Apples aplenty

I would like to dedicate this blog to the memory of Nadine Holm, a dear friend who passed away on September 4, 2017.  She would have enjoyed our outing to this event tremendously!!

There are several villages by the name of Aigues Vives in France – I’ve counted eight of them on the ViaMichelin website!  So it’s important to pick the right village!  The one I visited recently is near Carcassonne, and the postcode is 11800, just so you know.  This village has been holding an apple, rice and wine fair for some time – this year was the 20th time!  Why I’ve never visited before is a mystery to me, but I’m glad I went this year!

Aigues Vives is located on the edge of the Etang Asseche de Marseillette, a drained marsh, where the apples, rice and wines for sale at the fair are grown.  More about the Etang a little later in this post.

The village was beautifully decorated for the occasion – the entrance arch to one of the streets was made from apples and rice straw.

In one of the squares, the iconic Citroen 2CV car had been recreated with apples:

Signs had been specially made to direct visitors:

The rock on which the church stands was decorated with strands of apples:

Near the entrance to the church stood a windmill decorated with apples – the thatch on top was made with rice straw, and the sails were turning!!

There was even a lady with an apple skirt:

Apples were for sale at almost every corner:

Other stalls sold a variety of delicious edible goodies:

In the village hall, a communal meal was served by a caterer – I didn’t go to that.  I did go to the village park, which had been set up as a “food village” with a number of food stalls and tables and chairs under the trees.  A group of musicians were providing entertainment!

Around the park, a number of signs had been put up.  The one below shows the names of all the apple growers in the Etang de Marseillette:

This sign gives the names of the wine, plum and rice growers:

A few sayings:

One grain of rice can tip the scale

Three apples a day – everlasting health

Wine gets better over time, and we get better with wine!

A cider press had been set up on a stage in the village.  The apples (granny smith, golden and gala) were first pulped:

The pulp was collected in buckets lined with large squares of fabric:

Once the buckets were full, the cloth was tied up and the bags were put into the press – soon the juice started to flow.

The apple juice was poured into plastic cups, and everyone could have as much as they wanted!  It was very delicious!!

In order for visitors to find out more about the Etang de Marseillette, a number of guided visits had been arranged.  Two “little trains” were taking groups of people on the guided visits.

The Etang de Marseillette is left over from the time when the Mediterranean sea covered large tracts of land about two million years ago.  When the water levels dropped and the sea receded, a number of lakes stayed behind, and one of them was at Marseillette.  In time this became a marshy salt lake, covering an area of around 2000 hectares (20 square kilometers or 7.2 square miles).  Three small streams fed the lake, and it was often deemed to be the reason for outbreaks of local epidemics.

In the Middle Ages, attempts were made to drain the lake, which were more or less successful, but the drains silted up and nature reclaimed the lake.  In 1804, Marie Anne Coppinger, the then owner of the Etang, carried out immense works and drained the lake, but the returns from the land were insufficient, and she bankrupted herself with the project.  The next owner carried on with improvements.  He built a tunnel to bring water for irrigation from the river Aude.  The tunnel is over 2 km long and in some places it is 60 metres below ground!  In 1852 the Etang was sold once more, and the new owners decided to divide the land and sell off smaller parcels.  With no overall owner, the maintenance of the irrigation and drainage canals was soon neglected again.

In 1901, Joseph Camman, an engineer, bought 800 hectares of land in the Etang and started a campaign to improve the irrigation.  One of the main problems is the fact that salt left in the soil will come to the surface if the land is not sufficiently irrigated.  Plants which grow there, produce only very shallow roots of about 35cm, partly because of the heavy clay soil and partly because of the salt.  Keeping the soil well hydrated is the key to successful cultivation!

Joseph Camman also built a hydroelectric power station, to harness the power of the water coming from the river Aude.  Unfortunately, the power station has long since been abandoned, and the building is in a very poor state of repair.

The pond on which the power station stands serves as a holding tank for the distribution of water to the three main irrigation channels.

In order to keep the canals from silting up, Joseph Camman designed “cleaning boats”, which increased the current in the canals as they travelled through and flushed the silt away.  These days, modern diggers are used.

As we travelled through the Etang, we saw orchards, vineyards and a rice field.  The rice had mostly been harvested, but a little bit had been left standing for us to see.  The apple trees were heavy with fruit, and of course all the fruit you saw earlier in this post was grown here.

