Going crackers

A few weeks ago, I announced the date for this year’s Cracker Fair Christmas market at the Abbaye de Valmagne near Villeveyrac.  As luck would have it, I entered a prize draw and I was lucky enough to win a free ticket to the Cracker Fair.  I don’t often win anything, so you can imagine how thrilled I was!

The Cracker Fair is a two day event, which takes its name from the traditional British Christmas cracker.  If you are unfamiliar with the tradition, you’ll find the Wikipedia article here.  Many years ago, when the fair first came into being, it was aimed at the British expat community, whose Christmas celebrations would not be complete without Christmas crackers!  In the years since, the fair has caught on with locals and expats alike, and it is now one of the highlights of the area during the run-up to Christmas, for vendors and shoppers alike!

I went to visit last Saturday, on a gloriously sunny day.  It had rained (and stormed) the previous night, and many of the stallholders had not known whether the weather would be good enough for them to set up their stalls.  As it turned out, the day was perfect, almost too nice for a Christmas market!

The path from the entrance gates to the former abbey buildings was lined with colourful booths on one side.

Along the path on the opposite side to the booths was a stall selling garden ornaments.  No garden gnomes here!!  I was very taken by the guinea hens and the chickens!

 

A food court had been set outside the entrance to the cloister.  All kinds of foods were on offer:  fish and chips, burgers, roasted chestnuts, pumpkin soup, fresh oysters, onion bhajis, crepes, tapas, grilled sausages, pastries, and more.

The ‘prize’ for the most original looking stall went to the one selling fish and chips, which was in the shape of a boat.  I treated myself to a lunch of fish and chips, accompanied by mushy peas, another British tradition.  If you don’t know what mushy peas are, you can find a recipe here.  In my excitement, I completely forgot to take a photograph of my lunch, but I can tell you that the fish was perfectly cooked, the batter was wonderfully crisp, and both the chips and mushy peas were delicious!

Before my lunch, I had visited the stalls inside the cloisters and the former abbey church.  Here are some of the stalls in the cloister:

There were many more stalls in the former abbey church:

Valmagne abbey was one of the richest Cistercian abbeys in Languedoc, and its church has almost cathedral-like proportions:  83 metres long and 24 metres high!  During the French Revolution, the abbey was dissolved and the buildings sold.  The church survived because it was used as a wine cellar!  Huge barrels were installed in the chapels.

The old refectory was turned into a living room during the 19th century.  And of cours, there were more stalls in there too!  The monumental fireplace was particularly impressive!!

The chapter house was off the cloister – it had the most amazing vaulted ceiling with a sawtooth pattern along the ribs of the vault.

Placed in the arcade that separated the chapter house from the cloister were some very ornately carved stone vases.  The face reminds me of someone. 🙂

In the cloister garden, opposite the door to the refectory, was a lavabo, a fountain where the monks would wash their hands.  Around the fountain was an octagonal structure which supported an ancient grape vine – lovely and shady in the summer!

Only two of these lavabos have survived in France, one of them at Valmagne!

Here is a picture of the fountain:

The abbey might have been rich, but life for the monks must have been fairly harsh – no central heating, washing outdoors summer and winter, no thermal underwear or fleecy sweaters…

Here is a view from the cloister garden towards the church.

And this is what the buildings of the abbey look like from the road:

I’ll be going back to visit Valmagne next summer, when I’ll be able to visit the mediaeval herb garden, and discover the buildings with fewer other visitors there.  I’ll report back, promise!!

A new cracker

This past weekend, I went to the annual Cracker Fair.  I wrote about this Christmas market in December 2013, when it took place at the Chateau Abbaye de Cassan (you can find the article here).  This year, the cracker fair was hosted for the first time by the Abbaye de Valmagne, located between Montagnac and Villeveyrac.  This market was established ten years ago, and in the early days it was very much aimed at the British expat community in the area, who felt deprived of their Christmas crackers.  If you don’t know what Christmas crackers are have a look here.

