A new cracker

This past weekend, I went to the annual Cracker Fair.  I wrote about this Christmas market in December 2013, when it took place at the Chateau Abbaye de Cassan (you can find the article here).  This year, the cracker fair was hosted for the first time by the Abbaye de Valmagne, located between Montagnac and Villeveyrac.  This market was established ten years ago, and in the early days it was very much aimed at the British expat community in the area, who felt deprived of their Christmas crackers.  If you don’t know what Christmas crackers are have a look here.

Valmange was founded in 1138, and at one point in its history, it was one of the richest Cistercian abbeys in France!  During the French revolution, the last monks fled the abbey in 1789, and it was sold by the French state in 1791.  The abbey church, which dates from 1257 and which is 83 metres long and 24 metres high, was converted into a wine cellar.  It is probably for that reason that the church has survived.  Enormous wooden barrels were installed in the side chapels, and several are still in place today!   I was watching a number people enter by the door at the end of the church, and most of them had a kind of “wow” look on their faces!

The church is impressive at the best of times, but the fact that it was filled with stalls, people and noises added another dimension!

Around 100 stalls had been set up in the church, offering a large variety of goods, from soaps to syrups, marbles to mushrooms (dried) – you name it!

The church was built in the classic gothic style, and true to the Cistercian rules, it is without much in the way of decoration.

From the side of the church, a door led to the cloister, where there were more stalls!!

The cloister consists of four arcaded galleries around a garden.  There is a fountain, which would have been used by the monks for ritual ablutions.

The chapter house is off the cloister, and it too was occupied by stalls!

A barrel-vaulted passage housed an exhibition of paintings.

In the former refectory there were more stalls and a cafe.

Valmagne was bought by the Comte de Tourraine in 1838, and he and his descendants have taken very good care of the former abbey over the years.  Today the estate is run as a winery, and the visit would not have been complete without a stop in the shop.  The tasting room is right next door to the shop, and there was a lovely fire burning in the fireplace!

Since 1999, the wines at Valmagne have been produced as organic wines!

Outside, there were more stalls and – most importantly – a selection of food trucks!!

Saturday was a very cold day, and I’m sure that the stallholders outside must have been freezing, but they all remained cheerful!

Despite the cold, this was a wonderful Christmas market to visit – one you should add to your diary if you are in the area in early December.  The Cracker Fair is organised by Languedoc Living. You can find details on their website.

The Abbaye de Valmagne is open to visitors throughout the year – you can find details of opening hours here.

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The spice of kings

The spice of kings is saffron – a spice as expensive, or sometimes more so, than gold.  The reason behind the high price is not its rarity, or a difficulty in growing the spice.  It is entirely down to the laborious process of harvesting!

The saffron crocus (crocus sativus) is an autumn flowering perennial.  The red “threads” (the stigmas and styles of the flower) will turn into the precious spice once dry.  I’ve been growing saffron in my garden for a number of years, with varying degrees of success.  Last year, none of the corms produced any flowers.  This year has been much better! 🙂

One day last week,  I was able to pick twelve flowers!!  Saffron flowers emerge shortly after the leaves appear, sometime in October.  The leaves persist until around May, when they dry out and the plants lie dormant over the summer.  Saffron  plants need free draining soil and a sunny position – apart from that they aren’t fussy.  I adore all the different colours in the saffron flowers, they are so vibrant and gorgeous!

The flowers should be picked as soon as they open.  The threads are then removed from the flowers and dried.  I like to keep the flowers in water until they wilt, they are so beautiful to look at!

Each flower has three threads and produces on average 30 mg of fresh saffron or 7 mg of dried saffron.  About 150 flowers yield one gram of saffron!  Saffron flowers need to be hand picked, and the threads are also removed by hand, hence its very high price!!

Here’s what the threads above amount to after drying:

Not a great deal, but I’m hoping that my saffron harvest isn’t quite finished yet!!  🙂

The use of saffron dates back more than 3,500 years, and it has always been an expensive spice.  It’s been used as a fabric dye, for medicinal use, and for culinary purposes. Here are some dishes which wouldn’t be the same without saffron:  risotto milanese, paella, bouillabaisse, jewelled rice, and biriyani.  There are many other culinary preparations which use saffron – do you have any favourites??

And to finish this post, here’s a tip which came from the grower I bought my corms from.  He told me never to add the saffron threads directly to a dish.  He recommended that the threads be soaked in a some warm water for a little while, strained out and dried.  They could then be used up to three times, much like a vanilla bean.  Using saffron that way makes it a lot less expensive!

