It’s wine O’clock

A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned that a number of wineries in the Saint-Chinian area were having an open day on December 8, 2018. ¬†In order to bring you a blog post, I had to go on a research trip! ūüôā

My day started at 10:30 in the morning at the Maison des Vins, the showcase for the AOC Saint-Chinian wines. ¬†The Maison des Vins is in part of the former home of Charles Trenet’s parents in Saint-Chinian – if you don’t know the story, you can find my previous posts here and here.

I had come to the Maison des Vins for a tutored tasting of some of the wines which had made the Virtuoses selection of wines from the AOC Saint-Chinian.  There were 11 participants to the session, which was led by Baptiste Poncet from the Maison des Vins and Vivien Roussignol of Domaine des Paissels.  We were led up an amazing and monumental staircase to the tasting room on the first floor.  Here was the room where pretty much every wine in the store below had at one time or other been tasted, to see if it measured up to the strict quality criteria of the AOC Saint-Chinian.  The room was packed with rows of tables.  Several tasting stations were built into each row, with each person having their own small basin and cold water tap!

The Virtuoses competition is specific to the Saint-Chinian wine area.  It was first held in 2014.  The competition is judged by panels of journalists, professionals and personalities in the wine trade, restaurateurs, etc.  Over the years it has been held in different locations (Saint-Chinian, New York, Montreal, London).

The entrance criteria are fairly strict, and winemakers have to enter three different vintages of the same cuvee. ¬†The idea behind that is to show the ageing potential of the wines. ¬†For this year’s selection (2019), 70 winemakers entered their wines, which were tasted by the 25 jury members in New York City. ¬†Before you ask, no, the jury members didn’t have to taste each and every wine! ¬†They were split into groups as were the wines – it would be nigh impossible for all but the most experienced tasters to work their way through over 200 different wines!!

For our little tasting, Baptiste and Vivien had selected the following wines:

Chateau Coujan – Cuvee bois jolie 2017
Domaine de Cambis – Les jardins suspendus 2016
Domaine des Paissels – Les Paissels 2017
Mas Champart – Causse du bousquet 2015
Domaine La Madura – Classic 2015
Domaine Cathala – Cuvee A 2016

Before we got to tasting all those wines, a little surprise had been prepared for us.  If you saw the picture of the tasting stations earlier in this post, you may have noticed three bottles standing next to one of the sinks.  There were four such sets of bottles dotted about the tasting area, each set contained bottles labeled with Syrah, Carignan and Grenache.  Vivien had brought these wines with him.  They had only recently finished their fermentation and had been drawn off the tanks just the day before.  The idea was that we would create our own blended wine with wines made from the three grape varieties that are frequently used for the AOC Saint-Chinian wines!

Four teams were formed, and we were given the requisite tools for blending, namely a measuring jug and an empty bottle for our final blend. ¬†We started by tasting the individual wines. ¬†The¬†Syrah had spent some time in oak barrels and was to add “structure” to the wine, the¬†Grenache was for roundness, and the¬†Carignan was for freshness. ¬†The colour of all three wines was amazing – a deep purple colour verging on black! ¬†This is where my multitasking ended – tasting and photographing do not go together, at least not for me! ūüôā

Once we had finished tasting the three different varietal wines, we set about working out a “recipe” for our blend. ¬†We started with 30%¬†Syrah,¬†60%¬†Grenache and 10%¬†Carignan. ¬†Next we tried 20%¬†Syrah, 50%¬†Grenache and 30%¬†Carignan. ¬†Finally we tried¬†30%¬†Syrah,¬†40%¬†Grenache and 30%¬†Carignan. ¬†We tasted each of these blends in comparison to one another, and yes we did keep track of our glasses!! ¬†A sheet of paper had been placed at each station, with number 1 to 6 printed on it!! ¬†We came to the conclusion that our winning blend was the 20-50-30 one and prepared our full bottle according to that recipe.

Each group submitted their bottle, which was then covered with a sleeve, and then we all did a blind tasting of the four different blended wines.  Baptiste had given us a simplified version of the tasting sheets used for the Virtuoses competition.

The wines had to be rated on appearance, i.e. colour and clarity of the wine, intensity and complexity of the “nose”, followed by various criteria of taste: Intensity/concentration/bouquet/complexity, acidity/freshness, tannins/structure, balance/harmony, “length” in the mouth, followed by an overall note. ¬†Each note carried points¬†and, as you can see, I rated the wine named “B” at 13.5 out of 20 points. ¬†I found that exercise to be incredibly difficult. ¬†Tasting all those wines was tough enough, but giving notes was tougher yet. ¬†Added to that was the fact that the wines were very young, and the flavours not yet very developed.

