Sittin’ on the dock of the bay

After that wonderful visit at Noilly Prat (see last week’s post) we needed some sustenance!!  There are a good number of restaurants to choose from in Marseillan – we headed to La Taverne du Port because of its quirky interior!  I had eaten there a number of times before, and I knew that the food was going to be good – another major criteria when choosing a restaurant!! 🙂

La Taverne du Port is just a short stroll away from Noilly Prat, and right across a canal which functions as a harbour for fishing and pleasure boats.

Standing with my back to the restaurant, I could see the visitor’s centre of Noilly Prat on the other side of the canal (on the right in the picture below)!

I mentioned the quirky interior of La Taverne du Port earlier – the picture below will give you some idea:

The furniture is all made from wooden barrels, and the walls are lined with rows upon rows of bottles.

La Taverne du Port has an amazing collection of whiskies, armagnacs, cognacs, spirits and wines, and they are all for sale, either by the bottle or by the glass!  All together, the restaurant stocks over 800 different types of drinks, and their list is impressive!!

But we had come for a bite to eat – we’d already had our ‘aperitif’ across the water!  Here, without further ado, are the starters:

Gratinated oysters

Salad with smoked mackerel fillets

A selection of charcuterie, cured meats sliced wafer thin.

The restaurant has one of these fancy hand-cranked slicing machines, which allows the cured meats to be sliced ever so thin!

Next to the selection of charcuterie was an impressive cheese board, arranged on top of a barrel!

For my main course I had chosen the day’s special: boeuf bourguignon:

This was a most delicious and rich beef stew, wonderfully flavoured!

My dining companions had opted for the catch of the day – small red mullet and mantis shrimp, served with a very tasty garlic sauce.

All main courses were accompanied by a delicious potato and vegetable gratin.  The portions were generous, so we all skipped dessert.  Instead we decided to go for a walk around Marseillan.

Before we leave the restaurant, here is a picture of what the terrace in front of La Taverne du Port looks like – it’s just by the water, which you can’t see in the picture.  For further details visit the website of La Taverne du Port.

Here are some pictures taken along the canal:

On a good day, you can see right across to Sete and the Mont Saint-Michel:

As well as the beautiful views along the canal, there are many quaint views and interesting corners in Marseillan, a few of which I’ll show you below.  Do visit if you are in the area!!

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Shaken, not stirred

… that’s how James Bond liked his martinis!  A classic martini cocktail has only two ingredients – that’s if you don’t count the olive!  Gin and dry vermouth, in the proportion of 6 parts gin to 1 part dry vermouth, make up a dry martini, according to the International Bartenders Association (IBA).

The town of Marseillan, on the Etang de Thau, is the home of Noilly Prat, a company which has been producing dry vermouth since its foundation by Joseph Noilly in 1813.  Purists say that it’s that dry vermouth that should be used to make the perfect dry martini cocktail!

Here’s a little bit of history for you:  Joseph Noilly was born in 1779 in Saint-Bel-les-Mines.  In 1801, the year that his son Louis was born, Joseph Noilly was a grocer and candle merchant in Lyon.  In 1813, the city of Lyon closed down its central wine and spirits depot.  Joseph Noilly seized the opportunity and started his own wine and spirits merchant business, creating his recipe for the dry vermouth which is still used today!

In 1843, a new branch of the business was opened in Marseille.  The man in charge of that new business was named Claude Prat.  The following year, Claude Prat married Anne Rosine, the daughter of Louis Noilly.  In 1855, Claude Prat became an associate of Louis Noilly and the company’s name was changed to Noilly Prat & Companie.  Between 1859 and 1862, a new production facility was constructed in Marseillan, for the ageing of wines.  I’ll come back to the ageing of the wine in a moment.

By 1865, Louis Noilly and Claude Prat had both died and Anne Roisine was at the helm of Noilly Prat, ushering in a period of expansion and prosperity for the business.  In 1878, the Noilly Prat vermouth was awarded a gold medal at the Universal Exhibition in Paris – a very high honour indeed!!

