Full of cheer

I’ve just received a lovely message from Noelle, one of the regular readers of this blog, and resident of Saint-Chinian:

I just wanted to thank you for a suggestion on your blog: “La randonnee de Bacchus” from Berlou.

Lucien and I took the hike on Sunday June 4.
After a week of not knowing if it was going to rain, we woke up to a beautiful day, sunny, just a little breeze.
As per instruction we were at Berlou for 10:30 AM. After registration we were given a glass to hang around our neck, and then we were on our way. Since we were among the last group to depart I never felt crowded on the walk. I was told we were around 350 people but I never saw such a crowd. Actually I thought a lot of the time Lucien and I were the only ones on the trail. At each stop the crowd was only around 50 people. The wines and matching food were excellent. Plenty of time to drink and eat, seating sometimes in the shade of a tree on the ground, on a long table with chairs, or on fallen tree which served as a bench. At each of the 7 stops we tried different wines: a sparkling wine, 2 roses, 1 white, 2 reds and a sweet wine. I thought I would get drunk drinking the mix but with plenty of water it did not happen.
The trail is not an easy one but the views are grandiose on the top of the mountain. With such a day, we were able to see very far, the sleeping Lady, towns, wineries…  We were even able to pick some cherries from a lonesome tree on the side of the trail – just refreshing. We did met a few people, mostly Belgiam English and French, living close by.
We ended the walk through the narrows streets of Berlou, a small and pretty village with many flowers on balconies, and on the bridge. At this time of the year it was a feast for the eyes with all the different colours.
Thank you again for suggesting this “randonnee”!
Have you followed in my footsteps and visited any of the places I have written about?  I’d love to hear about your experiences, feel free to share them!!
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Restaurants in France

I came across this post on francetaste, and I hope that you find it as interesting as I did!

Taste of France

place carnotFrom what I’ve read, for some people even an IRS audit would be less stressful than ordering a meal from a French waiter.

Yet one of the Top Things to Do While Traveling in France is eating. It doesn’t have to be stressful. Here’s how.

menu chinese russian 2First of all, get the restaurant right. If you go to the big place right on the waterfront or whatever the main tourist draw of your destination is, then you can almost be sure that it isn’t going to be good, and the waiters aren’t going to care. This is true worldwide.

trilingualBut if you’re in France, it’s doubly a crime, because France is a place where you can have absolutely heavenly food, from the finest of haute cuisine to humble yet delicious dives. Bad food is practically criminal here.

The French diner uses the power of the purse to punish restaurants for bad cooking…

View original post 1,629 more words

The Village Voice

Florence Nash has very kindly written another post for this blog!  I’ve lived in Saint-Chinian for so long that I take the sounds around me for granted, and as such I don’t really pay attention to them any more.  So it’s wonderful to be reminded of those particular sounds which make living in a village (as opposed to a town/city) so very special – thank you, Florence!!


I usually arrive in Saint-Chinian, at the end of August or early September, as a refugee from the sweaty, buggy, late-summer slump of the southern United States, where people dash from one air-tight, air-conditioned haven to the next. Maybe that’s why one of my favorite images of this many-splendored place is a surprisingly modest one: My waking view of dawn lighting the red roof tiles outside the wide-open casement window, and the curtain sheers, dotted with little Fleurs de Lys, stirring slightly in air just cool enough to require a blanket. This air is sooo delicious! And virtually bug-free, with the sky criss-crossed by swallows (or martins, or swifts — I never can tell the difference) swooping and darting helpfully after their airborne breakfast. I wouldn’t dream of closing these windows at night, even if it were to take three blankets.

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That may explain how I have become so conscious of the voice of Saint-Chinian, the particular texture of sounds human and otherwise that seems almost a sonic portrait of the village. Especially in early morning as the village wakens, but throughout the day as well, I find myself listening for and collecting its distinctive sounds.

