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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A new cracker

This past weekend, I went to the annual Cracker Fair.  I wrote about this Christmas market in December 2013, when it took place at the Chateau Abbaye de Cassan (you can find the article here).  This year, the cracker fair was hosted for the first time by the Abbaye de Valmagne, located between Montagnac and Villeveyrac.  This market was established ten years ago, and in the early days it was very much aimed at the British expat community in the area, who felt deprived of their Christmas crackers.  If you don’t know what Christmas crackers are have a look here.

Valmange was founded in 1138, and at one point in its history, it was one of the richest Cistercian abbeys in France!  During the French revolution, the last monks fled the abbey in 1789, and it was sold by the French state in 1791.  The abbey church, which dates from 1257 and which is 83 metres long and 24 metres high, was converted into a wine cellar.  It is probably for that reason that the church has survived.  Enormous wooden barrels were installed in the side chapels, and several are still in place today!   I was watching a number people enter by the door at the end of the church, and most of them had a kind of “wow” look on their faces!

The church is impressive at the best of times, but the fact that it was filled with stalls, people and noises added another dimension!

Around 100 stalls had been set up in the church, offering a large variety of goods, from soaps to syrups, marbles to mushrooms (dried) – you name it!

The church was built in the classic gothic style, and true to the Cistercian rules, it is without much in the way of decoration.

From the side of the church, a door led to the cloister, where there were more stalls!!

The cloister consists of four arcaded galleries around a garden.  There is a fountain, which would have been used by the monks for ritual ablutions.

The chapter house is off the cloister, and it too was occupied by stalls!

A barrel-vaulted passage housed an exhibition of paintings.

In the former refectory there were more stalls and a cafe.

Valmagne was bought by the Comte de Tourraine in 1838, and he and his descendants have taken very good care of the former abbey over the years.  Today the estate is run as a winery, and the visit would not have been complete without a stop in the shop.  The tasting room is right next door to the shop, and there was a lovely fire burning in the fireplace!

Since 1999, the wines at Valmagne have been produced as organic wines!

Outside, there were more stalls and – most importantly – a selection of food trucks!!

Saturday was a very cold day, and I’m sure that the stallholders outside must have been freezing, but they all remained cheerful!

Despite the cold, this was a wonderful Christmas market to visit – one you should add to your diary if you are in the area in early December.  The Cracker Fair is organised by Languedoc Living. You can find details on their website.

The Abbaye de Valmagne is open to visitors throughout the year – you can find details of opening hours here.

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More eating out

Over the course of this past summer, I’ve discovered a few new restaurants, and re-visited others.  Be warned, this post contains many food pictures!!

La Galiniere is in Capestang, which is not all that far from Saint-Chinian.  I don’t know why I had never been to this restaurant before, but I’m very glad that I finally I went!  The restaurant is located on a little square, not far from the centre of the village.  To one side is a wonderful mural, a real trompe l’oeil!  You don’t get the full sense of it from the photographs – it is amazing if you are there in person!

Just across from the terrace of the restaurant is this fountain.

The starters were all delicious and the portions were generous!

Crispy chicken salad

Gaspacho

Marinated salmon

The main courses were as delicious as the starters, and the portions were once again generous!

Salmon with almonds and tapenade (the little jar contains a ratatouille flan)

Steak with a red wine sauce

The “Galiniere” burger made with duck breast

Cod crusted with tapenade

The cheese plate was modest in size compared to the previous two courses, which was welcome at that point!  The cheeses were very good!

When it came to dessert the lights had come on.  My poor camera had trouble coping with the light, and hence the following pictures are a little below par.

Strawberry mille feuille

An original way of serving sorbet!

The chef’s take on lemon meringue pie

I’ve not been able to find a website for La Galiniere, but from a facebook page it appears that the restaurant is closed Monday and Tuesday.  Reservations can be made on +33 (0)4 67 26 14 77.


My visit to the Auberge de Madale was a re-visit – I had eaten there a number of times but the last time was several years ago.  It was wonderful to see the (positive) changes which had happened in the intervening years!  The dining room had been given a total makeover and is now very stylish.  The big and airy room has whitewashed beams, very comfortable chairs and a lovely feel.  Sound deflectors are suspended from the ceiling, and that means that the restaurant isn’t very noisy, even when it is full.  On the day I visited, the weather was a little ‘iffy’ so we could not sit out on the terrace, but that was fine!