Anne Rosine Prat-Noilly was one of the few women who were running large and successful businesses in the 19th century.  The only other one I can think of right now is Barbe-Nicole Clicquot, the Veuve Clicquot of the famous champagne house, but I’m sure that there were others.

Anne Rosine was succeeded by her sons Louis and Jean Prat-Noilly in 1902, and in 1928 the company structure was changed to that of a PLC, a public limited company.  Information exists on the year 1939, which shows that the Chairman of the Board was a granddaughter of Anne Rosine.

In 1977, Noilly Prat and Company was bought by Martini & Rossi, the makers of the Martini vermouth.  In turn, Martini & Rossi was bought by Bacardi in 1992, and Noilly Prat vermouths joined a portfolio of illustrious brands such as Grey Goose vodka, Bombay Sapphire gin, and Dewar’s scotch whisky.

Now that I’ve told you about the history of the company, we can get back to visiting the production site in Marseillan.  I’ve visited Noilly Prat many times over the years, and the guided visits are constantly evolving and becoming better organized.  The visitor’s reception area is located in a large, spacious hall, with the shop at one end and the ticket desk at the other end.  Old (and now unused) equipment is used for decoration.

Did you notice the green doors in the upper picture above?  The lettering translates to “Behind these doors the first French vermouth is being made”!  The doors were opened with great flourish by our guide and an assistant, to reveal the Chai des Mistelles, the cellar where the mistelle wines are stored.

Huge oak casks line the cellar down both sides.  Louis Noilly had them built in 1859 – they were made from Canadian oak, and they have been in use ever since!  I’d never come across the word mistelle before my visits to Noilly Prat.  Apparently, this is lightly fermented grape juice, to which neutral alcohol has been added, to avoid it turning into vinegar.  This process leaves residual sugars in the wine, and that adds a little sweetness to the vermouth.

I mentioned earlier that the site in Marseillan was intended for the ageing of wines.  In the days before modern transport appeared, wines were sent by boat, with the barrels often tied up on the decks of ships.  The barrels and their wines were exposed to sun, wind, rain, mists and sea air.  On longer journeys, this produced oxidation in the wine, which gave it a taste all of its own.  Louis Noilly wanted to recreate some of this taste for his vermouth, and chose Marseillan since it was close to the sea.

From the Chai des Mistelles we stepped out into an enclosed yard, where hundreds of oak barrels were out in the open air, exposed to the elements.  The sun beats down on them in summer, the sea mists impart an imperceptible flavour, and the temperature changes throughout the year affect the ageing of the wine.  Seeing all those barrels lined up was a spectacular sight!!

The picture below is from one of my earlier visits to Noilly Prat – I think it was in 2004, when visitors were still allowed into the modern vermoutherie, where the wines are blended and flavoured with aromatics.  That part of the site is now out-of-bounds for visitors, unfortunately.

The barrels come from many different parts – they are bought once they have been used for a good 10 years, some for the production of whisky and cognac, others from port and wine makers.  They are used purely for storage and ageing – because they are second-hand, none of the tannins and flavours from the wood will be imparted to the wine.  A cooperage workshop on-site maintains and repairs the barrels – being outside in all weathers means that they need some TLC from time to time!

Our next stop was the museum, where the history of the company and its vermouth were illustrated.

To turn wine into vermouth, it is infused with a blend of herbs and spices.  The recipe for the original dry vermouth has not changed since Joseph Noilly first developed it, and the ingredients are still bought all over the world!  To ship them, in the days when shipping meant only transport by boat, special cardboard containers were developed.

The recipes for the herbal blends which flavour the vermouth, are closely guarded secrets.  However, in the museum we got to see approximately what is added:

Noilly Prat produces four different kinds of vermouth:  original dry, extra dry, red, and amber.  The pictures below show a simplified version of the recipe – not everything is listed.  Our guide told us that 27 different aromatics are used in the composition of the amber vermouth.

Here are their displays showing the differences in ingredients in their different vermouths.

