A walk on the wine side

Wine walks, such as the one I went on in Saint-Jean-de-Minervois a few years ago, are a great way to discover a “terroir”.  Terroir is a French word that has no direct translation — its meaning encompasses geology, climate and location, and it mainly relates to agricultural land.

Last Sunday, I went on a walk organised by the Maison des Vins in Saint-Chinian, entitled Vins, Vignes & Terroirs, to discover wines, vineyards and terroirs!

The format for the event was that small groups would leave for their walks every 15 minutes from 9am to 11am, and that each group would be guided by a winemaker.  I had chosen the 9.30am departure and our guide was Elisabeth Poux from Domaine de Pech-Menel.  If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you may remember the food and wine pairing dinner at restaurant Le Village a few years ago, where the wines were from Domaine Pech-Menel.  You can find the post here.

Our little group of seven got kitted out at the Maison des Vins with hats and wine glasses in pouches which were to be hung around our necks.  A list of the wines we were going to taste was also included in each of the pouches.

Elisabeth took us along the Avenue d’Assignan, and pointed out a typical example of a wine grower’s house, just opposite from where we turned onto Rue des Jardins.  Along Rue des Jardins, she pointed out a former spinning mill, part of Saint-Chinian’s heritage from its days as a textile producing village.

The window surrounds on many buildings are made from stone which is typical of the Saint-Chinian geology: sandstone.

At the end of Rue des Jardins we left the village and headed for Les Platanettes, crossing the Canal de l’Abbe on the way and passing some of the walled gardens which are always impeccably tended!

We headed towards La Rive through the vineyards, under a bright blue sky!  I was very grateful for the wide-brimmed straw hat! The vineyards were looking beautiful – lots of lush growth!

As we passed the building in the picture below, Elisabeth explained that many of the buildings that one sees dotted around the vineyards were used to house horses.  Before the advent of tractors, the heavy work in the vineyards would have been horse-powered, and everything was geared towards that.  Often the horses would be stabled in the vineyards for several days, so that they would not have to be walked to and from their regular homes every day.

After we crossed the river on a little iron bridge, we reached La Rive.  Just before the first house on the left there are steps leading down to what looks like a small creek.  Elisabeth explained that there is a spring there, and until not that long ago people would come to drink the water.  I could just about make out the outlines of a basin, but it was all a bit overgrown and neglected.

On we went — after we had passed through La Rive we took a left turn and headed through the vineyards to where the first tasting booth was waiting for us in the shade of the trees!!

Marie Rouanet, who runs Domaine Saint-Cels with her husband Etienne, welcomed us with a selection of three different wines:

A white wine (Fleur de lin) from Domaine La Linquiere, a rose wine from Chateau la Dournie and a red wine from Domaine Saint-Cels.  As we were tasting the wines, Marie passed around a plate of tapas – slices of toasted bread that were spread with tapenade and topped with grilled artichoke slices and sun-dried tomatoes.

After a big glass of water we set off once more.  Our path took us along the Canal de l’Abbe, which was built in the Middle Ages and which supplied water to the many textile workshops in the village as well as water for irrigating the gardens.  The textile workshops have all gone, but the gardens are still there.  You can see part of one in the picture below.

The next part of our walk involved a stretch of uphill climbing – at times it was somewhat steep, but the effort was rewarded by the wonderful views!!

Once we got to the top, the path was fairly level for a little while, before climbing again.  It was on the level bit that Elisabeth spotted the bee orchid!

The Spanish broom was in full flower and its perfume was heavenly!

After another steep-ish stretch we reached the top of the hill!  There were more great views!

Our next stop was just around the corner!!

At the Capitelle de Seguin, Nellie Belot from the Maison des Vins was waiting for us with three more wines to taste:

The white wine came from Domaine de Pech-Menel, the winery of our guide Elisabeth Poux.  The rosé wine was from the cooperative winery in Saint-Chinian, and the red wine was from Chateau du Pieure des Mourgues.  There was another bite to eat with the wines, a miniature club sandwich, filled with smoked duck breast and fig chutney.  All highly enjoyable!

After another glass of water, we paused for a group photograph with our guide, before continuing our walk.

Our path took us along the edge of the hill above Saint-Chinian, so the views were wide and sweeping!

Before too long the windmill came into view – we were headed there for the last tasting stop!

After a final climb we reached the windmill, where Nadia Bourgne from Domaine La Madura and Gaylord Burguiere from the Maison des Vins were waiting for us.

At this stop we tasted four wines!

