I’m back!

It’s been a wonderful summer – very busy with one thing and another, but wonderful all the same.  Now that I’m sitting down again to write, I don’t know where to start!!  Perhaps I’ll start with my most recent outing, as it’s still so fresh in my mind.

This past weekend, the village of Bize-Minervois hosted a festival called Tastes en Minervois.  It billed itself as a wine and gastronomy festival, and this was the third time it was being held.  I had completely managed to miss the previous two festivals, which took place in Homps in 2015 and 2016 – quel dommage – I was thrilled that I was able to go this year!

For the festival, the old centre of the village had been closed off.  The entrance fee was 15 EUR, which included a wine glass, a voucher for a meal at one of the four restaurant tents and free wine tastings throughout the village.  A fifth restaurant spot was reserved for children.

It was all incredibly well organised – and it had to be!  The organisers were expecting around 10,000 visitors over the two days!!

About 100 winemakers from the Minervois AOC area participated.  Each winemaker was assigned a wine barrel, and allowed to showcase one wine for tasting.  Orange polo shirts denoted volunteer stewards or wine makers – their names were printed on the back of the shirts!

The restaurant tents had been set up in four different places around the village, and each had its own distinctive theme.  Cuisine du Monde was on the promenade along the river,  and its musical accompaniment was by a flamenco guitar group.

Cuisine traditionelle had been set up near the Mairie, and the music was provided by a group of three women, calling themselves USB – a play on words – they are super branchées, which means either connected or trendy.  Their music was great: festive and rhythmic, it really made you want to move!

Cuisine Carre Vert was near the church, and the musical entertainment there was very original!! Eric van Osselaer makes music by using vegetables as his instruments!!  He made flutes from carrots, a kind of clarinet with a carrot, a cucumber and a mini pumpkin, leaves of Belgian endive served as reeds – it all was highly original.

Cuisine Street Food was in a newly created square in the heart of the village, and the music was provided by a group of DJs.

Here’s some of the food:

On the tray with the small bottle (milk shake) is Cuisine Street Food, and on the other tray you see Cusine du Monde.  Both were very delicious!!

It was great wandering around the village, glass around my neck and stopping for a sip here and there!!  Here are my favourite wines from the evening:

As the evening went on, the lights came on, and the atmosphere became even more magical!

In a courtyard, a little tucked away, a coffee bar had been set up.

The coffee was delicious, and accompanied by a few mignardises, small sweet bites, each of the four chefs of the evening having contributed one.

Darkness fell and people were still arriving, the numbers swelled perhaps by the inhabitants of the village, who had all been given passes.

With the fading light, the decorations in various places also came into their own!

For me it was time to head home, but here’s one last look, from across the river:

The festival is due to take place again in Bize Minervois in 2018.  More information on http://www.leminervois.com .  To book your stay in Bize, visit http://www.midihideaways.com/figuier

 

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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!

 

Green gold, a brief story of olive oil (and olives)

At the start of the first post of the new year, I would like to wish you all a happy, healthy and prosperous 2013!!

While writing this post I’ve been wondering why olive oil is called green gold or liquid gold.  Perhaps because of its colour, or because of its virtues?  I cannot imagine cooking without olive oil, and although I use other oils in cooking, the bulk of what I use is made from olives.  Perhaps you’re asking yourself “why is he writing about olives now?”; the reason is that we’re in the middle of olive oil production season in Languedoc.  Olive trees flower from mid may to early june, and the flowers are wind-pollinated.  That means that the pollinators have to be planted in just the right position within the olive grove, so that the prevailing wind blows the pollen onto the flowers.

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About 5% of the flowers turn into olives, and they grow and swell throughout the summer.  From September onwards green olives can be picked and be turned into table olives.

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As time progresses the olives ripen and change colour, from violet to purple to a deep black.

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At any of those stages they can be turned into table olives, but for oil only the ripe olives are used as the oil content increases during the ripening phase, The olive harvest continues until the end of January, by which time most of the trees will have been emptied, and what’s left will be eaten by the birds.

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I have two olive mills in easy reach.  The smaller is in Puisserguier and called Lo Moulinet (Occitan for small mill), and the larger is in Cabezac, near Bize Minervois and called L’Oulibo. Both can be visited for tasting and they sell direct to the public.  If you compare the two, Lo Moulinet is David and L’Oulibo is Goliath, but that’s just for size, I cannot detect any antagonism between the two. The two operations are on very different scales from one another, and where Lo Moulinet has a small production of oils and table olives, L’Oulibo is a large cooperative of over 1700 growers in three departements.

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To pick olives for turning into olive oil big nets are spread out underneath the trees, and the olives are then “raked” off the trees using either specially adapted rakes or vibrating beaters.  The nets are then gathered up and the olives put into crates and off they go to the mill.

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As they arrive at the mill, the crates are weighed, assessed and recorded, and then the olives are processed.  First a machine takes out any leaves and other debris,  then they are washed to remove any dust and dirt, and finally they reach the mill proper.