There is only one grower of rice active in the Etang.  He produces a number of different kinds: red, long grain, short grain etc.  I bought several different kinds of rice, and I have already tried the mix of red and white rice which was delicious!  And of course I also bought some apples!!

 

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The sculptor’s garden

During this year’s European heritage weekend I went to visit a selection of different places – some I’d been to before, and others that I had never visited.  The garden of the Villa Antonine in Beziers was one of the latter.

I parked in the car park near the church of the Immaculate Conception (that’ll be in another blog post 🙂 ), and walked along Boulevard de Geneve to where it meets Rue Jean Valette.  Villa Antonine occupies the corner plot between these two streets.

The walk was lovely – there were so many interesting houses to be seen along the way!

Villa Antonine was built by the father of the sculptor Jean-Antoine Injalbert in 1884 as a summer residence.  At that time, it would have stood on its own, a little away from the city.  Today, the surrounding area is very much built up.  When you enter the garden, you leave all the hustle and bustle behind you, it is (normally) an oasis of calm.  Not surprisingly, on the day of my visit it was busier than usual.

Jean-Antoine Injalbert enlarged the property he inherited from his father, adding a couple of artists’ studios and installing some of his sculptures in the gardens.  The studios were open to visitors on the day I visited, with exhibitions by Christine Granier (sculptures), Loux (paintings), both of whose works can be seen in the photo below, and works by Geff Strik.

Many wonderful little details can be discovered on the buildings – most of them are Injalbert’s work!

There are two very different gardens – one which is entered from Boulevard de Geneve and which leads up to the original villa.  The layout of this garden is more formal, with flower beds edged with box-tree hedges, gravel paths, and lawns.

Against one wall is a pergola, where a wisteria shades a Neptune fountain, which is sadly not working any longer.

The other garden is behind a second building, which is at a right angle to the original villa.  This building has a slate-roofed tower by its side and a beautiful double staircase!

This garden is shaded by the fully grown trees – in Injalbert’s time it would have looked very different, with all the trees much smaller!

For the heritage weekend, two concerts had been organised in partnership with the Beziers academy of music.   I could hear the musicians rehearsing in the background while I was strolling through the garden, the music mixing with the sound of the splashing fountain.  It was too good a moment not to be captured:

The musicians were Fabio Galluci (mandolin) and Sabine Liguori-Delmas (piano).

Of course I stayed for the concert!  Before the concert started, I had time to take some more pictures.  Here’s another fountain with a very funny sculpture:

And this is a close-up of the Neptune fountain:

One of the beauties who hold up the pergola:

A lot of the sculptures in the garden were “sketches” – preparations for the final sculptures.  Injalbert’s works can be found all over the region, as well as in Paris and farther afield.  He was fairly famous in his own time, but his lasting fame has been completely overshadowed by Rodin.

Today, Villa Antonine belongs to the town of Beziers, and it is currently used by a charitable association called Les Ecluses de l’Art, whose aim is to promote contemporary art by making it accessible to a wider audience. Its purpose is to set up artistic events in order to support the creators of today and the creation of new works.  Workshops, artists-in-residence and courses all help towards that goal.

The gardens of Villa Antonine are open to the public every day – do take a stroll around the gardens and don’t forget to let me know your impressions!

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Garden fresh

During my recent blogging holiday, I had many delicious meals: at home, with friends, in restaurants, and at festivals …

On a day out with friends in Perpignan, I went to Restaurant La Galinette, following the recommendation of one of my guests (thank you, Tove!!).  Christophe Comes, the chef proprietor of the restaurant, has a potager of 3 hectares which he cultivates with the help of his father.  The produce from this vegetable garden plays a starring role on the menu!

La Galinette has a star in the Guide Michelin – my friends and I decided to order the tasting menu!  Without further ado, here are the food pictures – :

Salmonejo de tomates “Green Zebra”, basilic pourpre, feta.

For the Salmonejo, a cold tomato soup was poured into the plate – it was so tempting to eat that I totally forgot to take another picture!! 🙂

Collection de nos tomates anciennes; huile de l’hort et condiments

The collection of heritage tomatoes included Black Krim and Ananas, and the plate was as pretty as a picture!  It also tasted divine.

