, perhaps late last year or earlier this year, in preparation for a cereal crop or some such.  If any seeds had been sown then, they had had no chance against the poppies – I saw no evidence of a struggling crop.

The field was so spectacularly red that many people stopped their cars by the side of the road and hopped out to take a picture or two.  The snails on the post didn’t seem to be particularly fussed about the poppies or the passers-by.

I walked around the edge of the field, careful not to step on any poppies!  I found this beautiful thistle which looks wonderful against the red background, don’t you agree?

There were also some marguerites:

Some of the visitors walked right into the middle of the field, perhaps thinking of Claude Monet’s Coquelicots (Poppy Field) form 1873, which shows a lady with a parasol and a child walking through a field.  It’s a painting which has been reproduced countless times – I’m sure you’ve seen it somewhere!  The original hangs in the Musee d’Orsay in Paris.

Nobody carried a parasol the day I took the pictures, but there were many mobile phones in evidence!! 🙂

I’ve teased you long enough with my descriptions – here, finally, is the field in all its glory:

Something to think about: a single poppy plant can produce up to 400 flowers during its life cycle!  If only some of the poppy flowers in the field produce seeds, there is a good chance that there will be another amazing display before too long.

And another thing to remember: poppy seeds can stay dormant for a very long time, until the soil is disturbed once more…

It’s artichoke time!

The artichoke season is under way in my garden, and I am very fortunate with my crop this year!  I re-planted a row of artichokes last year – and I am reaping the rewards!! 🙂  Artichokes are a delicious vegetable that I never tire of!

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When I bought some new plants last year, I asked the vendor how far to space them.  He recommended a distance of 1 metre between plants, and added some advice: he told me to dig holes halfway between two plants and to bury a bucketful of compost.  The plants would  find the nutrients and take what they needed.  Good advice!!

What with the rain we had over the winter, and the compost, the artichoke plants are looking magnificent.  As a result of their lush growth, they have sent up many flower stalks and an impressive number of large, beautiful artichokes!!

I’ve not yet completely solved the problem of earwigs, which started a few years ago – they just seem to love squatting under the outer layer of leaves of the artichokes!!  I imagine that I could resort to insecticides, but that wouldn’t do!  I would rather live with the fact that I’ll have to shake them out of their hiding places!! 🙂

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One of my favourite recipes is called “Barcelona Grilled Artichokes” from Patricia Wells’ book, “Patricia Wells at home in Provence”. For this delicious dish the prepared artichokes are sliced, marinated in a dressing of olive oil, lemon juice, and garlic, and grilled – the result is totally yummy!

Barcelona grilled artichokes

Talking to other people about food and cooking is always rewarding and interesting.  One of my neighbours told me to braise artichokes with potatoes – I tried that, but the result didn’t taste exceptional.  The same neighbour also gave me the idea of adding tomatoes, so I tried cooking the artichokes with smoked bacon and tomato, which worked wonderfully well!

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In Claudia Roden’s “Middle Eastern Cookbook” I found two recipes I enjoyed. The first used honey, lemon juice and preserved lemons, the second paired the artichokes with broad beans and almonds. Both produced delicious dishes and I’ll be preparing them again.

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My overall favorite dish was the artichokes cooked with bacon and tomato and I will attempt to give you the recipe below.  Pictures of the progress are at the end of the recipe.

Artichokes with bacon and tomato

  • Servings: 4-6
  • Difficulty: medium
  • Print

5 globe artichokes
200g smoked bacon
2 tbsp olive oil
1 onion
1 large clove of garlic
1 tin chopped tomatoes
salt and pepper to taste
1 tbsp chopped parsley (optional)
1 lemon, juiced

Prepare the artichokes:  Pour the lemon juice into a bowl large enough to hold all the artichokes and add enough cold water to submerge the trimmed artichokes in.  Trim the artichokes by snapping off the leaves, starting at the base and working your way up.  Once in a while dip the artichoke into the acidulated water – the newly exposed flesh can turn brown very quickly.  Once the leaves remaining on the artichoke start to look yellow-ish you can stop snapping.

Trim the top with a sharp knife.

You will probably be able to see the choke now – a mass of fine white hairs at the centre of the artichoke.  I imagine that they would make you choke and hence the name?

Remove the choke with the aid of a teaspoon, and keep the trimmed artichoke bottoms in the bowl of water.

Cut each artichoke bottom into eight wedges.

Chop the onion and bacon into small dice and cook gently in the olive oil until the onion is softened.

Add the garlic (chopped finely or pushed through a garlic press) and cook for a minute longer.  Turn up the heat and add the drained artichoke pieces.

Fry, stirring from time to time until the artichokes start to brown around the edges, then add the chopped tomatoes and season with salt and pepper.

Turn the heat down and simmer for 10 – 15 minutes until the artichokes are tender and the sauce is reduced.

Serve hot on their own as a vegetable course, or allow to cool, dress with a little olive oil and lemon juice and serve as tapas or an appetizer.

Note: you can of course use frozen artichoke bottoms for this recipe, which will reduce the preparation time and will produce very similar results!