The spice of kings

The spice of kings is saffron – a spice as expensive, or sometimes more so, than gold.  The reason behind the high price is not its rarity, or a difficulty in growing the spice.  It is entirely down to the laborious process of harvesting!

The saffron crocus (crocus sativus) is an autumn flowering perennial.  The red “threads” (the stigmas and styles of the flower) will turn into the precious spice once dry.  I’ve been growing saffron in my garden for a number of years, with varying degrees of success.  Last year, none of the corms produced any flowers.  This year has been much better! 🙂

One day last week,  I was able to pick twelve flowers!!  Saffron flowers emerge shortly after the leaves appear, sometime in October.  The leaves persist until around May, when they dry out and the plants lie dormant over the summer.  Saffron  plants need free draining soil and a sunny position – apart from that they aren’t fussy.  I adore all the different colours in the saffron flowers, they are so vibrant and gorgeous!

The flowers should be picked as soon as they open.  The threads are then removed from the flowers and dried.  I like to keep the flowers in water until they wilt, they are so beautiful to look at!

Each flower has three threads and produces on average 30 mg of fresh saffron or 7 mg of dried saffron.  About 150 flowers yield one gram of saffron!  Saffron flowers need to be hand picked, and the threads are also removed by hand, hence its very high price!!

Here’s what the threads above amount to after drying:

Not a great deal, but I’m hoping that my saffron harvest isn’t quite finished yet!!  🙂

The use of saffron dates back more than 3,500 years, and it has always been an expensive spice.  It’s been used as a fabric dye, for medicinal use, and for culinary purposes. Here are some dishes which wouldn’t be the same without saffron:  risotto milanese, paella, bouillabaisse, jewelled rice, and biriyani.  There are many other culinary preparations which use saffron – do you have any favourites??

And to finish this post, here’s a tip which came from the grower I bought my corms from.  He told me never to add the saffron threads directly to a dish.  He recommended that the threads be soaked in a some warm water for a little while, strained out and dried.  They could then be used up to three times, much like a vanilla bean.  Using saffron that way makes it a lot less expensive!

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A taste of autumn

Until not all that long ago, chestnuts used to be very much a part of everyday life in Southern France.  For the people in the more remote hillside areas, chestnuts were a staple of their diet – they would add chestnuts to stews, make them into soups, use them for making breads and pancakes and much more.

Chestnuts are high in protein and carbohydrates, but they have a very short shelf-life when fresh.  To be able to eat them year round, they had to be dried in a secadou, a two-story building, roofed with slate.  The floor between the two stories would be made from closely spaced iron rods or wooden batons.  On the ground floor a smoldering fire would be lit, and the chestnuts would be spread out on the floor above.

The secadou is on the very right of the picture

The heat and smoke rose up through the floor and cured and dried the fresh chestnuts, turning them into chataignons.  The outer shell and inner skin had to be stripped off the ‘nut’, partly with a machine and partly by hand,  Once all that was done, the chataignons had a very long shelf life.  They could be ground into flour, or rehydrated as required.

Today’s recipe is a very simple and delicious one.  For each person you need five chataignons, a good handful of lambs lettuce (mache), and a heaped tablespoon of lardons.  If you are unable to get chataignons, you can also use fresh chestnuts for this recipe.

Chataignons – dried chestnuts

If you use chataignons they need to be soaked, brought to the boil and simmered until tender.  The cooking time will depend on the age of the chataignons.  They should be just cooked and still hold their shape. Mine took one hour.

“Chataignons” cooked on the left, dried on the right.

Blanch the lardons by dropping them into boiling water.  Let the water come to the boil again, then strain, and rinse the lardons with cold water.  Drain them and set aside.

Raw lardons on the left, blanched lardons on the right

Wash the lambs lettuce (mache) and dry it well with the help of a salad spinner or a tea towel.

When you are ready to serve the salad, heat a frying pan on medium heat.  The pan should be large enough to hold all the ingredients in a single layer.  Add a little olive oil, then add the drained chataignons and lardons.  Cook slowly, gently turning the lardons and chataignons from time to time, until they are golden.

Can you hear the bacon pieces sizzling??

Arrange the lettuce on individual serving plates, and distribute the chataignons and lardons evenly between the plates.  Add a splash of red wine vinegar to the frying pan to “deglaze” it, then pour the juices from the frying pan over the lettuce.  Serve immediately.  Bon Appetit!!

I bought my chataignons from Fritz and Almuth Schwaan of Ferme de Dausse, near Saint Etienne d’Albagnan.  You may also find chataignons at the Fete de la Chataigne in Saint-Pons-de-Thomieres on November October 28 and 29, 2017.

