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??

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Up and coming

With spring in the air, it’s time to come out of hibernation!  There are many events coming up which will tempt you to visit Saint-Chinian!!

Grands Crus Clasiques, Saint-Chinian – 10 March 2019

The pianist Conrad Wilkinson has relocated his successful series of concerts from Villeneuve-les-Beziers to Saint-Chinian for 2019.  There will be a total of six concerts, and the series kicks off with a concert of German Lieder by Mahler, Brahms and Strauss, sung by Ulrike Van Cotthem, with Conrad Wilkinson on piano.

Occitan Carnival, Beziers – 16 March 2019

The 35th Carnival in Beziers will have biodiversity as its theme!  There’ll be children dressed as bees, butterflies, ladybirds, hedgehogs, frogs to name but a few different animals, and there’ll be lots of colourfully decorated floats!

Journees Europeennes des Metiers d´Art, all over France/Europe– 1 to 7 April 2019

The European Artistic Craft Days are held every year on the first weekend in April.  They give the public a chance to see expert craft makers in action.  Several years ago, I visited a workshop in Azillanet, where the almost forgotten art of etching glass is still practiced – see for yourself here.  You can find the full programme of this year’s events on the official French website.

Procession de la Sanch, Perpignan – 19 April 2019

Each year on Good Friday, the town of Perpignan hosts the traditional Good Friday Procession.  The custom dates back 600 years, and it is a deeply moving spectacle, the only one of its kind in France.

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Grande Deballage, Pezenas – 5 May 2019

For lovers of flea markets and antiques, this is an event that is not to be missed!!  There will be in excess of 150 stalls, selling all kinds of “stuff”, from rusty old keys to beautiful furniture!

Vente de Charite, Saint-Chinian – 9 June 2019

This is a fixture on Saint-Chinian’s calendar of events – a sale of bric-a-brac, plants, clothes, second-hand household items, books and more, all sold for a good cause.  The sale takes place in the abbatiale, the former abbey church in Saint-Chinian, and in the cloisters, and it is open until noon.

 

Festival Jazz au Cloitre, Saint-Chinian – 12 to 16 June 2019

Five evenings of Jazz concerts in the beautiful surroundings of the cloister in Saint-Chinian.   There will be a variety of styles: New Orleans Jazz, Blues, Soul Jazz, Gypsy Jazz and French Jazz!  The artists are a mixture of up-and-coming stars of tomorrow and well-known musicians.  The full programme is at www.festivalmusisc.com

Fete de la Musique, all over France – 21 June 2019

This one is an absolute must for your calendar!!  There will be concerts everywhere, from small recitals of classical music to large pop/rock concerts!  Saint-Chinian will be hosting a concert that day, details are yet to be announced.

Fete du Cru – 21 July 2019

A day packed with wine-tasting! The wine makers of the AOC Saint-Chinian set up their stands on the market square – paradise for wine-lovers, who’ll be able to taste and buy their way around Saint-Chinian wines!!  There will be food trucks, music, games and a tombola (prize draw)!!

 

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Festival MusiSc, Saint-Chinian – 22 to 28 July 2019

This is another one for your diary – the fifth annual Music Festival in Saint-Chinian!  11 concerts in one week, with a mixture of classical music and jazz, and a great variety of styles and performers – not to be missed!!  For the programme visit www.festivalmusisc.com

If you need a place to stay for any of these events, look no further than the www.midihideaways.com website!  You’ll find a selection of properties from apartments for two to larger properties sleeping up to 10 persons.

Every face tells a story

Have you ever walked down an empty street and felt that you were being watched?  Even though there were no curtains twitching nor anyone at the windows?  Disconcerting, until you discover a face, somewhere high up on a building – a face that may have been gazing out for decades or centuries!  Take a walk around the small towns in Southern France, and you’ll be able to find those faces – sometimes well hidden, sometimes very obvious!

Below is a face above a door in Pezenas.

Faces and facades share the same etymological origin.  The facade being the ‘face’ of a building, it projects political, symbolic and social values, revealing all kinds of information about its owner.  A lot of the ornate facades in this post date from the 19th century, when you could flaunt it if you had it and more was definitely better!!

The pictures below are of a building in Castelnaudary – a former department store dating from the 1870s.  There are many faces on that facade!

