Walled in

Today I would like to take you on an outing to Villefranche-de-Conflent.  I hope you have the time to join me!  img_2225

Villefranche sits on the confluence of the Tet and Cady rivers, at the foot of the Pyrenees.  Because of its strategic location, the town was heavily fortified from the Middle Ages onwards.  In the 18th century, the fortifications were reinforced by Vauban, who was Louis XIV’s military engineer and advisor.

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Vauban added an extra layer to the fortifications, creating a vaulted gallery on top of the mediaeval ramparts, and topped this with another gallery which was covered with a slate roof!  So much more space for soldiers who could aim at the enemy from two different levels.

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The shape of the town was very much dictated by the rivers and the mountains – have a look at an aerial view on the internet here.  Its appearance has not much changed since Vauban’s major work in the 17th century …

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… except that there is now a new road to one side of the town, which takes traffic past the town and up into the mountains.  And there is now a railway line, which allows the famous ‘Canary’, the yellow train, to take travellers from Villefranche to the highest railway station in France, at Mont Louis, and beyond.

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The layout of the town has remained pretty much the same since mediaeval times – there are two main streets, Rue Saint Jacques and Rue Saint Jean.

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Because space was restricted, the houses were built tall.  On the ground floor, most houses would have large arched doors, which could be the entrances to shops or stables, or for storing carts.  The rooms on the first floor were usually reserved for workshops of artisans, and living accommodations were on the second floor.

img_2203 Many doors still sport beautiful door knockers – one of my particular passions!  Can you tell which of them are more recent than others?  Here’s a selection of them:

This side street leads to a gate in the fortifications, from where there is access to Fort Liberia, a citadel which was built by Vauban, high above the town!

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Statue of a saint above the gate to Fort Liberia – perhaps Saint Peter?

Here’s a picture of Fort Liberia, as seen from down below:

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Here is another statue – it sits in a niche high up on a facade.  It probably depicts another saint, but with the missing arm it’s difficult to figure out which saint.  I have a hunch that it could be Saint Barbara, but I’m not certain.

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No trip is complete without something to eat!  My travelling companions and I went to a restaurant called Le Patio on rue Saint Jean.  Some of the houses had internal patios – as did this restaurant – and that’s where we had lunch.

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None of us were overly hungry, so we decided to skip the starter and to have a main course, followed by dessert.  I don’t know about you, but for me dessert is a must!! 😀

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Tagliatelle with pesto

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Tagliatelle with smoked salmon sauce

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Octopus with potatoes

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Grilled sausages with country fries and garlic mayonnaise

The main courses were perfect for each of us – and the desserts were even better!  The Cafe Gourmand was a particular hit!!

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Tiramisu

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Chocolate pudding with a melting interior

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“Cafe Gourmand” – coffee with eight mini desserts!!

On the way back to the car, I noticed a few more details from Villefranche’s past:

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If you want to visit Villefranche-de-Conflent, and want to tie in your trip with a ride on the yellow train, be sure to visit the SNCF website for a timetable.

No ordinary seaside lunch

Earlier this year, I was given a recommendation for a restaurant in Valras Plage, called O Fagot.  Seaside towns are not always known for their restaurants, so I looked up the restaurant on the net.  I found that the chef had just participated in a reality show on French TV called Top Chef – by the time of our visit he’d already been “knocked out”.  However, his food looked very promising, the reviews for the restaurant were encouraging, and friends were keen to come along, so off we went to Valras Plage!

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The restaurant is located a little way away from the centre, in a residential part of Valras Plage.  The outside is unprepossessing – I learnt that Franck Radiu, the chef, had taken over the premises not long ago.  In its previous incarnation, the restaurant had been a pizzeria, and the wood-fired pizza oven is still in place at one end of the dining room!

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A reminder of Franck’s stint on Top Chef hung on the wall – a chef’s jacket, signed by the other contestants and the judges.

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The interior was sober and modern, the chairs were comfortable and the tables set with nice glasses and silverware.  But all that was incidental, the food was the star here.  On the picture below is our amuse bouche – we certainly amused ourselves with it! 🙂

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This starter was interesting for the different textures, and very delicious:  an egg yolk on a slice of crispy bread, over an artichoke cream with toasted hazelnuts.