Once the wines have been carefully aged and blended, a mixture of herbs and spices is added, and the wine is left to macerate with the aromatics for 21 days.  This maceration is done in casks like the ones in the following picture – 14 kilos of dried herbs and spices are added to each cask!

During the 21 days, the wines are stirred  by hand for three minutes every morning, to ensure that the herbs and spices infuse evenly.  A special tool was developed for that purpose.  You can see it in the picture below:

The curved blade at the end of the handle allows the cellar man to lift the herbs which have fallen to the bottom of the cask.  After the 21 days, the wine is strained and decanted into large refrigerated tanks, where all small particles settle to the bottom over a period of time, leaving the vermouth sparkling clear!  Finally, the finished vermouth is transported to Beaucaire by tanker, where it is bottled.

The last stop on our guided visit was the tasting bar – our appetites had been whetted, and finally it was time to taste the results of all that work!

Our guide poured samples of the four different vermouths for us to taste, starting with extra dry, then original dry, followed by the red, and finally the amber.

The original dry is exported all over the world, the extra dry is sold mostly in anglophone countries, the red is sold only outside of France, and the amber is only available in Marseillan!  All four taste very different, and I’m not entirely certain which one I prefer.

Following our introduction to the four Noilly Prat vermouths, our guide took us to the room next door, the so-called cocktail bar!

Large glasses were lined up on the shiny brass top of the bar, and into each glass our guide dropped an ice ball.  Yes, an ice ball!!  Apparently this takes 40 minutes to melt and is therefore far superior to ice cubes!!  Guess what? The moulds were for sale in the shop, and of course I bought one!!  🙂

Everyone could pick their favourite vermouth, and our guide prepared them as follows:

  • A slice of lime zest with the extra dry
  • A slice of lemon zest with the original dry
  • A slice of orange zest with the red
  • A slice of grapefruit zest with the amber

Adding the citrus zest and the ice brought out completely different flavours in the vermouth – it was somewhat of a revelation for me!

We’d come to the end of our visit, next stop the shop, where I bought a bottle of each of the four vermouths as well as the ice ball mould – it was too good an opportunity to miss!  Enjoy – but please remember to drink responsibly!

To find out more and/or to book a guided tour, visit https://www.noillyprat.com

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Spring into action

With Spring in the air, it’s time to come out of hibernation!  There are many events coming up which will tempt you, I’m sure!!

Journees Fleurs et Jardins, Chateau de Perdiguier, Maraussan – 7 and 8 April 2018

This coming weekend, Chateau de Perdiguier in Maraussan is opening its doors to the public for the annual flower and garden show.  I wrote about the event a few years ago. Here is the link to that post.

Journees des plantes rares et collections, Beziers – 28 and 29 April 2018

Spring is a time for gardening, and to continue with that theme, this event is taking place in Beziers for the first time this year.  The official website gives a list of exhibitors – it sounds as though there’ll be some interesting plants there!  I’m sure I’ll be able to find something for my garden!! 🙂

Farm open days, various locations in Herault – 28 and 29 April 2018

You may remember my post about my farm visits last year – if you don’t, you can find the article here.  The next open days are coming up soon, and you’ll be able to find details of all the participating farms via this link.

European museum night – 19 May 2018

Since 2005, European museum night has been enchanting visitors every year.  It’s a free event and it gives visitors the chance to discover the treasures of museums all over Europe in different ways.  You’ll be able to find the programme for Herault via this link.

Fete de la Musique, all over France – 21 June 2018

This one is an absolute must for your calendar!!  There will be concerts everywhere, from small recitals of classical music to large pop/rock concerts!  Saint-Chinian will be hosting a concert that day, details are yet to be announced.

Festival MusiSc, Saint-Chinian – 23 to 29 July 2018

The music festival will take place from July 23 to 26 this year.  Two concerts on each of the six days (no concerts on Tuesdays), in the historic surroundings of the former abbey church, the cloister, and the parish church of Saint-Chinian.  A variety of concerts with different styles of music which are sure to appeal: Classical, jazz, Latin rhythms, world music etc…  Full details can be found on www.festivalmusisc.wordpress.com

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

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!