Fortified remains

A little while ago, I wrote about my visit to the local history museum in Puisserguier.  There’s a lot more to discover in this town, and today I’d like to take you on a visit of the castle, which is at the heart of the old village.

The origins of the chateau date back to the 11th century, when a fortified castle was built on a hillock.  At that time the people living on the plains were at the mercy of bands of marauders, and very soon a second fortification was built, encircling a small village.  Puisserguier became a circulade, a village built in the round.  Examples of such villages can still be seen in the area – Aigne is one such village which is in very good condition.

This link takes you to a map of Puisserguier.  The chateau is on Plan dals Cathars and the map gives you a good idea of how the village grew up around it.

Entrance to the chateau in Puisserguier

Entrance to the courtyard of the chateau in Puisserguier

The chateau became property of the French state during the French revolution, and was subsequently sold as several lots.  Doorways were created in the outside walls, and the inside was divided into a number of dwellings.

Outside wall of the chateau, with front doors to individual dwellings

When I first visited the chateau many years ago, the vagaries of time had not been kind to it!  Most of the courtyard inside the chateau was taken up by a block of garages, and the arches in the courtyard had been partly blocked up. It all looked in a pitiful state.  The fortunes of the chateau changed, when the municipality decided to claim back this part of local history, by buying up parts of the chateau as they came up for sale.

The garages in the courtyard were cleared away and the arches in the courtyard were opened up again.

Courtyard of the chateau, looking north

Chateau courtyard, looking south-west.

Some of the arrow slits are still visible on the inside the walls; the square holes in the wall would have been for wooden beams, and those beams would have supported walkways for the archers.

Wall showing arrow slit

If only some of those walls could tell their story!!  If you look carefully, you can decipher a little bit of the story:  the top of the wall was added later, probably in the 19th century.  As for the black patch at the bottom of the picture, your guess is as good as mine!

Old chateau wall, telling its story.

On the ground floor of the chateau, only one room is open to the public.  It is used for exhibitions, telling the history of the chateau.  This room was originally divided into two rooms, but the last owner decided to do some alterations!

Room on the ground floor of the chateau.

Room on the ground floor of the chateau.

Plans are afoot to restore parts of the chateau and to open more of it to the public.  As always, it will be a question of funding, but we live in hope!

On my way back to the car, I passed through another gateway, which was in the outer walls of the town.  Where once the walls might have been surrounded by a moat, today there is a car park.  Alongside the car park runs the D612 Beziers to Saint-Pons-de-Thomieres road, going straight through Saint-Chinian, to take me home!

Gateway in the old town walls

Remnants of town walls in Puisserguier

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A winter walk

Winter is as good a time as any to go for a walk in or around Saint-Chinian. The days are often sunny and mild, and I always try to wear layers, in case I need to shed some clothes as I work up a sweat!  Today I’d like to show you a walk just up the road from Saint-Chinian.  The official starting point for this walk is on Avenue de Villespassans, but sometimes I make it easier for myself by taking the car up the hill, to the car park across the road from the windmill!. 🙂

The Pays Haut Languedoc et Vignobles, a federation of local councils, published a collection of 73 marked walks, which are available either individually or as a pack from the tourist office in Saint-Chinian.

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The walk I’m writing about is called Les clapas.  Clapas is the name for the impressive mounds of limestones which have been cleared from the fields and piled up by successive generations of shepherds and farmers.

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The leaflets for each walk give details of the walk as well as points of interest along the way.  Because of copyright issues, I’ll not reproduce the inside of the leaflet, but I’ve found a link to details of the walk here.

Most of the Les clapas walk is fairly gentle, especially as I avoided the steep climb out of the village by using the car and parking near the windmill – naughty I know! 😸   The countryside “up on the hill” is a mixture of vineyards and friches, which is the name for abandoned agricultural land.  In some cases the land has been abandoned for some time, but there can still be signs of the passage of humans.  Below is a piece of wood from an old shutter, with the hinge still attached – barely!

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A lot of the vineyards had already been pruned at the time of my visit.  Hard work, but it’s got to be done if there are to be grapes (and wine)!

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Even in the middle of winter, there is still interesting vegetation to be seen.  The plant below is commonly known as butcher’s broom (ruscus aculeatus).  The tips of the leaves are quite spiny!  I believe this plant is used in dried flower arrangements – I wouldn’t want to have to work with it!

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There were still a few olives on some trees – this one was probably missed when the rest of the olives on the tree were harvested.

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The limestone rocks were impressive!  But no, I didn’t have to climb up there!!

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Here was another vestige of humankind, in the middle of nowhere – an old car!!

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This was on the edge of a former friche – I guess the car wreck and the rocks were pushed there by a big digger when the land was cleared! The car must have sat in the wilderness for some time, by the looks of it!!