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Saint Aphrodise revisited

Two weeks ago, I hinted that I would write about my recent visit to the church of Saint Aphrodise in Beziers.  Back in 2013 I was lucky enough to be able to visit that church.  Work to save the building from falling down was scheduled to start shortly after my visit, and it was going to be closed to the public for some time.  You can read about my previous visit of the church in this article.

For the 2017 European Heritage days, the Friends of Saint Aphrodise were once more offering guided visits of the building.  This was the first time since the renovation work had started in 2013!  Work was completed earlier this year, and much was changed during the intervening years!

The facade of the nave has been restored and the little square in front of it has been made more accessible.  However, both of the doors were locked when I visited.

The gates on Rue du Puits de la Courte, by which I had previously entered the church, were also firmly locked!  I kept on walking and finally got to Place Saint Aphrodise, where I had tried in vain to enter the church so many times before my very first visit.  This time the gate was open – third time lucky!!

The gate allows access into a corridor which passes through a house, and the alleyway on the other side of the house leads to a door into the nave of the church.  The nave was the part of the church which was in danger of collapsing, and which has now been consolidated and reinforced.

According to our guide, the nave of the original building would have only had one central aisle.  The chapels, i.e. the parts outside the main aisle, were added later,  Trouble started when stone vaulting was added in the 18th century.  The weight of the stone was just too much for the building, which had been designed to support a simple wooden roof.  In the picture above, you can see the metal rods which were inserted to tie the columns together.  A lot more of this kind of ironwork is in the attic and not visible.

The nave had been completely closed off on my last visit – even the opening to the choir had been blocked – so it was wonderful to see this space at last.  The renovation works had concentrated on making the structure of the nave safe, without carrying out any renovations on the interior – there’s plenty left to be done!  If you look carefully at the picture above, you’ll see barriers closing the choir off – that is now out of bounds.  However, our guide led us in there for a good look.  🙂

The baldachin over the high altar is 18th century, the paintings on the walls are 19th century, as are the stained glass windows.  Wealthy donors sponsored the windows, and in return their names were added to the windows!

Antonin Injalbert, whose summer residence I wrote about last week, was commissioned to create a statue of Christ on the cross for the high altar.  When the sculpture was delivered, it was deemed far too modern by the parishioners, so it was hidden away in a corner of the church.  After the first world war, the parish wanted to create a memorial for the parishioners who had been killed in the war, and Injalbert’s statue was used as the centrepiece for the memorial.

The two reliquary busts seemed to be in the same spot where I had seen them four years previous!

I had my telephoto lens with me on the day of my visit, so I decided to try to capture the little putti, which seemed to be proliferating about the church:

Some of the carvings in the nave are very detailed – I can’t tell if they are stone or plaster.  I imagine that they are mostly 18th century.

Some of the altars in the nave are very baroque:

The organ looks impressive.  When the renovation work was finished,  someone decided to see if the organ was still working.  It was given a good clean (several days’ work with vacuum cleaners, removing decades of dust), and then someone flicked the switch.  Almost miraculously, the organ came to life and could be played!!  It still needs a thorough overhaul and tuning, but it is in relatively good shape.  There are plans for organ concerts next year!

Here are two close-up shots of the statues on the pillars of the organ loft:

The association Les Amis de Saint Aphrodise is very active in Beziers.  The members have been involved in organising some of the guided visits I have written about, such as Time with the Swiss and Heritage of Rememberance.

I’ll finish this post with a picture of the collection box.  The postcards were 30 cents in today’s money (bear in mind that the church was abandoned a long time ago!).  The sign reads:  “God says you must earn your bread by the sweat of your brow. Not by robbing the collection box”!  The exclamation mark is mine! 🙂

 

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Apples aplenty

I would like to dedicate this blog to the memory of Nadine Holm, a dear friend who passed away on September 4, 2017.  She would have enjoyed our outing to this event tremendously!!

There are several villages by the name of Aigues Vives in France – I’ve counted eight of them on the ViaMichelin website!  So it’s important to pick the right village!  The one I visited recently is near Carcassonne, and the postcode is 11800, just so you know.  This village has been holding an apple, rice and wine fair for some time – this year was the 20th time!  Why I’ve never visited before is a mystery to me, but I’m glad I went this year!

Aigues Vives is located on the edge of the Etang Asseche de Marseillette, a drained marsh, where the apples, rice and wines for sale at the fair are grown.  More about the Etang a little later in this post.

The village was beautifully decorated for the occasion – the entrance arch to one of the streets was made from apples and rice straw.