It still looked like a (modern art) picture when there was nothing left!!

Saumon sauvage a peine cuit, oseille de Belleville, concombre epineux et pain noir.

Wild salmon served on a sorrel puree, spiny cucumber and black bread.

Vive sauvage de Mediterranee, fine brandade de morue, jus de piperade au chorizo.

Wild sting fish (greater weever), served with salt cod puree and piperade sauce (made with sweet bell peppers and chorizo).

Epaule d’agneau catalan confite, pulpe d’aubergines “di Fierenze”

Slow-cooked shoulder of Catalan lamb, surrounded by various preparations made with aubergines: roasted, deep-fried in panko crust, braised, and puréed.

Pasteque rafraichie d’agastache anisee, sorbet melon “piel de sapo”

A generous slice of watermelon topped with candied melon and melon sorbet – very refreshing!

Peches “duras” d’Ille sur Tet, idee d’une melba

A take on peach melba, made with “duras” peaches from Ile sur Tet, with raspberry sauce and peach and vanilla sorbets.  The berries at the front of the picture are sugar frosted redcurrants.

This was a very memorable meal, every course as delicious as the previous/next!  If you are in Perpignan you should definitely try this restaurant!  If you are not already there, perhaps you want to plan a visit – it’s a wonderful town to explore!  The lunch menu is priced at €25 for three courses, the tasting menus are €48 for six courses and €54 for eight courses, served for lunch or dinner.  La Galinette is open for lunch and dinner Tuesday through Saturday.  Reservations are recommended!

I leave you with a few random pictures taken in Perpignan:

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Growing oil

De ferme en ferme is a nationwide programme of farm visits, and last fall I went to visit a couple of farms in the Montagne Noire, a fair drive from Saint-Chinian.  This year, a new network of farms, much closer to home, opened their doors to visitors.  I went to see two of them on September 10.

First I’ll tell you about my visit to Top Fruits, which was one of the farms I visited that day.  The farm is run by Jim and Sarah Pearce, who – no surprise after reading their name – are from Britain!  If the name isn’t a total giveaway, then the double-decker bus may be!! 🙂

Jim and Sarah started their ‘pick-your-own’ farm well over 10 years ago – they have a great selection of fruit and vegetables.  I’d known about the farm for years, but had never stopped to have a look.  I visited in the afternoon, and the crowds had gotten there before me.  The farm had more or less been stripped bare of ripe fruit!!  All the same, it was impressive to wander around the farm and see the rows upon rows of fruit trees (apricots, peaches, nectarines) and the greenhouses with tidy rows of tomatoes and aubergines!  I’ll be back next year, once the fruit season has started!!

My main visit of the day was Les Roumanisses, near Mailhac, where Nicolas Albert grows aromatic plants.

Nicolas started the farm in 2010, without a background in agriculture, but with plenty of passion and dedication!  Seven years later, this passion was still evident as he was showing visitors around the farm!

Our visit started in the polytunnel, which is the plant nursery where all the new plants are grown.  Nicolas grows all plants on site, and the farm is completely organic!

A large number of different types of herbs are grown at Les Roumanisses.  Here is a selection:

Nicolas had gone to a lot of trouble, providing labels and descriptions for a large number of different plants!

After the greenhouse, he showed us some of the machinery he uses.  Because of the fact that his farm is very unusual in this area, he’s had to make do with and adapt the machines he’s been able to buy.

Nicolas distills essential oils from the plants he grows and harvests on site.  The still had been set up and was ready to be demonstrated with lavender flowers.

The lavender had been harvested earlier in the year, and since Nicolas was still awaiting delivery of his new (larger) still, it had been dried.

The lavender had to be loaded into a large canister that looked a little like a milk churn.

Once full, the lid was screwed on, the canister was fixed in place and connected to the steam boiler and the condenser.

Here it is all ready, with Nicolas explaining how the process was going to work:

The glass container on the table is a separator, which will separate the essential oil from the distilled water.  The distilled water is collected in the large blue container.

Here we are, all ready and waiting for the steam to do its work!

After a little while, steam started to come out of the pipe at the bottom of the condensing unit (on the right), and soon after that the liquid started to flow!!  The smell was wonderful!!

