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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If I had a hammer …

For a long time, I have known that the area around Saint-Chinian is particularly rich in study material for geologists.  The rock formations are spectacular, even to the untrained eye, but to me geology has always been like a closed book.  Some time ago, one of my guests sent me a link to a website where he had discovered an article about a self-guided tour of sites of geological interest around Saint-Chinian – more specifically, the sites were of the lower Ordovician period. The website can be found via this link – in addition to the tour around the Saint-Chinian area, there are several others on this page, no doubt equally interesting!

According to Wikipedia, “the Ordovician spans 41.2 million years from the end of the Cambrian Period 485.4 million years ago (Mya) to the start of the Silurian Period 443.8 Mya.”  To give you a visual idea of the timescale, here is a picture of a geological clock, found on Wikipedia – humans arrived only at two seconds before noon!

The website itself can be translated via one of the translation engines on the web such as translate.google.com but I’ve not been able to translate the PDF files of the itineraries.

I had sent the itinerary to a friend who was very keen to follow it, and so one sunny day earlier this month we set off on our trip!  The first stop was near Berlou, at a site which illustrates the upper Cambrian and the start of the Ordovician.  On our way there, we walked past a flowering oak tree:

Stoechas lavender:

A cistus with tiny flowers:

And some wall pennywort, which the French name translates to Venus’s navel:

Unbeknown to me, my friend had done a course in geology at university in her younger years, and she’d found the hammer she used when at university!!  With erosion and exposure to the elements, the surface of rocks changes quite a bit, so splitting a rock with the help of a hammer will show its ‘true’ colours.  What fun we had with that hammer!!

Here are some bits of quartz, which we found at the same site.

And bands of quartz embedded in a rock.

 

On our way back to the car, we enjoyed looking at some very typical vegetation.  The heady smell of the garrigue was wonderful!

Our next stop was on the road to Berlou, at a place where a trench had been cut into the rock for the road.  The rocks on the left hand side of the cut were an outcrop of the Saint-Chinian formation, and on the right an outcrop of the La Maurerie formation was visible.  I’m not sure that I saw a lot of difference, but I’m no geologist 🙂  The view of the valley in the direction of Berlou was very beautiful though!

Onwards to the viewpoint, just outside Berlou, and another spectacular view of the mountain in the distance, Mont Caroux. The mountain is called ‘The Sleeping Lady’, and in the right light and with enough imagination, you might just about be able to imagine a reclining figure, with the head on the left hand side.

The road took us to the village of Berlou, and through beautiful countryside, past the villages of Escagnes and the hamlet of Mezeilles, before arriving at Vieussan.  We had planned to have lunch at Le Lezard Bleu in that village, but unfortunately the restaurant had to close on that day for maintenance.  We booked at table in Roquebrun instead, at Le Petit Nice. Just before we reached Roquebrun, we stopped once more – this time to observe a fold in the rock.

After a delicious lunch in Roquebrun, we continued towards the village of Saint-Nazaire-de-Ladarez.  On the way there, we stopped to admire the Landeyran valley with its sheer cliffs.  The cliffs are much used by rock climbers to test their skills on!

Our last stop of the day had nothing to do with the Ordovician, but was on the itinerary as a point of great geological interest, and because the road back was passing right by it!  The former Coumiac quarry has been designated a Global Boundary Stratotype Section and Point (GSSP).  Wikipedia defines the GSSP as follows: “A Global Boundary Stratotype Section and Point, abbreviated GSSP, is an internationally agreed upon reference point on a stratigraphic section which defines the lower boundary of a stage on the geologic time scale. The effort to define GSSPs is conducted by the International Commission on Stratigraphy, a part of the International Union of Geological Sciences. Most, but not all, GSSPs are based on paleontological changes. Hence GSSPs are usually described in terms of transitions between different faunal stages, though far more faunal stages have been described than GSSPs. The GSSP definition effort commenced in 1977. As of 2012, 64 of the 101 stages that need a GSSP have been formally defined.”

At Coumiac we are in the upper Devonian, at the transition between the Frasnian and the Fammenian.  I can’t make a great deal of sense of the scientific explanation, but the rocks are spectacular to behold!  The quarry is only a short walk from the car park beside the road. Two viewing platforms have been created to allow visitors safe access to the site.

The first glimpse of the quarry is of the GSSP – a huge slab of rock, covered in thousands of fossilised goniatites (prehistoric snail-like creatures), killed during what is called the Kellwasser event.

The quarry was in operation until 1965, with a type of ‘griotte’ marble being extracted – a red marble with small inclusions of white.  An example of a fireplace made of griotte marble can be found at Acanthus in Saint-Chinian.

Here is a closer view of the GSSP slab:

All in all, this was a very interesting day, and I learnt a lot!!  Do let me know if I have mis-translated any of the geological jargon, I’ll be happy to correct it!

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!

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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The last of the season

With winter marching in and Christmas on the way, I thought I would share some pictures of the glorious autumn colours we had in Languedoc this year.  I took the photographs on a walk last week, a couple of days before some wet and stormy weather moved across Languedoc.  I’m sure there are still a few leaves clinging on out there, but mostly the leaves are gone now.  Not surprising really, it’s early December after all!

Here’s where I started my walk – this field is just a few steps away from the main street in Saint-Chinian.

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Look at how these leaves glow in the sunshine!!

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A little farther on, the trees appear to have shed most of their leaves, but the leaves on the vines beyond are still almost green, and of course the evergreens around the vineyards stay ever so green!

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At Clos Bagatelle, this vineyard was a myriad of different shades of orange and russet.

Just around the corner I found this bottlebrush plant (callistemon) flowering its heart out.

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Daisies seem to thrive everywhere!

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At Chateau La Dournie, the predominant colour was yellow!

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This wonderful stand of trees is right by the Vernazobre river:

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Some plants thrive in the shelter which these trees provide.

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At La Rive, the market gardens had some very neat looking rows of cabbages!

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Returning towards Saint-Chinian, I caught this view of the windmill with the vineyards below.

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This mushroom is not edible, but looks quite attractive.

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And here is the last picture from my walk, the flowers and fruits of an arbousier (arbutus unedo).  I’m not sure if there are many plants which bear fruit and flowers at the same time, but this is definitely one of them!!

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If you’re planning a visit to Saint-Chinian, and are interested in following in my footsteps, I give you below the map of my walk.  I hope you’ll enjoy it!

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