A lady in waiting and other tales from Languedoc

I’ll start with the last bit first – a visit to Sete last night, so see Stacey Kent in Concert at the Theatre de la Mer.  The Theatre de la Mer was built on what remained of the fort built by Vauban in the 18th century – it was perfect for an amphitheater and the view from the seats beyond the stage is magical.  If you want to find out a bit more of the history of the fort/theatre have a look here.  The concert was due to start at 9pm, with a warm up by Terez Montcalm, a Canadian singer, who’s currently promoting her tribute album to Shirley Horn, followed at about 10.30 by Stacey Kent and her quintet.  The evening was great, the lights twinkling and the occasional boat going by and the atmosphere in the theater wonderful.  Of the two Terez Montcalm got the audience going much more, Stacey Kent was missing that je ne sais quoi that would have turned her performance into something more memorable.  But still….
 We had arrived in Sete in plenty of time before the doors opened, so decided to wander along the port and look for somewhere to have a bite to eat.  The romantic looking restaurant we all wanted to go to didn’t start serving until 8pm, which was too late, so we settled for a small cafe type place a few doors up.  The menu was small and the rose wine came in large bucket full of ice, and our table was right by the water’s edge, perfect for watching all kinds of boats going by!  Here’s the food we had:  an assortment of tapas (cold fish and prawns), and grilled octopus, both very delicious.

The seagull was watching our plates with a beady eye, but didn’t make any attempts at snatching morsels. It looked pretty well fed…. On the way back to the theatre we saw some youngsters training for jousting. They had motor powered boats, and really went for it. If you look closely the second picture you can just about see the splash!  As an aside – if you’re ever going to the Theatre de la Mer, bring some seat cushions with you, and don’t arrive too late.  Seating is first come first served, and it can get very packed.  At the top of the theatre are two terraces, where there are food stalls, so if you want to have something to eat you can take it back to your hard-won seats!

Earlier in the week I met with friends for a picnic along the banks of the Canal du Midi – at Capestang to be precise. There are picnic tables from where you have a great view of the pleasure boats driving by and the magnificent plane trees are still providing shade. With the courgettes starting to glut I decided I would try a Turkish recipe by Yottam Ottolenghi for a courgette frittata, to use up a fair few. The recipe was a little fiddly and lengthy (grating the courgettes, salting and leaving them to stand, then draining and squeezing them out in a teatowel) but the end result was worth every bit of effort. To go with the frittata I made humus and tzaziki, and my friends brought bread, ham and cheese. I could not resist dessert so took some poached rhubarb to be served with custard.

Now back to St Chinian – last Saturday I heard the unfamiliar sound of the clip-clop of hooves coming round a corner.  Luckily my camera was to hand to snap these pictures of a newlywed couple on their way to their wedding breakfast.

Finally, the Lady-in-waiting is Marianne – awaiting her big day on July 14! I think every municipality in France has a bust or statue of Marianne, the national emblem of France.  In the days leading up to Bastille day, our Mairie is beautifully decked out with flags and Marianne takes pride of place on the central balcony. More decorations will be going up this afternoon as the whole park in front of the town hall will be decked out with lampions, which will be lit tonight before a torch-lit procession around town, with a brass band, and all the children carrying flags and lampions.  Tomorrow night it’ll be the same procession, only we’ll end up at the football ground to watch the fireworks!

The park will be scented by the magnolia grandiflora trees, which are in flower now – I’d never paid attention to the perfume, but it is a beautiful smell with a hint of citrus.

I’m sure even the goldfish will have a good time at the forthcoming parties!!

The sound of silence

‘Tis the time of year when the cicadas start singing – one of the signs that summer really has arrived!  In places the noise can be deafening as the beasties compete with one another, but mostly it provides a very pleasant background noise, a sign that you have arrived in the South.

I taped this little bit of silence at Les Rossignols near Roquebrun this afternoon.  There is no car noise and at the height of the day only the cicadas are active – sheer bliss and of course it’s not easy to find such a quiet spot in our ever so noisy environment.