The white wine was from Chateau Viranel, and the red wines were from Domaine Galtier, Mas Champart and Domaine Cathala.  Gaylord had a lovely story to tell about the name of the wine from Mas Champart.  The wine is called Cote d’Arbo after a Mr. Arbo, from whom Isabelle and Mathieu Campart bought the vineyards where the grapes for that particular cuvee are grown.  Mr Arbo pushed his bike up the hill from Saint-Chinian every morning, to work in his vineyeard.  After his day’s work he freewheeled down the hill!!

Our wine tasting by the windmill was accompanied by a toast topped with camembert cream – very yummy!!  All the food we had eaten along the way was prepared by Vince’s Truck.

After we finished the tasting it was all down hill – literally!! 🙂

Our walk back down to the village took us across a former vineyard.  I spied this flowering asphodel just before we got back onto a paved road.

Before long we were back at the Maison des Vins once more.  I was a little tired but so happy to have been able to go on this walk!  Thank you to all the people involved who made this possible!

Below is a map of the walk we took.  The complete loop (starting and ending at the Maison des Vins) is approx 6.5 km long.

 

Three cistus

You may have come across cistus plants under their common name of rock rose.  They grow very abundantly in the area around Saint-Chinian, and right now they are flowering their hearts out.  I went on a little photo safari last Saturday, to shoot a few pictures for you.

In the map below, you can see the itinerary I followed for my walk, and this link will take you to the geoportail website, where you can see the map, albeit without the itinerary markings.

I started my walk by the cooperative winery in Saint-Chinian.  Most of the walk was on fairly well kept tracks which are used by vineyard workers and hunters.  If you want to do the walk yourself, you should wear reasonably sturdy shoes – high heels are definitely out of the question!!  The whole walk can be completed in an hour.  Of course it took me longer since I stopped frequently to take pictures! 🙂

Before starting the walk proper, I visited the cistus display bed beside the cooperative winery in Saint-Chinian.  It was planted some years ago, and all of the plants have now reached maturity.  A plaque by the bed identifies the various species on show:

Cistus plants thrive in a Mediterranean climate and grow well on poor soils.  According to the wikipedia article, the seeds can lay dormant for up to 100 years before germinating.

Around Saint-Chinian, the most commonly encountered species of cistus are C. monspeliensis:

Cistus monspeliensis

Cistus monspeliensis

C. albidus:

Cistus albidus

Cistus albidus

… C. ladanifer:

Cistus ladanifer

Cistus ladanifer

… and C. salviifolius:

Cistus salviifolius

Cistus salviifolius

The display bed at the cooperative winery also contains a species which is more rarely seen around here:  C. populifolius:

Cistus populifolius

Cistus populifolius

The plant in the following picture was also growing in the display bed, but I could not find it on the panel.  Cistus species hybridise readily, so, if my identification is correct, this should be C. x purpureus, a cross between C. ladanifer and C. creticus.  It’s a plant with very pretty flowers, and you can see the heritage from c. ladanifer with the purple blotches at the base of the petals!

Cistus x purpueus

Cistus x purpureus

As I was starting my walk, I walked past this stand of trees.  A nightingale, well hidden from view, was singing directly at me.  I thought I would share the video with you!

My walk took me up and down some gentle slopes – being a little higher than the surrounding countryside always makes for nice views!

The first flower picture I took after I started my walk was of an orchid – orchis provincialis:

Orchis provincialis

Orchis provincialis

It wasn’t long before I came to a clump of C. salviifolius by the side of the path.

C. salviifolius

Cistus salviifolius

Wild garlic was also in flower along the path.  The flowers have a pleasant onion/garlic flavour and can be added to salads.

Wild garlic

Allium rosea

I couldn’t pass by this doughnut-shaped tree lichen without taking a picture!

Farther along I found a clump of C. albidus in full flower, it’s pink flowers standing out nicely from the the grey, woolly leaves.

Cistus albidus

Cistus albidus

Nature’s flower arrangements are always worth studying – here we have lavender and heather flowers, with a background of blackberry leaves! 🙂

The leaves of some cistus species secrete a sticky substance which has a lovely resinous fragrance.  C. ladanifer is one of these species.  Incidentally, the picture below shows the point where the walk starts to loop back.

C. ladanifer

Cistus ladanifer

I came across some more Orchis provincialis – a whole stand of them, in fact.  The leaf rosette showed the typical brown splotches.

In this close-up you can see some of the delicate markings on the flowers:

Orchis provencialis

Orchis provincialis

I rounded a bend in the path and came to this wonderful sight:  a whole hillside covered in flowering cistus bushes!!  The photograph doesn’t really do it justice – it was spectacular to behold!