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The itinerary took me through the hamlet of Fontjun, where I spotted another old vehicle from a bygone age!

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And just around the corner there was second one!  It was painted the same blue colour, and somewhat better preserved.  These carts would have been used for work in the vineyards.

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I saw this beautiful doorway in Fontjun …

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… and a few steps away I spotted this sliding door.  I loved the colour and patina!

The piece of rusty old steel in the picture below was part of an old garden gate – wonderful detailing and patina!

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Along the path, in the middle of nowhere, I came across an abandoned hut.  It had had a fireplace once, and someone had left the bellows to get the fire going, but the chimney had long gone.

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Towards the end of the walk, I took this picture of a capitelle, a stone hut built without any mortar!  This one was very picturesque against the blue sky.

img_6833It was a lovely walk, and I hope you enjoyed it!  I’ll be doing it again before too long – do let me know if you’d like to join me!

A feast of taste

It’s high time I wrote another food related post!  Luckily, I discovered a new restaurant last weekend, with the help of Charlotte and Phil from Languedoc Living!  I met Charlotte and Phil last fall, through mutual friends.  We immediately got to talking about food and restaurants, and agreed to go together to L’Ortensia in Saint-Gervais-sur-Marer!  Charlotte booked a table for last Saturday lunchtime, and so I drove to Saint-Gervais-sur-Mare on a grey and rainy day, along the beautiful Orb valley and over a mountain, to reach the village where L’Ortensia is located.

The restaurant is in a late 19th century mansion (set in a park), which had been bought by the local council some time ago.  The mansion sits high above the village, and it’s park was once a hydrangea nursery.  In 2013, after years of complete renovation, the property opened its doors to the public once more.  The kitchen is run by Eric Balan, who has worked with Alain Ducasse and Marc Veyrat.  His partner, Patricia Rochette, looks after the front of house.

The first impression was one of stark modernity.  A modern glass and metal conservatory extension to the main building serves as the entrance from the car park.  Stairs and a lift go down to the restaurant, which is two floors below.  However, Patricia’s warm welcome immediately broke the ice, and we were soon seated at a round table near the fireplace, where a lovely fire warmed us all.

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Once we’d had a chance to catch up with Charlotte and Phil, we turned to the menus and decided to go for the Menu Plaisir – and a pleasure it definitely was!

The meal started with a Prelude Gourmand, something to get us in the mood for what was to come!   First, we were served a tray of wonderful little morsels, to accompany our aperitif:  Roquefort macarons, crisp linseed “sails”, prunes wrapped in bacon, chorizo madeleines, and in the beaker four straws made with air-dried ham and filo pastry.  All incredibly delicious!!

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Then came an amuse bouche, a small bowl of mussel soup, very delicate, with tiny mussels and a sprinkling of pungent spring onions.

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The starter was pan-fried foie gras, served with quince puree and cranberries.  The foie gras was perfectly cooked and the flavour combination worked really well.  The red cabbage sprouts added an earthy note, which paired very well with the foie gras and the quince.

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After a little interlude, our fish course arrived.  Seared scallops were served on a bed of salsify puree, and garnished with pink grapefruit and bergamot lemon zest.  The citrus fruit in combination with the scallops was very delicious!  And the pretty looking baby leaves were of course edible too!

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Pigeon breast in a gingerbread crust was the main course, accompanied by different members of the brassica tribe: romanesco, kohlrabi, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, cress, and thin slices of radish.  Someone in the kitchen was having fun, and we enjoyed eating it!! 🙂

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Our dessert had a very sculpted look – two curved biscuits were holding a delicious “blond” chocolate cream, topped with pears poached in red wine, cubes of pear jelly, and citrus sorbet.  It was a sublime combination of flavours, and a dessert which had been very carefully constructed.  The “blond” chocolate used for the cream was Valrhona’s Orelys; the poached pear was a poire martin sec, an old (and mostly forgotten)  French variety of pear which is perfect cooked in red wine; the citrus sorbet was made with calamondines, a hybrid between a kumquat and a mandarin orange.  The sorbet was sharp with an incredible citrus flavour, a perfect foil for the sweetness of the chocolate cream.

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After dessert came coffee, and with it Les Mignardises – a beautiful selection of treats to round off this wonderful meal.  The beaker held a coffee foam;  the chocolate lollipop was flavoured with pear, and the madeleine with rhubarb.

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What a fantastic meal – wonderful food AND great company!

On the way back I stopped at Colombieres sur Orb to take a picture of the rather spectacular waterfall.

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Just by the waterfall is the starting point for a marked walk, up the Gorges de Colombieres – it looks like a really interesting hike, and I’ve earmarked it for the spring!

