Let the music play

Under normal circumstances, the Fete de la Musique would be taking place all over France this weekend.  With the current Covid-19 crisis, the events have been cancelled pretty much everywhere.  So here is a virtual Fete de la Musique, by means of an article I wrote in 2014 – I hope you’ll enjoy it!


On June 21st, the whole of France celebrates the Fete de la Musique, with parties and concerts everywhere – and who am I to miss out on a party!!?? 😀

So I rounded up a  few friends and together we went to Beziers to see what we could listen to!  We left fairly early, and as we walked from the underground car park up the Allees Paul Riquet, it became clear that we had arrived a little too early.  But still, it was good to be able to have a look around without missing anything!  The food stalls looked colourful and the smells were tantalising!!

We headed for Place de la Revolution, where the Sardanistes would be dancing later in the evening.  The plan was to have dinner at Brasserie du Palais, and be able to listen to the music and watch the dancers from the comfort of our table.  On the way to Place de la Revolution I came across some interesting details.

The atmosphere in Beziers was very summery and festive – lots of people out in the streets, all getting ready to party in one way or another!

Our meal at Brasserie du Palais was delicious!  A large plate of tapas to share, followed by great main courses, and nice desserts.

The restaurant takes its name from the former archbishop’s palace, which is just across the square, and today houses the local courts of justice.  Next to it is the cathedral, and we had a fine view of that from our table.

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We were just about finishing our desserts, when the musicians started to gather on the stage, and it wasn’t long before they struck up their first tune.

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And as soon as they started to play, the dancers appeared – at first only a few of them joined hands to form a small circle.

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Now a word about the music and dancing – the Sardana is a Catalan tradition, played on instruments of which a few are not found elsewhere in France or Europe.  The band is called “Cobla” and the dancers are called “Sardanistes”.  For the full explanation please have a look at the Wikipedia entry, which I think explains it all very well.

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I was watching in blissful ignorance, enjoying the uplifting sound of the music and watching the dancers with fascination.  It seemed as though anyone could join in, and the circle grew larger and larger, until it was all around the fountain and the square.  The steps seemed to be very simple – it was only later, when talking to a couple of the dancers, that I found out that there was a lot more to it! 🙂 .

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The band, as well as the dancers I spoke with, had come from Perpignan, where they had already performed earlier that day.  They explained that the Sardana is a traditional dance, as opposed to a folkloric dance, so nobody wears any special costumes.  Both the dancers were wearing the traditional espardenya shoes though – you’ll be able to see these shoes in the video below (e-mail subscribers, please visit the webpage to view the video).

 

Did you notice how the flute player also plays the tiny drum, which is strapped to his arm?  The double bass has only three strings, and its player is really going for it!  We sat and listened and watched, and enjoyed every minute of it!!

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It was getting dark and the lights came on, and with the whole square alive with music and dance, it was just magical.

When we had had our fill of the Sardana, we wandered over to the cathedral, where another concert was just coming to the end:  Nicolas Celero at the piano, playing music by Franz Liszt, and Michael Lonsdale reading in between the musical performances.

On our way back we walked down Rue Viennet and passed Place du Forum, across the road from the town hall, which had all been transformed with strings of lights into the most magical of places.

The Eglise de la Madeleine looked very majestic, lit up against the black sky.

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And then we reached the Allees Paul Riquet once more, and wandered amongst the many people who were either watching the act on the main stage in front of the theatre, or just enjoying the start of summer.

Mark your calendar for next year, and plan to be in Herault around June 21st – I promise you’ll enjoy the festivities!

Twelve months, thirteen pictures

This week, I would like to share with you the series of photographs from the calendar I made for 2011.  Let’s start with the cover picture, which is a collage of the twelve photographs used for the calendar:

The picture in January was of the fire burning in Stephane’s bread oven.  Stephane revived an old bakery in Azillanet, and he baked the most amazing bread in the old wood-fired oven.  I visited his bakery several times and wrote about it back in 2013 – you can find the article here.

Almond blossoms featured in February:

The picture for March was a still-life I took at a friend’s house near Roquebrun.  I loved the shape of the glass jug and way the sunlight streaked across the table.

On the page for April, a honey bee was showing us how it’s done – collecting nectar on a quince blossom!

The landscape around Saint-Chinian is beautiful, and a small bit of it was on show during May 2011:

June is prime time for strawberries and this dessert was a wonderful example of what can be done with a few simple ingredients and some imagination!  Crushed meringues, fresh strawberries, whipped cream, the whole topped with vanilla ice cream mixed with strawberry coulis.  Writing about it makes my mouth water! 🙂

The sunflower in the July picture grew in my garden:

The August picture shows the bridge over the Canal du Midi in Le Somail:

I adore fresh figs – their taste and texture are so far removed from the dried figs of my childhood!  In Saint-Chinian fig trees thrive!  Delicious figs can be found in the weekly outdoor market during the summer months or on walks in the countryside!

