Sittin’ on the dock of the bay

After that wonderful visit at Noilly Prat (see last week’s post) we needed some sustenance!!  There are a good number of restaurants to choose from in Marseillan – we headed to La Taverne du Port because of its quirky interior!  I had eaten there a number of times before, and I knew that the food was going to be good – another major criteria when choosing a restaurant!! 🙂

La Taverne du Port is just a short stroll away from Noilly Prat, and right across a canal which functions as a harbour for fishing and pleasure boats.

Standing with my back to the restaurant, I could see the visitor’s centre of Noilly Prat on the other side of the canal (on the right in the picture below)!

I mentioned the quirky interior of La Taverne du Port earlier – the picture below will give you some idea:

The furniture is all made from wooden barrels, and the walls are lined with rows upon rows of bottles.

La Taverne du Port has an amazing collection of whiskies, armagnacs, cognacs, spirits and wines, and they are all for sale, either by the bottle or by the glass!  All together, the restaurant stocks over 800 different types of drinks, and their list is impressive!!

But we had come for a bite to eat – we’d already had our ‘aperitif’ across the water!  Here, without further ado, are the starters:

Gratinated oysters

Salad with smoked mackerel fillets

A selection of charcuterie, cured meats sliced wafer thin.

The restaurant has one of these fancy hand-cranked slicing machines, which allows the cured meats to be sliced ever so thin!

Next to the selection of charcuterie was an impressive cheese board, arranged on top of a barrel!

For my main course I had chosen the day’s special: boeuf bourguignon:

This was a most delicious and rich beef stew, wonderfully flavoured!

My dining companions had opted for the catch of the day – small red mullet and mantis shrimp, served with a very tasty garlic sauce.

All main courses were accompanied by a delicious potato and vegetable gratin.  The portions were generous, so we all skipped dessert.  Instead we decided to go for a walk around Marseillan.

Before we leave the restaurant, here is a picture of what the terrace in front of La Taverne du Port looks like – it’s just by the water, which you can’t see in the picture.  For further details visit the website of La Taverne du Port.

Here are some pictures taken along the canal:

On a good day, you can see right across to Sete and the Mont Saint-Michel:

As well as the beautiful views along the canal, there are many quaint views and interesting corners in Marseillan, a few of which I’ll show you below.  Do visit if you are in the area!!

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Shaken, not stirred

… that’s how James Bond liked his martinis!  A classic martini cocktail has only two ingredients – that’s if you don’t count the olive!  Gin and dry vermouth, in the proportion of 6 parts gin to 1 part dry vermouth, make up a dry martini, according to the International Bartenders Association (IBA).

The town of Marseillan, on the Etang de Thau, is the home of Noilly Prat, a company which has been producing dry vermouth since its foundation by Joseph Noilly in 1813.  Purists say that it’s that dry vermouth that should be used to make the perfect dry martini cocktail!

Here’s a little bit of history for you:  Joseph Noilly was born in 1779 in Saint-Bel-les-Mines.  In 1801, the year that his son Louis was born, Joseph Noilly was a grocer and candle merchant in Lyon.  In 1813, the city of Lyon closed down its central wine and spirits depot.  Joseph Noilly seized the opportunity and started his own wine and spirits merchant business, creating his recipe for the dry vermouth which is still used today!

In 1843, a new branch of the business was opened in Marseille.  The man in charge of that new business was named Claude Prat.  The following year, Claude Prat married Anne Rosine, the daughter of Louis Noilly.  In 1855, Claude Prat became an associate of Louis Noilly and the company’s name was changed to Noilly Prat & Companie.  Between 1859 and 1862, a new production facility was constructed in Marseillan, for the ageing of wines.  I’ll come back to the ageing of the wine in a moment.

By 1865, Louis Noilly and Claude Prat had both died and Anne Roisine was at the helm of Noilly Prat, ushering in a period of expansion and prosperity for the business.  In 1878, the Noilly Prat vermouth was awarded a gold medal at the Universal Exhibition in Paris – a very high honour indeed!!

Anne Rosine Prat-Noilly was one of the few women who were running large and successful businesses in the 19th century.  The only other one I can think of right now is Barbe-Nicole Clicquot, the Veuve Clicquot of the famous champagne house, but I’m sure that there were others.