Valmange was founded in 1138, and at one point in its history, it was one of the richest Cistercian abbeys in France!  During the French revolution, the last monks fled the abbey in 1789, and it was sold by the French state in 1791.  The abbey church, which dates from 1257 and which is 83 metres long and 24 metres high, was converted into a wine cellar.  It is probably for that reason that the church has survived.  Enormous wooden barrels were installed in the side chapels, and several are still in place today!   I was watching a number people enter by the door at the end of the church, and most of them had a kind of “wow” look on their faces!

The church is impressive at the best of times, but the fact that it was filled with stalls, people and noises added another dimension!

Around 100 stalls had been set up in the church, offering a large variety of goods, from soaps to syrups, marbles to mushrooms (dried) – you name it!

The church was built in the classic gothic style, and true to the Cistercian rules, it is without much in the way of decoration.

From the side of the church, a door led to the cloister, where there were more stalls!!

The cloister consists of four arcaded galleries around a garden.  There is a fountain, which would have been used by the monks for ritual ablutions.

The chapter house is off the cloister, and it too was occupied by stalls!

A barrel-vaulted passage housed an exhibition of paintings.

In the former refectory there were more stalls and a cafe.

Valmagne was bought by the Comte de Tourraine in 1838, and he and his descendants have taken very good care of the former abbey over the years.  Today the estate is run as a winery, and the visit would not have been complete without a stop in the shop.  The tasting room is right next door to the shop, and there was a lovely fire burning in the fireplace!

Since 1999, the wines at Valmagne have been produced as organic wines!

Outside, there were more stalls and – most importantly – a selection of food trucks!!

Saturday was a very cold day, and I’m sure that the stallholders outside must have been freezing, but they all remained cheerful!

Despite the cold, this was a wonderful Christmas market to visit – one you should add to your diary if you are in the area in early December.  The Cracker Fair is organised by Languedoc Living. You can find details on their website.

The Abbaye de Valmagne is open to visitors throughout the year – you can find details of opening hours here.

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Good old Saint Nick

We’ve been having some beautiful sunny weather and gorgeous blue skies, and it’s been difficult to get into the Christmas spirit. I thought I could remedy that with a visit to the Fete de la Saint-Nicolas” Carcassonne, and what a good idea that was. On the way I passed through Trebes, where the Canal du Midi runs beside the road for a short while. Take a good look at the picture.  It’s not often that you’ll be able to see the Canal du Midi without water, and it won’t be all that long before it will be filled again. The canal closes to navigation at the end of October, for two months of maintenance works. During that time some sections of the canal get drained of water, to allow work on lock gates and such to be carried out.

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On to Carcassonne though! I found a great parking spot near the railway station and walked right across the lower town and up the hill to the Castle – strictly speaking it’s a fortified town with a castle inside it. It is not as far to walk as you think and it’s a very pleasant stroll down the pedestrian Rue G. Clemenceau, turning left into Rue de Verdun, past the Dome and across the Pont Vieux.

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The Dome is a curious building, and I’ve not been able to find out just what it was for, but my theory is that it might have been the building at the centre of a covered market like the one at Revel, not all that far away.

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From the Pont Vieux the views of the Castle are spectacular! (If you are around for the fireworks on July 14 it’s a good viewpoint, but it will be very crowded!) On the bridge a young man sat playing his accordion, seemingly only for himself, not for an audience. It was lovely to sit in the sunshine, watch the world go by and listen to the music.

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Once across the Pont Vieux you enter the Trivalle neighbourhood, which has a lovely feel to it. There are many old buildings which have been beautifully restored, and others which have a completely original and unrestored feel to them.

To get to the castle there are two different paths: you can either walk to the Porte d’Aude on the western side or to the Porte Narbonnaise on the eastern side. I chose to go to the Porte Narbonnaise as the climb is not as steep; however it’s the principal entrance and might be the busier of the two when you visit.

When I got there the Castle was not as crowded as it usually is during the summer months, but I was there not long after lunchtime, and perhaps everyone was still eating? I was looking for the arts and crafts market, held on the occasion of the Fete de la Saint-Nicolas, from December 6 (Saint Nicholas Day) to December 8 this year. There was a lovely selection of items and the backdrop was of course wonderful. The market was held right next door to the open-air theatre where all kinds of concerts are performed in the summer.

After a stroll around the rest of the castle, and a snack, I was off again, down the hill and across the bridge, to explore the main Christmas market in Carcassonne, which is held on Square Gambetta. From the castle I had already seen the big ferris wheel, and there was a lot more when I got there!

