Red all over

As a result of our wetter-than-usual spring, we’ve had the most amazing display of wildflowers this year.  Poppies have been truly exceptional!  One field in particular, just by the roundabout in Cabezac, was simply extraordinary, to the point where I made a special trip just to take pictures to share with you!!

Papaver rhoeas is the latin name of the common poppy, also called field poppy, Flanders poppy or red poppy.  It grows particularly well in recently disturbed soil, and hence it’s association with the churned up WWI battlefields of northern France.  In Cabezac, the field had been ploughed, perhaps late last year or earlier this year, in preparation for a cereal crop or some such.  If any seeds had been sown then, they had had no chance against the poppies – I saw no evidence of a struggling crop.

The field was so spectacularly red that many people stopped their cars by the side of the road and hopped out to take a picture or two.  The snails on the post didn’t seem to be particularly fussed about the poppies or the passers-by.

I walked around the edge of the field, careful not to step on any poppies!  I found this beautiful thistle which looks wonderful against the red background, don’t you agree?

There were also some marguerites:

Some of the visitors walked right into the middle of the field, perhaps thinking of Claude Monet’s Coquelicots (Poppy Field) form 1873, which shows a lady with a parasol and a child walking through a field.  It’s a painting which has been reproduced countless times – I’m sure you’ve seen it somewhere!  The original hangs in the Musee d’Orsay in Paris.

Nobody carried a parasol the day I took the pictures, but there were many mobile phones in evidence!! 🙂

I’ve teased you long enough with my descriptions – here, finally, is the field in all its glory:

Something to think about: a single poppy plant can produce up to 400 flowers during its life cycle!  If only some of the poppy flowers in the field produce seeds, there is a good chance that there will be another amazing display before too long.

And another thing to remember: poppy seeds can stay dormant for a very long time, until the soil is disturbed once more…

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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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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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Tucked away

A few weeks ago, a friend came to stay in Saint-Chinian, and together we went on an outing to Mirepoix one Monday morning.  Monday is one of the days that Mirepoix hosts an outdoor market, which is always worth a look!

Before visiting the market, we took a little detour to the tiny village of Vals, some 13km west of Mirepoix.  The reason for the detour was to visit the church of Notre Dame de Vals, parts of which date back to the 11th century.  This church is unlike any other – it is built into the rock, rather than on top of it, and because of the topography it is built on three levels.  Here’s a picture of the church as you approach from the village:

As I got to the door at the top of the steps, I was wondering if it would be locked.  My fears were unfounded – the door was unlocked!

Behind the door that you can see in the picture above were some more steps, and they were leading into the rock!

Another door awaited at the top of the steps!

I had to duck a little as I climbed the steps, so as not to bang my head on the rock!

Behind that door lay the oldest part of the church, the lower nave, which is pre-romanesque.  There are several side chapels and niches.

From the lower nave, steps led to the apse, which was built in the 11th century on existing foundations.  It is assumed that the vaulting was added to the apse at the beginning of the 12th century, and that the whole apse was decorated with frescoes at that time.  The frescoes were discovered by the parish priest, Father Julien Durand, in 1952.  They were consolidated and restored between September 2006 and January 2008.  Here are some photographs of what you can see today:

The frescoes illustrate three aspects of the life of Jesus:  his birth, his evangelising period and his second coming.  The paintings are much faded, with large parts missing, but what you can see today is still impressive!

From the apse, yet more steps led to the upper nave, which was remodelled several times, the last time during the second half of the 19th century, when stained glass windows were added.  Here’s the view from inside the apse, towards the lower and upper naves.

The upper nave had a white marble altar, typical of the period.

 More steps led from the upper nave to the third level of the church.  On the third level there is a balcony overlooking the upper nave – it gave a great view of most of the church.  You can see one of the stained glass windows on the left, another stained glass window is not in view, on the right hand side wall.

From the upper level, an archway gave access to the upper chapel, which was dedicated to Saint Michael, and which also dates from the 12th century.  Unfortunately, the chapel was too dark for me to take photographs, so you’ll have to imagine a small romanesque chapel with a rounded apse. A door led from this chapel to a terrace, from which there were spectacular views of the surrounding countryside!

Above the upper chapel, a look-out tower had been added during the course of the 14th century.  The rounded part of the tower corresponds to the rounded apse in the chapel

The discoid cross, which is fixed to one of the tower walls, came from the medieval cemetery next to the church.

