High five

It’s party time this week!!  I am celebrating the fifth anniversary of this blog – anyone fancy some bubbly??

I can’t quite  believe that I published my first post on March 7, 2012 – it seems such a long time ago!  That first post was titled “Do you enjoy walking?” and looking at it again, I can see that my style has changed a great deal since then!

It all started with John Bojanowski, of Clos de Gravillas, telling me that I should have a blog, that it would complement the midihideaways website.  Five years, and 253 posts later, I am still finding new things to write about!!  It’s been a highly enjoyable experience, at the same time broadening my horizons and my knowledge of the area.

Some statistics:  there have been 23,668 visitors to the blog, and the most read post of all time was “The secrets of Tarte Tatin – explained!“, which was published on November 30, 2012.

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The second most popular post was “The great big mimosa party …” from February 15, 2015.  The Fete du Mimosa is still an annual event in Roquebrun!

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Figgy Jam“, which was published on September 11, 2015 was the most commented on post!

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A gourmet walk“, about a delicious walk in Saint-Jean-de-Minervois, published on July 15, 2015 was also very highly commented on.  This post was number 2 as far as comments are concerned.

Walking along the vineyards

Walking along the vineyards

The busiest day for the blog was on August 7, 2015 when “Art everywhere” was published.

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Visitors to the blog come from all over the world and it is read by 713 regular subscribers/followers, plus a number of readers who access the blog via social media and by recommendation.

All this would not have been possible without the unwavering support from Anthony and Annie – a huge thank you to both of you – you deserve medals!!  And thank you to you for reading and commenting and liking the posts!

Do you have any favourite posts?  Is there anything you would like to read about?  Please complete the poll, and leave your comments in the section below – I always love hearing from you!  Here’s to the next five years!!

The Village Voice

Florence Nash has very kindly written another post for this blog!  I’ve lived in Saint-Chinian for so long that I take the sounds around me for granted, and as such I don’t really pay attention to them any more.  So it’s wonderful to be reminded of those particular sounds which make living in a village (as opposed to a town/city) so very special – thank you, Florence!!


I usually arrive in Saint-Chinian, at the end of August or early September, as a refugee from the sweaty, buggy, late-summer slump of the southern United States, where people dash from one air-tight, air-conditioned haven to the next. Maybe that’s why one of my favorite images of this many-splendored place is a surprisingly modest one: My waking view of dawn lighting the red roof tiles outside the wide-open casement window, and the curtain sheers, dotted with little Fleurs de Lys, stirring slightly in air just cool enough to require a blanket. This air is sooo delicious! And virtually bug-free, with the sky criss-crossed by swallows (or martins, or swifts — I never can tell the difference) swooping and darting helpfully after their airborne breakfast. I wouldn’t dream of closing these windows at night, even if it were to take three blankets.

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That may explain how I have become so conscious of the voice of Saint-Chinian, the particular texture of sounds human and otherwise that seems almost a sonic portrait of the village. Especially in early morning as the village wakens, but throughout the day as well, I find myself listening for and collecting its distinctive sounds.

To begin with, there’s the town clock that rings each hour and then, just to make sure everybody gets it right, does it again. The local doves join the daily aubade with their soft hoo, hoo-hooo. (One morning a few years ago I heard gunshots blasting through their peaceful calls. To my relief, it turned out to be someone chasing marauding boars out of his vineyards; they have a destructive enthusiasm for ripe grapes.) As the sun climbs, there’s the creak and clack of shutters being opened and secured and, on Thursdays and Sundays, the thrum of van engines as marchands converge on the market square and set up their stalls, calling and clattering and laughing. Plenty of dogs are quick to voice their territorial imperatives — there’s some indignant barking under my window as I write.

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I’m renting Acanthus, as usual, the house occupying the two stories over Andreas and Anthony’s headquarters on Rue Cours La Reine, and throughout the day I hear the companionable murmur of many a conversation — in French, English, German, and who knows what — below my windows as friends stop by for a word. The mail carrier on her rounds usually has time for a little chat, too.  This street is one of the few actually wide enough for two passing cars and even a bit of parking. But just in back, and all around, there are “streets” you’d swear a car could never fit through — until you find yourself leaping frantically into a doorway and mashing yourself against the wall as one squeezes past with a few inches (really!) to spare, rear-view mirror practically snatching at the market basket clasped to your bosom. These tiny streets, separating dwellings by only a few yards, are one of the factors contributing to what amounts to a village-wide conversation; that, along with the fact that every sound reverberates full force off these ancient stones. One morning as I lay in bed savoring the rising light and the twitter of birds, I heard the clear ting ting of a teaspoon against a coffee cup in someone’s kitchen across the way. It was extremely intimate, somehow.

