Party time!!

Today is France’s national holiday – a day which remembers the storming of the Bastille fortress on July 14, 1789, as well as the Fete of Unity (Fete de la Federation) on July 14, 1790.  All over France there will be celebrations of one kind or another.  In some of the very small villages it may be a communal meal with music and dancing on the day.  Larger villages can afford to spread the festivities over several days, and in many towns there will be fireworks and parades.

The most spectacular fireworks display takes place in Paris, where the Eiffel Tower is beautifully showcased by truly amazing pyrotechnics.

The festivities in Saint-Chinian will go on for three days, with bands and parties.  Here is the programme:

The 14th of July is also the start of the French summer holidays, and in the spirit of that I will be taking a bit of a break.  I hope you will all have a wonderful summer, and I look forward to catching up with you again in August!  if anyone would like to write a guest post in my absence, please let me know!

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Summer celebrations

By the time you get to read this post, the excitement of the past month will have abated a little!

Saint-Chinian has had a busy summer, packed with events!  Since the night markets were so successful last year, they were held each Tuesday throughout July and August.  There was music, food, and shopping, all in the main square, decorated with French flag bunting and coloured lights!

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The passing of the Tour de France through Saint-Chinian on July 13 was a day of great excitement for the village!  It took the same route as last time (in 2011).  First came the “Caravane”, a long line of all kinds of publicity vehicles!  They distributed all kinds of goodies: hats, bottled water, jelly beans, newspapers, shopping bags, pens – you name it.  All thrown at the bystanders!!

The cyclists came into the village along the Avenue de Villespassans, down the main street, and then they took a sharp right onto Avenue Raoul Bayou.  Luckily for us, the sharp turn slowed them down somewhat!! 😀

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And hot on the heels of the cyclists (excuse the pun) came Bastille Day!!  The national holiday celebrates the storming of the Bastille (a prison in Paris) on July 14, 1789, an important event of the French revolution, and also celebrates the Fete de la Federation, which took place on July 14, 1790, and which celebrated the unity of the French people.

In Paris there is a huge military parade, along with an impressive display of planes flying in formation overhead:

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And at night, the Eiffel Tower is lit up with the most amazing fireworks:

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But all over France, even the smallest villages ‘go to town’ and make the national holiday a festive event!  Look at how prettily the town hall in Saint-Chinian was decorated:

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The fireworks in Saint-Chinian are usually not be sniffed at either – they are pretty impressive!!

Unfortunately, this year’s fireworks in Saint-Chinan had to be postponed, due to very strong winds.  To everybody’s great distress, Bastille day ended in horror for the people of Nice and throughout France – next year it won’t feel the same.

After Bastille day came the Fete du Cru.  Since it was not really a celebration but a wine fair, it was deemed to be OK to go ahead during the mourning period for the victims of the terrorist attack in Nice.  As always, the market square had been lined with two rows of booths, and you could taste the wines on display simply by buying a glass at the booth by the entrance.  I’ve written about this great event a few years back.  You can read the post here.

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Did you go to any festivities this year?  What was your favourite?

Boom bang-a-bang

Summer evenings in July are often punctuated by flashes and noise – the kind made by fireworks 😉 !!  Even small villages will have fireworks displays around Bastille day, on the 14th of July, and the displays range from OK to impressive to totally stunning.

The town of Beziers is only 30 minutes by car from St Chinian – the fireworks there are always displayed on July 13, and set off from the bridge which takes the Canal du Midi across the Orb River.  I went this year with a few friends and together we braved the drizzle, whilst waiting for night to fall completely.   When the fireworks started I found that my camera battery had run out of power, and that I had left the spare battery at home – oh no 😦 !  I was lucky though!  One of my friends filmed part of the fireworks, and has agreed to share the video with you!  Thank you, Helena!!  E-mail subscribers, please remember that you will have to visit http://www.midihideaways.wordpress.com to view the videos.

I am sure you will agree with me that the fireworks are pretty spectacular!  Since we were sheltering from the rain, our viewpoint was probably not the best, but still…  I’ll be heading there again next year!!

July 14th is the main day for fireworks all across France, and the village of Bize Minervois sends the rockets up from the footbridge across the river.  I got there in plenty of time, armed with two cameras and plenty of back-up batteries!!

The preparations looked impressive, with all the various boxes of fireworks set up between breeze blocks, and many wires on the floor.  I found a great spot on the main bridge, and set myself up with the cameras.  As it got darker, more and more spectators assembled on the bridge, and when night had finally fallen, a procession of children with lanterns (accompanied by their parents) made its way from the village across the bridge and down to the river bed.

Soon everyone was settled and eagerly awaiting the action!  The display started with a few loud bangs, and then the rockets followed.  I had set up one camera on a tripod, and was experimenting to see if I could get some interesting shots.  I’m not sure that it was very successful, I’ll let you judge for yourself.