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The foie gras was pan-fried and perfectly cooked.  It was accompanied by apple slices and shavings of mushrooms and fennel, as well as a wafer thin piece of crispy bread.

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The starter in the picture below was a soft boiled egg, which had been coated with breadcrumbs and deep fried.  The egg was sitting on a salad made with quinoa and lots of fresh herbs, shaped into an incredibly neat circle.

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The main courses looked as spectacular as they tasted!  Franck Radiu is Corsican and uses this wonderful ham from Corsica to add flavour and seasoning to his meat dishes – he uses salt sparingly, preferring the ham to add the salt to the dish.

The lamb was braised for 24 hours at low temperature.  Even though the meat was incredibly tender, it still had a good texture.

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The steak was very succulent, and accompanied by potato croquettes.

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Braised and grilled belly pork on a bed of lentils with foie gras – yummy!img_4360

Franck Radiu started his career as a Chef Patissier (pastry chef), working in some high class hotels and restaurants in France, and his love of desserts shows!

The fraisier was a light as a feather!

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Ma Passion Chocolat was almost a chocolate orgy, combining crispy, crunchy, smooth and cold, and the passion fruit added a nice kick!

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Praline/Framboise was another lovely combination of textures and flavours – fresh raspberries, crispy biscuits and smooth praline mousse.

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A great finish to a lovely meal!!

And to round off this wonderful experience, we went for a walk along the seafront, which was just around the corner!

I would strongly recommend that you book before you head to O Fagot – you can find the contact details on the facebook page for the restaurant here.

Back again!

Once more I have the pleasure of hosting Florence Nash in my house.  Over the past twelve years, Florence has become a dear friend, and I greatly look forward to her visits each year! Florence enthusiastically agreed to write a guest post for the blog, to share her experiences of her visits to Saint-Chinian.

 

Before retiring in 2003, Florence worked as a writer and editor at Duke University Medical Center for 16 years. Her poems, book and music reviews, program notes, and feature articles have appeared in publications across the USA. She has two collections of poetry, Fish Music (Gravity Press, 2010) and Crossing Water (Gravity Press, 1996).  Florence is also a “reckless but enthusiastic” cook, and it’s thanks to her that I have been able to write about the wonderful dish that is tomato pie!!

My twelve annual September visits to St. Chinian have been a pretty even balance between time on my own and playing host to friends or family, with a pleasant tidal swing between these two states of being. By myself, I grow impatient for guests to arrive so I can share my favorite places and things, show off my French (however spotty), have someone to cook for or with . . . . but after a few days of company I look forward to their departure so I can get back to my own rhythms and ramblings. This year, for the first time, no visitors are scheduled, so I find myself more than usually attentive to my list of daily Projects, various errands devised to take me out of the house and onto the scenic, fragrant little roads that honeycomb these rolling miles of vineyards.

For instance: Yes, of course I can buy Luques olives, my favorites, right here at the market, but with all the day before me, why not drive over to l’Oulibo? Here at this big olive mill on the D5 near Bize-Minervois, you can happily and shamelessly sample your weight in olives and oils and tapenades before picking up a supply of fresh, unpasteurized Luques — more subtle and delicious than the market ones — AND snag a few appealing olive wood or olive-oil-based souvenirs for the folks back home while you’re at it.

If you need to lay in a supply of jambon sec for your stay (as surely you do!), you may have heard Andreas claim that the very best Serrano ham comes from a vendor at the Narbonne central market — he’s the only one whose stall has a bright red slicing machine — so how about a day trip down to that fabulous foodie palace? This project, incidentally, also provides the minor drama of maneuvering a rental car through thickly trafficked city streets, a challenge quite different from that of winding country lanes.