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At L’Oulibo they have a giant stone mill with two mill stones weighing 1.5 tonnes each.  During the Christmas open days (this year December 22 to January 4) the stone mill is used to crush the olives (including pits) to a pulp.

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At other times a modern hammer mill is used for that purpose.  The pits contain enzymes which help with the conservation of the oil.  The paste is then put in a special mixer, where it is gently warmed (below 27 centigrade) and mixed for 30 to 40 minutes to prepare for the oil extraction.  Pressing is done in a continuous process in a horizontal centrifugal press at L’Oulibo, and in some places (such as Lo Moulinet) using a traditional press, where the paste is spread on discs which are stacked and hydraulically pressed.  The resulting liquid contains both water and oil, and is processed by a separator, which produces a lovely golden oil.

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This oil can now be filtered or left to settle and afterwards decanted – both methods produce beautifully clear and sparkling extra virgin oil.

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Both of the mills produce varietal oils, using the traditional olive varieties of the region:  Lucques, Picholine, Bouteillan (both), Olivier’s and Aglandau (L’Oulibo only).  The flavours vary greatly from one oil to the other, some being smooth and buttery and others spicy and peppery.  Go and taste, you’ll be surprised just how much difference there is!

The picking of green table olives has to be done carefully and by hand to avoid bruising the fruit – any bruises will turn black and unsightly.  Have you ever bitten into an olive straight from the tree?  No?  Well, you’ll never taste anything as bitter and horrid again – one of the compounds responsible for that taste is called oleuropein.  In order to remove the bitter taste green olives are processed most commonly using lye, which is then soaked out again using several changes of water.  Producing top quality table olives is a skill, and the commercial producers guard their recipes jealously.  Once the olives had the bitterness removed they are brined, and in some cases flavoured and sterilised. At L’Oulibo the new harvest Lucques olives are sold having only undergone flash pasteurisation – a real treat!  These olives are a bright green and crunchy with an incomparable flavour!  I’m almost 100%  certain that you’ll like them!  Black table olives are easier to process as the bitterness has reduced during the ripening process.  Most of the time they are simply salted to remove the bitter compounds, then packed in brine or oil, flavoured or not.  If you’ve not already visited either L’Oulibo or Lo Moulinet, you should definitely add them to your list of places to visit for your next holiday in Languedoc!

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A weekend of summer fetes…

And what a weekend it was!  It all really happened on the Sunday, but the excitement was palpable when all the tents went up on the market square in St Chinian on the Saturday – neatly aligned!

And then it began – the market stalls were all displaced and scattered along the streets, and tables had been set up in the gardens of the Mairie to feed the hungry mouths at lunchtime with a traditional grillade prepared by the rugby club.

The sugar dusted sacristans looked yummy (crispy puff pastry and almond twists), and the rude tomato was just too much!  Anyhow, on to the Fete du Cru – the 60 stands opened for business at 9am, a mixture of wine and Produits du Terroir, ranging from beautiful Mohair blankets, scarves & more by Jean Paul Dore from Sarrazo via sausages and cheeses, to marzipan fruits.  A group of local painters were showing their latest pictures and offered painting demonstrations, and another group exhibited model cars and other toys.  But I digress, you all came for the wine, didn’t you?

With all that wine where do you start? With a visit to the stand of the Cru, right by the entrance, behind that impressive arch made from barrels and pallets.  Here’s a table full of glasses, hundreds of them, all with a little attachment that allows you to hang the glass around your neck.  For 3 Euros the glass is yours and you can be off to try whatever takes your fancy.  There are also straw hats in case you get too hot, and wonderfully colourful aprons, in case you are prone to spilling your drink!Nadia and Cyril Bourgne from Domaine La Madura, in a relaxed mood before the rush of visitors! The Confrereries gathered, all decked out in their colourful robes and attended a church service, followed by an aperitif in the Place du Marche – the rose was very tempting, but it was a little too early in the day for me to start!

One of the reasons for not having a drink that early was that I wanted to take to the road – to visit the Fete de l’Olivier in Bize Minervois, also taking place that Sunday.  The “set-up” in Bize was very different, with the focus on Olives and Olive oil, but much less exclusively so.  The esplanade along the river was taken up with stands selling food and drink, and long trestle tables for the patrons to sit and eat and drink.  There were mussels (with fries) and grilled sausages (with fries), and there was another stand selling food without fries.  I loved the home-made bunting that was strung all across the esplanade – someone had made a big effort!

There were a couple of bands marching through the narrow streets, past a myriad of stalls, selling all manner of things – soaps, kitchen implements made from olive wood, clothes, more food and there was a stall selling ice cream made from sheep’s milk.  Absolutely gorgeous with unusual flavours – if you’re interested their website is at http://www.audeline.com/ .