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To be fair, I have to mention the occasional roar and clatter of huge trucks that shoulder their way along the main drag, momentarily challenging conversation under the trees at Le Balcon, and Vernazobre, and the Café de la Paix. They’re not my favorite noise, but they are part of the real life of all these old villages now strung like beads along a narrow, busy trucking route. I’ve come to love Saint-Chinian because it’s not a Hollywood-glamorous South of France destination, but an ancient town in a surrounding of dramatic beauty — and equally dramatic history — where people work hard and live in close community, mostly either making wine or providing services for those who do. And, for my money, instead of seeing famous beauties in full make-up and stage lighting, I find it a lot more interesting — and  privileged — to get to know what they’re like after a hard day’s work, or first thing in the morning!

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Speaking of working, I have to share with you one more little item in Saint-Chinian’s voice. The other day I drove up behind the Cave Cooperative to have a look at Domaine La Madura’s new winery, built since I was last here by my friends Nadia and Cyril. On the way up I spotted Nadia out talking with the pickers, so we only exchanged a hasty wave. At the winery, though, I found Cyril in rubber boots hosing off a concrete floor, the air tinged with new fermentation. He showed me around the sleek, modern building crowning the hill (and uncannily harmonious with the landscape): lab, tasting room, sales area, offices. We entered a low-ceilinged space filled with solemn rows of large, apparently identical barrels; but each bore its own markings: contents, origins, age; each had a personal history of weather and work and worry. The room felt like a kind of chapel of wine. Cyril removed the bung from one of the barrels nearby and said, “Come listen. You can hear the wine working.” I put my ear down close to the bung hole, held my breath . . . and there it was, faint but steady. Sssshhhh. Just like holding a seashell to your ear to hear the ocean, hundreds of miles from the coast. The voice of the wine! Delicate and astonishing and new, this voice of Saint-Chinian is now, without doubt, my undisputed favorite.

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Before I sign off, just one or two more words about the pleasures of driving in the Languedoc countryside. Because every road wriggles and squeezes through village after village —often without room for two cars to pass and always with two or three badly parked vans in the way— drivers encounter over and over the need to slow down, calculate relative maneuvering ease, and cede right-of-way in the most practical direction. This is accomplished fluidly, quickly, and without fuss by the great majority of drivers I’ve encountered, in a sort of car-ballet of accommodation. It makes me feel better about human behavior. It makes me feel less good about driving in the US. Lastly, my very favorite road sign in all of France is the one that says “TOUTES DIRECTIONS.” No message could be more welcome or more comforting than this, to us strangers wandering in a strange land: “Wherever it is you are trying to go, friend, you are — so far — on the right road!”

Summer celebrations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brunch in the sun

Last Sunday I headed to Beziers – there was much to do there, but the weather was not promising!  I had booked a table for brunch at Au Soleil, a small restaurant cum tearoom and fine grocery store, on Place de la Madeleine, in Beziers.

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As I approached Beziers the skies brightened a little, and when I got to the restaurant I saw that a few diners were already seated outside and tucking into their food! 😀

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The restaurant is very aptly named – if the sun is out then it will be on the terrace of the restaurant!  Au Soleil had been recommended by a friend, who’d been there for lunch on a weekday.  I’d stopped there for a cup of tea one afternoon, and found out about the brunch whilst there.  The premise of the brunch is simple: there is a self-service buffet, and you can eat as much as you like – fairly unusual in France!

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This is a variation on the American style brunch, with a French twist – more of a leisurely lunch than breakfast and lunch combined.  To my mind it was all I could have wished for!

The buffet had a very good selection – I started with the cold beetroot and raspberry soup.  It had a lovely zing to it, perfect for an appetizer!IMG_4483

I then tried some of the hams (smoked and dried) with some scrambled eggs:

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The dried ham was so good that I had another slice, this time with some chorizo, pate de campagne and some lettuce:

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Up next: rillettes de thon, a kind of tuna fish mousse, which was wonderfully creamy and delicious!

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I followed that with a piece of the courgette and pepper tart, and I added some of the cauliflower tabouleh to my plate.  Both were very yummy!