The face below is high up on a wall in a narrow street in Beziers – it’s almost ghost like!

Atlantes always look somewhat weary and/or bored – I guess I would too, if I had to carry all that weight! 🙂

There are also plenty of animals to be found on facades.  Here is a pair of fearsome hounds guarding a gate:

A ram:

A lion:

More lions:

Here’s a pair of Caryatids, looking vaguely bored…

Someone’s looking out of a window of this tower in Narbonne.  I wonder what the story behind that window is!

Hermes or Mercury?

More caryatids – these adorn a renaissance mansion in Narbonne.

Two faces carved by the Beziers sculptor Injalbert

Green men also seem to figure in some places:

This finely sculpted face was actually on a door knocker and measured only about 3cm across!

I leave you with this beautiful art nouveau sculpture from a building in Beziers.  Raise your eyes next time you go for a walk – you’ll never know what you may find!!

The great big mimosa party …

The Fete du Mimosa in Roquebrun takes place this coming Sunday, February 10, 2019.  The weather forecast looks good, so perhaps I’ll see you there?? 🙂


… takes place each year on the second Sunday in February in the village of Roquebrun, in Languedoc.  Why, I hear you ask?  Well, Roquebrun, also known as Le Petit Nice because of its microclimate, is a perfect place for growing mimosa, and at that time of year the trees are in full bloom in Roquebrun and nearby.

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The Fete du Mimosa is now in its 22nd year and the main event is the parade of the decorated floats in the afternoon.  This year’s theme was “comic strip heroes” and we saw Tintin, the Smurfs, Becassine, Marsupilami, Lucky Luke, Boule et Bill, Bob the sponge, Titeuf and the Simpsons, all made by the local association Les Amis du Moulin and decorated with over 100,000 colourful paper flowers over the course of the winter.  More about the procession later, first some impressions of mimosa blossom!

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The yellow mimosa bloom seems to be especially pretty against a deep blue sky.  There’s something incredibly generous about a mimosa tree in full bloom, it almost shouts out that spring is only around the corner.  If you arrive for the fete in Roquebrun, you are most likely going to walk across the bridge.  Straight ahead of you you’ll see the mimosa stall, where you can buy your very own bunch of mimosa blossom to take home.  The scent is beautifully delicate and will make your house smell lovely.

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All along the main street are stands selling a variety of local produce and handicrafts, and there’s plenty of street food too!  On the Place de la Rotissoire the organising committee had their own food stall, with a great BBQ to one side!  Those guys were prepared for some serious cooking!

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I found some delicious Bugnes at one stall, strips of dough, deep-fried and dusted with powdered sugar.  Wikipedia has the English version of this as angel wings, but I also give you the French entry, in case you are tempted to make this!  A search on one of the popular search engines will turn up a sleigh of recipes.

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There were also the requisite sausages, along with lots of other food, from frites to pancakes and crepes made with chestnut flour.

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But back to the parade…  I got a sneak preview as some of the floats were driven down the main road (there really is only one in Roquebrun) to the starting point.  And they looked pretty good!

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After some lunch and a walk around the market I was ready to find my spot for the parade.  One of the walking bands entertained the waiting crowds for a little while, before heading off to the assembly point.  And then, after some waiting, there was this almighty bang – it really made me jump.  Apparently the sign that the parade had set off at the other end of the village!!  The master of ceremonies preceded the first tractor and it was Becassine who opened the fun!

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The floats and tractors were by now extravagantly decorated with mimosa bloom, and the floats were full of costumed children throwing confetti at the spectators (and each other!).  The Smurfs and Bill et Boule were next, and following each float was a band.

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Lucky Luke came next, and in my book this float won the prize!  Check out Lucky Luke’s cigarette!  And the horse was having such a great time!  AND the band following were all dressed in mimosa yellow!

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Tintin was next, followed by a brass band in green.

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And finally there was a float with three comic strip heroes:  Bob the sponge, Titeuf, and one of the Simpsons, I think it must have been Bart.

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Next came the Buffatiere and I doubt that you’ll have seen anything like it before.  A group of dancers, dressed in white (night) gowns with white nightcaps on their heads, dance around a wheelbarrow full of flour, with bellows in their hands.  Sounds pretty innocuous, doesn’t it?  Well, the dancers get to have their fun by blowing the flour-filled bellows at each other and the audience, and giving some of the bystanders a floury hug.  (For some history about the Buffatiere I found this website, in French only.)  I took a brief video for your amusement.