The children’s interests were well provided for with several rides: reindeer for the little ones, a Disney themed magic sleigh ride, and the beautiful carousel which is normally outside the castle, in addition to the big ferris wheel.

The stalls around the square sold a variety of goods, with food and mulled wine being at the fore! I couldn’t resist the sweet pretzels, which were really doughnuts in a different disguise. With a glass of mulled wine they were heavenly! And they got eaten so quickly that the thought of a photograph never even entered my mind :-)! Not far away in Place Carnot a skating rink had been erected, taking up pretty much the whole square.

On the way back to the station there was yet one more stop – by the Andre Chenier car park the sledge runs had been set up! An enormous structure, clad in white fabric, with runs on either side. One side allows the children to race down on small toboggans, the other side is for children and adults and you race down on large inner tubes – what fun!!

Around the sledge runs there were more fair ground rides, a fairly tame reindeer rollercoaster and some lovely “ride-your-own-reindeer” bicycles for the smaller children!

Across the Canal du Midi once more to get to the car, and a quick snap of a lovely scene in the port.

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And then it got dark, and the whole magic of Christmas came to life!!

I don’t think anyone can say “bah humbug” to all that!

IMG_8877A final note:  the market and rides on Square Gambetta and the sledge runs by the Andre Chenier car park are open until January 5, 2014;  the skating rink on Place Carnot is open until December 20, 2013.

What a cracker

The round of Christmas markets has started and this past weekend I visited two: one in St Chinian and the other at the Chateau-Abbaye de Cassan near Roujan.  Since I wrote about the St Chinian Christmas market last year, I’ll write about the at Cassan instead.  The market at Cassan goes by various names – there is the Marche de Noel a l’Anglaise (Christmas market in the English fashion), La foire de Noel (Christmas Fair), and finally the Cassan Cracker Fair.  This market was established eight years ago, and in the early days it was very much aimed at the British expat community in the area, who felt deprived of their Christmas crackers.  If you don’t know what Christmas crackers are have a look here.

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The Cassan Christmas market now attracts almost as many French visitors as British ones, and there is a great mix of nationalities among the 120+ exhibitors.  To cope with the number of visitors, the market is being held on Saturday and Sunday.  For me the attraction was two-fold: to visit the Chateau-Abbaye and the Christmas market.  Granted, it’s not the best time to visit the buildings when hundreds and even thousands of other people are there too, but still.  A reduced entrance fee of 2 EUR (the regular entrance fee to the Abbey is somewhere around 7 EUR) is charged during the two days the Christmas market takes place, so it’s worth the trip for that alone ;-).

The Abbaye de Cassan was first established in 1080 as an Augustinian priory, and in its heyday numbered 80 priors.  The church was consecrated in 1115, and until the plague and 100 years war in the 14th century all was going swimmingly.  Then the rot set in and decline continued until in 1605 there were only 7 or 8 priors left at the priory.  And then, in the middle of the 18th century the abbey was completely re-built, except for the church, not all that long before the revolution chased the remaining priors from their new palatial quarters.

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For palatial they certainly would have been.  The facade on the garden side is worthy of any stately home, and the salons on the ground floor would have been very beautiful.  Unfortunately the gardens are somewhat neglected, the parterres inexistent and the pond looks as if it has been dry for some time.

The facade onto the main courtyard is no less impressive than the garden side, and provided a good foil for the stalls which were set up outside.

I was hoping to indulge in my favourite fish-and-chips, but I was too late – there was no fish left.  The chips were excellent though, and more than enough to keep me happy for the rest of the afternoon!  The galleries inside the three wings which surround the main courtyard look as though they could have been serving as a cloister at one point, though if that were the case,  the fourth wing is perhaps missing – or was never built?

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The church is incredible – only slightly modified in the 18th century – and is one of the largest romanesque churches in the area.  When I arrived a cellist was playing at one end, and the sound beautifully filled the whole building despite the ambient noise.  A concert would probably sound fantastic here!  The stalls in the church, and elsewhere, offered a wonderful selection of goods:  some traditional British Christmas food such as mince pies, Christmas cake and plum pudding, a good amount of jewellery, textiles, gift items, gardening tools, glasses, wine and champagne, carpets, handicrafts, and there was a stall selling beautiful lampshades made with traditional Japanese and Nepalese paper, which was my favourite.