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Then it was time for the “main course”: chicken cooked in a mild (but very flavoursome) curry sauce, served with rice:

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By now you’re probably thinking that I was a bit of a piggy to have had so much food?  Be reassured, the plates were small, and so were my helpings!!  I really didn’t want to feel overly full at the end of the meal, and I wasn’t!

There were some lovely Saint-Nectaire and camembert cheeses, so I had to try them:

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The “sweet” part of the buffet offered a light chocolate cake, American style pancakes, waffles, jams and spreads, including a well-known hazelnut and chocolate spread, fresh fruit, apple compote and curd cheese.  Earlier I had overheard one of the patrons talking with a member of staff about the jams – they sounded delicious.  So I decided to try a little of each of the jams on a pancake.  I put a piece of chocolate cake on my plate too – for good measure! 😉

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The apple compote was home-made, so, for the sake of research, I had to try that too – and very delicious it was!!

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The brunch included a glass of wine, and there was tea, coffee, orange juice and apple juice on the buffet.  The price was EUR 19.50 per person – not bad for a Sunday lunch.  I photographed the menu boards for you:

Au Soleil is in a great location – Place de la Madeleine is dominated by the Madeleine church, a romanesque church with lots of history!!  The square is also close to the market halls, and to the ‘main drag’ where the theatre is located.

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The theatre was my next stop – I had received an invitation to the finals of the Concours National de Chant Lyrique, a national singing competition for classically trained voices.

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I arrived in good time, but all the seats in the stalls were already taken.  I was happy to have a seat in the front row of the second balcony – that way I also got a view of the judges, who were seated in the first balcony.  Unfortunately, photography was not allowed, so all I can show you is this picture of the stage.

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If you are curious about what the inside of the theatre in Beziers looks like, here’s a post I wrote last year.  The competition started on time, and once our host had asked the audience members to turn off their mobile phones, he set out a few house rules.  I already knew of the ban on photography, but he also requested that there would be no clapping or applause whatsoever!  Apparently that’s the rule for competitions, so that the judges are not influenced by the audience members.

As this was the final of the competition, the number of contestants had already been drastically reduced.  Four persons competed in the operetta category (down from 15), and 15 in the opera category (down from 69).  The singers were all dressed beautifully, and they had obviously worked very hard to get to where they were.  I found the first two ladies in the operetta category a little painful to listen to – they had big voices, but some of their high notes sounded rather shrill to me.  The third candidate was much better than the previous two, and the fourth was the best of them all.

In the opera category I listened to another five performers.  There was a lovely sounding tenor, who appeared to be very nervous.  Then came two sopranos and another tenor, who were unremarkable.  The last candidate I listened to was a 23-year-old soprano, who had a most beautiful voice.  She really had something about her, a great stage presence, a good vocal range and a lovely tone – no shrill notes there!  I didn’t get her name, and because of a prior engagement I couldn’t stay until the end of the competition, but I hope that the young lady made it into the top three.  And perhaps I’ll be able to listen to her again somewhere, sometime?

P.S.  Roberto Alagna, the well-known opera singer, is a past winner of the competition in Beziers!

And more to come…

Fouilles Paleontologique, Cruzy – 18 to 28 April 2016

This month sees the annual dig for dinosaur bones in Cruzy – I have written about the excavations and the museum exhibition here and here.  This is a great opportunity to get up close to the action!!

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Vide Jardin, Saint-Chinian – 23 April 2016 (9h – 17h)

This is the first of its kind in Saint-Chinian – a flea market with a garden theme!!  Bring your spare plants, the tools you no longer use and any other garden related stuff, and take a stall!  It should be very interesting – you’ll definitely see me there!!

Fete des Plantes et du Massif, Abbaye de Fontfroide – 30 April and 1 May 2016

Fontfroide Abbey has been hosting a plant festival for a good many years now.  The surroundings at the abbey are a magnificent setting for the festival, and it’s a great time to visit the rose garden.

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La Randonnee de Bacchus, Berlou – 15 May 2016

The Bacchus walk is similar to the Balade Gourmande in Saint-Jean-de-Minervois.  It is a well established event, and the website gives you a good idea of what’s in store, both for the walk and the food and wine!  I might sign up for it this year!!??

Fete de la Cerise, Ceret – 21 and 22 May 2016

This is a cherry festival which has great renown, but which I’ve not yet managed to visit – so much to do, so much to see, but maybe this year?  😀

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Open Day at La Petite Pepiniere, Caunes Minervois – 4 and 5 June 2016

A must for plant lovers and all of you who are interested in mediterranean gardening.  Gill Pound is an expert on the subject of gardening in dry climates, and her mature garden is looking spectacular at that time of year.  I’ve written about a previous visit to the open day here.