Here’s a picture of C. monspeliensis – you can see the leaves glistening with the sticky resin.

C. monspeliensis

Cistus monspeliensis

I found some interesting flowers towards the end of my walk:  Serapias lingua is an orchid whose flower petals are like tongues sticking out at you (or me).

Serapias lingua

Serapias lingua

I’ve not been able to identify the following flower, but I think it’s a species of vetch.

Then I found a rather mysterious looking plant – it’s fairly tiny, with a pitcher like flower and one petal folded over that like a lid.  From the top you just see a kind of purple black leaf, about the size of a thumbnail, but when you tilt the flower somewhat, you can see that it’s part of the flower which is pitcher shaped.  I immediately wondered if it was part of the arum family or a carnivorous plant.  Looking through some of the plant books I have at home, it turns out to be Aristolochia pistolochia.

I found a violet limodore orchid just around the corner from the mystery plant above:

Limodorum abortivum

Limodorum abortivum

The last picture I took on my walk is of a white flowered tamarix shrub.  With the flowers not yet quite open, the buds look like white peppercorns, tightly clustered on the branches.  I’m sure it’ll look gorgeous in a week or so.

I hope you enjoyed the wonderful flowers that can be found around Saint-Chinian.  Thanks for coming along with me on this wonderful walk!

What a difference a year makes!

Snow is very seldom seen in Saint-Chinian – temperatures are rarely low enough, and if they are then it is usually very dry.  So when it does snow it’s a memorable occasion and everyone takes pictures!!  Last year on February 28, Saint-Chinian was briefly snow-covered!

The snow is fun while it lasts, but it never lasts long – usually it’s gone by the end of the day!

This year, the weather on February 28 could not have been more different!!  It was a beautifully sunny and bright day, with all the promise of spring in the air!

The mimosa trees were in full flower, spreading their heavenly perfume!

The almond trees were blooming too, the flowers creating a delicate pink haze around the otherwise naked branches!

To my mind, blooming almond trees herald spring like nothing else!  There’s something about an almond tree in full flower that the camera just cannot capture – believe me, I’ve tried again and again over the years!

The violet flowers in my garden are another harbinger of spring.  I can usually smell them before I see them – they are usually so well hidden – they have a wonderfully strong perfume!

The daffodils are flowering already:

The roses are beginning to leaf out:

AND I have the most charming of plants in the garden, which is flowering profusely at the moment. It’s called Erodium pelargoniflorum ‘Sweetheart’ – and what a sweetheart it is!!

Have you seen any signs of spring yet??

Splish splash

Where there’s fresh water there is life!  The Benedictine monks knew all about the importance of water when they founded their monastery, and with it the village of Saint-Chinian, near the banks of the Vernazobres river in the 9th century!

They harnessed the power of the water to drive mills, and built a canal to irrigate the fields and gardens.  The Vernazobres river still flows through Saint-Chinian, and although the water mills are long gone, the canal which irrigates the gardens still exists!

When the summer weather has arrived and the cicadas sing their seemingly endless songs in the languid heat, there’s nothing more inviting than a refreshing dip in the water. The river is perfect for that!

Upstream, just a little outside the village, is an area called Les Platanettes where the water tumbles over the rocks and flows through a series of pools.

The area is shaded by mature plane trees  (platane is French for plane tree) and there’s usually a light breeze – heaven on a hot day!!

A few years ago, picnic tables were installed at Les Platanettes, and there’s plenty of space if those are already occupied when you get there.

There are more river pools farther upstream from Les Platanettes, just walk along between the river and the vineyards, and you’ll get there!

Saint-Chinian also has a semi-olympic swimming pool, for those who prefer to do some serious swimming!

At Cessenon, the Vernazobres river flows into the Orb, a river which ends its journey at Valras plage.  Up-river from Cessenon is the picturesque town of Roquebrun:

The Orb makes a sort of right turn at Roquebrun – you get a great view of that from the Mediterranean garden just below the ruined tower at the top of the village:

The pebble beach on the opposite side of the river is very popular and the plane trees provide welcome shade.  To the right of the bridge (in the picture above) is a canoe and kayak base – there’s great canoeing and kayaking all along the river Orb!  You can rent a canoe or kayak, and once all the formalities are dealt with and you’ve been kitted out, you’ll be driven farther up the river so you can just paddle your way down to where you started from.

There are several other locations along the river for renting canoes and kayaks.  My favourite is in Reals, where the rapids are used for competitions!

Those rapids are downriver from the boatyard in Reals.  They are not for the use of an amateur like myself – I prefer calmer water, even though that might mean more paddling!! 🙂

On the way to the base in Reals there is an exhilarating water slide!

