Spring events

With the days getting longer, the events calendar is filling up again.  Here is a selection of events which you might enjoy!  Please note – whilst I believe the information on this page to be correct at the time of publishing, I strongly recommend that you check with the organisers before attending an event.  If you want to visit the area and would like help in finding accommodation please head to www.midihideaways.com.   

Limoux Carnival – 2 January 2017 – 2 April 2017

The good people of Limoux take their carnival very seriously.  Different groups have the run of the central square every Saturday and Sunday during the carnival period.  It’s always an enjoyable festival to visit – I have previously written about it here, and you can find the full programme of this year’s events via this link.

Journees Europeennes des Metiers d´Art – 31 March – 2 April 2017

The European Artistic Craft Days are held every year on the first weekend in April.  They give the public a chance to see expert craft makers in action.  Last year I visited a workshop where verre mousseline is made – see for yourself here.  You can find the full programme of this year’s event on the official French website.

Canal du Midi Boat Show 2017, Capestang – 8 April 2017

Your chance to see a selection of the most beautiful hotel barges on the Canal du Midi.  The show lasts for several days and is aimed at tourism professionals, but on this date it is open to the general public.

Procession de la Sanch, Perpignan – 14 April 2017

Each year on Good Friday, the town of Perpignan hosts the traditional Good Friday Procession.  The custom dates back 600 years, and it is a deeply moving spectacle, the only one of its kind in France.

Tournoi de la Citadelle, Carcassonne – 15 and 16 April 2017

This will be the first time that Carcassonne will be hosting this tournament, where competitors fight one another in full armour, just like in the Middle Ages!  You can find details on this website.

Balade Geologique dans le Saint-Chinianais, Cebazan – 22 April 2017

The area around Saint-Chinian is a geologist’s dream – to the point where groups of geology students from some of the UK universities are sent here to do field work and projects.  This guided visit will be by bus and is followed by a lecture.  Details from tourist office in Capestang via this link.

Fete de Saint-Aphrodise, Beziers – 28 April 2017

On the occasion of the fete of the patron saint of Beziers, the Basilica of Saint Aphrodise will be open to the public.  Restoration work has been ongoing since I wrote about the church back in 2013, and I am looking forward to seeing the interim results!

Grande Deballage, Pezenas – 7 May 2017

This event is not to be missed if you are into flea markets and antiques.  There will be in excess of 150 stalls, selling all kinds of “stuff”!!

Les Sentiers Gourmands, Narbonne – 21 May 2017

For the 14th time in as many years, this gourmet walk has been organised across the vineyards of La Clape. The full details can be found on the offical website, and if you want a ‘taste’ of what such a gourmet walk can be like, read my post about one such walk in Saint-Jean-de-Minervois here.

Walking through the vineyards

Walking through the vineyards

Walled in

Today I would like to take you on an outing to Villefranche-de-Conflent.  I hope you have the time to join me!  img_2225

Villefranche sits on the confluence of the Tet and Cady rivers, at the foot of the Pyrenees.  Because of its strategic location, the town was heavily fortified from the Middle Ages onwards.  In the 18th century, the fortifications were reinforced by Vauban, who was Louis XIV’s military engineer and advisor.

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Vauban added an extra layer to the fortifications, creating a vaulted gallery on top of the mediaeval ramparts, and topped this with another gallery which was covered with a slate roof!  So much more space for soldiers who could aim at the enemy from two different levels.

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The shape of the town was very much dictated by the rivers and the mountains – have a look at an aerial view on the internet here.  Its appearance has not much changed since Vauban’s major work in the 17th century …

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… except that there is now a new road to one side of the town, which takes traffic past the town and up into the mountains.  And there is now a railway line, which allows the famous ‘Canary’, the yellow train, to take travellers from Villefranche to the highest railway station in France, at Mont Louis, and beyond.

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The layout of the town has remained pretty much the same since mediaeval times – there are two main streets, Rue Saint Jacques and Rue Saint Jean.