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But the party wasn’t over quite yet – there came the Fontaine a Vin, a mobile wine bar kind of thing, sponsored by the Cave Cooperative, and distributing small cups of red wine all along the way, with the ladies all dressed up as Becassine.

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Now, with Roquebrun being a one-street-town, the whole procession went as far as the Cave Cooperative, where it turned round and came back again!  So another chance to wave at the children (one enterprising boy started to throw branches of mimosa from his float at the bystanders, as the confetti had run out :-)), listen to the music and get covered in flour.  Oh yes, and then the wine came by again.

One of the bands consisted entirely of drums, and they were pretty good, so I’m sharing a video with you.

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And then it was over for another year!!

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Guilty pleasures

A recent trip to the UK meant staying overnight in Tain l’Hermitage, a town that is about an hour south of Lyon.  Close by is Crozes Hermitage, well-known for its excellent wines, but for me, the main attraction of the area was the Valrhona chocolate factory!!

I had timed my visit to Tain l’Hermitage so that I would have the afternoon to indulge in visiting the Cite du Chocolat, the interactive chocolate “museum”.

The impressive building sports a huge version of the iconic black chocolate box, which was introduced by Valrhona in the 1970s.

The side of the building also looked as though it had been decorated with over-sized chocolate boxes!!

Inside, it is ALL about chocolate!  And here’s a tip – at the entrance, opposite the cash desk, you’ll find lockers, where you can put your coats and bags.  Use them! It’s a lot more fun to go around the exhibition without having to carry anything!

Various interactive displays allow you to sharpen your senses – and eat chocolate!  🙂
Dulcey is a white chocolate with a caramel flavour, and Jivara is a milk chocolate!  I’m not normally a fan of white chocolate, I find it too sweet and cloying, but I’ve become a fan of Dulcey!!  And Jivara was very delicious too!

One of the exhibits explained the processing of cocoa beans from the arrival at the factory to the finished product.  The videos showed the various stages of production, with comments by Valrhona employees.  At some of the stages there were little tastes of chocolate, including some 100% cocoa chocolate and pure cocoa butter.  The 100% chocolate tasted very bitter but there were all kinds of fruity notes and it was energising in a caffeine way!!  The cocoa butter had no taste at all!  The little oval pieces of chocolate are called feves and are made for the professional market.  Because of their shape they melt readily.  The big blocks are also aimed at the professionals, but there’s nothing stopping you from buying either of these products in the shop at the end of your tour.

At the bottom of the stairs to the first floor (2nd floor US) was the machine in the picture below – a chocolate enrobing machine!!  The machine covers passing bits of “candy” (squares of praline in this case) with melted chocolate.  The big tank below the conveyor belt holds melted chocolate at a temperature of 44.5 degrees centigrade. An ingenious pumping system cools the chocolate to 28 degrees centigrade, before warming it again to 31.5 degrees centigrade, at which point it is used to enrobe. Any excess chocolate runs back into the tank where it is heated once more and so on.  The process of heating, cooling and heating is called tempering, and it results in a finished chocolate that has a nice shine and cracks when bitten into it.

On the first floor were displays of how Valrhona chocolate could be used in various desserts, cakes and Belgian style chocolates.  AND of course there were more chocolates to be tasted.

Another display showed the development of the company, which was founded in 1922.  In the early days, Valrhona chocolate was only sold to professionals.

Old packaging, publicity items and tools were also on display.

At the start of my visit, when I bought the entrance ticket, the cashier asked if I wanted to participate in a half-hour workshop – the theme was praline.  I’m always interested in learning new things, so for an extra Euro I got my ticket for that workshop!

Praline is made from sugar and nuts, usually in equal proportions.  The sugar is either caramelised, with the nuts added when the caramel is a dark amber colour; or sugar and nuts are “cooked” together until the sugar starts to melt.  The two different types of preparation give very different results, but in both cases the sugar/nut mixture has to be ground for several hours, in order to obtain a smooth praline paste – not something that I would want to do at home!  The resulting praline has a 45% fat content (from the nuts).