Cessenon, which is located halfway between Saint-Chinian and Roquebrun, is also on the river Orb.  The pebble beach there is near the old suspension bridge – very picturesque!

The Golfe du Lion is famous for its sandy beaches – the nearest beaches for me are at Valras Plage and Vendres Plage. In the summer it can be quite busy, but there’s plenty of space for everyone!

My favourite time of day at the beach is late in the afternoon, when there are fewer people and the heat is less intense!

With all this glorious weather it’s time I took a little blogging vacation – but I promise I’ll be back!! And don’t forget: I’ll be here if you need any help with booking accommodation – you can always drop me a line!  Enjoy your summer!!

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…

It’s artichoke time!

The artichoke season is under way in my garden, and I am very fortunate with my crop this year!  I re-planted a row of artichokes last year – and I am reaping the rewards!! 🙂  Artichokes are a delicious vegetable that I never tire of!

IMG_9873

When I bought some new plants last year, I asked the vendor how far to space them.  He recommended a distance of 1 metre between plants, and added some advice: he told me to dig holes halfway between two plants and to bury a bucketful of compost.  The plants would  find the nutrients and take what they needed.  Good advice!!

What with the rain we had over the winter, and the compost, the artichoke plants are looking magnificent.  As a result of their lush growth, they have sent up many flower stalks and an impressive number of large, beautiful artichokes!!

I’ve not yet completely solved the problem of earwigs, which started a few years ago – they just seem to love squatting under the outer layer of leaves of the artichokes!!  I imagine that I could resort to insecticides, but that wouldn’t do!  I would rather live with the fact that I’ll have to shake them out of their hiding places!! 🙂

P1100030

One of my favourite recipes is called “Barcelona Grilled Artichokes” from Patricia Wells’ book, “Patricia Wells at home in Provence”. For this delicious dish the prepared artichokes are sliced, marinated in a dressing of olive oil, lemon juice, and garlic, and grilled – the result is totally yummy!

Barcelona grilled artichokes

Talking to other people about food and cooking is always rewarding and interesting.  One of my neighbours told me to braise artichokes with potatoes – I tried that, but the result didn’t taste exceptional.  The same neighbour also gave me the idea of adding tomatoes, so I tried cooking the artichokes with smoked bacon and tomato, which worked wonderfully well!

IMG_9878

In Claudia Roden’s “Middle Eastern Cookbook” I found two recipes I enjoyed. The first used honey, lemon juice and preserved lemons, the second paired the artichokes with broad beans and almonds. Both produced delicious dishes and I’ll be preparing them again.

IMG_9880

My overall favorite dish was the artichokes cooked with bacon and tomato and I will attempt to give you the recipe below.  Pictures of the progress are at the end of the recipe.

Artichokes with bacon and tomato

  • Servings: 4-6
  • Difficulty: medium
  • Print

5 globe artichokes
200g smoked bacon
2 tbsp olive oil
1 onion
1 large clove of garlic
1 tin chopped tomatoes
salt and pepper to taste
1 tbsp chopped parsley (optional)
1 lemon, juiced

Prepare the artichokes:  Pour the lemon juice into a bowl large enough to hold all the artichokes and add enough cold water to submerge the trimmed artichokes in.  Trim the artichokes by snapping off the leaves, starting at the base and working your way up.  Once in a while dip the artichoke into the acidulated water – the newly exposed flesh can turn brown very quickly.  Once the leaves remaining on the artichoke start to look yellow-ish you can stop snapping.

Trim the top with a sharp knife.

You will probably be able to see the choke now – a mass of fine white hairs at the centre of the artichoke.  I imagine that they would make you choke and hence the name?

Remove the choke with the aid of a teaspoon, and keep the trimmed artichoke bottoms in the bowl of water.

Cut each artichoke bottom into eight wedges.

Chop the onion and bacon into small dice and cook gently in the olive oil until the onion is softened.

Add the garlic (chopped finely or pushed through a garlic press) and cook for a minute longer.  Turn up the heat and add the drained artichoke pieces.

Fry, stirring from time to time until the artichokes start to brown around the edges, then add the chopped tomatoes and season with salt and pepper.

Turn the heat down and simmer for 10 – 15 minutes until the artichokes are tender and the sauce is reduced.

Serve hot on their own as a vegetable course, or allow to cool, dress with a little olive oil and lemon juice and serve as tapas or an appetizer.

Note: you can of course use frozen artichoke bottoms for this recipe, which will reduce the preparation time and will produce very similar results!