Walking around the village I came across a gate which I’d never seen open before.  Curiosity got the better of me of course, and I wandered in.  The courtyard behind the gate is home to Domaine Saint Michel Archange and for the fete they had a duo of ladies playing steel drums.  Not your usual steel drum players, but classically trained, skilled musicians with a beautiful touch.  My video stars partway through their piece, but you’ll get the idea.  The ladies have their own website and a number of other videos on YouTube.

The river in Bize is of course always inviting for a swim or just spending time lazily sitting in the shade of the willow trees, perhaps with a book or a picnic, and if you are staying at Les Remparts or Le Figuier then all that is only a short walk away.

Back in St Chinian I got down to the serious business of wine tasting.  As you can see there were more people visiting in the afternoon than in the morning, but the vaporizers which had been strung all along the row of tents were helping to keep everyone cool, and the band kept up the atmosphere!  Oh, and that’s a car under all those stickers and posters!

I won’t bore you with a list of the wines I tasted, but I stayed with rose and I particularly liked the wines from Belles Courbes, Domaine Mont Cabrel, Domaine Maurine Rouge, Chateau la Dournie and Mas Champart.

Two wonderful fetes in one day?  Almost too good to be true, but it happens in Languedoc! 😉

Flowers, flowers, everywhere!

With the arrival of the warm weather there is an explosion of blooms everywhere!  In my garden the roses are particularly good this year, and Mme Meilland (also called Peace) is really going for it.  She starts of with a tame and decorous bud of the palest yellow, with splashes of pink along the edges of the petals, but once fully open she turns into one of the blowsiest roses you’ve seen, just amazing!  That rose always reminds me a bit of some of the hats the Queen Mother was famous for at one time.

With the help of two friends I spent most of Wednesday gardening, trying to catch up!  Between the three of us we managed to get a fair bit done:  weeded and butted the potatoes (lots of tasty purslane in there – edible weeds which are good for you!), planted aubergines, peppers, chilis, melons and courgettes, and did a lot of other general weeding and clearing up.  As you’ll see the in the picture, watering in my garden is mostly done by gravity.  There is a canal system which brings water into the village and so long as I level the earth well enough I can just let the water run along the rows of plants!  This morning I managed to get lettuce, beetroot and onions planted, as well as carrots and parsnips sown and watered in – it’s slowly taking shape!

Earlier in the week on a visit to Bize Minervois I came across these charming sights.  Above the door you can just about see that something was once written there – could it have been CAVE? But what was the rest??  The street signs in Bize Minervois are all individually hand-made by a ceramicist and they look delightful!  Placette St Genies is the home of Les Remparts, and the picture with the wonderful irises and roses was taken in the garden of Le Figuier – both holiday homes for rent (a few weeks only remain at each for this season!)

On the way back to St Chinian I just had to stop to snap this for you.  It’s Valerian (Centranthus Ruber) in its red and white form.  Valerian seems to grow very well in our area, and right now forms great big patches of pink in areas.  When combined with the yellow broom it is simply stunning.  The poppies this year have put on a good show, but not quite as spectacular as the ones in Monet’s painting of the poppy field in Argenteuil, perhaps next year?

Last Sunday I stopped at Villespassans for their annual fete – a charming affair with a small brocante (flea market), some old cars and a number of stalls selling artisan made products and wine.  The field next to the old cars was home to hundreds of Pyramidal Orchid (Anacamptis Pyramidalis) and there was some cistus and broom blooming as well.  The birds were singing all around and the sun shone – what more could I possibly want?  The top of the bell tower in Villespassans always looked pretty interesting from afar.  But looking at the close-up I noticed a raft of aerials and last year’s Christmas decorations – ho hum…

A walk around St Chinian brought some more delights:  Yellow irises growing alongside a stream (there are masses along parts of the Canal du Midi),  a white climbing rose on a fence, a wild cherry beginning to ripen and some Spanish broom caught in the evening light.  May really is one of the best months to spend in Languedoc!!

The last picture in today’s post is a riddle – I wonder if anyone knows the name of this plant? It’s growing in a pot in my garden 🙂

Versatile Blogger Award

A few weeks ago I was nominated by Peri from Peri’s Spice Ladle for the Versatile Blogger Award – I was very surprised and deeply honored – THANK YOU Peri!!  Peri writes wonderfully about Indian food and I enjoy her blog a great deal!

The Rules of Acceptance:
Thank the person who gave you this award

  • Include a link to their blog
  • Next, select 15 blogs/bloggers that you’ve recently discovered or follow regularly (I’ll go for 10)
  • Nominate those 15 bloggers for the Versatile Blogger Award
  • Finally, tell the person who nominated you 7 things about yourself.
  • In the same post, include this set of rules.
  • Inform each nominated blogger of their nomination by posting a comment on each of their blogs.

I’d like to nominate the following blogs for the Versatile Blogger Award

Sky Hacienda
Cathy Bidini
The Craving Chronicles
Cooking in Sens
Five and Spice
Pholloyo
Frugal Feeding
Tasting Tales
Lula Harp
The Soulsby Farm