The owner of Les Rossignols had prepared a simple and informal, but very delicious lunch.  Sitting on a terrace, admiring the view of the Orb river valley, with a glass of Rose wine from Domaine de Marquise des Mures, we started with a salad of fresh garden tomatoes, a separate dish of beetroot (both home-grown), dressed with lemon juice and olive oil and some marinated olives.  Main course was pasta with a sun-dried tomato sauce.  The sun-dried tomatoes (not the type in oil) are soaked to soften them a little, and then blended to a paste with chopped onions and garlic, which have been softened in some olive oil, roasted pine nuts and grated parmesan cheese.  Warm before tossing with the hot pasta – yummy!  For dessert we had that wonderful home-made tart made with fresh wild plums and apricots – the pastry crust was very thin and crunchy so a second piece was no hardship!

At Les Rossignols I also picked up a bowl full of wild plums, which make wonderful jam and delicious tarts combined with apricots!  I’ll be busy this evening preserving that bounty.The apricot tree along the road was heavy with fruit and I wanted to show you just how abundant the crop on some trees can be.   Of course just because it grows close to the road doesn’t mean that the tree does not belong to someone, so scrumping is out of the question!  I already made some apricot jam last weekend with fruit from Barbara Cathala – last Sunday she had some very nice small apricots which were perfect and made for a very tasty result.

 

At the beginning of the week I went to L’Arbousier in Pierrerue to update my photographs. The weather was spectacular and the garden in full bloom.  You can see the results on the webpage for the house

Also earlier in the week I went for a visit to Narbonne to catch up with a friend.  Le 26 is the restaurant we tried that day, not too far from the market halls.  Great value lunch time menu and very good food. There was melon with ham for starter – almost a bit of a cliche, but when the melon is perfectly ripe and ham tender and tasty, it’s sublime.  For main course there was supreme de poulet, beautifully cooked on a bed of mashed potatoes, and served with an oyster mushroom sauce.  Dessert was glass full of strawberries with creme chantilly, not your ordinary whipped cream, but the real thing with vanilla and a little sugar….!

 

In my garden exciting stuff is happening – the first of the tomato crop is ripening!!  It started to turn pale orange and should be ready for picking (and eating) any day now!  We’ve had some rain this week (unusual for this time of year, but very welcome!) and things are growing apace.  Unfortunately not just the vegetables and flowers but also the weeds, but such is gardening life.

 

The garden at La Digue in St Chinian was looking particularly lovely last week, with the climbing hydrangea and the trachelospermum flowering at the same time as the phormium and the oleander.

A bientot!

Lodeve continued…. (food, carpets and some gardening)

When I left you last week, I’d gotten to the point were we started to get hungry.  We’d spotted a restaurant at the start of our walk, and that’s where we headed now.  Le Petit Sommelier is a couple of doors down from the tourist office, and has a lovely terrace out the front on Place de la Republique.  Unfortunately, the weather was not right, so we had a cosy table indoors.  The choice of dishes looked good and on their midday menu they had options for two our three courses.

The four of us had four different starters:  thinly sliced mountain ham, terrine of goats cheese, salad with herring and potatoes, prawn and avocado cocktail.  We all enjoyed our choice and waited for the main course!

For main course there was rumpsteak with pepper sauce, lamb tagine, duck leg with orange sauce and cod fillet with chorizo.  Again we all very much enjoyed our choices and there were no leftovers!!  After all that wonderful food only two of us managed to have a little dessert (ice cream and pannacotta), but neither was very photogenic, so you’ll have to imagine those two.  Service was friendly and quietly efficient and the bill for the four of us came to 82 EUR including drinks.

After all that food we still had a little time before our visit to the Savonneries, so we went for another little walk around Lodeve, and found more “treasures”, amongst which a shop selling all sorts of Polish foods – unfortunately closed for lunch, and an English Library.  The turbaned fountain head was at the back of a house, glimpsed through an open front door.