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Because space was restricted, the houses were built tall.  On the ground floor, most houses would have large arched doors, which could be the entrances to shops or stables, or for storing carts.  The rooms on the first floor were usually reserved for workshops of artisans, and living accommodations were on the second floor.

img_2203 Many doors still sport beautiful door knockers – one of my particular passions!  Can you tell which of them are more recent than others?  Here’s a selection of them:

This side street leads to a gate in the fortifications, from where there is access to Fort Liberia, a citadel which was built by Vauban, high above the town!

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Statue of a saint above the gate to Fort Liberia – perhaps Saint Peter?

Here’s a picture of Fort Liberia, as seen from down below:

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Here is another statue – it sits in a niche high up on a facade.  It probably depicts another saint, but with the missing arm it’s difficult to figure out which saint.  I have a hunch that it could be Saint Barbara, but I’m not certain.

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No trip is complete without something to eat!  My travelling companions and I went to a restaurant called Le Patio on rue Saint Jean.  Some of the houses had internal patios – as did this restaurant – and that’s where we had lunch.

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None of us were overly hungry, so we decided to skip the starter and to have a main course, followed by dessert.  I don’t know about you, but for me dessert is a must!! 😀

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Tagliatelle with pesto

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Tagliatelle with smoked salmon sauce

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Octopus with potatoes

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Grilled sausages with country fries and garlic mayonnaise

The main courses were perfect for each of us – and the desserts were even better!  The Cafe Gourmand was a particular hit!!

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Tiramisu

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Chocolate pudding with a melting interior

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“Cafe Gourmand” – coffee with eight mini desserts!!

On the way back to the car, I noticed a few more details from Villefranche’s past:

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If you want to visit Villefranche-de-Conflent, and want to tie in your trip with a ride on the yellow train, be sure to visit the SNCF website for a timetable.

A winter walk

Winter is as good a time as any to go for a walk in or around Saint-Chinian. The days are often sunny and mild, and I always try to wear layers, in case I need to shed some clothes as I work up a sweat!  Today I’d like to show you a walk just up the road from Saint-Chinian.  The official starting point for this walk is on Avenue de Villespassans, but sometimes I make it easier for myself by taking the car up the hill, to the car park across the road from the windmill!. 🙂

The Pays Haut Languedoc et Vignobles, a federation of local councils, published a collection of 73 marked walks, which are available either individually or as a pack from the tourist office in Saint-Chinian.

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The walk I’m writing about is called Les clapas.  Clapas is the name for the impressive mounds of limestones which have been cleared from the fields and piled up by successive generations of shepherds and farmers.

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The leaflets for each walk give details of the walk as well as points of interest along the way.  Because of copyright issues, I’ll not reproduce the inside of the leaflet, but I’ve found a link to details of the walk here.

Most of the Les clapas walk is fairly gentle, especially as I avoided the steep climb out of the village by using the car and parking near the windmill – naughty I know! 😸   The countryside “up on the hill” is a mixture of vineyards and friches, which is the name for abandoned agricultural land.  In some cases the land has been abandoned for some time, but there can still be signs of the passage of humans.  Below is a piece of wood from an old shutter, with the hinge still attached – barely!

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A lot of the vineyards had already been pruned at the time of my visit.  Hard work, but it’s got to be done if there are to be grapes (and wine)!

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Even in the middle of winter, there is still interesting vegetation to be seen.  The plant below is commonly known as butcher’s broom (ruscus aculeatus).  The tips of the leaves are quite spiny!  I believe this plant is used in dried flower arrangements – I wouldn’t want to have to work with it!

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There were still a few olives on some trees – this one was probably missed when the rest of the olives on the tree were harvested.

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The limestone rocks were impressive!  But no, I didn’t have to climb up there!!

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Here was another vestige of humankind, in the middle of nowhere – an old car!!

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This was on the edge of a former friche – I guess the car wreck and the rocks were pushed there by a big digger when the land was cleared! The car must have sat in the wilderness for some time, by the looks of it!!

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The itinerary took me through the hamlet of Fontjun, where I spotted another old vehicle from a bygone age!

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And just around the corner there was second one!  It was painted the same blue colour, and somewhat better preserved.  These carts would have been used for work in the vineyards.

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I saw this beautiful doorway in Fontjun …

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… and a few steps away I spotted this sliding door.  I loved the colour and patina!