On the top of the mound, next to the terrace, the remains of a fortified building, dating to the 14th century were visible.

Back inside the church, I had another good look at the frescoes.  Display panels gave a great amount of information about the frescoes.  They also showed plans of the church, giving an idea of how the various levels interconnect.

Another information panel, this one outside the church, showed a plan of the whole site, along with an aerial shot:

The church of Notre Dame de Vals is truly unique!  To my surprise, there were no other visitors during the whole of our visit – I suppose that during the summer months there will be more visitors.

Even though the church has been well maintained, a number of major renovation works are urgently needed:  the roof is at the point where further dilapidation would risk damage to the interior of the church; the electrical installation is completely outdated; and some of the masonry is in urgent need of repair.  An appeal has been launched to raise some of the badly needed funds – if you’d like to contribute, you can do so via this link.

I left the church the same way as had I entered: via the crack in the rock, watching my head as I descended the stairs!!

Afterwards, I walked a little around the village.  To look at the church from the top of the mound, you would be hard pressed to imagine the highly unusual interior!

Here’s a picture of a 19th century house, just below the church – it seemed to be the grandest house in the small village

After visiting Vals, we went to Mirepoix, for a visit to the market and a spot of lunch.  I’ll tell you all about that next week!

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Bonne annee – and about time too!

It’s high time that I should write another post – but first I’d like to wish you all bonne année – happy new year!!  In France, we can wish one another a happy new year until the end of January, and there is much of that going on right now all over the country!

It is customary to exchange wishes whenever one first meets a relative, friend, neighbour or acquaintance in the new year.  Usually the meilleurs vœux (best wishes) are accompanied by bonne santé (good health), since good health is one of the most precious things in life.

Most of the time you’d kiss the person you are exchanging wishes with – even if you don’t usually kiss them during the rest of the year: one kiss on the right and another on the left cheek, to go with the wishes.

Daffodils flowering in January in Saint-Chinian – a welcome sight in the new year!

Then there are the official vœux – in a lot of villages there are ceremonies which are organised by the town councils, where the mayor and the councillors wish the inhabitants a happy new year, and talk about their plans and projects for the coming year.  And of course there will be drinks and nibbles after the official speeches!  In Saint-Chinian, this ceremony is on the day I am writing this post.

A new year offers all kinds of opportunities.  My resolution was to start up my daily yoga practice, and so far I’ve been able to stick with it.  It’s not always easy to find the time, but where there’s a will there’s a spare half hour or so!! 🙂  And the benefits are great!!

My main new year’s goal – and the reason for the slightly longer-than-planned break from blogging – was the re-design and re-launch of my German language website.  If you’re curious, you can find it here.  It’s been interesting work and I’ve had fun re-doing that website, but I’m glad that I’ve more or less completed it now!

I hope you’ve had a great start to the new year!!  Have you made any new year’s resolutions?  And if you did, have you managed to keep them??

I leave you with a picture of some mimosa blossoms.  The trees in and around Saint-Chinian have started to flower already – another beautiful welcome to the new year from mother nature!!

Mimosa blossoms in Saint-Chinian

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Sailing again

If you have visited Saint-Chinian, you’ll probably know that there is a windmill standing on the hill above the village.  It was reconstructed as a fully functional windmill from a ruin a good many years ago.  During the summer months, volunteers from the association Richesses du St Chinianais used to offer guided visits and would make the windmill turn if there was enough wind.

Unfortunately, at some point the rot set in – in the main beam which held the sails and acted as the drive shaft.  One day, a couple of years ago, the beam just snapped off, and the four sails dropped to the ground.  It was a sad day for the village, but at least nobody was hurt.

The sails were put into storage, whilst experts looked at ways of repairing the windmill.  In the end, it was decided to re-make the sails and the external part of the drive shaft with steel rather than wood.  To my mind it’s been a surprisingly successful repair – you can’t really tell the difference even from just a few meters away.

With the sails replaced, the windmill was opened to visitors again last summer, and the volunteers from Les Richesses gave guided tours once more!  The day I visited, I arrived early enough to watch the sails being unfurled.  I shot a video, which gives you an idea of the tranquility of the spot, and what is required to get this windmill operational!

There was no wind on the day I visited, so unfortunately the sails would not turn.  But don’t be disappointed!  I did write about the windmill back in June 2013,  and I included videos of the windmill turning in that post – you can read the post here.

On your next visit to Saint-Chinian, don’t forget to have a look at the windmill – it’s worth the drive or walk for the views alone!!