Then there’s the matter of daily bread: St. Chinian boasts plenty of perfectly good boulangeries, but there’s solid consensus that — until recently — right down the road in Azillanet, Stéphane made the best bread in the region, in a boulangerie so small, with an oven so deep, that he had to open his bright blue door to make room for maneuvering the long wooden paddles that shift the loaves over the wood fire. And, since he only opened for retail sale a few hours at a time and you never quite remembered what those hours were, you might find yourself whiling away a half hour or so waiting on a sun-warmed stone wall, watching the efforts of a giant tour bus to turn down a road built a millennium ago for pedestrians and horse carts. Gazing back at the faces peering from the bus’s tinted windows while the bus lurched back and forth, grinding and huffing, you’d be permitted to muse on the difference between tourists and travelers, and to be filled with satisfaction to know you are among the latter. (This year, alas, the boulangerie behind the blue door is gone, and Stéphane is making his bread at a new location yet to be discovered by yours truly.)

My favorite Project so far took nearly all the free days I had available. Early in my wanderings through the Languedoc, I stopped for lunch in a village, took a photo of its strikingly picturesque central square and, once back home, installed it as my new desktop  background image. To this day I confront that idyllic scene every morning: the fountain, the medieval buildings, sunlight through a gigantic central tree dappling the happy diners at tables scattered below. The image has become emblematic to me of the seductions of southern France. Big problem, though: I couldn’t remember what village it was. So, Major Project! Guided only by memory fragments and vague directional instinct — tight climbing turns, mountains: it must be northward — I set out morning after morning with my trusty road atlas and unflagging determination. As someone said — Homer, maybe? — it’s not the destination, it’s the journey. These explorations were full of new scenery, exhilarating driving, and places I might never otherwise have encountered.  At last, after snagging a scarce parking place along the road, I walked down into a hamlet wedged in a steep, narrow canyon too small to admit cars: St. Guilhelm-le-Desert, refuge of Charlemagne’s general-turned-hermit. Bingo! My square at last! I’ve returned a couple of times with visiting friends, who were thrilled. We stayed overnight in an ancient tower turned hostel (which I believe is no longer open) to explore neighboring caverns and take rented kayaks on the river. Maybe I’ll get back there this year. Fingers crossed.

You may have detected in these ruminations a certain preoccupation with driving. You’re right. In contrast to the calm, cushioned passivity of my automatic-everything SUV on the well-groomed highways at home, my little rental car is lively as a jackrabbit, responding instantly — I almost want to say eagerly — as it slaloms along these skinny little roads that flow sensuously over the terrain’s varied contours. It demands unwavering vigilance and constant gear-shifting for blind curves, oncoming vehicles, precipitous dropoffs with no guardrails, cyclists, wandering livestock (a sheep, once, up near Roquefort), and grape-hauling tractors at harvest. It’s tiring, yes, but also as much fun as taking up a new sport. And it creates a sort of hypersensitivity, a connectedness, to all aspects of the surroundings, which can only be good, right? It’s all so beautiful!

So, whoever you are reading this, thanks for indulging these extemporaneous musings, and, if you don’t know the Languedoc yet, I sincerely hope you will some day. I wish you as much delight as it’s been my good fortune to have. Make sure you contact Andreas and Anthony at Midihideaways. You couldn’t be in more congenial, knowledgeable, and helpful hands. Tell them I sent you.

Giving back

The town of Beziers holds a number of fetes and events throughout the year.  One such fete is called Les Caritats, and it takes place on May 5, Ascension day, which is a public holiday in France.  The history of Les Caritats dates back to mediaeval times.  One of the reasons behind the fete was apparently to raise money, which was then distributed among the poor.  Bread, which was blessed by the archbishop and the clergy of the town, was also distributed among the needy populace.

I went to this year’s edition of Les Caritats, to see what it was all about.  The day was sunny and warm, perfect for a fete!  A mediaeval ‘village’ had been set up on the Allees Paul Riquet, close to the municipal theatre.  The ‘camel, the totem animal of Beziers, was there too!

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When I arrived at the fete, the communal meal was already in full swing.  A lady in flowing robes was entertaining the diners with a parrot display.

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Farther down the square, a small farmyard had been set up, for the entertainment of old and young.  The animals didn’t seem to be in the slightest bothered about being on show.

The mediaeval kitchen, where children could learn to prepare dishes from the period:

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For the children, the biggest attractions were the games!  There was a great selection to choose from!

