Hedgerow colours

A recent post on the blog Life on La Lune spurred me into action – I had to get out and photograph some wildflowers before they faded!!  Today was the perfect day – we’d had rain yesterday and nature looked so lush and clean!

Sturdy shoes – tick.  Camera bag – tick. Spare camera battery – tick.  Macro lens – tick.

In Saint-Chinian we are so lucky to be able to find great walks in pretty much every direction.  Some walks are a little more challenging, such as the one I took today, but it is still an easy walk.  I set off along the D177, leaving the market square in the direction of Assignan.

Centranthus ruber - red valerian

Centranthus ruber – red valerian

In Languedoc, there is something flowering at any time of the year, even if it’s just common daisies.  I promise you that you’ll always find at least one kind of plant flowering, whenever you go for a walk!

Bellis perennis - common daisy

Bellis perennis – common daisy

I kept my eyes open as I walked along the road – there are many flowers along the verges!

Allium roseum - wild garlic

Allium roseum – wild garlic

Trifolium pratense - red clover

Trifolium pratense – red clover

Ranunculus acris – common buttercup

Urospermum dalecampii - prickly goldenfleece

Urospermum dalecampii – prickly goldenfleece

Trying to identify the plants whilst writing this post has been very educational!  In order to differentiate whether the above plant belonged to the genus of taraxacum or hypochaeris, I would have had to have a look at the flower stem and the leaves!  I won’t be able to tell for sure, since I didn’t photograph either…  Luckily, help was at hand – my friend Gill Pound at La Petite Pepiniere identified the flower for me!!  Did you know that in French, dandelion is called dent de lion and also pissenlit?  Yes, it really means “pee in the bed”!!  The young leaves of the plant are added to salads, and they are supposed to have diuretic properties, hence the second of the common names!! 🙂

The orchid below grew just on the other side of the ditch which runs along the road!

Orchis purpurea - lady orchid

Orchis purpurea – lady orchid

On my walk I saw a number of tassel hyacinths:

About 1 kilometre along the D177, a track turns off on the left and climbs the hillside.  That’s where I  continued my walk!  Soon after the turn I came across this pretty flower – it was absolutely tiny, smaller than the nail on my little finger.

Vicia sativa - common vetch

Vicia sativa – common vetch

This plant with the pink flower bud was growing close-by, but I’ve no idea what it could be!  Do you know what it could be?

I was able to identify the following plant – ribwort plantain.  This simple herb is supposed to be highly effective for treating coughs and respiratory problems!!

Plantago lanceolata - ribwort plantain

Plantago lanceolata – ribwort plantain

A tiny thistle grew by the side of the road:

Carduus pycnocephalus - Italian thistle

Carduus pycnocephalus – Italian thistle

The path climbed fairly steeply until it came to a junction with Chemin de la Rouquette.  I turned left here – the path continued level for some time, before it started to descend gently back towards the village.

Wild thyme is flowering everywhere, and insects love it!  I’ve not been able to identify the insect in the picture below left.  I think the one in the picture below right is a bumble bee.

In our area, wild orchids can still be found quite easily – these three beauties were in a field.

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Orchis purpurea – lady orchid

A little farther on, I came across this orchid:

Cephalanthera longifolia - narrow leaved helleborine

Cephalanthera longifolia – narrow leaved helleborine

The following two lady orchids grew within two metres of one another – one appeared to get more sun than the other.

Coronilla forms large shrubs, which flower abundantly in spring!

Coronilla valentina - scrubby scorpion vetch

Coronilla valentina – scrubby scorpion vetch

Certain types of euphorbia flourish in our area – it’s a genus which has around 2000 members.  The poinsettia we see at Christmas time belongs to it.

Euphorbia characias - mediterranean spurge

Euphorbia characias – mediterranean spurge

Euphorbia cyparissias - cypress spurge

Euphorbia sp. – spurge

This delicate pink flower looked so beautiful – there was a little wind, so taking a photograph was challenging!!

Lychnis flos-cuculi - ragged robin

Lychnis flos-cuculi – ragged robin

Another orchid – the first of two bee orchids I saw:

Orphys scolopax - bee orchid

Orphys scolopax – bee orchid

Orphys scolopax - bee orchid

Orphys scolopax – bee orchid

And this is the other one:

Orphys sp. - bee orchid

Orphys sp. – bee orchid

It was thrilling to see so many different orchids in one afternoon!!  But there were many more humble flowers to be looked at!!

Latuca perennis - blue lettuce

Latuca perennis – blue lettuce

Linum perenne - blue flax

Linum perenne – blue flax

Vinca - periwinkle

Vinca – periwinkle

As I got closer to the village, there were a few lovely views!