Anne Rosine was succeeded by her sons Louis and Jean Prat-Noilly in 1902, and in 1928 the company structure was changed to that of a PLC, a public limited company.  Information exists on the year 1939, which shows that the Chairman of the Board was a granddaughter of Anne Rosine.

In 1977, Noilly Prat and Company was bought by Martini & Rossi, the makers of the Martini vermouth.  In turn, Martini & Rossi was bought by Bacardi in 1992, and Noilly Prat vermouths joined a portfolio of illustrious brands such as Grey Goose vodka, Bombay Sapphire gin, and Dewar’s scotch whisky.

Now that I’ve told you about the history of the company, we can get back to visiting the production site in Marseillan.  I’ve visited Noilly Prat many times over the years, and the guided visits are constantly evolving and becoming better organized.  The visitor’s reception area is located in a large, spacious hall, with the shop at one end and the ticket desk at the other end.  Old (and now unused) equipment is used for decoration.

Did you notice the green doors in the upper picture above?  The lettering translates to “Behind these doors the first French vermouth is being made”!  The doors were opened with great flourish by our guide and an assistant, to reveal the Chai des Mistelles, the cellar where the mistelle wines are stored.

Huge oak casks line the cellar down both sides.  Louis Noilly had them built in 1859 – they were made from Canadian oak, and they have been in use ever since!  I’d never come across the word mistelle before my visits to Noilly Prat.  Apparently, this is lightly fermented grape juice, to which neutral alcohol has been added, to avoid it turning into vinegar.  This process leaves residual sugars in the wine, and that adds a little sweetness to the vermouth.

I mentioned earlier that the site in Marseillan was intended for the ageing of wines.  In the days before modern transport appeared, wines were sent by boat, with the barrels often tied up on the decks of ships.  The barrels and their wines were exposed to sun, wind, rain, mists and sea air.  On longer journeys, this produced oxidation in the wine, which gave it a taste all of its own.  Louis Noilly wanted to recreate some of this taste for his vermouth, and chose Marseillan since it was close to the sea.

From the Chai des Mistelles we stepped out into an enclosed yard, where hundreds of oak barrels were out in the open air, exposed to the elements.  The sun beats down on them in summer, the sea mists impart an imperceptible flavour, and the temperature changes throughout the year affect the ageing of the wine.  Seeing all those barrels lined up was a spectacular sight!!

The picture below is from one of my earlier visits to Noilly Prat – I think it was in 2004, when visitors were still allowed into the modern vermoutherie, where the wines are blended and flavoured with aromatics.  That part of the site is now out-of-bounds for visitors, unfortunately.

The barrels come from many different parts – they are bought once they have been used for a good 10 years, some for the production of whisky and cognac, others from port and wine makers.  They are used purely for storage and ageing – because they are second-hand, none of the tannins and flavours from the wood will be imparted to the wine.  A cooperage workshop on-site maintains and repairs the barrels – being outside in all weathers means that they need some TLC from time to time!

Our next stop was the museum, where the history of the company and its vermouth were illustrated.

To turn wine into vermouth, it is infused with a blend of herbs and spices.  The recipe for the original dry vermouth has not changed since Joseph Noilly first developed it, and the ingredients are still bought all over the world!  To ship them, in the days when shipping meant only transport by boat, special cardboard containers were developed.

The recipes for the herbal blends which flavour the vermouth, are closely guarded secrets.  However, in the museum we got to see approximately what is added:

Noilly Prat produces four different kinds of vermouth:  original dry, extra dry, red, and amber.  The pictures below show a simplified version of the recipe – not everything is listed.  Our guide told us that 27 different aromatics are used in the composition of the amber vermouth.

Here are their displays showing the differences in ingredients in their different vermouths.

Once the wines have been carefully aged and blended, a mixture of herbs and spices is added, and the wine is left to macerate with the aromatics for 21 days.  This maceration is done in casks like the ones in the following picture – 14 kilos of dried herbs and spices are added to each cask!