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The cupola on top of the church is called “lantern of hope”.  Legend has it that a fire was kept burning in the lantern each night to help guide the pilgrims on the way to Santiago de Compostela to the abbey, where they could spend the night before continuing on their pilgrimage to the Spanish sanctuary.

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Plans are afoot to develop Cassan into a corporate retreat, so plan to visit as soon as you can, while you still can!  For more reading on Cassan have a look at Wikipedia in French and English.  A virtual tour is available on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kyxJGy_K1iU and there is also the official website at http://www.chateau-cassan.com/

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A German Christmas

Yes, I admit – I was not in France for Christmas!!  For the first time in several years, I spent the holidays in Bavaria with my family.  I travelled early enough to be able to catch some of the Christmas markets which close well ahead of Christmas, and to have as much time to spend with family and friends as possible.  The first stop on my Christmas market marathon was Schloss Tuessling, a small Renaissance castle, where the Christmas market takes place over four December weekends each year.  The stalls are varied with a good mix of crafts and food/drinks, and spread around the grounds of the castle, and through some of the outbuildings.  There was still snow on the ground to make it all look lovely and wintry, and I was glad to have brought a hat and gloves!  A walk through former grain silos (I think 12 in total) took me on an adventure in Christmas decoration, and at the end was a staircase up into the granary, where there were stalls under the most amazing roof construction!  The walk continued through a wing which had formerly been staff accommodation and then an old people’s home, and which had a kind of “Marie Celeste” feeling to it.  The stalls in that section had been carefully chosen to fit in with the ambience and sold a mixture of old and new, and some beautiful jewellery.  And then there was the stall with the cinnamon stars – imagine fresh doughnuts but in the shape of a star, and rolled in cinnamon sugar.  They got eaten so quickly that I never did manage to get a photograph!

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My second Christmas market that day was at Burg Burghausen – the longest castle in the world.  I’ve often visited the castle over the years, but never for a Christmas market, so I was very excited to see the halls which were used to house the artists and craftspeople selling their wares.  Out in the courtyard were the food stalls, and some artisans such as the blacksmith and the wood-carver.  A bonus was that a visit to the State Gallery in part of the castle was included in the admission to the market.  The rooms are magnificent as are most of the paintings exhibited, but the highlight was the viewing platform on the roof.  Not for the faint hearted, I warn you, as the drop is vertiginous (but the railings solid) – but oh what a view!!  On the way in was another stall selling cinnamon stars, so that was number 2 and a little bit better than the one I’d had earlier that day!

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A day trip to Munich was another opportunity to visit Christmas markets.  I don’t remember just how many there are, but I managed to visit three.  But first I went to visit Villa Stuck to see the Gunter Sachs exhibition, with wide variety of works, from Max Ernst to Andy Warhol.  Villa Stuck was the palatial home of Franz von Stuck, at his time a celebrated and successful artist.  Unfortunately the website seems to be only available in German.

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On to the Christmas markets though.  My first stop was at the mediaeval market at Wittelsbacher Platz.  The name implies the theme and it was very well done.  All the stallholders were in costume, and the booths were imaginatively built, each one different from the next.  There was some wonderful food here (wish I’d known in advance, I’d had a light lunch at Villa Stuck) and I had the best apple fritters I can remember eating.

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My next stop was the Christmas village in the Emperor’s court of the Residenz palace – a beautiful courtyard filled with a great variety of stalls with a focus on crafts.On the way there, across Odeonsplatz I spied a group of musicians just outside the Hofgarten.  They were playing beautiful classical music and must have been frozen.  I wonder how the instruments managed to stay in tune!  Outside the Residenz “Santa” had taken up residence with a small fair organ, entertaining the passers by.

Inside the courtyard, food and especially Gluehwein played a prominent place, and those stalls were busiest wherever I went at whatever time of day!  There was also an area for children, with animated displays and Christmas songs.

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To warm up a little I visited the Cuvillies theatre, the theatre of the Residence palace, a heady confection of white and gold roccoco.  If you are ever in Munich don’t miss this gem.