What a wonderful finish to the walk – I feel so fortunate that I have all this on my doorstep!!

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Come see for yourself?

Last Friday, I was spending time with my parents and I was far away from Saint-Chinian.  Not long after I’d published the weekly post, my father told me that he’d seen something about a shooting “near where you live”.  I was deeply saddened when I found out what had happened in Carcassonne and Trebes.  The funeral of the victims of the attacks took place yesterday.  This must be a very sad time for the people touched by the tragedy, and by the families of the victims, and my heart goes out to them.

In light of everything, it feels strange to publish the post I have written for today.  But life must go on, and I will continue to live my life as before.  I will not start to avoid towns, places or events because of what might happen.  Life is precious and sometimes short.  Let’s make sure that every moment counts!


You may remember a post I wrote last year, about an article which had been published on the CNN website.  The article rated Saint-Chinian among the top 10 destinations to retire to in 2017 – it caused quite a stir in Saint-Chinian when it was picked up by the national media in France!

Live and Invest Overseas, the company behind the rating and the original CNN article, has published their list for 2018.  Saint-Chinian still ranks in fifth place, ahead of Lisbon, Budapest, Chiang Mai and Bali, to name but a few other destinations!!  You can find the whole list here – you’ll have to scroll to the end of the page for the list.

The story was picked up again at the beginning of January on the Forbes website, under the imaginative headline of “Quit Your Job And Move Abroad: The Cheapest Places To Live In 2018“.  In the article, Kathleen Peddicord, founder and publisher of Live and Invest Overseas, is quoted as describing Saint-Chinian as a “quintessential French country village where everyday life is like something out of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast”.

Whilst that may be a bit of an exaggeration, she’s spot on with “quintessential French country village”.  The location of Saint-Chinian and the transport links play an important role in the ranking, and the best part (to my mind) is that the people in Saint-Chinian are described as very friendly!!  🙂

Saint-Chinian does have a lot going for it – though I may be biased?! 🙂  I imagine that I take for granted some of the reasons why life in Saint-Chinian is so delightful.  All the same, I do try to remind myself often just how fortunate I am to be living in such a wonderful village!

if you’re tempted to find out why Saint-Chinian has made it on the list of the world’s best places to retire to for two years running, come and visit!  (For accommodation, have a look here.)

The following photos may give you some idea of why people love Saint-Chinian so much!

The wonderful Sunday market in Saint-Chinian

The wonderful Sunday market in Saint-Chinian

Les Platanettes - a wonderful spot for a refreshing dip

Les Platanettes – a wonderful spot for a refreshing dip

Classical music concert in the former abbey church

The village along the Vernazobre river

The Vernazobre river that runs through Saint-Chinian

Jazz concert in the cloister

Landscape around Saint-Chinian

Grape harvest in Saint-Chinian

Grape harvest in Saint-Chinian

A summer evening of food, wine and music at the cooperative winery in Saint-Chinian

A summer evening of food, wine and music at the cooperative winery in Saint-Chinian

Bastille day fireworks in Saint-Chinian

Bastille day fireworks in Saint-Chinian

Wine tasting at one of the many wineries in the village

Wine tasting at one of the many wineries in the village

View of Saint-Chinain from the Windmill

View of Saint-Chinian from the Windmill

Another view of Saint-Chinian

Another view of Saint-Chinian

Vineyards surround Saint-Chinian - they are beautiful at any time of year!

Vineyards surround Saint-Chinian – they are beautiful at any time of year!

The historic pipe organ in the parish church

The historic pipe organ in the parish church

A wild narcissus patch on the edge of Saint-Chinian

A wild narcissus patch on the edge of Saint-Chinian

Saint-Chinian town hall all decorated for the national holiday, Bastille Day

Saint-Chinian town hall decorated for the national holiday, Bastille Day

The Tour de France passing through the village

The Tour de France during one of the years that it passed through the village

It would take me too many photos to show you all of the wonderful things that make us love Saint-Chinian!  Come visit, to find out for yourself!

Follow the yellow line!

My very first post on this blog was entitled, “Do you enjoy walking?” That was back in March 2012 – nearly six years ago!!  I still enjoy walking a great deal, and I thought I would share a recent walk with you.  The walk is called Las Clapas, the Occitan word for the stone piles which line the path in places.  The stones were cleared from the fields and vineyards.

A leaflet which gives the route of the walk is available from the tourist office in Saint-Chinian.  Here is a link to the IGN map, which also shows the route.  The official starting point for the walk is in the main square of Saint-Chinian, but I cheated a little.  I drove up the hill and started from the car park near the windmill!  The views over the village and the valley are gorgeous from up there!