With such beautiful weather, a stroll around Beziers was a must.  I am always captivated by the wonderful facades which abound in this town!  It really must have been an amazing town to live in during its heyday in the 19th century!

If you visit Beziers, be sure to keep your eyes open for all the beauty – it can be found in unexpected places!

Austerity and splendour

What do most people think of when they hear the word Albi? Perhaps that it was the birthplace of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec,  or the Albigensian crusade against the Cathars?  I think of a fortress-like church.  I recently went back to Albi for another visit.  Construction of the cathedral, for that is what the fortress-church actually is, started in 1282, at the end of the persecution of the Cathars.  The massive building was designed to intimidate and impress, to show the domination of the Catholic church over its surroundings.IMG_4705

It is very impressive, wouldn’t you agree?  The building is in a style called Meridional Gothic, distinctly different from the Northern Gothic style which gave us cathedrals such as the ones in Chartres, Rouen or Notre Dame de Paris.  The whole shell is built entirely of brick, and there are no flying buttresses – instead the semi-cylindrical abutments on the outer walls transfer the weight of the vaults to the massive foundations.

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It took over 100 years to build the shell of the building, and the massive belfry was only finished in 1480, almost 200 years after construction began!!  The belfry is 78 metres high!

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The cathedral is the largest brick-built cathedral in the world, an impressive 113 metres long, by 35 metres wide!  It totally dominates the old town, which of course was the aim.

The fortress aspect of the exterior includes details of military architecture, such as the observation tower below:

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There is hint of the more well known northern gothic style in the monumental porch on the southern entrance.  Unfortunately this was undergoing some restoration, so it isn’t all that visible.

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The interior of the cathedral is in stark contrast to the exterior.  Where the brick walls on outside carry no decoration, inside the church not a single square inch remains undecorated! (Or the inside of the church is decorated to within an inch of its life??)

The decorations on the vaults were painted by Italian artists between 1509 and 1512.  On a blue and gold background, the ceiling depicts the promise of salvation.  The west wall, below the organ loft, is taken up by a monumental depiction of the last judgement, painted by Flemish artists from 1495 to 1500.  Unfortunately, at one point a door was cut into this wall, which meant that the central portion of the painting was lost!  The paintings were a way of instructing a populace which was largely illiterate and/or did not know enough Latin to read the Bible.

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The painted walls have not been restored (read re-painted) since they were finished.  Some of the walls have been cleaned, removing centuries of dust and grime, and the difference is noticeable.  On the very right you see a wall which has not been cleaned – the colours are incredibly vibrant on the cleaned walls!

The rood screen and the choir enclosure are in the flamboyant gothic style and were carved by the best craftsmen of France during 1477 – 1484.  The detailing is incredibly fine and ornate!  The statuary on the exterior of the enclosure represents the Old Testament, whilst on the inside, characters from the New Testament are depicted.

The walls above the choir stalls are decorated with angels, and the fields between the angels are painted with mythical creatures.

A few of the angels have lost arms, but all of them have their heads.  And there seems to be something missing from the canopies which are in between the angels – but what?

And here is a statue of Saint Cecilia, the patron saint of the cathedral:

I hope I’ve shown you enough of the interior of the cathedral to make you want to visit it for yourself!!  From Saint-Chinian, Albi can be reached by car in just under two hours – it makes for a good day trip.

The cathedral of Sainte-Cecile is an amazing work of art – do allow yourself enough time to explore it. An audio guide is available, which offers good explanations of the interior of the church.  From the tourist office, the Albi City Pass is available, which is a day pass for the Cathedral and the Toulouse-Lautrec museum, located in the former archbishop’s palace.  The pass also gives reduced entry to a number of other museums and attractions in Albi.

I’ll write about the palace and the Toulouse-Lautrec museum in due course – promise!!

Pit stops

Wikipedia defines a pit stop thus: “In motor sports, a pit stop is where a racing vehicle stops in the pits during a race for refuelling, new tyres, repairs, mechanical adjustments, a driver change, as a penalty, or any combination of the above.”