Finally it was time to head off to the Savonneries – I’d been before and thought I’d remembered where it was, but ended up asking at a supermarket petrol station.  The lady explained that it was just behind the supermarket (which hadn’t been built when I last visited), and to leave the car in the car park and walk round.  Our guided visit was booked for 3.30pm and we started off with a film explaining the role of the Mobilier National which is both a holding collection of works of art, furniture and carpets and tapestries belonging to the French state, as well as number of specialised workshops, of which the Savonneries are part.  The Mobilier National furnishes all French Embassies as well as the “palaces” of the French government, and their stocks are built on the former royal collections, with each successive government adding new works.  The website for the Mobilier National is only in French but gives you a good idea of the scale and scope! Time for some pictures:

After the film our guide took us to the exhibition area, where several finished carpets were on display. One thing I must mention is that nothing here is for sale. The entire output of the workshop belongs to the state and goes into the collection of the Mobilier National, except for the rare pieces which might be given as gifts of state.  Savonnerie carpets are velour pile carpets, with the thread being knotted around the warp and looped at the front.  Once a row of knots is finished a linen thread is woven in, which forms the fabric and consolidates the structure of the carpet, and the loops are then cut to form the velour.  Depending on the size and pattern, one carpet can take up to 10 years to complete!  At that rate you do however have several people working on it at the same time, so in reality it only takes two people five years – oh the patience!!

Each carpet is a work of art, both in the design and the execution. Generally the Mobilier National commissions the design from artists, who then work very closely with the weavers to translate their design into a finished carpet. Currently there are some very beautiful modern carpets on the looms in Lodeve, and new techniques are constantly explored, such as the raised discs for the “lobster”  carpet.

Traditional Savonnerie patterns are often very involved and have a high knot per square centimetre ratio, in order to bring out the complicated detail.  On the carpet below over 50 different colour yarns are used, and the detail and finesse of the work is staggering.  It’s been worked on for three years, and will be on the loom for about another three years.

With another recent carpet the weavers were challenged to translate the design of Julian Gardair into reality – not an easy task by all accounts, but the result is spectacular.  You can see the design and work in progress here.  The final photograph is a of Savonnerie carpet to a traditional design, in this case two torches.  Not my favourite, but still very impressive!

In my garden this last week the grapes were flowering – the blossoms are so insignificant you can hardly see them.  On the same plant further along the vine some bunches had flowered a little earlier and the little grapes were developing well already. The little furry things are kiwis, which have also set well this year, and the dahlias have started flowering also.  I always think of them as autumn flowers, but in St Chinian they usually start blooming at the beginning of summer.  The tomato plants continue to shoot up, and this week the Linden (lime) trees are in full bloom – I adore their heady perfume, which wafts around the village!  And lastly the raspberries have started ripening – I hope I’m not going to make you jealous when I tell you that I’ll have some for breakfast most mornings until the end of the season.

Plant fairs, carpets and doorknockers

At the start of the week was a visit to La Petite Pepiniere in Caunes Minervois, last Sunday, for the annual Open Weekend. Despite all expectations to the contrary, Sunday turned out to be a little wet, but we set off undeterred. Gill Pound who runs La Petite Pepiniere has created the most magnificent garden from a former vineyard, and at 11am she welcomed us for a guided tour of her kingdom. The range of plants is vast, but all are planted with the same aim – to withstand the dry climate and the sometimes cold winter. If you’re a keen gardener a visit is a must, there is much to interest and of course Gill has a great range of plants for sale.  Towards the end of our visit a lady came to take a picture of our group – you can find the picture and accompanying article here –  yours truly is hidden behind the lady in the purple raincoat!

As part of the open weekend a number of artists and artisans were exhibiting their works over the two days, but because of the rain several had to pack up and leave early. One of the few who stayed was Garth Bowden, who was showing a range of wooden furniture and sculptures. I was particularly taken by his wooden benches, where the surface textures were simply wonderful. After lunch the drizzle stopped and it brightened up a bit. There was much excitement, when a rare orchid (see picture above) was found by one of the visitors, growing near the riverbank.

I treated myself to two plants for my garden, a verbena bonariense, for which I’ve yet to find a spot and an Amicia Zygomeris which is planted and getting established.  The rain was good for the garden, and I’ve managed to do a fair bit of weeding and general work.  The tomatoes are growing well and need to be tied to their supporting canes.  The kiwis have finished flowering and there a good many little furry fruits dangling!! On the grapevines the flowers are incredibly unspectacular, the petals are almost non-existent, but this year’s flowering looks very promising! The air is heavy with the heady perfume from the linden tree outside the garden, and there is a loud buzz from the bees in that tree! Oh, and the raspberries are starting to ripen – always a good sign!!
On the way home from Caunes I found one of the most spectacular fields of poppies ever – so much for me writing that there was not much of a show this year!  And the handsome flower-pot-man was found in Caunes Minervois too.