The concept of the menu is very simple:  The price of 32 Euros per person includes everything – the aperitif, starter, main course, dessert, wine, coffee and petit fours.  There are no choices to be made – no agonising over which wine to select, or what to choose for dessert!!  The menu is posted on the website and it changes every two weeks!

Here is what I ate on recent last visit:

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Nibbles Cherry tomatoes marinated in vinegar, wrapped in a slice of radish, air cured ham on a crouton,  wonderful crisp bread with a tomato and pepper dip.

Rape de carottes des sables sur un yaourt au citron vert. Creme glacee saumon fume / Yuzu
Grated carrots on lime flavoured yoghurt. Smoked salmon ice cream with yuzu.

Tomate ‘Noir de Crimee’ / framboise. Cremeux pomme de terre/raifort racine, assisonne d’une vinaigrette betterave xeres
Black Crimean tomatoes / raspberries. Potato puree with horseradish; seasoned with a beetroot and sherry vinaigrette.

Pannacotta vanille, rhum et jus de melon. Sorbet abricots / basilic
Vanilla panacotta, rum and melon juice. Basil and apricot sorbet

Mignardises
Home-made marshmallows and dried fruit ‘sausage’

As you can see, the food is beautifully presented!  It tastes even better than it looks!!

The Auberge de Madale is open for lunch and dinner from Wednesday to Sunday.  Reservations are by telephone only on +33 467 230 193 – be sure to book well ahead.  Something else to be aware of:  the restaurant does not accept credit cards, payment is by cash or cheque only.


The restaurant Parfums de Garrigues was another re-visit earlier this year.  I went to eat there not long after it had first opened many years ago, and then it somehow dropped off my radar!  When I went to eat there early this year, I enjoyed it so much that I went back two more times!!  The food was delicious each time I ate there.  Chef Jean-Luc Santure gained his experience working with such gastronomic luminaries as Jacques Maximin, the Troisgros brothers and Eckhart Witzigmann.

I’ll share with you the pictures of my latest meal in August at Parfums de Garrigues.

Nibbles!

Starter: terrine of foie gras

The fish course: razor clam, mussels, scallops, king prawn, white tuna, seabass

Fricassee of wild mushrooms

A palate cleanser – muscat sorbet with muscat eau de vie

A mixed grill with summer truffles

The cheese course – all perfectly ripe

Dessert was a mixed platter of home-made desserts and ice creams

All three meals at Parfums de Garrigues were delicious, and the food changed with the seasons.  I won’t wait all that long before I return there!

Do make sure that you book a table, you’ll find details on the website for the restaurant.

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Why we are here

This guest post was written by Lori – her home town is in British Columbia, Canada and she co-owns Mirabilis, a vacation rental house in St. Chinian, with her husband Mark.

I wonder if we will ever get over the beauty of visiting the South of France, 🇫🇷 and for us especially the Languedoc area?  With the vast differences in local landscapes, you can drive 35 minutes to the cool breezes of the sea or 20 minutes the other way to the stunning village of Roquebrun and the regional park landscape.  At home in Canada this would require 2 different provinces and a 6-7 hour drive to achieve such diversity.

Right in the middle of these two landscapes, my husband bought us a renovation project vacation house in the loveliest little wine town called Saint-Chinian.  Every year we manage to escape our regular grind of life and make our way to Saint-Chinian for a glorious three weeks of French bliss!  We know we are home the moment we park our little rental car in the lay-by overlooking Saint-Chinian, with the mountains in the distance.  We open the doors to be greeted by the sound of the singing cicadas. After a big deep breath, smiles take over our faces and instant relaxation sets in.  We travel the winding road down the steep valley into the downtown with excitement to see what is the same and what has changed since our last visit. Driving down the road beside the market square, it’s wonderful to see the elderly people sitting on the benches, having conversations and watching life.  As we turn the corner to drive down the road to our house, we ask each other the burning question: “Will there be parking available outside the house?”  YES!
After unpacking, we start with the deliberations as to which of the many restaurants on the Main Street will we walk to for dinner, knowing full well that my favourite restaurant “Le Village” will be the chosen one!
After years of vacations, it is super nice to be recognized by the proprietors and villagers and sometimes overhear, “It’s the Canadians”.  Market day I have to find our friend with the clothing stand for some idle chitchat and to purchase a couple of dresses, which is what he has come to expect. Summertime is amazing, with Artisan Night Markets, two major weekly morning markets, flea markets (like an immense yard sale) on Saturdays, outdoor movies on Thursdays, wine tasting events, music concerts, great restaurants, walking tours and endless people watching.

