Mediterranean delight

The village of Roquebrun is nestled against a steep hill, with the river Orb flowing at its feet.  The road twists and turns as you approach the village from the direction of Cessenon, passing the tiny village of Lugne, before crossing a range of hills.  Just past the top of the hill, as the road starts to descend again, the most beautiful panorama opens up.  There below is the Orb valley,  a lush and green expanse of fields and vineyards.  And in the distance you can see Roquebrun.  If you drive that way, think about making a stop at the little pull-in to take in that view!

The site where Roquebrun is today, has been occupied by humans for a long time.  Pre-historic and Roman vestiges have been found, and around AD 900 a castle was built, of which the tower is still standing, to protect against invasions from the south.

With the castle to protect them, people began to construct a village below and around it.  In turn this village got its own fortifications.  The medieval layout of that village can still be experienced as you walk up towards the tower, through narrow streets and passages.  The driver in the car was not from these parts.  He very nearly wrote off the car at the point  where it is in the picture below.

The passage of time can be seen in many charming ways on the streets of Roquebrun.

When early man settled in Roquebrun, one of the reasons was no doubt the microclimate that prevails.  Visit the village at the right moment – such as right now – and the air will be heavy with the fragrance of citrus blossoms.  It’s a beautiful fragrance, and there are citrus trees all over the village!

My destination was the Jardin Mediterraneen, which was created just over thirty years ago.   On the way to the garden I passed “La Rocheuse” – it’s a perfect house to rent if you want to stay in Roquebrun!

The microclimate of Roquebrun means that the plants which flourish here would have a hard time elsewhere in this area.

As you walk up towards the garden, there are signs in several places!

The garden was created on abandoned land above the village, and like most gardens it is a work in progress!  To date about 1000 tonnes of materials have been moved (stones and building materials) by donkeys and humans.  Since it’s almost at the top of the hill, your climb is rewarded with spectacular views!

Over 4000 plants from 400 odd species are being grown here!  I’ve been to the garden many times over the years, and have watched it evolve, and I feel that right now it is looking the best it ever has!

I would love to be a specialist on plants, but I still have a lot to learn.  The garden specialises in Mediterranean plants, plus cacti and succulents.  Here are some flowers:

And some plants which I would class as cacti (feel free to correct me if I’m wrong):

The microclimate at the garden is helped by the range of dolomite rocks, which store and refract the heat.

In this type of environment water is scarce, so only plants that have successfully adapted to the drought-like conditions will be able to survive.  After the spring rains, the garden is looking very lush, but even at the height of summer there will be something of interest!

Right at the top of the garden an enclosure has been built, to house two goats.  Their job is most likely to keep the undergrowth down!

From the goat enclosure I got a good view down towards the tower and the village – this was very high up!!

Several years ago, the ancient tower was restored, to stop it from falling apart.  In the picture below you can see quite clearly the square holes in the walls near the top of the tower.  These holes would have held beams which supported a wooden walkway.  The crenelations were added later.

From the viewing platform below the tower, stone stairs led down to the level of the entrance to the garden, past some lovely cistus bushes.  The bees were having a feast on the beautiful pink flowers!

The visit to the Mediterranean Garden was coming to an end, but the visit to Roquebrun was far from over.  On the way down the hillside, I snapped some more pictures!

A beautiful rosa banksia in full flower:

Another ancient door, with a marble door surround:

A well established wisteria, covering a little terrace:On Rue des Orangers, which runs along the river, is a restaurant called Le Petit Nice.  Its dining room has lovely views of the river, and this is where my friends and I had a bite to eat after all that walking!

Snails with garlic and parsley butter

Salad with smoked trout

Pan fried trout with almonds

Rabbit casserole

Pears poached in red wine

I’m not sure that we had walked off as many calories as we consumed, but I have no regrets – the meal was absolutely delicious, and the service so very friendly and efficient!

On the way back to the car there was one more remarkable sight – the esplanade which overlooks the river was renovated a few years ago, and planted with various climbing plants.  I was there just at the right time to see the beautiful wisteria flowers!  Two different kinds of wisteria, one a deep purple with double flowers, and the other with almost pink single flowers – stunning!

If you are in the area, be sure to visit Roquebrun.  It’s a beautiful and historic village with many attractions!

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Time to dine

To follow up last week’s post about customs in French restaurants, I thought it would be appropriate to whet your appetite with some food pictures!!  WARNING – if you are feeling hungry, do not read any further – have something to eat first!! 🙂

The first meal in this post was at Auberge de l’Ecole in Saint-Jean-de-Minervois.  The kitchen at Auberge de l’Ecole is run by Brigitte – her style of food is down-to-earth regional cooking, and her cassoulet is very good and highly recommended!  Here are three starters:

Salad with goats cheese, smoked duck breast and pears

Beef carpaccio

Marinated sardines

Main courses:

Brigitte’s famous cassoulet

Braised lamb shank – very tender!

Grilled squid with Persillade (parsley and garlic)

L’Ecailler Gourmet in Narbonne is a restaurant which serves fish – and only fish – there’s no meat on the menu!  What they serve depends on the catch, and so the fish is always very fresh, and always expertly cooked!  A nice touch in this restaurant is the fact that they bring the fish to the table before it is cooked, so you can drool over what you’ll get while you wait 🙂

Fresh fish for three!

Gratinated oysters

Salmon mousse duo – smoked and fresh salmon

The main courses were beautifully presented and the fish oh-so-good!!

Swordfish steaks

Mixed grill – salmon, cod and prawn

Grilled sea bream fillets

Desserts are always important to me – I adore them!  The desserts in the pictures below tasted every bit as good as they looked!!

Variation on banoffee pie

Peach and strawberry soup

Fresh strawberries with strawberry sauce

The Guinguette du Chichoulet restaurant is right by the water, on the marina at Port Chichoulet, near Vendres Plage.

The food was simple, and service was very friendly!

Marinated sardines

A selection of deep fried food – squid rings, prawns and potoatoes

The mussels were plump and juicy, and the prawns cooked just so.

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Grilled prawns

The bar/restaurant Le Vernazobre in Saint-Chinian was taken over by Murielle and Jeremy in autumn last year.  For the moment, food is served only at lunchtime, but during the summer months they will be serving food in the evenings too.  I’ve been a number of times recently, and have enjoyed my meal each time.  The choice of dishes on the menu is small, and the food is simple and well prepared.

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Salad with tuna fish and hard boiled eggs

Goat’s cheese parcel

I was assured that the steak was tender – and it was very good indeed!

Grilled steak

Pork chop with creamy sauce

Seafood pie

Have you tried any of these restaurants yourself or any others in this area that you especially liked??  Do you have any tips to share??

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!