During the 21 days, the wines are stirred  by hand for three minutes every morning, to ensure that the herbs and spices infuse evenly.  A special tool was developed for that purpose.  You can see it in the picture below:

The curved blade at the end of the handle allows the cellar man to lift the herbs which have fallen to the bottom of the cask.  After the 21 days, the wine is strained and decanted into large refrigerated tanks, where all small particles settle to the bottom over a period of time, leaving the vermouth sparkling clear!  Finally, the finished vermouth is transported to Beaucaire by tanker, where it is bottled.

The last stop on our guided visit was the tasting bar – our appetites had been whetted, and finally it was time to taste the results of all that work!

Our guide poured samples of the four different vermouths for us to taste, starting with extra dry, then original dry, followed by the red, and finally the amber.

The original dry is exported all over the world, the extra dry is sold mostly in anglophone countries, the red is sold only outside of France, and the amber is only available in Marseillan!  All four taste very different, and I’m not entirely certain which one I prefer.

Following our introduction to the four Noilly Prat vermouths, our guide took us to the room next door, the so-called cocktail bar!

Large glasses were lined up on the shiny brass top of the bar, and into each glass our guide dropped an ice ball.  Yes, an ice ball!!  Apparently this takes 40 minutes to melt and is therefore far superior to ice cubes!!  Guess what? The moulds were for sale in the shop, and of course I bought one!!  🙂

Everyone could pick their favourite vermouth, and our guide prepared them as follows:

  • A slice of lime zest with the extra dry
  • A slice of lemon zest with the original dry
  • A slice of orange zest with the red
  • A slice of grapefruit zest with the amber

Adding the citrus zest and the ice brought out completely different flavours in the vermouth – it was somewhat of a revelation for me!

We’d come to the end of our visit, next stop the shop, where I bought a bottle of each of the four vermouths as well as the ice ball mould – it was too good an opportunity to miss!  Enjoy – but please remember to drink responsibly!

To find out more and/or to book a guided tour, visit https://www.noillyprat.com

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International Women’s Rights Day – 8th March 2018

This post was kindly written by Suzanne, a friend and neighbour in Saint-Chinian.  She’s a member of an association called WIC, short for Women’s International Club.  The association is very active and brings people of all nationalities together.  A big THANK YOU to Suzanne for sharing this visit!!


This year, WIC (Women’s International Club) chose to visit a rather special vineyard to celebrate Women. The vineyard is special in that it is run solely by a woman – Lidewij – at Terre des Dames, just outside Murviel-les-Béziers – a beautifully situated spot.

The tour was interesting: after explaining the ups and downs of her adventures in launching herself in this new life, Lidewij took us for a walk amongst the fields of vines, showing us how bio-culture can regulate itself.

The lay-out of the vineyards in the Languedoc region is quite particular in that we have small fields of vines surrounded by hedges and trees, in contrast to other regions such as Bordeaux where the fields are immense. These trees and bushes create nesting places for all sorts of fauna, which have various effects on the fields: the birds eat some of the harmful insects. The quality of the soil is checked, amongst others, by counting the amount of a certain kind of spider per square meter. Due to the presence of the hedges, the spiders accumulate there and then are spread out over the fields by the wind.

The almond trees were coming to the end of their flowering season, but still carried some of last year’s fruit:

Lidewij pointed out the various species of grape that she grows. Unfortunately at this time of year, we couldn’t really appreciate this, what with all the plants being bare and waiting for their spring foliage.

Lidewij also explained how she tried to balance out yield and quality – a complicated equation, as it is almost impossible to obtain both at the same time. A certain type of pruning will increase the yield, whereas another way of pruning will improve quality.

The tour ended with a visit of the storage area and a tasting of a few very interesting wines, red and white.

If you fancy a very enjoyable afternoon, you can contact Lidewij Van Wilgen on mas.desdames@orange.fr. She speaks extremely good English and French, as well as Dutch.

Here is some more information about Lidewij’s wines:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Aperitif anyone?

In French, the word aperitif has several meanings.  At the base, an aperitif is an alcoholic beverage, taken before a meal.  The meaning also includes all the food and nibbles served with this drink, and it also means the convivial time spent with other people.    If you are invited for an aperitif (or apero) in France, there will be a selection of drinks of varying strengths:  whiskey, beer, pastis, vermouth, flavoured wines (more about those in a moment), kir (white wine with blackcurrant liqueur), straight wine, sparkling wine, muscat, cocktails – you name it!

