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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Keeping a tradition alive

Many years ago, I went to a restaurant in a little hamlet called Fauzan, high up in the garrigue above the village of Cesseras.  On my first visit there, I joined friends to celebrate a significant birthday – we all had a wonderful time there!  The restaurant was known by the family name of the brother and sister who owned and ran it: Restaurant Chabbert.  Mme Chabbert was in the kitchen, preparing rustic and hearty fare.  Her brother looked after the vineyards and the wine cellar, and was often working at the restaurant too.  I went to the restaurant several times when the Chabberts were running it.  Here are a few pictures from some of those visits:

One day, Mr and Mme Chabbert retired and the restaurant closed its doors, to the chagrin of many people.  For two and a half years the restaurant lay empty, its doors locked, the kitchen shut, the car park abandoned.

Until….  Christophe and Audrey Cabrol managed to persuade the Chabbert siblings to allow them to rent the premises.  Christophe has been passionate about food and cooking from an early age, and has been cooking professionally for over 20 years  Audrey, Christophe’s wife, looks after the dining room, after having been an events manager for many years.  The restaurant is now called La Bastide de Fauzan.

The appearance of the dining room has changed only a little, but the food has changed a lot!!  My camera has also improved over the years 🙂

I’ve been to La Bastide de Fauzan twice in the last three months – both times with friends – and each time there was a lovely fire crackling away in the fireplace.

We had drinks and nibbles by the fire, whilst catching up!

On both visits, everyone had the menu at 34 Euros.  There are two other menus, one at 25 Euros and another at 55 Euros.  All three menus can be found on the restaurant’s website

Our mise en bouche or mini appetizer was a delicious combination of smoked salmon and cream cheese!

On our menu, we had two different starters to chose from: scrambled eggs with wild mushrooms …

… or flambeed gambas on buttered cabbage with cauliflower veloute.

I had eaten the gambas on my first visit, and absolutely delicious they were too(!), so I chose the scrambled eggs on my second visit – they were wonderfully creamy, and the taste of the mushrooms was great!

After the starter came the terrine!  This is very much like a pate de campagne – it is made with pork and various seasonings and it was very tasty!  The terrine is a house speciality which has a long and time-honoured tradition, dating back to when Mme Chabbert was in charge of the kitchen!!  Everyone just cut as much or as little as they liked!!

I was starting to feel pleasantly full after the terrine, but there was more to come, in the shape of the main course!!

Seabass filet with tapenade:

Slowly braised veal:

On my first visit, there had also been wild boar stew:

All of the main courses were utterly delicious!!  AND there were two more courses yet to come!

First was the cheese course, where there was a choice of either curd cheese with honey:

… or an assortment of cheeses:

The cheese course was followed by dessert.  Once again, there were several choices!

A melting chocolate cake served with mandarin sorbet:

A mandarin orange and chestnut tart:

Poached pear with vanilla ice cream, served on a bed of almond crumble:It was tough to chose which dessert to order – they were all so delicious!!

We rounded off our meal with a lemon verbena infusion – Audrey picked the lemon verbena fresh from the garden just for us!

On both occasions we had great meals and the experiences were wonderfully relaxing and unhurried, friendly and delicious.  We all felt very happy when we left! 🙂

I am looking forward to going back for another meal as soon as the weather is warmer and we’ll be able to eat on the terrace which overlooks a lovely garden!

If you want to visit La Bastide de Fauzan please be sure to book, either by e-mail (contact@bastidefauzan.fr) or by phone (+33 4 68 75 43 46).  You can find the current menu here.

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.

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! 🙂

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! 🙂

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 – now 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 !! 🙂 ) 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 – no 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!