In one of the squares, the iconic Citroen 2CV car had been recreated with apples:

Signs had been specially made to direct visitors:

The rock on which the church stands was decorated with strands of apples:

Near the entrance to the church stood a windmill decorated with apples – the thatch on top was made with rice straw, and the sails were turning!!

There was even a lady with an apple skirt:

Apples were for sale at almost every corner:

Other stalls sold a variety of delicious edible goodies:

In the village hall, a communal meal was served by a caterer – I didn’t go to that.  I did go to the village park, which had been set up as a “food village” with a number of food stalls and tables and chairs under the trees.  A group of musicians were providing entertainment!

Around the park, a number of signs had been put up.  The one below shows the names of all the apple growers in the Etang de Marseillette:

This sign gives the names of the wine, plum and rice growers:

A few sayings:

One grain of rice can tip the scale

Three apples a day – everlasting health

Wine gets better over time, and we get better with wine!

A cider press had been set up on a stage in the village.  The apples (granny smith, golden and gala) were first pulped:

The pulp was collected in buckets lined with large squares of fabric:

Once the buckets were full, the cloth was tied up and the bags were put into the press – soon the juice started to flow.

The apple juice was poured into plastic cups, and everyone could have as much as they wanted!  It was very delicious!!

In order for visitors to find out more about the Etang de Marseillette, a number of guided visits had been arranged.  Two “little trains” were taking groups of people on the guided visits.

The Etang de Marseillette is left over from the time when the Mediterranean sea covered large tracts of land about two million years ago.  When the water levels dropped and the sea receded, a number of lakes stayed behind, and one of them was at Marseillette.  In time this became a marshy salt lake, covering an area of around 2000 hectares (20 square kilometers or 7.2 square miles).  Three small streams fed the lake, and it was often deemed to be the reason for outbreaks of local epidemics.

In the Middle Ages, attempts were made to drain the lake, which were more or less successful, but the drains silted up and nature reclaimed the lake.  In 1804, Marie Anne Coppinger, the then owner of the Etang, carried out immense works and drained the lake, but the returns from the land were insufficient, and she bankrupted herself with the project.  The next owner carried on with improvements.  He built a tunnel to bring water for irrigation from the river Aude.  The tunnel is over 2 km long and in some places it is 60 metres below ground!  In 1852 the Etang was sold once more, and the new owners decided to divide the land and sell off smaller parcels.  With no overall owner, the maintenance of the irrigation and drainage canals was soon neglected again.

In 1901, Joseph Camman, an engineer, bought 800 hectares of land in the Etang and started a campaign to improve the irrigation.  One of the main problems is the fact that salt left in the soil will come to the surface if the land is not sufficiently irrigated.  Plants which grow there, produce only very shallow roots of about 35cm, partly because of the heavy clay soil and partly because of the salt.  Keeping the soil well hydrated is the key to successful cultivation!

Joseph Camman also built a hydroelectric power station, to harness the power of the water coming from the river Aude.  Unfortunately, the power station has long since been abandoned, and the building is in a very poor state of repair.

The pond on which the power station stands serves as a holding tank for the distribution of water to the three main irrigation channels.

In order to keep the canals from silting up, Joseph Camman designed “cleaning boats”, which increased the current in the canals as they travelled through and flushed the silt away.  These days, modern diggers are used.

As we travelled through the Etang, we saw orchards, vineyards and a rice field.  The rice had mostly been harvested, but a little bit had been left standing for us to see.  The apple trees were heavy with fruit, and of course all the fruit you saw earlier in this post was grown here.

There is only one grower of rice active in the Etang.  He produces a number of different kinds: red, long grain, short grain etc.  I bought several different kinds of rice, and I have already tried the mix of red and white rice which was delicious!  And of course I also bought some apples!!

 

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The sculptor’s garden

During this year’s European heritage weekend I went to visit a selection of different places – some I’d been to before, and others that I had never visited.  The garden of the Villa Antonine in Beziers was one of the latter.

I parked in the car park near the church of the Immaculate Conception (that’ll be in another blog post 🙂 ), and walked along Boulevard de Geneve to where it meets Rue Jean Valette.  Villa Antonine occupies the corner plot between these two streets.

The walk was lovely – there were so many interesting houses to be seen along the way!

Villa Antonine was built by the father of the sculptor Jean-Antoine Injalbert in 1884 as a summer residence.  At that time, it would have stood on its own, a little away from the city.  Today, the surrounding area is very much built up.  When you enter the garden, you leave all the hustle and bustle behind you, it is (normally) an oasis of calm.  Not surprisingly, on the day of my visit it was busier than usual.