I would say that this is such a great spot to come and have a vacation because there is something for everyone. People fall in love with this area and they keep coming back!

If you ever wanted to have a vacation in this lovely area, then don’t hesitate!!! Until next year!

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The singing fool

Do you know which French singer was given the nickname Le Fou Chantant? I’ll give you a clue: one of his most famous songs is called La Mer. You’ve probably heard that song at least once, perhaps in its English version called Beyond the Sea, performed by Bobby Darin and others, and more recently by Robbie Williams for the film Finding Nemo.  No, it was not Debussy, he didn’t sing!

A mural in Narbonne

The singer’s name is Charles Trenet – had you guessed it!?  Charles Trenet was born in Narbonne on May 18, 1913, at a time when his father was notary public in Saint-Chinian, and where Charles spent much of his early years.  Charles’ mother had inherited her parents’ house in Narbonne, which is where Charles Trenet was born.  The house stayed in the Trenet family until Charles donated it to the town of Narbonne, on the proviso that it would be opened to the public as a museum.

I went to visit the Maison Natale de Charles Trenet, which is what the house is called today, during the last European heritage weekend.  A guided visit had been announced for 1:30 pm, and I thought that would be a perfect for my first visit.  When I got there, quite a few people were already waiting.  When the doors opened, a larger than usual number of people were admitted – lucky for me!!  🙂  We were ushered into what had been Charles Trenet’s living room on the ground floor of the house.

You can see that it was a little crowded!  The whole house is furnished as it was when Charles Trenet was still alive.  Here are some shots of the sitting room:

Our guide explained that Charles Trenet redecorated whenever he thought something looked a little shabby.  Consequently, there were four different kinds of wall coverings in the living room! 🙂

From the ground floor, a staircase swept up to the first floor (the second floor if you are in the US) – the mirrored wall in the entrance hall gave the impression of a double flight staircase!

The first floor of the house was the domain of Charles Trenet’s mother.  Here’s her little boudoir:

Next door was the bedroom where Charles was born:

The christening robe of little Charles has been framed and hung on the wall above the bed.

After his mother died, Charles Trenet had a sauna cabin installed In the room next to his mother’s bedroom – the only modification he made to the first floor following his mother’s death.  Apparently he spent half an hour in the sauna every morning – in his later years he attributed his good physical shape and the condition of his voice to that habit.

The bathroom next to the sauna is incredibly dated – I’m not sure which period it is from –  the 60’s or the 70’s?  The large fireclay bathtub in powder blue must weigh a ton, perhaps literally!

Across the hallway from the bathroom is the kitchen, with the same brown tiles as in the bathroom!

Amongst my pictures of the house, I cannot find one of the family dining room – this room was always very crowded during my visit, so perhaps that’s why.

There was another flight of stairs to climb to the second floor (third floor for readers in the US).  One of the walls surrounding the staircase was hung with red drapes.  On the narrow wall there was a picture of Christ on the cross, and the next wall up showed various record covers and publicity shots – a somewhat odd juxtaposition, but whatever…

The second floor was where Charles had his private rooms.  The large sitting room contained many personal mementoes and photographs.  The upright piano is where Charles would have worked on his songs.

His bedroom was next to the sitting room, and it was fairly spartan in its furnishings.

The bathroom next door was of a more recent vintage than his mother’s bathroom.  There were still some toiletries on the shelf above the sink.

Across the hallway from the bathroom was a guest bedroom.  I’m not sure that I could live with that colour scheme 🙂

The kitchen on this floor must have been state-of-the-art at one point!! The wall-mounted refrigerator on the left is from the 1960s.