Then there is the food, which can range from the simple – a few nuts and crisps – to the very elaborate aperitif dinatoire, which is a meal in itself.  I tend to go the middle road, below some pictures of aperitif tables laid out with a variety of food:  crisps, pate, cheese, sliced sausages, radishes, dips, crackers, cut up cucumbers and carrots, tapenade.

Last year, I was given a recipe for a  flavoured wine which is typically French: Vin d’Orange. Thank you Anne!!  This drink is made with Seville oranges, white or rose wine, clear spirit, sugar, vanilla beans and lemons.

The clear spirit is 40% alcohol and in France it is called Alcool pour Fruits. For the wine I used locally made chardonnay.  The oranges (also locally grown) and lemons were washed and cut up into quarters.

Gratuitous picture of cut-up Seville oranges 🙂

The wine, spirit and sugar were put into a large enough non-metallic receptacle, and the oranges and vanilla beans added.  The whole was given a good stir, covered and left to macerate for two months.  I gave it a stir from time to time – the aroma was heavenly!

After the two months, I fished out the oranges, strained the wine through a double layer of cheesecloth, and bottled it.  It is best served chilled!  Cheers!!

Below you’ll find the recipe in a printable format.  Please drink responsibly.

Vin d'Orange

  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

A slightly bitter orange flavoured wine, perfect for a summer aperitif.

Ingredients

  • 5 litres of white or rose wine
  • 1 litre of clear spirit (40% alcohol)
  • 1.5 kg sugar
  • 1 kg Seville oranges
  • 2 unwaxed lemons
  • 2 vanilla beans

Directions

  1. Prepare a non-metallic recipient, large enough to hold all your ingredients.  It should be scrupulously clean and you should be able to cover it hermetically.
  2. Wash and quarter the oranges and lemons.
  3. Add the wine, alcohol and sugar to the recipient and stir to dissolve the sugar.
  4. Add the fruit and the vanilla beans, stir and cover.
  5. Leave to macerate for two months, stirring from time to time.
  6. After two months, remove the fruit and vanilla beans and strain the wine through a double layer of cheesecloth.  Bottle and cork.

Notes: As I prefer my drinks dry, I only used 500g of the sugar for my vin d’orange.  You could start with that quantity and add more sugar later if you prefer.  If you are unable to find Seville oranges, you can use regular oranges and add 20 g cinchona tree (quinine) bark.

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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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Full of cheer

I’ve just received a lovely message from Noelle, one of the regular readers of this blog, and resident of Saint-Chinian:

I just wanted to thank you for a suggestion on your blog: “La randonnee de Bacchus” from Berlou.

Lucien and I took the hike on Sunday June 4.
After a week of not knowing if it was going to rain, we woke up to a beautiful day, sunny, just a little breeze.
As per instruction we were at Berlou for 10:30 AM. After registration we were given a glass to hang around our neck, and then we were on our way. Since we were among the last group to depart I never felt crowded on the walk. I was told we were around 350 people but I never saw such a crowd. Actually I thought a lot of the time Lucien and I were the only ones on the trail. At each stop the crowd was only around 50 people. The wines and matching food were excellent. Plenty of time to drink and eat, seating sometimes in the shade of a tree on the ground, on a long table with chairs, or on fallen tree which served as a bench. At each of the 7 stops we tried different wines: a sparkling wine, 2 roses, 1 white, 2 reds and a sweet wine. I thought I would get drunk drinking the mix but with plenty of water it did not happen.
The trail is not an easy one but the views are grandiose on the top of the mountain. With such a day, we were able to see very far, the sleeping Lady, towns, wineries…  We were even able to pick some cherries from a lonesome tree on the side of the trail – just refreshing. We did met a few people, mostly Belgiam English and French, living close by.
We ended the walk through the narrows streets of Berlou, a small and pretty village with many flowers on balconies, and on the bridge. At this time of the year it was a feast for the eyes with all the different colours.
Thank you again for suggesting this “randonnee”!
Have you followed in my footsteps and visited any of the places I have written about?  I’d love to hear about your experiences, feel free to share them!!