Some of the pictures are quite “arty”, probably due to camera shake :).  To add to my problems, the street lights stayed on throughout the whole display.  Here are two brief videos of the display:

I was very lucky to catch another fireworks display this week, in Carcassonne.   No loud bangs and smoke though.  This display was of the culinary type, and was served at Restaurant Le Parc.  It was every bit as exciting as the rockets in the sky.

After we had taken our seats, we were served some bread accompanied by a phial of Picholine olive oil.  The instructions were to pour the oil into one of the channels of the dish, sprinkle some of the sea salt (from Gruissan) over it and dip pieces of bread into it.  At the same time there was also a small dish of Parmesan shortbread biscuits.

Next appeared the “amuse bouche” a beautiful platter with three delicious morsels for each person:  a meringue topped with aubergine caviar, a light-as-a-feather sponge cake with foie gras and chopped pistachio nuts, and a piece of marinated sardine on a slice of melon, topped with some flying fish caviar.  Oh my – all those mouthfuls were incredibly delicious!!

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Next came a “tartar” of tomatoes – the waiter explained that they used a variety of heirloom tomatoes of different colours – topped with mascarpone and purple basil.  The foam is a vodka emulsion.

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Next came a more substantial starter!  Beef tartar, topped with an oyster, and accompanied by a fried potato.  The tartar sat on a green sauce, which had all of us guessing, until our waiter told us that it was watercress puree.  I’m not normally a fan of raw oysters, but this was a very tasty combination!

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The next course was truly heavenly – a crouton topped with white beans from Castelnaudary and buffalo mozzarella, and finished off with shavings of summer truffle, the whole accompanied by some rocket leaves.  The summer truffles are not as pungent as the black winter truffles but their flavour is every bit as good, and the combination with the beans and the mozzarella was inspired.

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Just when we thought that it couldn’t get much better, the next course arrived.  A bowl of orzo risotto (orzo are small, rice-shaped pasta), topped with slices of blue lobster, which was topped with what looked like a piece of clingfilm.  Not in this kind of restaurant though – it was a sheet of soya, and our waiters soon came with phials and poured over some lobster stock, seasoned with soya sauce and olive oil.  The soya sheet magically shrank and clung to the lobster slices, while the risotto soaked up some of the juices.

There was no letting up at this point – the next course arrived, and it was as pretty as a picture, and as tasty as anything which had come before: a perfectly cooked piece of sea bass fillet, accompanied by some beautifully prepared vegetables, and aioli.  On the top left there is potato, topped with a poached egg, and that in turn is topped with a squid ink crisp – another divine mouthful!   The squid rings had the most exquisite caramelised taste, and the aioli was as light as a feather.

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The last of the main courses appeared next – a piece of Scottish Angus chuck steak, cooked to absolute perfection!!  The tender meat was accompanied by caramelised shallots, tarragon pearls, Iceland scampi, and a sauce bearnaise, which again was as light as a feather.

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After a short pause the cheese trolley appeared at our table.  I’ve never seen a cheese trolley like this before, they must have had it custom-made!!  it seemed ordinary enough when it pulled up, but then there were pull out shelves on either side, containing ever more cheeses!  The selection was mind-blowing, with cheeses not only from France but also from Italy.

My final cheese selection was quite modest by comparison with the overall selection, but really, who could do a cheese trolley like that any more justice, after all the wonderful food which had come before?  I had Bleu de Gex, Bethmale, smoked Pecorino, and a goat’s cheese.

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Next we started with dessert – a beautiful refreshing creation, which was all about strawberries.  On a base of poppy seed and olive cake were strawberry mousse and strawberry jelly, lemon verbena sorbet, and a sheet of meringue with black olives.  The strawberry flavour was pure, concentrated, and simply divine.

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When I expected it to be over, the waiters re-laid the table with yet more cutlery, for a second dessert 🙂 !!  This was as visual as it was tasty: on a base of orange cake were apricot puree and orange mousse, topped with blackcurrant sorbet, and the lightest and crispiest of biscuits.  The decoration on the plate was caramel, which went wonderfully with the rest!

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With coffee came an amazing glass contraption, shaped like a bee hive, with niches containing various sweets – more delicious morsels….

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So there you have it – definitely a virtuoso display by a very talented chef!

 

Summertime…

… is a time for festivals in the area, and there are so many of them that it’s very easy to lose track!  I went with friends to Beziers for the last night of Festival Swing – les pieds dans l’Orb.  This three-day festival concentrates on what the French call swing,  not necessarily the swing of the old-fashioned big bands, but definitely with a French twist.  The venue for the festival is the Amphithéâtre du Pont Vieux, right by the river.  The Pont Vieux dates from the 12th century, and a few years ago restoration work was carried out which opened up a number of arches which had been filled in over the centuries with alluvial deposits.  During the renovation a park was created on either side, and on the upstream side of the bridge an amphitheater was built.  It is a glorious site, with the backdrop of the cathedral and former archbishop’s palace across the river.