Charles Trenet had a number of homes in France, but he frequently visited his birthplace and he was always very attached to Narbonne.  I leave you with a song (e-mail subscribers, please visit the website to view the video), and a picture of the bronze statue in the little front garden of the house.

The Maison Natale de Charles Trenet is located at 13 Avenue Charles Trenet in Narbonne, and open to the public every day except on Mondays.  You can find full details here.

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Saint Aphrodise revisited

Two weeks ago, I hinted that I would write about my recent visit to the church of Saint Aphrodise in Beziers.  Back in 2013 I was lucky enough to be able to visit that church.  Work to save the building from falling down was scheduled to start shortly after my visit, and it was going to be closed to the public for some time.  You can read about my previous visit of the church in this article.

For the 2017 European Heritage days, the Friends of Saint Aphrodise were once more offering guided visits of the building.  This was the first time since the renovation work had started in 2013!  Work was completed earlier this year, and much was changed during the intervening years!

The facade of the nave has been restored and the little square in front of it has been made more accessible.  However, both of the doors were locked when I visited.

The gates on Rue du Puits de la Courte, by which I had previously entered the church, were also firmly locked!  I kept on walking and finally got to Place Saint Aphrodise, where I had tried in vain to enter the church so many times before my very first visit.  This time the gate was open – third time lucky!!

The gate allows access into a corridor which passes through a house, and the alleyway on the other side of the house leads to a door into the nave of the church.  The nave was the part of the church which was in danger of collapsing, and which has now been consolidated and reinforced.

According to our guide, the nave of the original building would have only had one central aisle.  The chapels, i.e. the parts outside the main aisle, were added later,  Trouble started when stone vaulting was added in the 18th century.  The weight of the stone was just too much for the building, which had been designed to support a simple wooden roof.  In the picture above, you can see the metal rods which were inserted to tie the columns together.  A lot more of this kind of ironwork is in the attic and not visible.

The nave had been completely closed off on my last visit – even the opening to the choir had been blocked – so it was wonderful to see this space at last.  The renovation works had concentrated on making the structure of the nave safe, without carrying out any renovations on the interior – there’s plenty left to be done!  If you look carefully at the picture above, you’ll see barriers closing the choir off – that is now out of bounds.  However, our guide led us in there for a good look.  🙂

The baldachin over the high altar is 18th century, the paintings on the walls are 19th century, as are the stained glass windows.  Wealthy donors sponsored the windows, and in return their names were added to the windows!

Antonin Injalbert, whose summer residence I wrote about last week, was commissioned to create a statue of Christ on the cross for the high altar.  When the sculpture was delivered, it was deemed far too modern by the parishioners, so it was hidden away in a corner of the church.  After the first world war, the parish wanted to create a memorial for the parishioners who had been killed in the war, and Injalbert’s statue was used as the centrepiece for the memorial.

The two reliquary busts seemed to be in the same spot where I had seen them four years previous!

I had my telephoto lens with me on the day of my visit, so I decided to try to capture the little putti, which seemed to be proliferating about the church:

Some of the carvings in the nave are very detailed – I can’t tell if they are stone or plaster.  I imagine that they are mostly 18th century.

Some of the altars in the nave are very baroque:

The organ looks impressive.  When the renovation work was finished,  someone decided to see if the organ was still working.  It was given a good clean (several days’ work with vacuum cleaners, removing decades of dust), and then someone flicked the switch.  Almost miraculously, the organ came to life and could be played!!  It still needs a thorough overhaul and tuning, but it is in relatively good shape.  There are plans for organ concerts next year!

Here are two close-up shots of the statues on the pillars of the organ loft:

The association Les Amis de Saint Aphrodise is very active in Beziers.  The members have been involved in organising some of the guided visits I have written about, such as Time with the Swiss and Heritage of Rememberance.

I’ll finish this post with a picture of the collection box.  The postcards were 30 cents in today’s money (bear in mind that the church was abandoned a long time ago!).  The sign reads:  “God says you must earn your bread by the sweat of your brow. Not by robbing the collection box”!  The exclamation mark is mine! 🙂

 

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