A solitary place

Last week’s post was about the first half of a wonderful day out with friends in the hills near Lodeve.  I’m going to continue the story with this post.

Following our delicious lunch at La Petite Fringale in Saint Jean de la Blaquiere, we drove towards Lodeve, to visit the Priory of Saint Michel de Grandmont.  This monastery belonged to the little known order of Grandmont, an order founded at the end of the 11th or the beginning of the 12th century, according to which historian you believe.  The rules of the order were incredibly austere, even for mediaeval times: possessions were forbidden, heating was only for visitors, monks walked barefoot all year round and lived in strict silence.  Their lives were more like those of hermits, even though they lived in communities.  Lay brothers were an integral part of each monastery – they had to look after the day-to-day running of the monastery.

The set of buildings at Saint Michel de Grandmont is one of the few Grandmontine houses left more or less intact.

The entire order was dissolved in 1772 due to lack of monks, and the monastery was attached to the diocese of Lodeve.  The last monks left Saint Michel de Grandmont in 1785.

During the French revolution the buildings were sold, but lucky for us, they were not demolished, and not hugely altered either.  The picture above shows the buildings overlooking the courtyard – you can see part of the gable end of the church on the left.

The audio guide (available in several languages, including English) which was part of the entrance fee was very helpful!  The visit started in the visitors’ room, a sturdy vaulted room with an enormous fireplace, where visitors to the monastery were welcomed.  This fireplace was the only one in the monastery, as physical comforts were a no-no for the monks.

A wooden model showed the cloister, with the vaulted chapter house area on the ground floor and the monks’ dormitory above.

The double doors at the end of the visitors’ room led to a small, dark room, and from there a door led to the cloister.  The cloister is supposed to be the only one of all the Grandmontine cloisters to be remaining intact.  The architecture is very simple and austere!

A doorway led from the cloister to the church. In the time of the monks, there would have been some ecclesiastical furniture, but today the church’s walls are bare and the building is almost completely empty.  The proportions of the church were impressive – 28 metres long, 6.7metres wide and 11 metres high!  The acoustics were wonderful, and during the summer season concerts are being held in the church on a regular basis.

The chapter house was just off the cloister – a large vaulted room with arrow slit windows on one side.  The chapter house was the place where the monks gathered every day, to listen to the rules of the order being read, and to do penance.

From the chapter house, we stepped out into the sunshine.  The guided walk took us around the back of the chapter house and to the apse of the church.  I got the feeling that the mullioned windows above the arrow slits of the chapter house were a later addition.

By the apse of the church, excavations had revealed the remains of Visigothic tombs.

The audio guide took us back to where we had exited the chapter house – a terrace shaded by chestnut trees.  The facade of the building along the terrace had been remodelled in the 18th century and given a more classical look with a pedimented door and other architectural elements (not visible in the picture below).

Our walk continued to the park, across another terrace, this one planted with plane trees, which had not yet leafed out.

A little climb brought us to a rather surprising feature – an ornamental lake with an island in the middle! The plinth bore an inscription in Latin and a date of 1850.  At that time Etienne Vitalis was the owner of the property.  The audio guide explained that the lake was created where the stone for the monastic buildings had been quarried.  The lake is fed by a small stream and the water was no doubt used to irrigate fields and gardens.

On we went, through the woodland surrounding the lake, to the next point of interest: vestiges of pre-historic man’s occupation of the site!

The views from there were spectacular!

After a brief walk, we reached a dolmen, the final point of our guided visit.  It sits all by itself and the views from there were also spectacular!  Legend has it that the monks used to sit inside the dolmen to be healed when they were sick!

On our way back to the abbey, there was a lovely view of the buildings across a green field:

The priory of Saint Michel de Grandmont is open from February to the end of December, from 10am to 6pm.  It is closed on Mondays during the off-season.  Full details can be found on www.prieure-grandmont.fr

I leave you with a video of the fountain which plays on the courtyard wall.  It sums up the peace and serenity of Saint Michel de Grandmont on the day that I visited.

 

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A delicious day trip

I took a trip with friends recently – we went to visit La Pepiniere du Bosca specialist plant nursery near Lodeve.  Since it is a little way away, we decided to make a day of it.  The nursery has a very interesting selection of plants – we were all keen to buy some plants before the nursery closed for the season at the end of April.  We all found more or less what we wanted.  I bought some raspberry and gooseberry plants for my garden, along with a kaki tree (diospyros kaki or persimmon), which are all planted in my garden now.  🙂

Here are a couple of unusual insect hotels, which were for sale at the nursery:

We had timed our visit to the nursery so that we could have lunch at La Petite Fringale in Saint-Jean-de-la-Blaquiere.  The name of the restaurant translates (very loosely) to: “slightly peckish” or “snack attack”.

