Saved in the nut of time

Some of you received this post as a completely blank message a few weeks ago – my apologies for not getting to grips with the new WordPress dashboard !! 🙂

The title refers to the Fete de la Chataigne, the chestnut festival, in St Pons which has been taking place every October for many, many years.  A few months ago, when I enquired for the exact date with the tourist office, I was told that there would be no chestnut festival this year, that it had been cancelled.  I was completely speechless – those of you who know me can attest that that’s not something which happens often! 😀  How could one of the biggest autumn festivals in the area be cancelled?

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A little digging on the grapevine revealed some possible reasons.  During the municipal elections earlier in the year, the voters of St Pons had elected a new mayor.  It appears that some of the organisers of the festival had been on the losing ticket, and felt personally slighted during the electoral campaign.  They decided not to continue with the organising of the festival, and hence the information was put out that there was to be no Fete de la Chataigne this year.

Back in August I spoke with one of the traders who is a regular at the fete, and he was devastated at the prospect, as the fete is an important fixture in his sales calendar.  I imagine that for many of the clubs and associations in St Pons, such as the parent-teacher association and the rugby club, the fete is their main fundraiser of the year, and a cancellation would leave a fairly noticeable hole in their budgets.

As the time of the fete drew nearer, I checked again with the tourist office, and this time the answer was different – the fete would be taking place after all, on the last weekend of October, as before.  Yippee!!! 😀  Apparently the new mayor and his council had mobilised as many of the local associations and clubs as they could, to help make sure that this year’s fete would be as good as ever.

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I visited the fete on the Saturday, as it’s usually the less frequented day of the weekend.  The weather was glorious, sunny and warm, in total contrast to the previous year – see the article here – when the weather was grey and drizzly.  I was joined by a few friends, and we got there early AND bagged a parking space not too far away 🙂 !!

The very first stall we came to looked interesting: a food truck, offering a variety of chestnut themed food.  We decided to earmark that for our lunch, on our way back from exploring the fete!

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The selection of stalls at the fete was eclectic and wonderful, as always!  No changes there!!

From cheese to vanilla, via saffron, garlic, and sausages, from balloons to baby boots, and everything beyond – it was all there, and wonderful to see, smell, taste and buy!

In the big square the chestnuts were being roasted in enormous steel drums as always, with the wood for the fire piled up high.

Here, would you like to try one?  Careful, don’t burn yourself, they are quite hot!!

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There was so much tasty looking food, tempting us to stop for lunch, such as the aligot below (potato puree with fresh cow’s cheese), but we held onto our resolution to try the food truck.

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The nougat was looking luscious, and I know that my sister-in-law will be none too happy that I did not buy any for her…

The basket-weaver from last year was there too, with more beautiful offerings!

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And of course there were chestnuts for sale, either fresh for roasting, or dried, as flour, in syrup, in jars already cooked and peeled, or …  Seems that there is quite a lot you can do with chestnuts 😀

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We did eventually head back towards the car, and “our” food truck for lunch.  The sign said Chez Tina, and the menu had been specially planned for the chestnut festival: small pizzas with bacon, caramelised onions, chestnut pieces, cheese, and chestnut honey; chestnut soup; chestnut gnocchi.  There was also pannacotta with chestnut honey caramel, and a chestnut cake, to follow our main course.  As we stood admiring the inside of the van, and deciding what to order, we noticed a sticker saying “Taos” on the counter.  So we asked Tina whether she’d visited there, and it turned out that she’s actually a native of Taos, New Mexico, who has lived in France for some time.  Her French was very good.  I would have never imagined her to be from the other side of the Atlantic ocean!  We had a good chat and a few laughs.  Here’s Tina preparing our pizzas in her wood-fired oven.

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We decided to have some chestnut soup followed by pizza – since chestnut soup can be a little rich we shared two portions between the four of us.

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But we each had our own pizza!!
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Of course we couldn’t resist dessert – and somehow I managed to miss taking pictures of the pannacotta, and the chestnut cake, with the chestnut honey caramel.  How greedy of me!  All the food was totally delicious, and we were all so glad we had waited with our lunch!!  Tina is a regular in St Pons with her food truck, and you can find out more via her website.  I can tell you she was planning to take some time off during the winter, but I am looking forward to seeing her again before too long!

So it looks as though the future of the Fete de la Chataigne is in good hands and will continue to attract lots of visitors to St Pons each October. The only thing missing was the amateur dramatics piece, which is usually presented on a stage across the river, below the tourist office…  Perhaps next year??

Summer nights …

… are perfect for spending at a concert or a show in the open air.  I recently visited a few such events and want to share two with you.  The first was a show called “Off”, which was performed in the village of Causses-et-Veyran.  Last year, that village hosted another spectacle, which I wrote about here.