The piece of rusty old steel in the picture below was part of an old garden gate – wonderful detailing and patina!

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Along the path, in the middle of nowhere, I came across an abandoned hut.  It had had a fireplace once, and someone had left the bellows to get the fire going, but the chimney had long gone.

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Towards the end of the walk, I took this picture of a capitelle, a stone hut built without any mortar!  This one was very picturesque against the blue sky.

img_6833It was a lovely walk, and I hope you enjoyed it!  I’ll be doing it again before too long – do let me know if you’d like to join me!

A feast of taste

It’s high time I wrote another food related post!  Luckily, I discovered a new restaurant last weekend, with the help of Charlotte and Phil from Languedoc Living!  I met Charlotte and Phil last fall, through mutual friends.  We immediately got to talking about food and restaurants, and agreed to go together to L’Ortensia in Saint-Gervais-sur-Marer!  Charlotte booked a table for last Saturday lunchtime, and so I drove to Saint-Gervais-sur-Mare on a grey and rainy day, along the beautiful Orb valley and over a mountain, to reach the village where L’Ortensia is located.

The restaurant is in a late 19th century mansion (set in a park), which had been bought by the local council some time ago.  The mansion sits high above the village, and it’s park was once a hydrangea nursery.  In 2013, after years of complete renovation, the property opened its doors to the public once more.  The kitchen is run by Eric Balan, who has worked with Alain Ducasse and Marc Veyrat.  His partner, Patricia Rochette, looks after the front of house.

The first impression was one of stark modernity.  A modern glass and metal conservatory extension to the main building serves as the entrance from the car park.  Stairs and a lift go down to the restaurant, which is two floors below.  However, Patricia’s warm welcome immediately broke the ice, and we were soon seated at a round table near the fireplace, where a lovely fire warmed us all.

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Once we’d had a chance to catch up with Charlotte and Phil, we turned to the menus and decided to go for the Menu Plaisir – and a pleasure it definitely was!

The meal started with a Prelude Gourmand, something to get us in the mood for what was to come!   First, we were served a tray of wonderful little morsels, to accompany our aperitif:  Roquefort macarons, crisp linseed “sails”, prunes wrapped in bacon, chorizo madeleines, and in the beaker four straws made with air-dried ham and filo pastry.  All incredibly delicious!!

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Then came an amuse bouche, a small bowl of mussel soup, very delicate, with tiny mussels and a sprinkling of pungent spring onions.

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The starter was pan-fried foie gras, served with quince puree and cranberries.  The foie gras was perfectly cooked and the flavour combination worked really well.  The red cabbage sprouts added an earthy note, which paired very well with the foie gras and the quince.

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After a little interlude, our fish course arrived.  Seared scallops were served on a bed of salsify puree, and garnished with pink grapefruit and bergamot lemon zest.  The citrus fruit in combination with the scallops was very delicious!  And the pretty looking baby leaves were of course edible too!

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Pigeon breast in a gingerbread crust was the main course, accompanied by different members of the brassica tribe: romanesco, kohlrabi, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, cress, and thin slices of radish.  Someone in the kitchen was having fun, and we enjoyed eating it!! 🙂

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Our dessert had a very sculpted look – two curved biscuits were holding a delicious “blond” chocolate cream, topped with pears poached in red wine, cubes of pear jelly, and citrus sorbet.  It was a sublime combination of flavours, and a dessert which had been very carefully constructed.  The “blond” chocolate used for the cream was Valrhona’s Orelys; the poached pear was a poire martin sec, an old (and mostly forgotten)  French variety of pear which is perfect cooked in red wine; the citrus sorbet was made with calamondines, a hybrid between a kumquat and a mandarin orange.  The sorbet was sharp with an incredible citrus flavour, a perfect foil for the sweetness of the chocolate cream.

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After dessert came coffee, and with it Les Mignardises – a beautiful selection of treats to round off this wonderful meal.  The beaker held a coffee foam;  the chocolate lollipop was flavoured with pear, and the madeleine with rhubarb.

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What a fantastic meal – wonderful food AND great company!

