Dates for your diary

Courses Camarguaises – May to October 2017

If you want to see a bull-fight, but are not into blood sports, then a course camarguaise is for you!  The bull always leaves the ring alive, and the men in the ring have to be very nimble on their feet.  I wrote about one such bull-fight here, and you can find all the dates on the official website.

European museum night – 20 May 2017

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

Les Feeries du Pont, Pont du Gard – 2, 3, 9 and 10 June 2017

The Pont du Gard like you’ve never seen it before – lit up with flames and fireworks.  It’s an unforgettable show, and I was lucky to see it some years ago!  More information via this link.

Pont du Gard

Vente de Charite, Saint-Chinian – 4 June 2017

This is a fixture on Saint-Chinian’s calendar of events – a sale of bric-a-brac, plants, clothes, second-hand household items, books and more, all sold for a good cause.  The sale takes place in the abbatiale, the former abbey church in Saint-Chinian, and in the cloisters, and it is open until noon.

Balade Gourmande, Saint-Jean-de-Minervois – 4 June 2017

This gourmet walk has become a very successful and enjoyable annual event.  I went on this gourmet walk back in 2015 and enjoyed it very much.  If you want to give it a try yourself, you can find out more via this link.

A wonderfully fragrant spot

A wonderfully fragrant spot

Fete de la Musique, all over Europe – 21 June 2017

Don’t miss this wonderful celebration of music all over France.  It’s a great occasion to listen to all kinds of music. I’ve written about some of my experiences here and here.  The official website for the event can be found via this link.

Fesitval de Carcassonne – 1 to 30 July 2017

Once again, Carcassonne is hosting an array of famous French singers and musicians during its summer festival!  For the full programme visit here.

Re-opening of the Fonserannes site, Beziers, 1 July 2017

The site around the staircase lock at Fonserannes on the Canal du Midi, on the edge of Beziers, has been given a complete makeover!  I am looking forward to when the site re-opens again in its new splendour.  The staircase lock is a marvel of engineering and worth a visit if you are in the area!

Feria de Beziers – 12 to 15 August 2017

With four days of bodegas, parties and bull fights, the feria in Beziers attracts visitors from all over.  If bull fights are not your thing, the party atmosphere in the town in the early evening is lovely to experience, with pop-up restaurants bars everywhere.  You can find out more via this link.

Fete du Fil, Labastide Rouairoux – 14 and 15 August 2017

This fete is a must for lovers of all things textile.  The textile museum will be open to visitors free of charge, there will be several exhibitions and the flea market.  Full details on https://lafetedufil.jimdo.com/

Fete de Saint-Louis, Sete – 17 to 22 August 2017

The Fete de Saint-Louis celebrates the patron saint of Sete with five days of concerts, street performances and the all-important water jousting tournament!  Full details can be found via this link.

Start of La Vuelta, Nimes – 19 August 2017

La Vuelta is Spain’s answer to the Tour de France, and this year the city of Nimes hosts the first stage of this race.  A must for all lovers of cycling!

 

 

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!

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.

Moules mariniere

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.

Pate

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.

Tarte Tatin

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!!

Walled in

Today I would like to take you on an outing to Villefranche-de-Conflent.  I hope you have the time to join me!  img_2225

Villefranche sits on the confluence of the Tet and Cady rivers, at the foot of the Pyrenees.  Because of its strategic location, the town was heavily fortified from the Middle Ages onwards.  In the 18th century, the fortifications were reinforced by Vauban, who was Louis XIV’s military engineer and advisor.

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Vauban added an extra layer to the fortifications, creating a vaulted gallery on top of the mediaeval ramparts, and topped this with another gallery which was covered with a slate roof!  So much more space for soldiers who could aim at the enemy from two different levels.

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The shape of the town was very much dictated by the rivers and the mountains – have a look at an aerial view on the internet here.  Its appearance has not much changed since Vauban’s major work in the 17th century …

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… except that there is now a new road to one side of the town, which takes traffic past the town and up into the mountains.  And there is now a railway line, which allows the famous ‘Canary’, the yellow train, to take travellers from Villefranche to the highest railway station in France, at Mont Louis, and beyond.

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The layout of the town has remained pretty much the same since mediaeval times – there are two main streets, Rue Saint Jacques and Rue Saint Jean.

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Because space was restricted, the houses were built tall.  On the ground floor, most houses would have large arched doors, which could be the entrances to shops or stables, or for storing carts.  The rooms on the first floor were usually reserved for workshops of artisans, and living accommodations were on the second floor.

img_2203 Many doors still sport beautiful door knockers – one of my particular passions!  Can you tell which of them are more recent than others?  Here’s a selection of them:

This side street leads to a gate in the fortifications, from where there is access to Fort Liberia, a citadel which was built by Vauban, high above the town!

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Statue of a saint above the gate to Fort Liberia – perhaps Saint Peter?

Here’s a picture of Fort Liberia, as seen from down below:

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Here is another statue – it sits in a niche high up on a facade.  It probably depicts another saint, but with the missing arm it’s difficult to figure out which saint.  I have a hunch that it could be Saint Barbara, but I’m not certain.

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No trip is complete without something to eat!  My travelling companions and I went to a restaurant called Le Patio on rue Saint Jean.  Some of the houses had internal patios – as did this restaurant – and that’s where we had lunch.

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None of us were overly hungry, so we decided to skip the starter and to have a main course, followed by dessert.  I don’t know about you, but for me dessert is a must!! 😀

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Tagliatelle with pesto

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Tagliatelle with smoked salmon sauce

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Octopus with potatoes

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Grilled sausages with country fries and garlic mayonnaise

The main courses were perfect for each of us – and the desserts were even better!  The Cafe Gourmand was a particular hit!!

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Tiramisu

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Chocolate pudding with a melting interior

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“Cafe Gourmand” – coffee with eight mini desserts!!

On the way back to the car, I noticed a few more details from Villefranche’s past:

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If you want to visit Villefranche-de-Conflent, and want to tie in your trip with a ride on the yellow train, be sure to visit the SNCF website for a timetable.

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!