This year’s offering was a mixture of mime and acrobatics, and it was incredibly touching.  But before I get started on the show, I have to tell you a little about the food.  I’d gone to Causses-et-Veyran with friends and we had left ourselves plenty of time for a bite or two to eat.  Tables and chairs had been set up under the trees, the tables decked out with brightly coloured paper table cloths.  There were three stands: La Carriole Gourmande was selling savoury tarts and quiches, the stand next door was offering grilled duck & fries, and the Caravane cafe had all kinds of drinks, with or without caffeine.

We went for quiches from the Carriole Gourmande, followed by pain perdu (French toast or eggy bread) with caramelised apples.   The children also had a crepe, and the adults shared a couple of the yummy looking chocolate cakes – they tasted as good as they looked :).

As night fell, more and more spectators began to assemble, ready to take their seats.  The stage was very simply set:  a trampoline, an upturned plastic dustbin, and what looked like a metal locker, lying on its side.

When the seats began to fill up, the atmosphere took on something very special, something that felt so much like summer!

P1110777The show “Off” was inspired by the book “The man who mistook his wife for a hat” by Oliver Sacks.  The personalities on stage all have one thing in common:  they all need to express themselves through speaking, but none of them is able to do so.  Instead, they communicate their frustrations and emotions through physical expression and movement.

The show was very intense, thought-provoking and touching.  I took a video of some of it for you (e-mail subscribers, please visit the blog website to watch the video):

The still pictures from the evening are unfortunately not all that great, because of the low light levels and the capabilities of my camera, but I hope they will give you a little flavour.

At the end of the show, the five actors were very warmly applauded;  they looked exhausted, but ever so happy, and they had every reason to be.

P1110816P.S.  in case you are wondering, the “golden” effect on the trampoline is achieved with….. corn flakes!!

Summer wouldn’t be summer for me without a visit to Chateau de Mus, near Murviel les Beziers, for one of their concert evenings.  The concerts are part of the Festival Les Nuits de la Terrasse et del Catet, which was taking place for the 14th time this year.

Chateau de Mus is a very romantic location,  and there has been a stronghold on the site since at least 800 BC.  The current Chateau was built in 1848, in the Renaissance style, and it is surrounded by a mature park with ancient cedar and pine trees.

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The beautiful facade of the Chateau is a perfect backdrop for a concert stage, and the park is absolutely perfect for a picnic!

Tables and chairs had been dotted about the park, a little away from the seating area in front of the stage.  I had arranged to meet a number of friends, and everyone brought something to share and eat.

We got there quite early, so “bagged” a great table – as you can see, it got quite busy later on!

For those who had not brought their own picnics, there were a variety of food stalls  to choose from.  We managed very well without the stalls, and in the course of the evening we ate our way pretty much through everything we had brought :).  Sorry, no food pictures this time, it all got a little out of hand 😀 !

The concert that evening was in two parts:  first up was Harold Lopez Nussa on piano and keyboard with his Trio of musicians:

 

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This performance was followed, after a brief interval, by the Shai Maestro Trio:

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The evening was perfect, the music very good, the food and company fantastic!!  What more could one ask for?

 

Making a dash for it

This year, the Fete du Cru Saint Chinian took place on July 20 – the Sunday after Bastille Day.  As the poster hinted, it was a jolly occasion, and to my mind, a fete not to be missed!  The Fete du Cru is a once-a-year happening, where the producers of AOC St Chinian wines have a chance to meet the public en-masse.  I have previously written about the “wine” part of this Fete, and you can find the post here.

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On Sunday morning, all 60 stands were manned by either wine makers or local food producers. My favourite goat’s cheese producer was there – Chevrerie de Combebelle – with a great selection of cheeses.

The Confrererie des Chevaliers du Saint-Chinian were inducting new members into their chapter, and they had invited other Conferereries from the area for the occasion.  All were attired in sumptuous robes – I can only imagine just how warm it must get under those robes on a hot summer’s day!  Each Confrererie has its own distinctive colours and the robes are generally designed to echo those colours.

Here are some details from the robes:

The Pena du  Languedoc were keeping up the festive atmosphere with music (e-mail subscribers, please visit the site to watch the video):

At noon members of the Rugby Club of St Chinian were offering a sit-down meal in the gardens of the town hall.  Everything had been prepared, the tables and chairs all set out under the trees, and people were getting ready to take their places when …  it started to rain!!! :(.  The rain wasn’t heavy, but there was thundering in the distance, and it looked as though we’d all get soaked if we stayed outside.  Some quick thinking was done on the part of the organizers, and tables and chairs were carried into the cloisters 🙂 .  We decided to make a dash for it too!

 

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Outside, the cooking continued apace, despite the rain:  huge pans of potatoes and meat were cooking over a fire, the stirring being done with a very clean-looking shovel!

Once we’d taken our seats in the cloisters, the volunteers started to get going with the service.  Everyone received a small plate with a nectarine and a piece of individually wrapped camembert, a set of plastic cutlery, and a plastic cup.  Someone else came by and dropped off baguettes.  We were waiting for the wine, until we realised that we would be helping ourselves to that.   Boxes of wine had been set up, along with a stash of clean and empty bottles, so we could draw off any colour we liked :).