During October, I showcased some of the houses along the river in Saint-Chinian.  The stone facades contrast beautifully with the red ochre facade.

The sweet buns in the November photograph were baked at Stephane’s bakery in Azillanet.  And very tasty they were too!!

The ‘shining stars’ in the last picture of the year lit up a stall at the Montpellier Christmas market.  They were very colourful and festive!

So there we have it – a year in pictures!  What’s your favourite picture of that year?

Springtime pleasures revisited

It’s the time of year when the blooms on the elder bushes are out in profusion and I thought I would share this post with you again – it’s been six years since I wrote it, but the recipes are still as good as they were then!!


One of the many pleasures of spring can be found growing all over the countryside – in hedgerows, along streams, sometimes in a garden, but more often growing wild.  It is a large shrub, which bears many heads (panicles) of creamy white flowers, followed by black berries in late summer.  The flowers have a delicate perfume, reminiscent of muscat grapes.  The name of this plant is Sambucus – have you guessed yet what the common name of this plant may be?

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It’s Elder – often overlooked and neglected, and rarely used these days.  But elderflowers can be used to make a number of delicious comestibles, and I am going to tell you about two of them today. The flower heads are made up of many tiny flowers in a complex branching structure, which is fascinating to examine at close range.  The season for the flowers is relatively short; in the South of France it starts in late April/early May and lasts about three weeks at the most.  In more temperate climes you may find elderflowers as late as June.

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The first recipe is for elderflower cordial, which captures the wonderful flavour of the flowers, and allows me to enjoy it whenever I want to throughout the year.  Using elderflowers is something of a tradition in my family – when I grew up there was the most enormous elder bush – well more of a tree, really – in our garden.  Making the syrup is very simple, you just need sugar, lemon, citric acid, and elderflowers.  As so often, timing is everything as the elderflowers should be at their peak when you make this.

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Elderflower Cordial

  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

900g sugar
30 heads of elderflower
2 lemons, sliced
80g citric acid
1 litre boiling water

Shake the elderflowers to remove any stray bugs and dust, then set aside.  Put the sugar, citric acid and lemon slices into a heatproof bowl (I used a large stainless-steel casserole) and pour the boiling water over them.  Stir until the sugar is dissolved.  With a pair of scissors snip the flowers off the stalks.  The aim is to include as little as possible of the green stalks. Stir the flowers into the syrup.  Cover the bowl and put it in a cool place to macerate for four days, stirring at least once a day.

After four days strain the syrup through a fine sieve or a colander lined with cheesecloth, then bottle and cork.  Because of the high sugar content, the cordial will keep for some time if stored in a cool and dark place.  It is ready to be used immediately – mix it with sparkling water for a delicious elderflower lemonade.

Note: For a tangier taste you could squeeze the lemons and use the juice, instead of the lemon slices.

Elderflowers also make wonderful fritters, and I try to make them at least once each year, while the flowers are about.

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The following recipe requires a minimum of effort for a great result.  It is best to harvest the elderflowers just before you make the fritters;  if you need to keep them for a few hours, put them into a plastic bag and keep them in the fridge.

Elderflower Fritters

  • Servings: 2
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

100g flour
1 egg, separated
pinch of salt
pinch of baking powder
125ml white wine (I use half muscat wine and half water)
6 – 8 heads of elderflower, depending on size
Oil for frying
1 tbsp icing sugar

Shake the elderflowers, inspect for bugs and set aside.  In a bowl mix the flour, salt and baking powder.  Add the egg yolk and wine and stir to just combine – stirring the batter too much will result in tough fritters. In another bowl beat the egg whites until stiff, then fold into the batter.  The batter should be the consistency of heavy cream.  If necessary, add a tablespoon or more of water to thin it to the right consistency.

Heat some oil in a frying pan (I prefer to use peanut oil) over medium heat, until hot but not smoking.  Holding the elderflowers by the long stalk dip them into the batter until all the flowers are well covered, and then place them in the frying pan.  The number of fritters you are able to cook at the same time will depend on the size of your frying pan and the size of the flowers.  Once the fritters are cooking, snip off the thick stalks with scissors.

Turn the fritters over when bubbles begin to show around the edges.  You may need to add some more oil after turning them.   Cook until golden brown on both sides, remove, and put on a piece of kitchen paper to drain.  Continue with the remaining flowers.  Dust with icing sugar and serve warm.

Apologies for the green-ish cast on some of the pictures!!  The fritter recipe is very easy to multiply; I doubled it, but feel free to multiply it even more and invite all your friends over for this springtime treat!

Virtual reality

Please join me on a virtual visit of Saint-Chinian and some of the surrounding area!  I’ve found a number of videos on youtube, which I think will give you a great taste of Saint-Chinian and its surroundings!