As I left the car park, I saw this tree trunk with a bright yellow marking, indicating a marked walk – hence the title of this post!

To start with, the path climbs a little – and not long after I’d seen the yellow mark, I came across another indicator:

Turns out that I wasn’t going to follow the yellow line after all – the colour of the Las Clapas walk markers is blue actually.  Ho hum 🙂

After about 10 minutes of walking, I was rewarded with a beautiful view across to the windmill.

I’ve walked this route many times over the years and in all seasons – each time is different, and the look of the landscape changes throughout the year.  Where there is a sea of green leaves in summer, in winter you see the lined up trunks of the vine plants and their bare branches – that is if they’ve not been pruned yet.

The plants in the picture below have had their shoots clipped back already:

This olive tree stood right next to an almond tree.  And the first flowers were already open on the almond tree – in January!!

I found a blue marker – does it look as though it might have been yellow once??  Or is that the lichen on the stone?

The path goes past someone’s garden – it is immaculately kept and looks more like a park than a garden.

A little farther along is this stand of cypress trees:

And farther still was this quirky entrance to somebody’s plot of land!  It looks as though the owner is into recycling!

Here’s another picture of a vineyard – beautifully kept and all ready for spring!

And here is what you can do with some of the many stones – if you have the patience and a steady hand!  🙂

The last picture was taken on one of my previous walks, when the skies were not as blue as on my last walk.  I’ll confess that I did not complete the Las Clapas walk in its entirety last time!  There’s a way to shorten it, if you continue straight on at the point where the map is marked with 235 above the blue line.  Either way, it’s a beautiful walk, and once you are familiar with the map and the paths, you won’t need to rely on the markings!

This is just one of the many spectacular walks around Saint-Chinian – you can experience them yourself during a stay in Saint-Chinian*!

*For accommodation visit www.midihideaways.com

 

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A Christmas dip

No, this post is not about food!!  It’s about taking a dip in the sea at Christmas!  🙂

A tradition of winter swimming has grown along the Languedoc coast.  Several seaside towns mark the end of the year or the beginning of a new one with a swim.  Valras Plage, near Beziers, calls it the Bain de Noel, the Christmas swim.

In Valras, the tradition was started over 30 years ago by a few enthusiasts, who went swimming throughout the year.  On December 23, 2017, over 300 people came to take a dip in the sea.  The water temperature was 8 degrees Celsius, and as you’ll see from the photographs, the sun was shining!

People wore all kinds of fancy costumes to mark the occasion:

The life guards had come dressed up as Santa’s helpers:

Santa was waiting for the bathers on a barge:

After a brief warm up, the bathers made a dash for the water!!  I saw some people jump in head first, whilst others went in up to their knees.  I’m not sure that I would have been that brave!  The water must have felt freezing cold!!

The video below will give you a good idea of the fun everyone had!  After the dip, there was hot mulled wine for all the bathers!!  🙂

Would you go for a Christmas swim in the sea?  Or would you prefer a stroll along the beach?  Or….?

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Let it flow

A few months ago, I discovered an olive mill near Beziers.  Domaine Pradines le Bas is just a few kilometers from Beziers town centre, in the direction of Murviel-les-Beziers.  Francine Buesa has been planting olive trees on the estate for more than 15 years, and her trees are now in full production.

Olive grove at Domaine Pradines le Bas

I visited again last week to watch olive oil being pressed.  The olive harvest starts as early as at the end of August, when the olives destined for the table are being picked.  The harvest can continue into January.  Once the table olives are picked, the rest of the harvested olives are being processed for oil.  Green, purple and black olives come from the same tree, but are at different stages of ripeness.  As olives ripen, their oil content starts to increase.

Olives ready for pressing

Olives ready for pressing

At Pradines le Bas, the table olives are picked by hand, whereas the olives destined for olive oil are harvested mechanically.  A special harvesting machine is used – the machine spreads what looks like a giant upturned umbrella underneath the tree, and then gently vibrates the tree, shaking off the ripe olives.  The upturned umbrella catches them all!  The olives are then loaded into large crates and taken to the mill for processing.  Here’s a picture of the machine:

Olive harvesting machine

Olive harvesting machine

At the mill, the olives are loaded into a machine which separates the leaves from the olives, and washes the olives.

Starting the milling process

Starting the milling process – the cleaning machine

The black box on top of the machine takes care of the leaves, a bit like a giant vacuum cleaner, whilst the ‘washing machine’ is below.  Once the olives are washed, they are transported to the room next door.  Stepping into the room next door was great!  There was a wonderful scent in the air – difficult to describe – somewhat herby but definitely smelling of olive oil.