Jean-Antoine Injalbert enlarged the property he inherited from his father, adding a couple of artists’ studios and installing some of his sculptures in the gardens.  The studios were open to visitors on the day I visited, with exhibitions by Christine Granier (sculptures), Loux (paintings), both of whose works can be seen in the photo below, and works by Geff Strik.

Many wonderful little details can be discovered on the buildings – most of them are Injalbert’s work!

There are two very different gardens – one which is entered from Boulevard de Geneve and which leads up to the original villa.  The layout of this garden is more formal, with flower beds edged with box-tree hedges, gravel paths, and lawns.

Against one wall is a pergola, where a wisteria shades a Neptune fountain, which is sadly not working any longer.

The other garden is behind a second building, which is at a right angle to the original villa.  This building has a slate-roofed tower by its side and a beautiful double staircase!

This garden is shaded by the fully grown trees – in Injalbert’s time it would have looked very different, with all the trees much smaller!

For the heritage weekend, two concerts had been organised in partnership with the Beziers academy of music.   I could hear the musicians rehearsing in the background while I was strolling through the garden, the music mixing with the sound of the splashing fountain.  It was too good a moment not to be captured:

The musicians were Fabio Galluci (mandolin) and Sabine Liguori-Delmas (piano).

Of course I stayed for the concert!  Before the concert started, I had time to take some more pictures.  Here’s another fountain with a very funny sculpture:

And this is a close-up of the Neptune fountain:

One of the beauties who hold up the pergola:

A lot of the sculptures in the garden were “sketches” – preparations for the final sculptures.  Injalbert’s works can be found all over the region, as well as in Paris and farther afield.  He was fairly famous in his own time, but his lasting fame has been completely overshadowed by Rodin.

Today, Villa Antonine belongs to the town of Beziers, and it is currently used by a charitable association called Les Ecluses de l’Art, whose aim is to promote contemporary art by making it accessible to a wider audience. Its purpose is to set up artistic events in order to support the creators of today and the creation of new works.  Workshops, artists-in-residence and courses all help towards that goal.

The gardens of Villa Antonine are open to the public every day – do take a stroll around the gardens and don’t forget to let me know your impressions!

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Garden fresh

During my recent blogging holiday, I had many delicious meals: at home, with friends, in restaurants, and at festivals …

On a day out with friends in Perpignan, I went to Restaurant La Galinette, following the recommendation of one of my guests (thank you, Tove!!).  Christophe Comes, the chef proprietor of the restaurant, has a potager of 3 hectares which he cultivates with the help of his father.  The produce from this vegetable garden plays a starring role on the menu!

La Galinette has a star in the Guide Michelin – my friends and I decided to order the tasting menu!  Without further ado, here are the food pictures – :

Salmonejo de tomates “Green Zebra”, basilic pourpre, feta.

For the Salmonejo, a cold tomato soup was poured into the plate – it was so tempting to eat that I totally forgot to take another picture!! 🙂

Collection de nos tomates anciennes; huile de l’hort et condiments

The collection of heritage tomatoes included Black Krim and Ananas, and the plate was as pretty as a picture!  It also tasted divine.

It still looked like a (modern art) picture when there was nothing left!!

Saumon sauvage a peine cuit, oseille de Belleville, concombre epineux et pain noir.

Wild salmon served on a sorrel puree, spiny cucumber and black bread.

Vive sauvage de Mediterranee, fine brandade de morue, jus de piperade au chorizo.

Wild sting fish (greater weever), served with salt cod puree and piperade sauce (made with sweet bell peppers and chorizo).

Epaule d’agneau catalan confite, pulpe d’aubergines “di Fierenze”

Slow-cooked shoulder of Catalan lamb, surrounded by various preparations made with aubergines: roasted, deep-fried in panko crust, braised, and puréed.

Pasteque rafraichie d’agastache anisee, sorbet melon “piel de sapo”

A generous slice of watermelon topped with candied melon and melon sorbet – very refreshing!

Peches “duras” d’Ille sur Tet, idee d’une melba

A take on peach melba, made with “duras” peaches from Ile sur Tet, with raspberry sauce and peach and vanilla sorbets.  The berries at the front of the picture are sugar frosted redcurrants.

This was a very memorable meal, every course as delicious as the previous/next!  If you are in Perpignan you should definitely try this restaurant!  If you are not already there, perhaps you want to plan a visit – it’s a wonderful town to explore!  The lunch menu is priced at €25 for three courses, the tasting menus are €48 for six courses and €54 for eight courses, served for lunch or dinner.  La Galinette is open for lunch and dinner Tuesday through Saturday.  Reservations are recommended!

I leave you with a few random pictures taken in Perpignan:

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