We found a shady spot for the car – the plants didn’t want to get too hot – and walked to the restaurant.  On the way, we saw a somewhat unusual steeple – I had never seen one with a kind of ‘hat’ over the bell!

The steeple belonged to a romanesque church.  The doors were unfortunately locked, perhaps because it was lunchtime? 🙂

As the day was beautiful and sunny, the tables had been set on the terrace.  We had a lovely view from our table!  And no, before you ask – I did not use a filter, nor did I play with the colour saturation – the sky really was that blue!!

The restaurant is run by two energetic young men, Laurent and Antoine, who took the restaurant over in early 2017.  Here’s what we had to eat – starters first:

Chickpea fritters

Chickpea fritters

Spinach cream soup with poutargue (dried mullet roe)

Spinach cream soup with poutargue (dried mullet roe)

Gratinated asparagus

Gratinated asparagus

These were our main courses:

Slow braised pork belly

Slow-braised pork belly

Hamburger

Hamburger

Oxtail ballotine on butternut squash puree

Oxtail ballotine (parcel) on butternut squash puree

Chicken breast stuffed with salt cod puree

Chicken breast stuffed with salt cod puree

And finally, desserts:

Pavlova with vanilla ice cream and raspberry coulis

Pavlova with vanilla ice cream and raspberry coulis

Pannacotta with strawberries

Pannacotta with strawberries

The food was absolutely delicious and the service was friendly and relaxed.  The restaurant does not have a fixed price menu, but our three courses came to 20 Euros per head – I felt that was very good value!  If you are planning to eat at La Petite Fringale, make sure you book – it does get very busy and seating capacity is limited.

After that wonderful lunch, we went to visit the priory of Saint-Michel-de Grandmont – I’ll tell you about that next week! 🙂

Hedgerow colours

A recent post on the blog Life on La Lune spurred me into action – I had to get out and photograph some wildflowers before they faded!!  Today was the perfect day – we’d had rain yesterday and nature looked so lush and clean!

Sturdy shoes – tick.  Camera bag – tick. Spare camera battery – tick.  Macro lens – tick.

In Saint-Chinian we are so lucky to be able to find great walks in pretty much every direction.  Some walks are a little more challenging, such as the one I took today, but it is still an easy walk.  I set off along the D177, leaving the market square in the direction of Assignan.

Centranthus ruber - red valerian

Centranthus ruber – red valerian

In Languedoc, there is something flowering at any time of the year, even if it’s just common daisies.  I promise you that you’ll always find at least one kind of plant flowering, whenever you go for a walk!

Bellis perennis - common daisy

Bellis perennis – common daisy

I kept my eyes open as I walked along the road – there are many flowers along the verges!

Allium roseum - wild garlic

Allium roseum – wild garlic

Trifolium pratense - red clover

Trifolium pratense – red clover

Ranunculus acris – common buttercup

Urospermum dalecampii - prickly goldenfleece

Urospermum dalecampii – prickly goldenfleece

Trying to identify the plants whilst writing this post has been very educational!  In order to differentiate whether the above plant belonged to the genus of taraxacum or hypochaeris, I would have had to have a look at the flower stem and the leaves!  I won’t be able to tell for sure, since I didn’t photograph either…  Luckily, help was at hand – my friend Gill Pound at La Petite Pepiniere identified the flower for me!!  Did you know that in French, dandelion is called dent de lion and also pissenlit?  Yes, it really means “pee in the bed”!!  The young leaves of the plant are added to salads, and they are supposed to have diuretic properties, hence the second of the common names!! 🙂

The orchid below grew just on the other side of the ditch which runs along the road!

Orchis purpurea - lady orchid

Orchis purpurea – lady orchid

On my walk I saw a number of tassel hyacinths:

About 1 kilometre along the D177, a track turns off on the left and climbs the hillside.  That’s where I  continued my walk!  Soon after the turn I came across this pretty flower – it was absolutely tiny, smaller than the nail on my little finger.

Vicia sativa - common vetch

Vicia sativa – common vetch

This plant with the pink flower bud was growing close-by, but I’ve no idea what it could be!  Do you know what it could be?

I was able to identify the following plant – ribwort plantain.  This simple herb is supposed to be highly effective for treating coughs and respiratory problems!!