Depending on the nuts used, even though no chocolate is added, its taste can be similar to that well-known brand of chocolate spread – you know the one I mean!!  I got to taste the different types of praline, but for me they were too rich, even though they were delicious.  I preferred the sugar-coated roasted nuts which I was allowed to taste at the beginning of the workshop.  In order to use praline as a chocolate centre, cocoa butter is added to make the praline firm at room temperature.  A taste of that kind of chocolate was included too, and it was delicious! 🙂

After all that chocolate tasting, my belly was starting to ache – I never thought I would be able to overdose on chocolate, and I blamed it on the praline!! 🙂

Finally it was time to visit the shop!!  I had visited Valrhona a long time ago, before the Cite du Chocolat had opened, so I knew that the shop was an Aladdin’s cave of chocolate and more chocolate!!

Best of all, all the plain chocolates on sale could also be tasted, in case one couldn’t remember what they were like in the first place!! The selection is vast, and I had some difficulties in making my choices!  I bought a 1 kilo bag of Guanaja feves, which contains 70% cocoa – it makes a wonderful chocolate mousse!  And I bought several smaller bags of feves of different types.  You can buy Valrhona chocolate on-line, but one of the nice things of visiting the shop – apart from being able to taste pretty much everything – is that the checkout staff always put some small presents in your bag!! 🙂

After my visit at Valrhona had ended, I went for a little walk along the Rhone – the name of the chocolate factory is an amalgam of Rhone Valley, and the river is close by!

Getting to Tain l’Hermitage is easy – the town is just by the A7 motorway, about an hour’s drive south of Lyon.  From Saint-Chinian the drive takes just three hours.  Tain also has a railway station, and the chocolate factory is only 800m from the station!!

The Cite du Chocolat is open seven days a week, and it is better to visit in the early morning than in the afternoon (fewer people).

I stayed overnight at the hotel Pavillon de l’Ermitage – a very comfortable hotel with spacious rooms, halfway between the railway station and Valrhona.

Happiness on a plate

Before my Christmas break I met up with friends at L’Auberge de Combes for a pre-holiday treat!  We were all in a festive mood, so we decided to splash on the Regalade du Chef menu, loosely translated as The Chef’s Feast.  It really was a feast as you’ll see from what follows!

If you’ve read my blog post about one of my previous visits to the restaurant, you may remember that Combes is located high up on the flanks of Mont Caroux.  We were lucky to be given a table by the picture windows of the restaurant.  The day we visited was a ‘moody’ day, with mists rising from the valleys below – it was magical!

The amuse bouche set the tone – three beautiful morsels:  chicken liver parfait with crispy onions, a perfectly cooked razor clam with crispy bacon, and a small pot of cauliflower and wild mushroom soup.

Our starter was a “cappuccino” of wild mushrooms and chestnuts, with little morsels of melsat, a kind of white pudding.

Next came the fish course: a lemongrass risotto with scallops and squid, served with a langoustine bouillon.  The flavours were wonderful and the seafood was perfectly cooked!

Earlier, when we ordered, we had to make a tough decision – foie gras or game?  The foie gras was pan-fried and served on a bed of truffled mashed potatoes, the whole topped with a large slice of black truffle!!  Heaven for lovers of foie gras!!

The game option was equally delicious – venison steak served with the most amazing beetroot puree, braised vegetables and a wonderful potato puree!

Next followed the cheese course, and for this course there were two options: either a plate of four perfectly sized pieces of perfectly ripened cheese!  No fuss, no frills, pure enjoyment!

     – Or toasted sourdough bread topped with roquefort cheese, sliced pears and mixed lettuce – also excellent!

Our meal ended with some ‘fireworks’ of desserts!!

Flambeed banana with vanilla ice cream and crispy wafers.

Chestnut shortbread topped with chestnut mousse and served with chestnut ice cream.

Crispy puff pastry, filled with caramel cream and served with caramel ice cream.

We finished the meal with coffee – it was served in a rather original fashion!!  A table leg had been adapted to hold the coffee cups, spoons and a small plate of oreillettes, crispy deep-fried pastry dusted with icing sugar.  What a way to end this meal!

If you fancy treating yourself to a meal at L’Auberge de Combes, be sure to reserve!  You can find all the contact details on their website.  I am pretty sure that you won’t be disappointed!