To begin with, there’s the town clock that rings each hour and then, just to make sure everybody gets it right, does it again. The local doves join the daily aubade with their soft hoo, hoo-hooo. (One morning a few years ago I heard gunshots blasting through their peaceful calls. To my relief, it turned out to be someone chasing marauding boars out of his vineyards; they have a destructive enthusiasm for ripe grapes.) As the sun climbs, there’s the creak and clack of shutters being opened and secured and, on Thursdays and Sundays, the thrum of van engines as marchands converge on the market square and set up their stalls, calling and clattering and laughing. Plenty of dogs are quick to voice their territorial imperatives — there’s some indignant barking under my window as I write.

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I’m renting Acanthus, as usual, the house occupying the two stories over Andreas and Anthony’s headquarters on Rue Cours La Reine, and throughout the day I hear the companionable murmur of many a conversation — in French, English, German, and who knows what — below my windows as friends stop by for a word. The mail carrier on her rounds usually has time for a little chat, too.  This street is one of the few actually wide enough for two passing cars and even a bit of parking. But just in back, and all around, there are “streets” you’d swear a car could never fit through — until you find yourself leaping frantically into a doorway and mashing yourself against the wall as one squeezes past with a few inches (really!) to spare, rear-view mirror practically snatching at the market basket clasped to your bosom. These tiny streets, separating dwellings by only a few yards, are one of the factors contributing to what amounts to a village-wide conversation; that, along with the fact that every sound reverberates full force off these ancient stones. One morning as I lay in bed savoring the rising light and the twitter of birds, I heard the clear ting ting of a teaspoon against a coffee cup in someone’s kitchen across the way. It was extremely intimate, somehow.

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To be fair, I have to mention the occasional roar and clatter of huge trucks that shoulder their way along the main drag, momentarily challenging conversation under the trees at Le Balcon, and Vernazobre, and the Café de la Paix. They’re not my favorite noise, but they are part of the real life of all these old villages now strung like beads along a narrow, busy trucking route. I’ve come to love Saint-Chinian because it’s not a Hollywood-glamorous South of France destination, but an ancient town in a surrounding of dramatic beauty — and equally dramatic history — where people work hard and live in close community, mostly either making wine or providing services for those who do. And, for my money, instead of seeing famous beauties in full make-up and stage lighting, I find it a lot more interesting — and  privileged — to get to know what they’re like after a hard day’s work, or first thing in the morning!

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Speaking of working, I have to share with you one more little item in Saint-Chinian’s voice. The other day I drove up behind the Cave Cooperative to have a look at Domaine La Madura’s new winery, built since I was last here by my friends Nadia and Cyril. On the way up I spotted Nadia out talking with the pickers, so we only exchanged a hasty wave. At the winery, though, I found Cyril in rubber boots hosing off a concrete floor, the air tinged with new fermentation. He showed me around the sleek, modern building crowning the hill (and uncannily harmonious with the landscape): lab, tasting room, sales area, offices. We entered a low-ceilinged space filled with solemn rows of large, apparently identical barrels; but each bore its own markings: contents, origins, age; each had a personal history of weather and work and worry. The room felt like a kind of chapel of wine. Cyril removed the bung from one of the barrels nearby and said, “Come listen. You can hear the wine working.” I put my ear down close to the bung hole, held my breath . . . and there it was, faint but steady. Sssshhhh. Just like holding a seashell to your ear to hear the ocean, hundreds of miles from the coast. The voice of the wine! Delicate and astonishing and new, this voice of Saint-Chinian is now, without doubt, my undisputed favorite.

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Before I sign off, just one or two more words about the pleasures of driving in the Languedoc countryside. Because every road wriggles and squeezes through village after village —often without room for two cars to pass and always with two or three badly parked vans in the way— drivers encounter over and over the need to slow down, calculate relative maneuvering ease, and cede right-of-way in the most practical direction. This is accomplished fluidly, quickly, and without fuss by the great majority of drivers I’ve encountered, in a sort of car-ballet of accommodation. It makes me feel better about human behavior. It makes me feel less good about driving in the US. Lastly, my very favorite road sign in all of France is the one that says “TOUTES DIRECTIONS.” No message could be more welcome or more comforting than this, to us strangers wandering in a strange land: “Wherever it is you are trying to go, friend, you are — so far — on the right road!”