Plantago lanceolata - ribwort plantain

Plantago lanceolata – ribwort plantain

A tiny thistle grew by the side of the road:

Carduus pycnocephalus - Italian thistle

Carduus pycnocephalus – Italian thistle

The path climbed fairly steeply until it came to a junction with Chemin de la Rouquette.  I turned left here – the path continued level for some time, before it started to descend gently back towards the village.

Wild thyme is flowering everywhere, and insects love it!  I’ve not been able to identify the insect in the picture below left.  I think the one in the picture below right is a bumble bee.

In our area, wild orchids can still be found quite easily – these three beauties were in a field.

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Orchis purpurea – lady orchid

A little farther on, I came across this orchid:

Cephalanthera longifolia - narrow leaved helleborine

Cephalanthera longifolia – narrow leaved helleborine

The following two lady orchids grew within two metres of one another – one appeared to get more sun than the other.

Coronilla forms large shrubs, which flower abundantly in spring!

Coronilla valentina - scrubby scorpion vetch

Coronilla valentina – scrubby scorpion vetch

Certain types of euphorbia flourish in our area – it’s a genus which has around 2000 members.  The poinsettia we see at Christmas time belongs to it.

Euphorbia characias - mediterranean spurge

Euphorbia characias – mediterranean spurge

Euphorbia cyparissias - cypress spurge

Euphorbia sp. – spurge

This delicate pink flower looked so beautiful – there was a little wind, so taking a photograph was challenging!!

Lychnis flos-cuculi - ragged robin

Lychnis flos-cuculi – ragged robin

Another orchid – the first of two bee orchids I saw:

Orphys scolopax - bee orchid

Orphys scolopax – bee orchid

Orphys scolopax - bee orchid

Orphys scolopax – bee orchid

And this is the other one:

Orphys sp. - bee orchid

Orphys sp. – bee orchid

It was thrilling to see so many different orchids in one afternoon!!  But there were many more humble flowers to be looked at!!

Latuca perennis - blue lettuce

Latuca perennis – blue lettuce

Linum perenne - blue flax

Linum perenne – blue flax

Vinca - periwinkle

Vinca – periwinkle

As I got closer to the village, there were a few lovely views!

What a wonderful finish to the walk – I feel so fortunate that I have all this on my doorstep!!

Sittin’ on the dock of the bay

After that wonderful visit at Noilly Prat (see last week’s post) we needed some sustenance!!  There are a good number of restaurants to choose from in Marseillan – we headed to La Taverne du Port because of its quirky interior!  I had eaten there a number of times before, and I knew that the food was going to be good – another major criteria when choosing a restaurant!! 🙂

La Taverne du Port is just a short stroll away from Noilly Prat, and right across a canal which functions as a harbour for fishing and pleasure boats.

Standing with my back to the restaurant, I could see the visitor’s centre of Noilly Prat on the other side of the canal (on the right in the picture below)!

I mentioned the quirky interior of La Taverne du Port earlier – the picture below will give you some idea:

The furniture is all made from wooden barrels, and the walls are lined with rows upon rows of bottles.

La Taverne du Port has an amazing collection of whiskies, armagnacs, cognacs, spirits and wines, and they are all for sale, either by the bottle or by the glass!  All together, the restaurant stocks over 800 different types of drinks, and their list is impressive!!

But we had come for a bite to eat – we’d already had our ‘aperitif’ across the water!  Here, without further ado, are the starters:

Gratinated oysters

Salad with smoked mackerel fillets

A selection of charcuterie, cured meats sliced wafer thin.

The restaurant has one of these fancy hand-cranked slicing machines, which allows the cured meats to be sliced ever so thin!

Next to the selection of charcuterie was an impressive cheese board, arranged on top of a barrel!

For my main course I had chosen the day’s special: boeuf bourguignon:

This was a most delicious and rich beef stew, wonderfully flavoured!

My dining companions had opted for the catch of the day – small red mullet and mantis shrimp, served with a very tasty garlic sauce.

All main courses were accompanied by a delicious potato and vegetable gratin.  The portions were generous, so we all skipped dessert.  Instead we decided to go for a walk around Marseillan.

Before we leave the restaurant, here is a picture of what the terrace in front of La Taverne du Port looks like – it’s just by the water, which you can’t see in the picture.  For further details visit the website of La Taverne du Port.

Here are some pictures taken along the canal:

On a good day, you can see right across to Sete and the Mont Saint-Michel:

As well as the beautiful views along the canal, there are many quaint views and interesting corners in Marseillan, a few of which I’ll show you below.  Do visit if you are in the area!!

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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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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