Changing places

Earlier this year, I wrote about a visit to Restaurant O’Bontemps in Magalas, and reported the sad fact that the restaurant was to close its doors.  Since then I’ve been keeping an eye out for where and when Olivier and Emmanuelle Bontemps might be opening their new venue.  I recently found on social media that they had taken a lease on a space next to the main library in Beziers, the Mediatheque, and that they had just recently opened their new restaurant O Petits Bontemps for business!!  I was planning a visit to a number of places in Beziers for the European Heritage Weekend, which took place on September 17th and 18th this year.  Florence Nash, who was staying at Acanthus, wanted to treat us, so after a quick phone call I had a reservation for lunch on the Saturday, and a whole lot of interesting places to visit – a perfect day out in the making!  The write-ups of the restaurant had been very good, so I was very much looking forward to it!

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The mediatheque opened in 2008 as part of the new university campus in Beziers, on what was once the site of army barracks.  Today, modern buildings with a fair bit of glass surround a large and empty space.

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The restaurant is at one end of the library, and its terrace overlooks the square.  The weather was unfortunately  a little too windy on the day we went for lunch, so we sat inside.

The restaurant interior has been given a complete makeover by BOH Décoration et Lifestyle, an interior design company from Bordeaux.

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The dominant colours are pink and grey, with a little nod to Alice in Wonderland here and there! 🙂

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The lunch menu changes on a regular basis.  These were the choices on the day we went:

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Here is the starter:

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An egg, which has been poached at low temperature, so that it is barely cooked, sits atop an interpretation of tabouleh: grains, croutons and razor clams in a most wonderful broth, the whole sprinkled with flower petals and the egg crowned with deep-fried crispy noodles.  A great start to the meal!!

The three of us chose two of the main courses on offer – before you ask, we had one main course each, but two of us had the same, the neck of lamb, which was prepared like a tagine:

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The curried mackerel was the other main course that we chose.  The fish was cooked just perfectly and only very lightly spiced.

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For dessert, all three of us opted for the chocolate and caramel dome.  The presentation was fabulous, and it tasted every bit as good as it looked!!

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The three course lunch is priced at €22.00, and the restaurant is open from 10am to 6pm on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday.  On Friday the restaurant is open for lunch AND dinner.  Reservations are essential – telephone 04 67 36 20 82 to book.

Thank you for the treat, Florence!

Back again!

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summer events

Summer is here at last, so here is an update to the page of upcoming events in and around Saint-Chinian:

Festival MusiSc, Saint-Chinian – 5 to 10 July 2106

Come and listen to one (or more) of the eight concerts, which are given in Saint-Chinian’s Abbatiale and the parish church. The programme is varied and offers a selection of different musical styles.  The festival opens with the children’s choir of Beziers Cathedral.  Amongst the concerts, there is an organ recital in the parish church, a tribute to Charles Trenet, a saxophone quartet playing jazz and more.  The full programme can be found on http://www.festivalmusisc.wordpress.com

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Jazz a Sete, Sete – 13 to 19 July 2016

This internationally renowned Jazz Festival takes place in Sete every year, and is a must for lovers of Jazz!  This year’s festival is headlined by Diana Krall (already sold out!), but there are tickets available for many of the other performers.  The concerts take place in the Theatre de la Mer, an open-air theatre with the sea as a backdrop.  Details can be found here.

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6eme Academie Musicale, Saint-Chinian – 16 to 23 July 2016

For the sixth time in as many years, Herve Hotier and Lauranne Chastal, with the collaboration of Pierre Courthiade, are running a week of classes for flute students.  A masterclass will be given by Juliette Hurel, 1st flute of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra.  The week ends with a recital at 5pm on July 22, followed by a concert by the students at 7:30pm.

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Fete de l’Olivier, Bize-Minervois – 17 July 2016

This popular fete always coincides with the Fete du Cru in Saint-Chinian.  The theme is the olive and its cultivation, and there is usually a competition for the best tapenade, among other activities.  There will be lots of food to buy and eat there, and the atmosphere is always great!  You can read about my visit to this fete here.

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Marche des Potiers (pottery market), Saint-Pons-des-Thomieres – 23 and 24 July 2016

If you enjoy pottery then this event is for you – dozens of potters displaying their wares in the shade of plane trees!  I can always find something to buy at this kind of fair!! 😀

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Fete de St Louis, Sete – 18 to 23 August 2016

The Fete de St Louis celebrates Sete’s maritime heritage and its patron saint with six days of events.  There will be over 70 street performances, and there will be a big jousting tournamen.  The jousting is done on water and in boats!!

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Fete de la Chataigne, Saint-Pons-des-Thomieres – 29 and 30 October 2016

The chestnut festival in Saint-Pons-des-Thomieres is one of the biggest autumn festivals in the area.  It is well worth a visit, whether you like chestnuts or not!  I have visited this festival many times, and you can read my post about it here.

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If you want to attend any of these events and are in need of accommodation, just drop me a line or visit www.midihideaways.com