Did “our” blend come out with the highest score?? ¬†Nope, it came in last, but in our defence it was the first wine to be tasted, which, as Baptiste said, does nothing for the ranking. ¬†The winning formula was not too dissimilar to ours though: it consisted of 30%¬†Syrah, 50%¬†Grenache and 20%¬†Carignan.

Vivian told us that he prepares about 3 different blends for a cuvee before he arrives at the final “recipe”. ¬†Sometimes, final adjustments are made to the blend just before a wine is bottled.

Being a vigneron is a highly skilled job AND it requires many different skills: growing the grapes, turning them into drinkable wine, blending the wine, and finally selling the wine!  Before this tasting, I had no idea of just how the blending of a wine works Рnow I know just how much work and skill is involved, and I hope you, also, have learned a lot about all of the work, skills and abilities that are necessary to create a wonderful wine.!

Thank you to Baptiste and Vivien for this great experience!

After all the excitement of the blending, we tasted some of the winning wines, which Baptiste had selected for us from the¬†Virtuoses competition. ¬†I stopped taking notes after the first wine, which was cuvee bois jolie from Chateau Coujan in Murviel-les-Beziers. ¬†This was my favourite wine in that selection, wonderfully round, with a lovely “nose” of honey and pear (not literally, only notes of !! ūüôā ) and a great taste! ¬†Of the reds, my favourite was Domaine Cathala’s cuvee A.

With the exceptions of the three wines used in the blending, you can buy all other wines mentioned in this article at the Maison des Vins or via their on-line shop.

After a late lunch (the session took longer than planned Рno complaints though!) I went on to visit the cooperative winery in Saint-Chinian and then to Domaine La Madura.  More about this in a future post perhaps.

Drink responsibly!

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Still lots going on!

You’ll be forgiven for thinking that at the end of the summer the area falls into a Sleeping Beauty-like torpor – but far from it! ¬†There is still plenty going on to keep us entertained!!

As soon as fall starts, there are the harvest festivals such as the ones I wrote about last week.  The theatre season starts up again in Narbonne, Beziers and Montpellier.  Beziers has several venues for theatre, classical music, dance and even opera Рyou can find the full programme here.

The theatre in Narbonne is housed in a very modern building, quite a contrast to the quaint old theatre in Beziers.  It does have better sight-lines than the theatre in Beziers, and the second (smaller) auditorium has been equipped for cinema screenings.  The programme can be found via this link.

The live broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City are screened at the Theatre in Narbonne, and at the MonCine cinema in Beziers!

Montpellier, being a big city, has a number of theatres of all types – a modern opera house, a grand 19th century theatre building and several smaller theatres. ¬†There’s always something going on! ¬†The programme can be found here.

November is the time when people in this area start to buy fresh foie gras and other bits of duck and goose, to prepare a stock of goodies to last them the winter!

Coursan and Limoux have their Foires au Gras –¬†literally translated as ‘Fat Fairs’ but they are really foie gras markets – on November 18 (Coursan) and 24 (Limoux), 2018.

The truffle markets start this year on December 15 with a market in Moussoulens.  The last truffle market of the season will be on March 10, 2019 in Cabrespine Рyou can find dates and the programme here.

In preparation for Christmas (think shopping!!), eleven wineries in the Saint-Chinian area have a day of tastings and visits on December 8, 2018 – the programme can be found via this link.

Next, we have Christmas markets!  They are becoming ever more popular in the area Рhere is a small selection for you:

November 24 and 25, 2018 Р(Christmas) Cracker Fair at the Abbaye de Valmagne

December 2, 2018 – Christmas market in Saint-Chinian, Salle de l’Abbatiale

December 9, 2018 – Christmas market in Capestang, Salle Nelson Mandela

In the bigger towns, the Christmas markets are on for most of December:

Les Hivernales Christmas market in Montpellier is open from November 29 to December 27, 2018.

Carcassonne’s¬†Magie de Noel opens on December 6, 2018 and closes on January 6, 2019.

So far, most of this post has been about food and other shopping opportunities.  Here now are a few more opportunities for entertainment:

On December 12, 2018 the Salle de l’Abbatiale in Saint-Chinian hosts a concert with the¬†La Cantarela choir from Beziers, Ulrike van Cotthem (soprano), Sebastien Mazoyer (bandoneon) and Conrad Wilkinson (piano). ¬†There’ll be music by Debussy, Faure, Schumann and Strauss, and the Misatango by Martin Palmeri. ¬†This should be a very good concert – don’t miss it!

The Christmas concert in Narbonne takes place on December 15 in the cathedral, with the Narbonne Symphony Orchestra, the Via Lyrica choir and Daniele Scotte (soprano).  This should be another great concert.