On the way back I stopped at Colombieres sur Orb to take a picture of the rather spectacular waterfall.

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Just by the waterfall is the starting point for a marked walk, up the Gorges de Colombieres – it looks like a really interesting hike, and I’ve earmarked it for the spring!

Bamboo collection

You may remember my trip to Uzes last fall, if you’ve been reading this blog for a little while.  After my visit to the Witches’ Market in Saint-Chaptes, I stopped off at La Bambouseraie, near the town of Anduze.  La Bambouseraie is a botanical garden, dedicated – no prizes for guessing – to bamboo.  It had been on my list of places to visit for many years, so it was quite exciting to finally be able to get there!!

As it was out of season and not long before the garden closed for the winter, there were few visitors, which suited me fine! 🙂

Right from the entrance gate, bamboo was in evidence everywhere, from stands of enormously tall bamboo, to the fence made from bamboo poles.

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The history of the garden dates back to 1856, when Eugene Mazel, a passionate botanist, started to plant his exotic garden.  Following the death of Mazel, Gaston Negre bought the estate in 1902 and continued Eugene Mazel’s work.  The estate still belongs to the Negre family – it is now run by Gaston Negre’s granddaughter, Muriel.

Today the part of the estate which is open to the public covers 15 hectares (about 37 acres).  Another 19 hectares (47 acres) are given over to a nursery where bamboo is grown for sale.  I would describe the visit of the garden as ‘spectacular’ – I was absolutely amazed by the beauty and sheer size of the bamboo plantations!!  There were so many different types!

The self-guided visit, where an audio commentary was available at certain points, was highly informative!

The stalk of giant bamboo (phyllostachys bambusoïdes) in the picture below is 20.8 metres long!!

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Deep in the bamboo forest, I found a cluster of buildings, all constructed from bamboo!  The buildings below are typical of the houses of Lao people, who live in the Mekong river plain.  Built on stilts, the houses are in three parts:  the main living quarters, the kitchen, which is joined to the living quarters, and the rice store, which is set a little apart.

The ‘shop’ is another building on stilts, and one of the meeting points for the village.  The shopkeeper lives in the shop!  All the items on the shelves are made from bamboo too!

A charming enclosure was home to some little black pigs! 🙂

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Phlyllostachys bambusoïdes is the star plant at La Bambouseraie – it is as strong as steel, and can be used to reinforce concrete in place of steel.  It also has an incredibly fast growth rate – at the garden they have measured a growth of over 1 metre in the space of 24 hours!!  In the picture below, you can see the root system at the base of a stalk.

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The name bamboo covers a variety of plants – all of them belonging to the family of grasses!  Of the nineteen bamboo poles below, 18 belong to the phyllostachys species, while the second from right is a chimonobambusa quadrangularis.

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Apart from bamboo, the garden is host to many other plants.  The planting below looked spectacular at the time of my visit!

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In 2000, a Japanese garden called ‘The Valley of the Dragon’ was opened.  The fall colours were absolutely perfect when I visited!

Another bamboo tunnel opened to a small clearing, where the house of the park’s guardian stood.

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In front of the house there were some stands of smaller bamboo – I could almost see the one on the left in my garden! 🙂

A path led from there to an area which was dedicated to aquatic plants.  The basins were planted with water lillies, papyrus, lotus and many more plants whose names I was not familiar with!

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A giant wisteria covered a most beautiful pergola.  I’m sure that would look spectacular when in bloom!

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Below is a stand of phyllostachys sulfureus with some yellow maple leaves.

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And this was the entrance to the bamboo maze!!  It was great!!! I did get a bit lost in there!!  🙂

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The way out led through a tunnel made from bamboo, and into the garden centre, where all kinds of bamboo were available to be bought.

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I am so pleased that I finally got to visit this amazing garden – it is only two hours from Saint-Chinian by car!

La Bambouseraie is open from March until mid November and you’ll need half a day to visit all of the garden.  Have a look at the website for more details.

 

Open farm Sunday

During the early part of last year, I came across an event called De Ferme en Ferme, which translates to ‘from farm to farm’, and which takes place in farming areas all over France at various times of the year!  I managed to pick up a leaflet for last year’s fall edition of the event, and found that some of the farms were not all that far from Saint-Chinian, relatively speaking 🙂 .

