Three cistus

You may have come across cistus plants under their common name of rock rose.  They grow very abundantly in the area around Saint-Chinian, and right now they are flowering their hearts out.  I went on a little photo safari last Saturday, to shoot a few pictures for you.

In the map below, you can see the itinerary I followed for my walk, and this link will take you to the geoportail website, where you can see the map, albeit without the itinerary markings.

I started my walk by the cooperative winery in Saint-Chinian.  Most of the walk was on fairly well kept tracks which are used by vineyard workers and hunters.  If you want to do the walk yourself, you should wear reasonably sturdy shoes – high heels are definitely out of the question!!  The whole walk can be completed in an hour.  Of course it took me longer since I stopped frequently to take pictures! 🙂

Before starting the walk proper, I visited the cistus display bed beside the cooperative winery in Saint-Chinian.  It was planted some years ago, and all of the plants have now reached maturity.  A plaque by the bed identifies the various species on show:

Cistus plants thrive in a Mediterranean climate and grow well on poor soils.  According to the wikipedia article, the seeds can lay dormant for up to 100 years before germinating.

Around Saint-Chinian, the most commonly encountered species of cistus are C. monspeliensis:

Cistus monspeliensis

Cistus monspeliensis

C. albidus:

Cistus albidus

Cistus albidus

… C. ladanifer:

Cistus ladanifer

Cistus ladanifer

… and C. salviifolius:

Cistus salviifolius

Cistus salviifolius

The display bed at the cooperative winery also contains a species which is more rarely seen around here:  C. populifolius:

Cistus populifolius

Cistus populifolius

The plant in the following picture was also growing in the display bed, but I could not find it on the panel.  Cistus species hybridise readily, so, if my identification is correct, this should be C. x purpureus, a cross between C. ladanifer and C. creticus.  It’s a plant with very pretty flowers, and you can see the heritage from c. ladanifer with the purple blotches at the base of the petals!

Cistus x purpueus

Cistus x purpureus

As I was starting my walk, I walked past this stand of trees.  A nightingale, well hidden from view, was singing directly at me.  I thought I would share the video with you!

My walk took me up and down some gentle slopes – being a little higher than the surrounding countryside always makes for nice views!

The first flower picture I took after I started my walk was of an orchid – orchis provincialis:

Orchis provincialis

Orchis provincialis

It wasn’t long before I came to a clump of C. salviifolius by the side of the path.

C. salviifolius

Cistus salviifolius

Wild garlic was also in flower along the path.  The flowers have a pleasant onion/garlic flavour and can be added to salads.

Wild garlic

Allium rosea

I couldn’t pass by this doughnut-shaped tree lichen without taking a picture!

Farther along I found a clump of C. albidus in full flower, it’s pink flowers standing out nicely from the the grey, woolly leaves.

Cistus albidus

Cistus albidus

Nature’s flower arrangements are always worth studying – here we have lavender and heather flowers, with a background of blackberry leaves! 🙂

The leaves of some cistus species secrete a sticky substance which has a lovely resinous fragrance.  C. ladanifer is one of these species.  Incidentally, the picture below shows the point where the walk starts to loop back.

C. ladanifer

Cistus ladanifer

I came across some more Orchis provincialis – a whole stand of them, in fact.  The leaf rosette showed the typical brown splotches.

In this close-up you can see some of the delicate markings on the flowers:

Orchis provencialis

Orchis provincialis

I rounded a bend in the path and came to this wonderful sight:  a whole hillside covered in flowering cistus bushes!!  The photograph doesn’t really do it justice – it was spectacular to behold!

Here’s a picture of C. monspeliensis – you can see the leaves glistening with the sticky resin.

C. monspeliensis

Cistus monspeliensis

I found some interesting flowers towards the end of my walk:  Serapias lingua is an orchid whose flower petals are like tongues sticking out at you (or me).

Serapias lingua

Serapias lingua

I’ve not been able to identify the following flower, but I think it’s a species of vetch.

Then I found a rather mysterious looking plant – it’s fairly tiny, with a pitcher like flower and one petal folded over that like a lid.  From the top you just see a kind of purple black leaf, about the size of a thumbnail, but when you tilt the flower somewhat, you can see that it’s part of the flower which is pitcher shaped.  I immediately wondered if it was part of the arum family or a carnivorous plant.  Looking through some of the plant books I have at home, it turns out to be Aristolochia pistolochia.

I found a violet limodore orchid just around the corner from the mystery plant above:

Limodorum abortivum

Limodorum abortivum

The last picture I took on my walk is of a white flowered tamarix shrub.  With the flowers not yet quite open, the buds look like white peppercorns, tightly clustered on the branches.  I’m sure it’ll look gorgeous in a week or so.

I hope you enjoyed the wonderful flowers that can be found around Saint-Chinian.  Thanks for coming along with me on this wonderful walk!

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Heaps of sheeps

Transhumance n. the seasonal migration of livestock to suitable grazing grounds [C20: from French transhumer to change one’s pastures, from Spanish trashumar, from Latin TRANS- humus ground]

The above definition comes from the Collins English Dictionary.  Transhumance seems to have been around as long as animal husbandry.  It is practiced wherever the seasonal conditions mean that it’s better for livestock to move to a different place.  For example, think of the alpine pastures that are rich and lush in the summer, but are under a thick layer of snow during the winter.  Or think of the coastal plains of the Languedoc, which grow lush during the winter but dry out during the summer months.