To start with, a walk that takes in the countryside surrounding the village:

Next, a couple of videos which show Saint-Chinian from the air:

I found several videos about virtual wine tastings of AOC Saint-Chinian wines.  The following video is about the wines of Chateau Pech Menel, whose wines I have enjoyed a great deal!

Fréderic Revilla of Restaurant Le Faitout in Berlou participated in a programme about wine and food pairing.  The video is in French only, but you’ll get the idea – just don’t watch it when you are hungry, the food looks delicious!

Here is another aerial video showing the landscape around Saint-Chinian – it will give you a good idea of the vast and varied terrain of the area.

Domaine des Pradels is in a little hamlet just outside Saint-Chinian, nestled in a little valley. The wines are very good, so add it to your list of wineries to visit next time you are in the area!

And to end our virtual visit, here is a video of the Saint-Chinian jazz festival 2019!

I hope you have enjoyed our virtual visit!!

From here to you

You might have planned a visit to France and to Saint-Chinian which may have had to be cancelled because of the Covid-19 pandemic and the restrictions placed on travel.  If you can’t come to Saint-Chinian in the immediate future, then perhaps Saint-Chinian can come to you??  There are a number of ways to bring some of the essentials from this part of southern France to your home, wherever you may be right now.

With the music festival in July having had to be postponed until next year, the organisers are planning a virtual festival.  In the meantime, you can watch some clip of past concerts on the youtube channel – please subscribe to the channel and comment/like on the individual videos!!

If your local wine merchant does not stock your favourite Saint-Chinian wine, they may be able to order it in for you.  If they are not able to order it for you then don’t despair, help may be at hand!!  Espace Vin and Maison des Vins in Saint-Chinian both offer shipping and all the wines are sold at producer’s prices.  Espace Vin is set up for a variety of different overseas destination in their online shop, for the Maison des Vins you may have to ask.

Veronique Etienne at Chateau La Dournie has set up her own online shop – you can visit it here.

If you are interested in the wines of Saint-Chinian but don’t need to re-stock your cellar right now, you might enjoy this book:

It is available from the Maison des Vins and it is a great read.  Written in French and English, it presents a wealth of information about the Saint-Chinian wine region, its wines, and its winemakers! The book is beautifully illustrated with photographs taken by the Maison des Vins’ Gaylord Burguiere!!

Paul Lappin is a very talented artist who has spent lots of time in Saint-Chinian.  His drawings are available as prints in a variety of formats.  You could also commission Paul to draw your favourite view for you!  More information can be found on Paul’s Instagram feed or on his own website.  Below are a few of Paul’s pictures:

The olive cooperative L’Oulibo in Bize Minervois has an on-line shop, and they will ship abroad.  If your country of residence is not showing in the delivery options, just send them an e-mail with your requirements.

Fabrics are something that’s very easy to ship!  I stopped at the shop of Les Toiles de la Montagne Noire in Mazamet back in February.  It’s a bit of an Aladdin’s cave, piled high with all kinds of wonderful goodies, all of them made locally!  I bought some linen material to make napkins with.  I fell in love with their fabrics when I saw their stand at the Fete du Fil in Labastide Rouairoux a good many years ago.  You can read my post about that fete here.

So there you have it – a bit of retail therapy or something to add to your “to do” list for your next visit!  Feel free to share your favourite Saint-Chinian shopping experience in the comments section!

Changes afoot!

Week 6 of the lockdown in France – still doing fine here in Saint-Chinian!!  We’ve had some rain this week, which has been incredibly beneficial for my garden and for nature in general!!  I swear that the potato plants pretty much doubled in size during the three days of soft drizzle!  As I am writing this, the sun has come out once more, and everywhere is beginning to dry out a bit.  It’s still too wet to work in the garden this afternoon, so perhaps I’ll clean the windows instead?? 🙂

Here is a picture I took the day after the rain stopped:

You may know that I’m heavily involved in organising the music festivals in Saint-Chinian.  Our July festival was scheduled for July 19 to 26 this year.  Was because the committee members (of the association which runs the festivals) have had to take a good and hard look at the facts and pronouncements by the French government, and in the end we came to the conclusion that we had better postpone that festival until 2021.  Very sad 😦 , but we had to think of the wider implications for our public and musicians.  Three of the concerts from the July programme were rescheduled and added to the September festival, which will now run from September 2 to 6, 2020.  Of course there is a question mark hanging over that too, but we’re trying to stay positive!!  🙂

Here’s a little summary of what we’ve had to postpone/reschedule:

This is a very difficult time for all of us, but my heart goes out especially  to all the performers, musicians, singers and actors who are deprived of their public!

I am very much looking forward to the day when I will once again be able to attend live performances in person. It will certainly be a moment of intense emotion!  In the meantime, take good care of yourself and continue to listen to music as much as you can!!