We arrived early and waited patiently with a few hundred people outside the gates.  The security guards allowed people to enter in groups of about 20, so that there would be no pushing – very civilised!  We were heavily laden with a picnic, and were pleasantly surprised to find rows of chairs set out.  As we were early we managed to get perfect seats, and as people filled the empty chairs around us we started on our feast.  If you are tempted to go next year, there were two big stands selling (fast) food and drinks, so bringing a picnic is not absolutely necessary!  Wine could be bought by the glass (plastic) or in plastic measuring jugs.  What a very good idea not to have any glass on the site, and all those people running about with their measuring jugs full of wine made me smile!  I’m sorry there are no pictures of our picnic, we were too absorbed with eating all the food:  Smoked salmon and spinach in puff pastry, chicken salad with celery, pecan nuts and raisins, an Indian style potato salad, cheeses accompanied by some salad leaves, followed by a blackcurrant cheesecake mousse.  And of course we had brought some wine – this is France after all :-)!

As we were finishing our food the concert began.  The first act was a duo called Nadja, and they performed swing/jazz standards.

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Next up was Lady Ya’ & The Swing Makers.  While they were playing there was the most gorgeous light, bathing everything in a golden glow.

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There was a little break while the stage was slightly changed for the main act of the evening: Michel Jonasz accompanied by the Coll Orchestra Symphonic Big Band.

All the musicians were dressed in impeccable white suits and they started out with some fantastic instrumental music.

On came Michael Jonasz with his backing singers, and the crowd got very excited.  He’s a very well known artist in France, with a long career, and most people in the audience knew his songs by heart and could sing along.

The evening was balmy, the Pont Vieux beautifully lit with coloured lights, and the atmosphere fantastic – what better way to spend a summer’s evening?

One of the many un-missable events over the course of the summer is La Fete Nationale on the 14th of July.  I spent it in St Chinian this year, and took a couple of videos of the fireworks (e-mail subsribers use this link and this link)

Neighbours of mine, James and Maggie, went to Carcassonne this year to watch the fireworks, and allowed me to share some of their pictures with you.  I went to see the Carcassonne fireworks a long time ago, and I am very tempted go again next year – they are absolutely spectacular!  Thank you James and Maggie!

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Going up with a bang!

The St Chinian fireworks were wonderful as every year, and just in case you are wondering, here are a few seconds of the finale

Bastille day was celebrated in style, with two days of partying and music.  Both evenings the children gathered with their parents in front of the Mairie to await the distribution of lampions and flags, in preparation for the procession around the village. The play of shadows on the walls was too much for me to resist – and the actors were most likely quite unawares of their “performance”.

The gardens in front of the Mairie were beautifully lit and decorated – it felt just like in a fairytale.
Marianne was watching over it all, lit up with tricolor lights!

And the colours of the French flag were present even in the red, white and blue lights strung on the main square all the way down to the stage.Off we went to the football stadium along with most of the village, to watch the fireworks.

Over the years the fireworks have gotten better and better, and now we have an amazing display, which lasted some 15 minutes!

Now for some food!  Our cookery group got together in my garden in St Chinian this week – the theme was BBQ as it was summer, and the food was eclectic and very delicious!  We started off with a salad of crabmeat, avocado and mango, followed by marinated prawn skewers, and we cooked damper bread to go with some of the food.  There were also some marinated and grilled courgettes.  I got a bit carried away with the food and missed out on taking pictures 🙂

Then came the pork spare ribs, glazed with home-made BBQ sauce.  On my last visit to Colorado, Peter Holm gave me his recipe for a spare rib seasoning mix, and Bill Law, one of my facebook friends, pointed me to a site called amazingribs.com .  A little while back I’d seen an article on using a kettle BBQ to smoke food, and was keen to explore that with the ribs.  My butcher trimmed the ribs for me and cut the slab lengthwise, to make for easier manipulation on the grill, and I seasoned them the night before.  The recipe called for long, slow cooking (3 – 4 hours) and that was worth all the effort – evident by the speed with which the ribs disappeared.

And once they were gone we grilled some Rissoles, burgers which had a medley of vegetables incorporated, making them very light and tasty. To finish we had grilled nectarines with vanilla ice cream, with little drizzle of brandy over the nectarines – just a perfect finish. And the weather… we ended up sitting out until almost midnight and as it was a new moon all the stars were out.

The recipe for the Rib Rub is as follows:

1 tbsp ground cumin
1 tbsp paprika
1 tbsp granulated garlic
1 tbsp granulated onion
1 tbsp chili powder
1 tbsp brown sugar
2 tbsp coarse salt
1 teasp cayenne pepper
1 teasp ground black pepper
1 teasp ground white pepper

Combine all ingredients and mix well, store in an airtight jar until required.  Rub into ribs and leave to marinate over night.

The recipe for cooking the ribs was found on www.amazingribs.com and the claim that they are the best tasting ribs ever is definitely not far-fetched!