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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Now you see it, now you dont!

One recent sunny Sunday afternoon, I drove to the village of Aigues Vives for a guided visit around the river Cesse.  A fairly large group of people had gathered on the square in front of the town hall – perhaps because the weather was so beautifully sunny?

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Once the guides had settled who would do what, we started on our walk towards the riverbed.

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When you are in Aigues Vives, the river Cesse is nowhere in evidence.  But head north, along Avenue de la Cesse, and you’ll see signs that the river isn’t far away!

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As you leave the village, the road gently slopes down to the riverbed.  At the bottom of the hill we took a left, and soon we were standing on the banks of the Cesse.  It looks a bit dry, wouldn’t you agree?

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Here’s the guide who explained why there was no water in the river:IMG_4020

It was a rather fascinating explanation!  The Cesse can be divided into three distinct sections, the upper, middle and lower sections.  The upper section, from which the river springs, in Ferrals-les-Montagnes, resembles a mountain torrent which runs pretty much all year.  About 16 km downstream from the source, at a place called Moulin de Monsieur, the middle section starts, and the river appears to dry up.  The middle section is about 20 km long and ends at Moulin de Madame, where the river resurfaces again.  The lower river flows all year round from Moulin de Madame through Bize Minervois and on to join the Aude river at Salleles d’Aude.

We were looking at the middle section of the Cesse, and on average this part of the river is dry two-thirds of the year.  That’s not to say that there is no water at all.  The area is made up of limestone, and over millennia the water has carved away at the stone.  If you drive to Minerve, you’ll get a good idea of just how much has been cut away.  The theory is that the river runs underground in the middle section, and only surfaces when there is enough water to fill up the river bed.  That usually happens during winter when it has rained enough.

Just to give you an idea of what it can look like, here is a picture of La Caunette, taken a few years ago, at a time when there was plenty of water:

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And here are some pictures (also from a few years ago) when there was water flowing just outside Agel, downstream from Aigues Vives.  This was taken not far away from Moulin de Madame, and you can see the old dam and a sluice gate for the mill.

Let’s track back to our walk in Aigues Vives though.  The walk continued along the river, and we came to a place where you could see what looked like two big piles of stones, on either side of the river.  One of our guides explained that they were the remains of a footbridge, which had been built in the 17th century.  Wooden walkways rested on a central pillar in the riverbed, and allowed people to cross to the other side, even at times of high water.  Unfortunately, the central pillar was swept away by the floods during the winter of 1999, and with it the bridge.  The force of water is not to be underestimated!!

The path turned away from the river and we started to walk through the vineyards.  Even though the vines are dormant right now, the vineyards can look so pretty!!

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Where one vineyard ends another one starts, but sometimes they are interspersed with a few almond trees such as these:

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There’s nothing as beautiful as white blossoms against a bright blue sky on a spring day!

After our walk I had some time to wander around the back streets of Aigues Vives.  As in Puisserguier (see last week’s post), I had never really stopped to explore the village. It has an interesting mix of old and older buildings!

I wonder if the name of this road means that it can be windy here??

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These two beauties were enjoying a nap in the sunshine.

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They were very happy to pose for the camera!! 🙂

The bakery which this sign points to has long been closed, unfortunately.

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But I came across the restaurant below, the Auberge Minervoise, which is very much open for business.  I’ve put it on my list of restaurants to try!

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So there you have it – a wonderful afternoon walk, with plenty of interesting information!