   
 

Thursday I made a trip to Lodeve with friends, to explore the town and to visit the Savonnerie carpet workshop.  Let’s start with Lodeve:  from the middle ages onwards this was an important town for the manufactue of woollen fabrics because of its location and the pure water of the two rivers running through it, and from Louis XIV it received the monopoly for supplying the fabric from which all soldier’s uniforms were made.  Booming during war times but poor during peace times.  Of course that monopoly did not last, and by 1960 the last mill closed in Lodeve, leading to the decline and depopulation of the town.  Go for a walk through the centre – it’s well worth it!! The architectural history is all there, be it the cathedral or humble lanes. One thing which holds much fascination for me are doors and door knockers – Lodeve has a great deal and  I could have found many more with a bit more time!  The shap of the knockers are only limited by the imagination of the creators:  hands (with and without a ring on the ring finger), animal heads, cornucopias, and some incredibly ornate designs.  The sad pictures are of the doors where you can see that the knocker has been removed, sometimes stolen, sometimes sold…. but I won’t include any of those here.There are many quirky details, such as the bell-pull on the side of an ancient doorway, and the bell still above the door inside!

   

And then we found an incredible mural at the end of a little alleyway.  The artist really got his perspectives right, from afar it’s difficult to distinguish what is real and what is painted on.

A few more bits and pieces, before I wrap it up for today – I think I know what a Frigoriste is, but what about Ressemelage?  I have no idea!!

In the next post I’ll tell you about lunch and the visit to the Manufacture Nationale de la Savonnerie.  And before I forget, the riddle photograph from last week showed the leaves of a cyca unfurling!

Flowers, flowers, everywhere!

With the arrival of the warm weather there is an explosion of blooms everywhere!  In my garden the roses are particularly good this year, and Mme Meilland (also called Peace) is really going for it.  She starts of with a tame and decorous bud of the palest yellow, with splashes of pink along the edges of the petals, but once fully open she turns into one of the blowsiest roses you’ve seen, just amazing!  That rose always reminds me a bit of some of the hats the Queen Mother was famous for at one time.

With the help of two friends I spent most of Wednesday gardening, trying to catch up!  Between the three of us we managed to get a fair bit done:  weeded and butted the potatoes (lots of tasty purslane in there – edible weeds which are good for you!), planted aubergines, peppers, chilis, melons and courgettes, and did a lot of other general weeding and clearing up.  As you’ll see the in the picture, watering in my garden is mostly done by gravity.  There is a canal system which brings water into the village and so long as I level the earth well enough I can just let the water run along the rows of plants!  This morning I managed to get lettuce, beetroot and onions planted, as well as carrots and parsnips sown and watered in – it’s slowly taking shape!

Earlier in the week on a visit to Bize Minervois I came across these charming sights.  Above the door you can just about see that something was once written there – could it have been CAVE? But what was the rest??  The street signs in Bize Minervois are all individually hand-made by a ceramicist and they look delightful!  Placette St Genies is the home of Les Remparts, and the picture with the wonderful irises and roses was taken in the garden of Le Figuier – both holiday homes for rent (a few weeks only remain at each for this season!)

On the way back to St Chinian I just had to stop to snap this for you.  It’s Valerian (Centranthus Ruber) in its red and white form.  Valerian seems to grow very well in our area, and right now forms great big patches of pink in areas.  When combined with the yellow broom it is simply stunning.  The poppies this year have put on a good show, but not quite as spectacular as the ones in Monet’s painting of the poppy field in Argenteuil, perhaps next year?

Last Sunday I stopped at Villespassans for their annual fete – a charming affair with a small brocante (flea market), some old cars and a number of stalls selling artisan made products and wine.  The field next to the old cars was home to hundreds of Pyramidal Orchid (Anacamptis Pyramidalis) and there was some cistus and broom blooming as well.  The birds were singing all around and the sun shone – what more could I possibly want?  The top of the bell tower in Villespassans always looked pretty interesting from afar.  But looking at the close-up I noticed a raft of aerials and last year’s Christmas decorations – ho hum…

A walk around St Chinian brought some more delights:  Yellow irises growing alongside a stream (there are masses along parts of the Canal du Midi),  a white climbing rose on a fence, a wild cherry beginning to ripen and some Spanish broom caught in the evening light.  May really is one of the best months to spend in Languedoc!!

