Renewal time

We’re in the middle of what I call green-up time, when trees and vineyards are clothed in a haze of pale green from the leaves that are about to burst forth, and elsewhere trees are covered in exuberant blossoms – a time of promise and a time of renewal! I wanted to share this post with you from a few years ago. I think it captures what’s going on outside right now pretty well (but then I’m biased as the writer :)) Where you live, spring may not be as advanced but it will come – I promise!! Enjoy!


We get renewal notices all the time – be it from insurance companies, subscriptions for websites, magazines, software, series of concerts, often marked with ‘Take action now‘ or some such.

Mother nature needs no such reminders or notices, renewal just happens as part of the scheme of things, and seemingly without much effort.  Right now, we’re in the midst of springtime (even though spring won’t officially start until March 21), and there is renewal all around us.  Leaves and blossoms sprout from barren looking trees, bulbs push up flowers, and there is birdsong in the air once more.

I took a walk through the vineyards, to try to experience that wonderful spring feeling.  Here is what I came across, captured for your delectation!

At the end of a path through the vineyards, I followed a little stream.  Where the stream flows into the river, there is a meadow, which is almost totally covered in wild narcissuses – such a joyous sight to behold!!

Nearby, I found some buttercups

Buttercup, also known as lesser celandine (Ficaria verna)

Buttercup, also known as lesser celandine (Ficaria verna)

The bee was having a fun time on the dandelion flower!!!

The plant below is bay laurel (laurus nobilis) –  most of you will have some of its dried leaves in your herb and spice cupboard.  Looking at the plant, it’s not going to be long before the flower buds will burst open!

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I’m not sure what the tree in the pictures below is – could it be witch hazel?

I think that the flowers below are wild rocket, a plant which grows abundantly in the vineyards, where it flowers almost all year long!  The leaves are edible, but tougher, and more pungent than the leaves of the cultivated variety.

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Of course there were daisies too – such cheerful flowers!!

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Here’s one of the many different kinds of euphorbia, which grow so well in our region.

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The leaves below promise that there will be wild tulip flowers – and lots of them!!

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These blossoms were tiny, no larger than 5mm across, and the branches were very close to the ground.  Any suggestions as to what the plant might be?

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Botany is not my strong suit – I think the flowers below could belong to a type of viburnum, but I’m far from sure 🙂

I do know what plant the exotic looking balls belong to – they are the fruits of a plane tree (platanus).

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This is most probably a periwinkle (vinca) flower:

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I could not resist taking a picture of this beautiful branch – the colours of the lichen against the bark is so beautiful!

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Here’s another mystery plant – these seed pods look a little bit like a cardinal’s hat.  Or is that my imagination??  Any ideas about the name?

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Another bee, this time on a marigold flower (calendula):

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I don’t know what the following flowers could be, but they looked so pretty!!

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I came across a small cluster of grape hyacinths (muscari), right by the path.

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The river at the Platanettes was so pretty – it will be lovely to take a dip in the cool water during the summer!

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A cornilla bush (coronilla glauca) was flowering quite close to the river.

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Here is another unknown plant – it has the most beautiful feathery foliage, and very delicate little flowers!

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On my way home I came across this explosion of pink flowers, probably an apricot tree, or perhaps a peach tree?

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Here’s a close-up of some of the flowers from this beautiful tree:

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And there you have it – nature’s springtime abundance, to be found for the looking!

Coming out

Since the start of this year, we seem to have had more gray or rainy days than sunny days – at least it feels that way to me! That said, we had very little rain last fall, so the rain we have had since the beginning of the year is somewhat reducing the rainfall deficit, which can only be a good thing for our area! Another side effect of the rain is that the spring flowers should be absolutely spectacular this year!

When the sun came out last week, I met up on Friday with a couple of friends for a two and a half hour hike. We met in Agel, in the car park behind the church. A signpost pointed across the river to ‘Le Pech’, the hill we were going to climb. There was a marked walk on Le Pech many years ago, but the markings are no longer maintained, so we relied on the knowledge of one of our fellow walkers to guide us.

There were wonderful views of the village of Agel as we climbed the hill:

We walked past beautifully maintained olive groves:

And we came to the ruins of the chapel of Saint Symphorien:

On we walked through dense pine forests, inhaling the wonderful scents from the pine trees and the rosemary bushes. We walked past vineyards, the vines neatly pruned and the ground carpeted with flowering wild rocket (arugula).

We came to a bit of landscape that looked as though it might belong somewhere else – Arizona or Utah, perhaps?

We walked past enormous bushes of flowering gorse, interspersed with some rosemary, also in flower, which diffused a wonderful scent.

Before long we came upon these strange looking mounds – made by ants?

And then the village of Agel came into view again – we were on the home straight!

As we got closer to the village, we came across a field that was sprinkled with anemones – such beautiful and cheerful colours!

Here is another view of the village from across the river:

And then we were back where we started. I’d packed some banana bread and a thermos flask with tea, so had a well earned picnic before I left my friends and headed back to Saint-Chinian again.

There’ll be more spring flowers and walks soon!! Have you been out walking lately?

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!!