From the hopper, an Archimedes screw takes the olives to the mill unit, where they are pulped, stone and all!

Arrival of the cleaned olives

The olive pulp then goes into a malaxer, a machine, which slowly mixes the olive pulp for up to 45 minutes.  This mixing helps the extraction process later on.

Malaxer with the lid closed, to avoid oxidization

Here’s a video for you – unfortunately you don’t get the smell, but you’ll get an idea of the noise!! 🙂  (Note: e-mail subscribers, you may have to visit the website in order to be able to watch the video)

The olive pulp being mixed.

From the malaxer, the pulp gets pumped into the extractor, where the pulp is spun to separate the liquid from the solids.  The solids end up next door and are later spread out in the olive groves, nothing is wasted!

Extracting the juice from the olive pulp.

The yellowish olive juice runs through a sieve into a container, from where it is pumped to a centrifuge.

Olive juice!

The centrifuge separates the water from the oil.  The golden coloured olive oil runs from the spout in a thin but steady stream!

Freshly pressed olive oil

When freshly pressed, the olive oil has a cloudy appearance.  The oil is unfiltered, so tiny particles of olive pulp are still in suspension.

The pressing plant

Once pressed, the oil is transferred to stainless steel tanks, where, over time, the particles slowly drop to the bottom, leaving the oil perfectly clear and sparkling!

Over 900 litres of olive oil!!

The bottom of the stainless steel tanks are v-shaped, and that’s where the solids collect.  A tap at the bottom of the tank allows the solids to be drawn off.  That part is sent to a soap factory for processing into soaps and cosmetics.

Stainless steel storage tank

The oil is now ready to be bottled and sold!  The shop is right next door to the mill.  Large windows in the shop allow the visitors to see the equipment throughout the year.

In the shop you can find a variety of olive oils (you can taste them all!), tapenades, table olives and cosmetic products, as well as a selection of products from partners (vinegars, jams, etc.).  You can also buy via the on-line shop, but nothing beats tasting the oils before you buy!  When you buy olive oil, bear in mind that up to 10 kilos of olives are used to make a litre of olive oil.  At Pradines le Bas, all olive oil is cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil.

Making olive oil is not the only activity at Pradines le Bas.  Up the stairs from the olive mill is a gallery for contemporary art.  Don’t miss it if you visit – the exhibitions change on a regular basis, and are always worth a look!!

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The spice of kings

The spice of kings is saffron – a spice as expensive, or sometimes more so, than gold.  The reason behind the high price is not its rarity, or a difficulty in growing the spice.  It is entirely down to the laborious process of harvesting!

The saffron crocus (crocus sativus) is an autumn flowering perennial.  The red “threads” (the stigmas and styles of the flower) will turn into the precious spice once dry.  I’ve been growing saffron in my garden for a number of years, with varying degrees of success.  Last year, none of the corms produced any flowers.  This year has been much better! 🙂

One day last week,  I was able to pick twelve flowers!!  Saffron flowers emerge shortly after the leaves appear, sometime in October.  The leaves persist until around May, when they dry out and the plants lie dormant over the summer.  Saffron  plants need free draining soil and a sunny position – apart from that they aren’t fussy.  I adore all the different colours in the saffron flowers, they are so vibrant and gorgeous!

The flowers should be picked as soon as they open.  The threads are then removed from the flowers and dried.  I like to keep the flowers in water until they wilt, they are so beautiful to look at!

Each flower has three threads and produces on average 30 mg of fresh saffron or 7 mg of dried saffron.  About 150 flowers yield one gram of saffron!  Saffron flowers need to be hand picked, and the threads are also removed by hand, hence its very high price!!

Here’s what the threads above amount to after drying:

Not a great deal, but I’m hoping that my saffron harvest isn’t quite finished yet!!  🙂

The use of saffron dates back more than 3,500 years, and it has always been an expensive spice.  It’s been used as a fabric dye, for medicinal use, and for culinary purposes. Here are some dishes which wouldn’t be the same without saffron:  risotto milanese, paella, bouillabaisse, jewelled rice, and biriyani.  There are many other culinary preparations which use saffron – do you have any favourites??

And to finish this post, here’s a tip which came from the grower I bought my corms from.  He told me never to add the saffron threads directly to a dish.  He recommended that the threads be soaked in a some warm water for a little while, strained out and dried.  They could then be used up to three times, much like a vanilla bean.  Using saffron that way makes it a lot less expensive!

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