I set my eyes on visiting a farm called Le Rodier, up in the mountains between Saint-Pons-de-Thomieres and Mazamet.  The day started a little misty and overcast, and as I drove up the mountain, the tops of the trees started to disappear into the fog. The farm is in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by meadows and trees.

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As I walked from the car park to the farm I passed this magnificent mushroom, its top as big as my hand!  I don’t know many mushrooms, but I do know this one is edible.

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Le Rodier is run as a dairy farm by Marie and her husband Sebastien, and Marie’s parents, Martine and Jean-Louis.  The farm has been owned by successive generations of Marie’s family for 100 years!  Marie and Sebastien had careers in law and finance, but when Martine and Jean-Louis began to look at possible retirement, Marie and Sebastien decided that they would carry on the family’s farming tradition!  With lots of enthusiasm they re-trained and became expert cheese makers and farmers!

They farm an area of 70 hectares (70,000 square metres or 173 acres), either as pasture or to produce hay and cereal feed for their 45 cows.  The cows are called Brune des Alpes, and they are out on the pasture from the end of winter until the first snow, producing a total of 270,000 litres of milk during the course of the year.  60,000 litres of that milk are used for cheese production on the farm, the rest is sold to a dairy.

Sebastian had set up a display of various equipment used for the production of their cheeses.  For hygiene reasons, a visit to the dairy itself was not possible.

Before I had a chance to visit the shop, Martine took a group of us to see the cows!  On the way we passed the hay barn – they had certainly made hay while the sun had shone!!

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The cow shed was large and spacious, and very clean-smelling!  I remembered that sweet smell from when I went as a child to a farm in the neighbourhood to get fresh milk.  Most of the time I would be allowed to visit the cows as they were being milked!

There weren’t many cows about, most of them were out grazing.  The ones in the barn were about to give birth, or had very recently given birth.

Here are the calves:  the one on the right had been born the day before!

The milking parlour was our next stop – the cows walk in at one end of the parlour and line up with their rear ends towards the pit, where the milking machinery is located.  Once they have been milked they walk out the other end of the parlour and back into the barn – all very organised and efficient.

Martine was a wonderful guide, and she communicated her passion for her work and her animals so well – it was a privilege being able to spend time with her!

Finally to the shop, where Sebastien was busy serving customers.  The range was relatively small compared to what you would find in a cheese shop, but for a small family business it was impressive!

On the top shelf there was faisselle (cheese curds), butter, creme fraiche and fromage blanc.

On the second shelf there was half a blue cheese (left), and three trays of frisquet, a fresh cheese much like goats cheese, either as is or with various ‘coatings’ such as herbs, pepper or paprika.

The third shelf held desserts 🙂 : Creme caramel, chocolate cream, rice pudding with caramel, and plain rice pudding!

Finally, on the bottom shelf were bottles of fresh raw = unpasteurized milk, and some camembert.

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The firmer cheeses are the ones made in the large moulds, which Sebastien had on show outside.

The Pastural is the softest of them – 18 litres of milk are needed for one cheese.  For the blue cheese to the right, 20 litres of milk are required.  The large cheese towards the right is called Rodal and it is made from 120 litres of milk!  On the very right of the picture you see part of a tomme – during the cheesemaking process, the curds are pressed with a weight, resulting in a firmer cheese, made from 40 litres of milk.

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Sebastien was happy to let me taste the various cheeses, and I came away with a lovely selection AND some fresh milk!

On the way back I caught a glimpse of the cows in one of the fields.

I must confess that the cheeses from Le Rodier were not a new discovery for me – Marie and Sebastien come to the little market in Agel (circuit court) every other Thursday.  But it was wonderful to visit their farm, and to meet Marie’s mother!  In case you are wondering, Marie’s father was there also, but he was busy with another group, so I did not get a chance to meet him.  If you want to experience this farm yourself, the farm shop is open every Saturday from 10am to 6pm, and you can of course buy the cheeses every other Thursday in Agel from 5pm to 7pm.

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