On a day out, a pit stop is for refuelling, perhaps a driver change, and definitely a visit to the bathroom!! 😀

In last week’s post I told you about my visit to the paper mill in Brousses-et-Villaret.  To get there, we took the scenic route, via Saint-Pons-de-Thomieres and Mazamet, and we stopped off in Mazamet to visit the farmers market.  The weather in Mazamet was somewhat grey and damp, but the market was interesting, and we found some tasty morsels to buy! 😉  After a brief pit stop at a cafe in Mazamet (coffee for some of us, hot chocolate for the others), and a long-ish walk back to the car, we set off to cross the Montagne Noire, the black mountains, for our real pit stop destination at Cuxac-Cabardes.  The drive was beautiful, the road snaking up the mountainside, passing into the low hanging clouds, higher still past little villages and the occasional cow, until we started to descend again.  On the other side of the mountains the weather was clearer, and by the time we reached Cuxac-Cabardes, the sun was peeking through the clouds!

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I had booked a table at the Hotel Restaurant de Cuxac, and when we arrived at 12:30, the dining room was already half full!  The welcome was warm and friendly, and soon we were seated at our table and handed the menus.  The Hotel Restaurant de Cuxac is in a modern building which dates from 2006.  The building belongs to the municipality – a previous hotel was destroyed in a fire, and the community leaders wanted to maintain the facilities and services for the village.

For us, Cuxac was the perfect lunch location – the village of Brousses was only 10 minutes further down the mountainside.  Three of our group went for the menu at €18.50, and I decided to opt for the Cassoulet, foregoing a starter.

Here are the starters:  goat’s cheese with honey and pesto in a crispy parcel:

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Two of my companions had the salmon filet, which was cooked to perfection!  For one of the servings, the tomato compote came in a separate little dish.

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Confit de canard (duck leg preserved in its own fat) was also on the menu, and very tasty it was too:

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Here’s the cassoulet I was served:

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The cassoulet comes ready prepared from Maison Escudier in Castelnaudary, and it is served in the traditional cassole.  

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It was absolutely delicious, and I managed to eat all of it!! 😀

I did have room for a little dessert after all that cassoulet:  two scoops of wonderfully creamy ice cream!

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There was also panna cotta with a fruit sauce:

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And then there was the house speciality – a dessert called crepiterole.  It sounds very droll, and is an amalgam of crepe and profiterole – a thin pancake (crepe), filled with vanilla ice cream and topped with hot chocolate sauce!

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We went for a little stroll around the village after that wonderful lunch, before setting off to our next destination, the paper mill in Brousses-et-Villaret, where we caught up with some people who, like us, had enjoyed their lunch at the Hotel Restaurant de Cuxac.  Small world??  No, more like ‘small village’!! 😀


Another recent day out found me in Albi, where the pit stop was eagerly awaited by my companions and myself, after lots of walking around this wonderful town!  The story of my visit to Albi is for another blog post, but here’s a picture to whet your appetite:

IMG_4711The restaurant L’Esprit du Moulin is in a little side street, not far from the main square and the famous cathedral.  I had eaten there many years ago, when it was called La Tete de l’Art and owned by a different proprietor.  Some of the decor has changed since then, but the lovely cosy atmosphere remains.  The restaurant is in an ancient building with lots of quirks, and the dining room is more of a series of rooms.

The tables were nicely laid with white tablecloths and napkins.  The lunchtime menu was €18.00, with a very good choice of dishes!  We ate two different kinds of starters – salad with crispy goat’s cheese, and salad with turkey gizzards – both very delicious!

Only two of us chose the same main course, so here are three pictures:  Salmon with beurre blanc sauce:

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Poached chicken breast with wild mushroom sauce:

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Sea bass with a herb sauce:

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All very nicely prepared and tasty!!

Nobody chose the same desserts, so there were four wonderful ways to end this meal:

Fondant au chocolat, a kind of chocolate sponge with a melting centre:

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Tiramisu:

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Nougat ice cream with a blackcurrant sauce:

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Caramelised apple tart (tarte tatin) with vanilla ice cream:

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A truly wonderful meal!!  So, suitably fortified, we continued our visit of Albi, and I’ll give you another sneak preview of what there is to come in a future blog post – watch this space!

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