The village of Vendres is situated close to the coast, just beside a lagoon, and there is a lot of grazing land around it – the ideal area for a flock of sheep!  Grazing plays an important part in maintaining the ecosystems of the somewhat marshy lands, and in reducing the fire hazard that un-grazed land would present during the hot summer months.

For the past twelve years, the village of Vendres has been celebrating the occasion of the transhumance of the sheep with a fete.  The neighbouring villages of Lespignan and Nissan have also joined in, and so the Fete de la Transhumance has evolved into a three-day event!  I went to Vendres last Saturday, to enjoy a day at the Fete de la Transhumance!

The highlight of the day was the procession of the flocks of sheep through the village, accompanied by riders on horseback.  First though came the marching band!Closely behind them were the horses…

…and then came the shepherds and the sheep!  I’ve seen sheep before, but seeing a huge flock of sheep arrive in a village is something I’d never experienced!

The sheep seemed to be going round in circles, pushed one against the other, with the whole flock moving very slowly towards where I was standing.

The man standing to the left in the above picture was holding a branch, with which he blessed the sheep by sprinkling holy water over them.
Finally, the sheep made off down the road, but there were sheep as far as I could see!!

More shepherds and a couple of sheepdogs brought up the rear, and everyone followed them down the road and into the village.

We took a shortcut to get to the Place du Lavoir where a small market and a communal meal had been set up.  To my surprise, the sheep came right past that square – once more it was wall-to-wall sheep!!

By the old lavoir, the open-air wash house, barbecues had been set up, and people were preparing salads on long trestle tables.  On the bouledrome next to the lavoir, tables and chairs had been prepared for 600 people – they were expecting a crowd!!

Come 12.30, the tables were pretty much filled up and people were queuing to get their lunches.  The atmosphere was great – lots of laughter, families meeting up, strangers making new friends, children running through the rows!  Some people had even brought table cloths for their tables, along with real wine glasses!

On my tray I had the following:  green salad with tomatoes, onions and olives, grilled lamb with boulangere potatoes, a slice of sheep’s cheese, a slice of apple tart, a piece of bread (very important, we are in France after all!!) and, also important, a quarter of wine (in a plastic beaker).  Everybody else’s trays were the same, by the way!!

The food was all very good, and there was plenty of it!  The lamb was locally raised and the cheese was produced with milk from the flocks we had just seen.  The apple tart was divine!

The market stalls next door to the bouledrome had a variety of items on offer: wine, honey, plants, cakes, hams and sausages, cheese, knick-knacks, etc. My favourite pretzel lady was there too!!

It’s definitely a fete I’ll be going to again – the meal alone is worth the trip!  Keep your eyes peeled for details of next year’s Fete de la Transhumance.  You’ll be able to find details on http://www.ladomitienne.com

Lunch at a snail’s pace

Many years ago (in 2001!!), Susan Sisk visited Saint-Chinian for a two-week stay, organised by the dearly missed Nadine Holm of Nadine’s Tours and Travel.  After her visit, Susan sent me her travel journals, along with photographs to illustrate them, and allowed me to add the lot to my website!

Blogging was almost non-existent at the time, but Susan’s travel journal was a kind of forerunner of this blog – you can find all her writings about that visit to Languedoc on http://midihideaways.com/journal/index.html .  One of her articles is headed “2 hour lunches, 3 hour dinners“, and in the article she describes a meal at Restaurant Lo Cagarol in the village of Aigne, amongst other food related stories. Cagarol is the Occitan word for snail, and Aigne is a circulade, a village built in concentric circles, shaped like the circles of a snail shell – voila the reason for the name!!

Lo Cagarol had somehow dropped off my radar for a little while, so I made a conscious effort to re-visit the restaurant.  Chef-proprietor Christophe Esperou still turns out delicious food, so my efforts were richly rewarded!!  It was so good that I went twice in fairly quick succession, and I’ve booked to meet friends there for lunch later this month!

Christophe’s food has evolved over the years – he now concentrates on using seasonal ingredients and keeps his menus small, but changes the dishes on a regular basis.  His lunchtime menu of three courses is priced at 16 Euros and includes a quarter litre of wine – what’s not to like?? 🙂

Without further ado, here are the pictures of the food!! The dishes were all so delicious – I won’t even add and descriptions. I think you’ll be able to tell from the pictures.

Starters:

Gratinated oysters

Deep-fried camembert

Deep-fried camembert

Asparagus soup with poached quails egg

Asparagus soup with poached quail’s egg

Chicken liver salad

Chicken liver salad

Main courses:

Duck pie with potato topping

Duck pie with potato topping

Cod with aioli topping

Cod with aioli topping

Duck breast with mushroom sauce

Duck breast with mushroom sauce

Pan-friend salmon with risotto

Pan-friend salmon with risotto

Desserts:

Creme brulee

Creme brulee

Pannacotta with strawberries

Pannacotta with strawberries

The dining room at Lo Cagarol has a rustic feel to it, and the seats are very comfortable!  On one of my recent visits, there was a fire burning in the fireplace, which made for a lovely atmosphere.

Dining room of Lo Cagarol, Aigne

Dining room of Lo Cagarol

Outside the restaurant, there is a large terrace, which will be in use as soon as the weather is warm enough!

Lo Cagarol, Aigne

The terrace at Lo Cagarol (picture from the restaurant’s facebook page)

The restaurant is open six days a week from Fridays to Wednesdays for lunch and dinner; closed on Thursdays.  They don’t have a website, but you can check on Facebook for news.  Do call ahead to book your table!  The phone number for the restaurant is +33 (0)4 68 27 84 22.

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.

st pons pottery

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.