In the picture below you can see the separation of oil and distilled water:

It was fascinating to watch!!  When I think of all the lavender flowers I have mulched in my garden over the years….  Perhaps I should invest in a little still of my own??  Nicolas had a very dinky copper model in his shop:

The shop was very busy during my visit, so it was not possible to get any decent pictures of the products.  Les Roumanisses offers about 10 different essential oils and 16 different flower waters.  The Flower water is the distilled water from the distillation process, which carries a lot of the fragrance of the plant. All the products are available from the on-line shop, from the farm, or from one of the local stockists.

I finished my visit with a lovely glass of chilled rosé wine – cheers!

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I’m back!

It’s been a wonderful summer – very busy with one thing and another, but wonderful all the same.  Now that I’m sitting down again to write, I don’t know where to start!!  Perhaps I’ll start with my most recent outing, as it’s still so fresh in my mind.

This past weekend, the village of Bize-Minervois hosted a festival called Tastes en Minervois.  It billed itself as a wine and gastronomy festival, and this was the third time it was being held.  I had completely managed to miss the previous two festivals, which took place in Homps in 2015 and 2016 – quel dommage – I was thrilled that I was able to go this year!

For the festival, the old centre of the village had been closed off.  The entrance fee was 15 EUR, which included a wine glass, a voucher for a meal at one of the four restaurant tents and free wine tastings throughout the village.  A fifth restaurant spot was reserved for children.

It was all incredibly well organised – and it had to be!  The organisers were expecting around 10,000 visitors over the two days!!

About 100 winemakers from the Minervois AOC area participated.  Each winemaker was assigned a wine barrel, and allowed to showcase one wine for tasting.  Orange polo shirts denoted volunteer stewards or wine makers – their names were printed on the back of the shirts!

The restaurant tents had been set up in four different places around the village, and each had its own distinctive theme.  Cuisine du Monde was on the promenade along the river,  and its musical accompaniment was by a flamenco guitar group.

Cuisine traditionelle had been set up near the Mairie, and the music was provided by a group of three women, calling themselves USB – a play on words – they are super branchées, which means either connected or trendy.  Their music was great: festive and rhythmic, it really made you want to move!

Cuisine Carre Vert was near the church, and the musical entertainment there was very original!! Eric van Osselaer makes music by using vegetables as his instruments!!  He made flutes from carrots, a kind of clarinet with a carrot, a cucumber and a mini pumpkin, leaves of Belgian endive served as reeds – it all was highly original.

Cuisine Street Food was in a newly created square in the heart of the village, and the music was provided by a group of DJs.

Here’s some of the food:

On the tray with the small bottle (milk shake) is Cuisine Street Food, and on the other tray you see Cusine du Monde.  Both were very delicious!!

It was great wandering around the village, glass around my neck and stopping for a sip here and there!!  Here are my favourite wines from the evening:

As the evening went on, the lights came on, and the atmosphere became even more magical!

In a courtyard, a little tucked away, a coffee bar had been set up.

The coffee was delicious, and accompanied by a few mignardises, small sweet bites, each of the four chefs of the evening having contributed one.

Darkness fell and people were still arriving, the numbers swelled perhaps by the inhabitants of the village, who had all been given passes.

With the fading light, the decorations in various places also came into their own!

For me it was time to head home, but here’s one last look, from across the river:

The festival is due to take place again in Bize Minervois in 2018.  More information on http://www.leminervois.com .  To book your stay in Bize, visit http://www.midihideaways.com/figuier

 

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Party time!!

Today is France’s national holiday – a day which remembers the storming of the Bastille fortress on July 14, 1789, as well as the Fete of Unity (Fete de la Federation) on July 14, 1790.  All over France there will be celebrations of one kind or another.  In some of the very small villages it may be a communal meal with music and dancing on the day.  Larger villages can afford to spread the festivities over several days, and in many towns there will be fireworks and parades.

The most spectacular fireworks display takes place in Paris, where the Eiffel Tower is beautifully showcased by truly amazing pyrotechnics.

The festivities in Saint-Chinian will go on for three days, with bands and parties.  Here is the programme:

The 14th of July is also the start of the French summer holidays, and in the spirit of that I will be taking a bit of a break.  I hope you will all have a wonderful summer, and I look forward to catching up with you again in August!  if anyone would like to write a guest post in my absence, please let me know!

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