The French Market – Taste of France

This week’s post is a little late, I’m sorry! I came across a bit of a challenge when it came to re-blogging this post from http://www.francetaste.wordpress.com.  The writer of this blog lives in Carcassonne and writes on a variety of interesting topics.  I particularly enjoyed the post below and have wanted to share it with you for a little while now.  As autumn is setting in, it’s high time I posted it!!  I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.


Tomorrow is Saturday, the best day of the week. Market day.

There are markets on Tuesday and Thursday, but they’re smaller. Saturdays bring more sellers and buyers. It’s a big social event, centered on food. So very French.

I have my favorite vendors. I try to stick to seasonal produce. It is better in season, and the lack of it out of season makes it all the more special when it’s available.

The apples have appeared. The nectarines and peaches are still going strong, but you can tell they’re going to get farineuse–mealy–pretty soon.

There are plenty of tomatoes, and now that the heat has broken, it’s time to make spaghetti sauce.

An adieu to summer….

That’s per kilo…

Hot peppers

Rotisserie chicken….just TRY walking past!

Yellow melons

Ham or jambon

Almonds or amandes

A little entertainment

Snails or escargots

Figs or figues

Apricots, or abricots, still in late summer! Our tree’s fruit was ripe and eaten in July!

Cucumbers, or concombres

White and purple eggplant, or aubergine

Do you cook from scratch? What will you miss most about summer’s bounty?

My shopping caddy, stuffed to the gills.

Source: The French Market – Taste of France

Back again!

Once more I have the pleasure of hosting Florence Nash in my house.  Over the past twelve years, Florence has become a dear friend, and I greatly look forward to her visits each year! Florence enthusiastically agreed to write a guest post for the blog, to share her experiences of her visits to Saint-Chinian.

 

Before retiring in 2003, Florence worked as a writer and editor at Duke University Medical Center for 16 years. Her poems, book and music reviews, program notes, and feature articles have appeared in publications across the USA. She has two collections of poetry, Fish Music (Gravity Press, 2010) and Crossing Water (Gravity Press, 1996).  Florence is also a “reckless but enthusiastic” cook, and it’s thanks to her that I have been able to write about the wonderful dish that is tomato pie!!

My twelve annual September visits to St. Chinian have been a pretty even balance between time on my own and playing host to friends or family, with a pleasant tidal swing between these two states of being. By myself, I grow impatient for guests to arrive so I can share my favorite places and things, show off my French (however spotty), have someone to cook for or with . . . . but after a few days of company I look forward to their departure so I can get back to my own rhythms and ramblings. This year, for the first time, no visitors are scheduled, so I find myself more than usually attentive to my list of daily Projects, various errands devised to take me out of the house and onto the scenic, fragrant little roads that honeycomb these rolling miles of vineyards.

For instance: Yes, of course I can buy Luques olives, my favorites, right here at the market, but with all the day before me, why not drive over to l’Oulibo? Here at this big olive mill on the D5 near Bize-Minervois, you can happily and shamelessly sample your weight in olives and oils and tapenades before picking up a supply of fresh, unpasteurized Luques — more subtle and delicious than the market ones — AND snag a few appealing olive wood or olive-oil-based souvenirs for the folks back home while you’re at it.

If you need to lay in a supply of jambon sec for your stay (as surely you do!), you may have heard Andreas claim that the very best Serrano ham comes from a vendor at the Narbonne central market — he’s the only one whose stall has a bright red slicing machine — so how about a day trip down to that fabulous foodie palace? This project, incidentally, also provides the minor drama of maneuvering a rental car through thickly trafficked city streets, a challenge quite different from that of winding country lanes.