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Fete de la Cerise, Mons la Trivalle – 5 June 2016

This is a local cherry fair which I have visited a number of times over the years.  It’s another lovely occasion to get your fill of cherries.  You may even get to take some home, and make a wonderful cherry clafoutis (flancake)?

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Fete de la Musique, all over Europe – 21 June 2016

Don’t miss this wonderful celebration of music all over France.  It’s a great occasion to listen to all kinds of music – I’ve written about some of my experiences here and here.

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Fete de Saint-Pierre, Valras Plage – 26 to 28 June 2016

Once upon a time, Valras Plage was a little fishing village.  The Fete de Saint-Pierre celebrates that heritage with food, drink, music and jousting on water.  Read about it here.

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I have a list of other events, which I will gradually be adding – do you have any events you think I should list?

Food, glorious food

Of late I have neglected writing about restaurants.  It’s true that I’ve not been getting out all that much recently, but nonetheless I have a few meals to share with you, from restaurants that I have visited over the past few months, and whose delicious food is worth writing about!

First on is Les Cuisiniers Cavistes in Narbonne. If you have been reading this blog for a little while, you may remember the gourmet walk in Saint-Jean-de-Minervois last year.  Les Cuisiniers Cavistes provided the excellent food for that event.  The restaurant sits on a little square, just across the road from the Musee Lapidaire, where all the bits of Roman carved stone are exhibited (something for another blog post).  I visited on a beautifully sunny day last October.

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The lunchtime prix fixe menu was not extensive but offered a good choice.  Since it was autumn, I opted for the pumpkin soup with wild porcini mushrooms and foie gras.

P1000631 My dining companion chose an autumnal salad (Meli Melo), which contained celeriac, brussels sprouts, wild mushrooms, caramelized onions and Spanish ham.P1000629

There were two dishes to choose from for the main course – easy – we had one of each!! 🙂

Here is the filet of cod, served with haricot bean puree and whole haricot beans, veal gravy, and thin strips of cured lard:

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I went for the carnivore option and had the duck breast, on a bed of roasted vegetables:

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There were two desserts to choose from.  I opted for profiteroles, which were filled with vanilla ice cream:

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My dining companion chose the chestnut tiramisu, which was served with chocolate sorbet and gingerbread crumbs.

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The entire meal was very delicious, and as you can see, the portions were not on the small side.  On top of that, the autumn weather was glorious, so it was a pretty perfect lunch!

Another memorable meal happened more or less by coincidence, on the way back from visiting an art exhibition in Serignan (see post here).  It was getting late, and we were getting hungry.  I remembered that friends had mentioned a place by the marina at Port Chichoulet in Vendres, and since we were close by, we thought we’d have a look.

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There’s really not very much going on at Port Chichoulet, unless you have a sailing boat in the marina, or want to go birdwatching in the nearby marshland.  There is a large building at the end of the quay, and three buildings, which, for want of a better word, I will call shacks.  The shacks all serve food, and our friends had recommended that we try the one in the middle, which is called L’Etal du bateau Joel et Valerie III.

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Since it was a little chilly outside we opted for eating inside.  The restaurant was very charmingly decorated with all kinds of things maritime.

But we’d come for the food – the fish!!  Joel Rodriguez, the owner of the restaurant, also has a fishing boat, which is called Joel et Valerie III.  I am assuming that Valerie is his wife? All of the fish served at the restaurant is his catch.

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The razor clams looked very tempting, but I’ll have to try them another time…

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On the menu there is fish and only fish!  The way it works is that the diners select the fish they want at the counter, and then it’s freshly cooked for them on a plancha, a cast iron grill plate.

We opted to share a portion of grilled squid to start with, which came to the table perfectly cooked:

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With the food there were no accompaniments, no vegetables, no french fries!!  But there is plenty of good crusty bread, and some aioli and garlic and parsley dressing.

For our main course we ordered a duo of dorade – dorade grise (black bream) and dorade royale (regular bream).  Our waitress recommended that we start with the black bream. Again, the fish was absolutely perfectly cooked.  I got a little carried away and almost forgot to take a picture!! 🙂

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To compensate, I took some shots of the food for some of the other tables, just before it was taken to the tables:

So if you enjoy good fish, think about visiting Port Chichoulet in Vendres – it might be an idea to telephone ahead (+33 628 350 590), to make sure that Joel et Valerie will be open.