On to the market in front of Munich’s gothic town hall on Marienplatz.  This market had been changed around somewhat since I’d last visited and there were more food stalls and fewer stalls selling the beautiful decorations of a few years ago.  The market selling Christmas creches and nativity scenes had been moved from Rindermarkt to be strung out along Neuhauser Strasse and had lost much of its charm in the process.  Still, there were some nice decorations and a few very good stalls.  I finished the day by visiting a friend who lives in walking distance to the centre, before making my way back to my parents’ home.

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And then there was one final Christmas market, just a few days before Christmas, in Burgkirchen – a small market only on for a few days and very much designed to bring local people together.  They had fire baskets to keep warm, and lots of food and gluehwein.  This is where I had my third Cinnamon star, but the one in Burghausen remained the best of them all.

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In the run up to Christmas eve I kept busy, and even managed to build a gingerbread house.  Christmas eve afternoon I went for another visit to Burghausen and had the castle almost all to myself.  From the town below the sounds of a brass band playing Christmas carols drifted up, and as the sun started to set the lights began to twinkle in the distance.  A magical start to the festive season!

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I hope you’ve all had a wonderful Christmas too, and wishing you all the very best for 2013.

This is the sparkling season

I mean of course the season of sparkling lights, twinkling away in trees and elsewhere.  Here in France pretty much every village has its own Christmas lights, although in some of the smaller villages it might be just a couple of stars across the street – but still.

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Last week I ventured to Montpellier to visit Les Hivernales, the annual Christmas market.  This year a beautifully lit archway formed the entrance to the market, which is on Esplande Charles de Gaulle just off the Place de la Comedie, and there were about 100 stalls, selling everything from gifts to clothes to food!

As night fell the atmosphere became magical – there were stalls selling mulled wine and the smell of spices was wafting around.  One stand offered a kind of raclette – toasted cheese over either bread or cooked potatoes, whilst another was cooking Tartiflette, potatoes cooked with Reblochon cheese, and yet someone else was cooking Seiche a la Setoise, a well-known local speciality made with cuttlefish.  All of Montpellier was dressed up with beautiful lights, and the Christmas tree near the Opera Comedie was beautifully trimmed.

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Saint Chinian also has some nice Christmas lights, and the tree inside the Mairie is as ever very beautiful.

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At the recent Christmas market, the abbatiale was filled with stands which spilled out into the cloisters and out in front of the Mairie. It gave me a chance to get a good picture of the beautifully vaulted roof of the abbatiale, which was once the church of the abbey.

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The Polygone shopping centre in Béziers also trimmed itself up nicely for Christmas, although the fountains on the top floor dance all year round.

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At the Capestang christmas market there was a stall selling foie gras and ducks for making confit.  Those of you of a sensitive disposition don’t look too closely.  I was fascinated (and a little repulsed at the same time) by the way the butcher opened up the carcasses almost tenderly, to extract the fatty livers.

For those of you interested, I give you below a method of preparing foie gras as given to me by Monique, one of my neighbours in St Chinian.

Allow the livers to come to room temperature.  Separate the lobes and remove all veins with the help of the point of a sharp knife.  Take your time and be thorough, the end result will be better.  Put the livers in a bowl of cold salted water and leave approx. half an hour to disgorge any blood remaining.  Remove and pat dry carefully.  Season with 17g salt and 3g pepper per kilo of liver – this is best done in a roasting tin or bowl where the livers can be turned.  The pepper should be freshly and coarsely ground.  Mix with 1 – 2 tbsp Armagnac or Cognac and leave to marinate for 10 minutes.  During that time prepare your kilner jars.  Fill up the jars, fitting the pieces of liver so there are no gaps.  Clean the rims to remove any trace of grease and close the jars and put them in your sterilizing pan.  Fill to the top of the jars with lukewarm water, the bring the water slowly to a temperature of 75 degrees (use a thermometer) then keep at that temperature for 30 minutes.  Remove at the end of the cooking time and leave to cool.  Two tips from Monique:  smaller livers are better than very large ones, ideal weight is 450 to 500g;  the livers should be very fresh, as older livers have a tendency to render more fat as do larger livers.

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