Then there’s the matter of daily bread: St. Chinian boasts plenty of perfectly good boulangeries, but there’s solid consensus that — until recently — right down the road in Azillanet, Stéphane made the best bread in the region, in a boulangerie so small, with an oven so deep, that he had to open his bright blue door to make room for maneuvering the long wooden paddles that shift the loaves over the wood fire. And, since he only opened for retail sale a few hours at a time and you never quite remembered what those hours were, you might find yourself whiling away a half hour or so waiting on a sun-warmed stone wall, watching the efforts of a giant tour bus to turn down a road built a millennium ago for pedestrians and horse carts. Gazing back at the faces peering from the bus’s tinted windows while the bus lurched back and forth, grinding and huffing, you’d be permitted to muse on the difference between tourists and travelers, and to be filled with satisfaction to know you are among the latter. (This year, alas, the boulangerie behind the blue door is gone, and Stéphane is making his bread at a new location yet to be discovered by yours truly.)

My favorite Project so far took nearly all the free days I had available. Early in my wanderings through the Languedoc, I stopped for lunch in a village, took a photo of its strikingly picturesque central square and, once back home, installed it as my new desktop  background image. To this day I confront that idyllic scene every morning: the fountain, the medieval buildings, sunlight through a gigantic central tree dappling the happy diners at tables scattered below. The image has become emblematic to me of the seductions of southern France. Big problem, though: I couldn’t remember what village it was. So, Major Project! Guided only by memory fragments and vague directional instinct — tight climbing turns, mountains: it must be northward — I set out morning after morning with my trusty road atlas and unflagging determination. As someone said — Homer, maybe? — it’s not the destination, it’s the journey. These explorations were full of new scenery, exhilarating driving, and places I might never otherwise have encountered.  At last, after snagging a scarce parking place along the road, I walked down into a hamlet wedged in a steep, narrow canyon too small to admit cars: St. Guilhelm-le-Desert, refuge of Charlemagne’s general-turned-hermit. Bingo! My square at last! I’ve returned a couple of times with visiting friends, who were thrilled. We stayed overnight in an ancient tower turned hostel (which I believe is no longer open) to explore neighboring caverns and take rented kayaks on the river. Maybe I’ll get back there this year. Fingers crossed.

You may have detected in these ruminations a certain preoccupation with driving. You’re right. In contrast to the calm, cushioned passivity of my automatic-everything SUV on the well-groomed highways at home, my little rental car is lively as a jackrabbit, responding instantly — I almost want to say eagerly — as it slaloms along these skinny little roads that flow sensuously over the terrain’s varied contours. It demands unwavering vigilance and constant gear-shifting for blind curves, oncoming vehicles, precipitous dropoffs with no guardrails, cyclists, wandering livestock (a sheep, once, up near Roquefort), and grape-hauling tractors at harvest. It’s tiring, yes, but also as much fun as taking up a new sport. And it creates a sort of hypersensitivity, a connectedness, to all aspects of the surroundings, which can only be good, right? It’s all so beautiful!

So, whoever you are reading this, thanks for indulging these extemporaneous musings, and, if you don’t know the Languedoc yet, I sincerely hope you will some day. I wish you as much delight as it’s been my good fortune to have. Make sure you contact Andreas and Anthony at Midihideaways. You couldn’t be in more congenial, knowledgeable, and helpful hands. Tell them I sent you.

On the road for antiques

This post was kindly written by Deidre Simmons, who is currently in the second half of her six month stay in St Chinian.  Thank you, Deidre, for sharing your passion with us all!

Shopping Pour Antiquités dans le sud de France

It was not our intention to do a lot of shopping while living dans le sud de la France. After all, it is costing us a bit to maintain two homes plus travel and enjoy the delicious food and wine. And we prefer not to spend a lot of money on “stuff”.

BUT I have discovered the magic of the French brocante et salons d’antiquaires. I got hooked when I decided I wanted a tarte tatin pan for the traditional apple tart recipe I had found on the Midihideways blog. It was early December, but it turned out we were just in time for the annual Grand Déballage (this translates as ‘big unpacking’, very much like a jumble or garage sale) which is usually held in nearby Pézenas on the 2nd Sunday in October but had been postponed this year. Lucky for us – but it meant a cooler day, albeit sunny. The city of Pézenas is known for its antiques, and the many shops of second-hand goods and antique dealers are open throughout the year. Furniture, old linen, jewellery, crockery, paintings, trinkets, African art, art deco, watches, books and posters, and an interesting selection of 1950s era furniture, china, and household items are available.