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The first course came in a square dish – a salad of fresh tomatoes, tuna fish, olives and egg – very tasty!

We’d seen the main course cooking outside, so there were no surprises to find potatoes and pork ( 🙂 ) on our plates, seasoned with garlic and parsley!

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We followed that with the cheese and dessert (nectarine) which had already been served.  The whole meal was very simple but delicious, and there was a great atmosphere in the cloisters!

All the time we were eating and drinking, the wine tasting continued in the main square!

See you there next year, perhaps??

King of the castle

This week I want to share a very special experience with you – one that you may not be able to replicate exactly the way I experienced it.  Some of you may remember my post about Carcassonne, a little while back.  Every summer, Carcassonne hosts a festival during the month of July, presenting music of all types, theatre, and dance all over the old and new towns, in a mixture of venues.  There’s jazz, pop, rock, opera, soul – you name it, it’s all there. Some of the concert highlights this year included Status Quo, Lana del Rey, Pink Martini, Franz Ferdinand, James Blunt, Vanessa Paradis, and Elton John.  You can find the full programme here.

If you’re into your music you might be getting somewhat excited by now – I think it’s a pretty amazing line-up for a town like Carcassonne.  And that’s just this year!  They have international musicians every year!

To get back to my story, I found myself in Carcassonne on July 15, the day after the spectacular fireworks extravaganza which takes place in Carcassonne every year (I will visit that for you another year, promise!!).   Carcassonne is always lovely to visit, there’s always something going on and the towers are lovely to look at.

I had arranged to meet friends for dinner before the concert, and I was early, so I had a little time to walk about.  The streets were busy with tourists, but despite the bustle this cat had a lovely time, stretched out in the shade 🙂 !!

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There’s always colour and quirkiness to be found in Carcassonne!

The restaurants on Place Marcou were already busy.

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Just the other side of Place Marcou I met up with my friends, and since we were too early for our restaurant, we had a drink in a neighbouring bar.  Dinner was booked at La Table d’Alais, a little restaurant tucked away in a row of houses on Rue du Plo.  We walked right past it to begin with, without realising that it was there.  The street entrance is just a small doorway, with the dining room and terrace all located on the first floor.

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It’s not easy picking a restaurant in Carcassonne – there are scores to choose from, and reviews on the internet can be variable and not always reliable.  We were very pleased with our choice though;  the food was delicious and the prices pretty reasonable for a town like Carcassonne.

The starters were beetroot salad with goat’s cheese mousse, foie gras, and gazpacho.  Can you guess who had the foie gras??

For main course there was tuna belly with courgette puree, pork fillet with mushrooms, and cassoulet.  Can you guess who had the cassoulet??  I admit, I pigged out a little, but both my dishes were very good!!  After we had finished our main courses, everyone got a little anxious as the time for our concert drew nearer.  We did get our desserts and in the rush I forgot to photograph it.  It was a tarte tatin made with golden delicious apples – well enough executed, but slightly uninspired.

The concert was in the open air Theatre Jean Deschamps in the Cite.  This theatre was created in 1908 on the site of the old Saint Nazaire cloisters, and named in 2006 after the French actor Jean Deschamps, who created the Carcassonne Festival in 1957.

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Above is a view from our seats down to the stage.  The orchestra stalls in front of the stage are called the Carre d’Or, the golden square.  What a nice name!! The first tier in front of us is called 1ere Serie, and we were in the second tier, predictably called 2eme Serie.  Now here’s a tip if you want to go to the festival.  Our seats were Rang B in the second tier, numbered 77 to 81 – the view was spectacular and because it was the first row of the second tier there was nobody sitting in front of us!

As we were taking our seats the warm-up act was just about finishing – I’m glad it didn’t last long :).  We had come to see Elton John, and his concert started on the dot at 9:30pm!

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There then followed one and a half hours of music and pure magic!  As the evening wore on, the sun was slowly setting behind the crenelated walls, and the atmosphere gradually changed.  It was magical!

Very early on in the concert, Elton made an announcement to say that, after the current round of concerts and touring, he would be retiring from the music business, to spend more time with his children.  I think it made the evening even more special for everyone.  Elton played song after song, without a break or long chatty bits, and his music still sounded fresh.  At the end of the concert he played a couple of encores, but we made a dash for it after the first one, trying to hit the road before the rest of the 5000 spectators did so.  And we were successful, and back in St Chinian just after 1am, tired but very happy!!

I’ll leave you with a few shaky videos of the evening – the piano playing especially was very good!  E-mail subscribers, please visit http://www.midihideaways.wordpress.com to watch the videos.

And the farewell to the music business?  A few days after the concert, the media picked up on it;  a spokesperson for Elton John said that he would not be retiring.  So we’ll see what happens…

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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