And finally, If you are a fan of the circus tent, you’ll have to visit Toulouse between December 1, 2018 and January 6, 2019. ¬†The¬†Grande Cirque de Noel pitches its tents at the Cepiere racetrack in Toulouse. ¬†There will be acrobats, clowns, horses, daredevil stunts and more!!

 

A firm favourite

In our area, autumn is chestnut time, and there are several festivals to celebrate the chestnut harvest. ¬†I’ve written about the festivals before. ¬†You can find the posts here, here, and here. ¬†This year, I went to the Chestnut Festivals in both Saint-Pons and Olargues – over the years they have become firm favourites of mine!

The weekend the festival took place in Saint-Pons, the area was experiencing a cold-snap:  temperatures plummeted to 6 Celsius, well below the seasonal average!!  The stall-holders were well wrapped up against the cold!  Below is a picture of a very warmly dressed Lex Page from Love la Foret!  Lex and her husband Andy specialise in dried mushrooms РI bought some delicious cep (porcini) mushroom powder from them a little while back, and I needed a top-up!

The festival in Saint-Pons always has a large number of exhibitors and I found many familiar stands!

I adore roasted chestnuts, so I made a beeline to the square where the chestnuts were being roasted over open fires!

The hot chestnuts were delicious AND they warmed my hands!!

Bands of roving musicians provided entertainment, and there was lots to see and taste.  Despite the cold weather this was a very enjoyable festival!

The Fete du Marron et du Vin Nouveau (the festival of chestnuts and new wine) took place in Olargues a week later. ¬†The weather couldn’t have been more different – it was beautiful! ¬†The sun was out and there was a marked difference in temperature – absolutely no need for thermal underwear!!

I had of course come for the roasted chestnuts!!  The set-up in Olargues is much smaller than it is in Saint-Pons, but the chestnuts were every bit as delicious!

On a recent visit to L’Auberge de l’Ecole in Saint-Jean de Minervois, I tasted a tiramisu which had been made with¬†creme de marron, a sweet chestnut puree made from broken pieces of marrons glac√©s. ¬†This was a very delicious dessert and I have attempted to recreate the recipe for you below. ¬†When you next visit L’Auberge de l’Ecole, you’ll be able to taste Brigitte’s authentic version!

Tiramisu with creme de marron

  • Servings: 6-8
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

A delicious tiramisu, with a special flavour of autumn. You can make this in individual serving dishes, or use one large dish.

Ingredients

  • 250g mascarpone (1 tub)
  • 3 eggs
  • 125g creme de marron (chestnut puree)
  • 2 Tbsp sugar
  • 12 sponge fingers (also called ladyfingers or boudoir biscuits)
  • 200ml strong coffee
  • 2 Tbsp Rum

You will also need six to eight individual serving dishes (I used glass preserving jars), or a single serving dish, large enough to hold 6 sponge fingers in a single layer.

ingredients for chestnut tiramisu

Ingredients for chestnut tiramisu

Directions


1. Separate the egg yolks from the whites.
2. In a medium-sized bowl beat the egg yolks with 1 Tbsp sugar until white and thick. Add the mascarpone and the creme de marron and mix until lump-free.
3. Beat the egg whites with a pinch of salt until soft peaks form.  Add the remaining 1 Tbsp sugar and continue beating until stiff peaks form.
4. Fold one third of the beaten egg whites into the mascarpone mixture to ‘loosen’ it. ¬†Then add the remaining beaten egg whites and fold in until the mixture is smooth.
5. Pour the cold coffee into a shallow bowl and add the rum.
6. To assemble the tiramisu, put some of the mascarpone mixture in the bottom of your dish (one third of the mixture if using one large dish).  Dip each sponge finger briefly into the coffee and arrange in a neat layer in your dish.  Top with another third of the mascarpone mixture and repeat with the sponge fingers.  Finish with the last third of the mascarpone mixture and level with a spatula. If you are using individual serving dishes, break/cut the sponge fingers to make them fit.
7. Cover with cling film and leave in the fridge to chill for four to six hours.

Before serving you may wish to dust the tiramisu with cocoa powder but try it without the cocoa powder first. I find that it can overpower the delicate flavour of the chestnut puree.

Note:  In her version, Brigitte uses chestnut brandy, which is pretty impossible to find.  I found rum to be reasonable substitute, but if you can find chestnut liqueur it would be even better.  Brigitte also omits the coffee and uses only alcohol to soak the biscuits in.  

 

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 Рyou 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!! ūüôā

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 Рvery 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!! ūüôā

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!! ūüôā ¬†Artichokes are a delicious vegetable that I never tire of!

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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!! ūüôā

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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!

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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.

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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 Рthe 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 Рa 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!