The colourful and “exotic” second-hand market we attended extended over a kilometre, with over 150 exhibitors. Many just had blankets laid out along the street, covered with bits and pieces. Others were more serious with tables or cupboards full of goodies. I was looking for copper – remember the tarte tatin pan?. There was not much in evidence but we did notice that items near the entrance had higher prices than further along. About half way into the melee, I saw a set of three copper pots. The man wanted 30 euros – for them all! A good price but not quite what I was looking for, so onward. Looking for anything specific among the melange of objects on display is a bit like trying to find “Waldo”.

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It was a cool day so everyone was bundled up. This lady was selling retro bakelite jewelry from the ’50s – or so she said. It is a bit hard to identify bakelite from plastic, but her merchandise was very nice and included some interesting colour combinations and designs. We had a good look through the bracelets and eventually bought two for gifts.

 

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Along we strolled, looking at no end of strange and unusual “antiques”. We were impressed that there were these guns for sale – no one worried about them lying out there for all to fondle.

 

 

We turned a corner and came upon a jazz ensemble adding music to the atmosphere. But it was lunchtime, and in France, lunch means eating and the ubiquitous bottle of wine – and family time.

 

 

Along a little lane off the antique row, we found Crêperie la Cour Pavee, where we enjoyed traditional Brittany-style galettes and crêpes with traditional cider. Can you imagine the taste of a salted butter caramel crêpe?

 

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Back to the Grand Déballage – we returned to our search back along the way we came and stopped again to look at the copper pots. I decided I might be able to pack one in a suitcase so offered 10 euros for the smallest. Now I am the happy owner of a perfect little saucepan. What an exciting day! And there is more….

About a week or two later, we read about the oldest and the biggest fleamarket of Montpellier – Marche aux Puces. On arriving, we were a bit disappointed to find more of a garage sale en masse with mostly second hand clothes and shoes, etc. And the culture was definitely more middle eastern than French. But, there were some treasures to be found among the mish mash, with a lot of careful looking. I, surprisingly, found an oval copper pan with brass handles in very good shape for 10 euros. We also found a set of speakers to use on the computer when we want to watch movies. 8 euros and, miracle of miracles, when we got home they worked!! Just a little further along, I found another set of copper pots on a mat among a lot of useless items. This time a set of 5 for 20 euros. Again, I did not want five pots. But there were two that were very nice, with stainless steel lining, which apparently is a good thing. They were about the same size as the one I had already bought but since I was able to “bargain” the owner to sell me the best two for 10 euros (I know, that was not exactly bargaining) I now have another copper pot a bit larger and have gifted the smaller one to my “foodie” friend. I still do not have a tarte tatin pan but I will keep looking.

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Now I am getting excited about antique shopping. On a return visit to Pézenas, we went into Les Antiquaires de l’Hotel Genieys. It really is a beautiful shop, and at the back is a room full of antique linens.

Once I started sorting through and feeling the softness of washed linen, I could not resist. I started looking at sheets for about 150 euros but digging through the pile found a very nice one in a natural colour (not bleached) for 30 euros. It is huge – 320cm x 280cm or 126 x 110 inches – bigger than the usual North American queen size – 267cm x 280cm or 105 × 110 inches.

 

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The most common and most desirable sheets are the white matrimonial monogrammed sheets, traditionally embroidered by a future bride for her trousseau. If you are interested, check out this website http://fleurdandeol.com. On a very cold Saturday in Marseillan Plage, I found one (with the odd initials A O). The extremely cold vendor, trying to keep warm in his truck when I dragged him out to unfold the sheets so that I could check the quality, was not into bargaining. I happily paid his asked for 20 euros.

My photos do not do them justice. The sheets need to be washed and ironed, but it’s wonderful to imagine them on our bed at home. The natural coloured one will probably be used as a topper. I am now on a search for pillow shams!

When we have to return home after this French adventure, for sure our suitcases will be overflowing and we will probably have to send a box of stuff home by post. BUT, we have some great souvenirs and more good stories.

À bientôt de notre maison en le sud de France 
Deidre Simmons

PS: We did not buy these!