The last picture in today’s post is a riddle – I wonder if anyone knows the name of this plant? It’s growing in a pot in my garden 🙂

Versatile Blogger Award

A few weeks ago I was nominated by Peri from Peri’s Spice Ladle for the Versatile Blogger Award – I was very surprised and deeply honored – THANK YOU Peri!!  Peri writes wonderfully about Indian food and I enjoy her blog a great deal!

The Rules of Acceptance:
Thank the person who gave you this award

  • Include a link to their blog
  • Next, select 15 blogs/bloggers that you’ve recently discovered or follow regularly (I’ll go for 10)
  • Nominate those 15 bloggers for the Versatile Blogger Award
  • Finally, tell the person who nominated you 7 things about yourself.
  • In the same post, include this set of rules.
  • Inform each nominated blogger of their nomination by posting a comment on each of their blogs.

I’d like to nominate the following blogs for the Versatile Blogger Award

Sky Hacienda
Cathy Bidini
The Craving Chronicles
Cooking in Sens
Five and Spice
Pholloyo
Frugal Feeding
Tasting Tales
Lula Harp
The Soulsby Farm

Windmills, wine and food

What do those have to do with one another, you might well ask.  Nothing really except that it all happened the same week!  Last weekend the theme was “Journees Europeens des Moulins”, in other words European mill days and the idea was to look back on history and heritage.  The windmill in St Chinian is fully functional and once a year the sails go up and if the wind is right the mill turns and makes stone-ground flour (not for human consumption, according to hygiene regulations!!).  Among the local historians there is dissent as to whether the mill was originally designed to grind grain or whether it was to process lime, which was burnt in the nearby kiln.  When it was reconstructed some years ago, they argued it out, but the flour lobby won.  This year it was grey and cloudy and the wind too strong, so here is a picture from a sunny day!

On Tuesday Domaine La Madura bottled some of last year’s white wine – always an exciting operation.  The bottling plant comes on a truck, and the wine has to be pumped across the river.  There is no space for the truck to park outside the cellar, so Cyril has to put on his gum boots and brave the icy waters and slippery stones to get the hose pipe across the river bed.  In part made a little more perilous this year as we’d had rain not long before so there was lots of water!  

Once everything is hooked up the pump in the truck draws the wine into a holding tank, and then the bottling operation can begin – in theory.  The whole setup is very complex and needs a fair bit of fine tuning.  Bottles are fed in one end, get washed and dried, filled with wine, the cork pushed in, the capsule dropped on and tightened, the two labels pasted on and then agile hands put the bottles into boxes which are sealed and stacked on pallets.  It takes six people to keep the whole thing running and if it all runs smoothly the plant can process something like 2400 bottles an hour.  I’m looking forward to tasting the 2011 vintage of Domaine La Madura Classic blanc, cheers!

Auberge La Selette was my last dining out experience, and very nice it was too!  For aperitifs they serve a cucumber/garlic dip with croutons along with some luques olives, followed this time by an amuse bouche of gazpacho (yummy!)   I’m not fond of raw oysters, but I love their gratinated oysters, plump and juicy with just the right amount of cheese and grilled to perfection.  The salad with feta, anchovies and olives looked good too and was very tasty.

For main course there was duo of scallops and gambas, tempura of gambas on a herbed potato puree, and veal kidneys in red wine sauce.  All of it well executed and delicious.

For dessert we had tiramisu and profiteroles with ice cream and chocolate sauce.  The profiteroles had the wow-factor when they arrived at the table, but I was more than happy with the tiramisu.  Do reserve if you want to go for dinner.  The night I was there the place was packed; service was good if a little slow (but then we were there for the evening, and we didn’t starve!), and despite the volume the kitchen coped very well.

In the garden things are finally moving – the tomatoes are planted and the potatoes are beginning to flower, so we’ll soon be enjoying the first new potatoes!  The roses are flowering their hearts out, and the first blossom on kiwi vine are opening.  That means that I’ll be pollinating every day now:  pick a male flower and then go over all the open female flowers – a little tedious at times but it works!!  With the recent rain everything is lush, including the weeds, but they’ll soon be under control again!

And here’s the gallery!