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A taste of autumn

Until not all that long ago, chestnuts used to be very much a part of everyday life in Southern France.  For the people in the more remote hillside areas, chestnuts were a staple of their diet – they would add chestnuts to stews, make them into soups, use them for making breads and pancakes and much more.

Chestnuts are high in protein and carbohydrates, but they have a very short shelf-life when fresh.  To be able to eat them year round, they had to be dried in a secadou, a two-story building, roofed with slate.  The floor between the two stories would be made from closely spaced iron rods or wooden batons.  On the ground floor a smoldering fire would be lit, and the chestnuts would be spread out on the floor above.

The secadou is on the very right of the picture

The heat and smoke rose up through the floor and cured and dried the fresh chestnuts, turning them into chataignons.  The outer shell and inner skin had to be stripped off the ‘nut’, partly with a machine and partly by hand,  Once all that was done, the chataignons had a very long shelf life.  They could be ground into flour, or rehydrated as required.

Today’s recipe is a very simple and delicious one.  For each person you need five chataignons, a good handful of lambs lettuce (mache), and a heaped tablespoon of lardons.  If you are unable to get chataignons, you can also use fresh chestnuts for this recipe.

Chataignons – dried chestnuts

If you use chataignons they need to be soaked, brought to the boil and simmered until tender.  The cooking time will depend on the age of the chataignons.  They should be just cooked and still hold their shape. Mine took one hour.

“Chataignons” cooked on the left, dried on the right.

Blanch the lardons by dropping them into boiling water.  Let the water come to the boil again, then strain, and rinse the lardons with cold water.  Drain them and set aside.

Raw lardons on the left, blanched lardons on the right

Wash the lambs lettuce (mache) and dry it well with the help of a salad spinner or a tea towel.

When you are ready to serve the salad, heat a frying pan on medium heat.  The pan should be large enough to hold all the ingredients in a single layer.  Add a little olive oil, then add the drained chataignons and lardons.  Cook slowly, gently turning the lardons and chataignons from time to time, until they are golden.

Can you hear the bacon pieces sizzling??

Arrange the lettuce on individual serving plates, and distribute the chataignons and lardons evenly between the plates.  Add a splash of red wine vinegar to the frying pan to “deglaze” it, then pour the juices from the frying pan over the lettuce.  Serve immediately.  Bon Appetit!!

I bought my chataignons from Fritz and Almuth Schwaan of Ferme de Dausse, near Saint Etienne d’Albagnan.  You may also find chataignons at the Fete de la Chataigne in Saint-Pons-de-Thomieres on November October 28 and 29, 2017.

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Saint Aphrodise revisited

Two weeks ago, I hinted that I would write about my recent visit to the church of Saint Aphrodise in Beziers.  Back in 2013 I was lucky enough to be able to visit that church.  Work to save the building from falling down was scheduled to start shortly after my visit, and it was going to be closed to the public for some time.  You can read about my previous visit of the church in this article.

For the 2017 European Heritage days, the Friends of Saint Aphrodise were once more offering guided visits of the building.  This was the first time since the renovation work had started in 2013!  Work was completed earlier this year, and much was changed during the intervening years!

The facade of the nave has been restored and the little square in front of it has been made more accessible.  However, both of the doors were locked when I visited.

The gates on Rue du Puits de la Courte, by which I had previously entered the church, were also firmly locked!  I kept on walking and finally got to Place Saint Aphrodise, where I had tried in vain to enter the church so many times before my very first visit.  This time the gate was open – third time lucky!!

The gate allows access into a corridor which passes through a house, and the alleyway on the other side of the house leads to a door into the nave of the church.  The nave was the part of the church which was in danger of collapsing, and which has now been consolidated and reinforced.

According to our guide, the nave of the original building would have only had one central aisle.  The chapels, i.e. the parts outside the main aisle, were added later,  Trouble started when stone vaulting was added in the 18th century.  The weight of the stone was just too much for the building, which had been designed to support a simple wooden roof.  In the picture above, you can see the metal rods which were inserted to tie the columns together.  A lot more of this kind of ironwork is in the attic and not visible.

The nave had been completely closed off on my last visit – even the opening to the choir had been blocked – so it was wonderful to see this space at last.  The renovation works had concentrated on making the structure of the nave safe, without carrying out any renovations on the interior – there’s plenty left to be done!  If you look carefully at the picture above, you’ll see barriers closing the choir off – that is now out of bounds.  However, our guide led us in there for a good look.  🙂

The baldachin over the high altar is 18th century, the paintings on the walls are 19th century, as are the stained glass windows.  Wealthy donors sponsored the windows, and in return their names were added to the windows!

Antonin Injalbert, whose summer residence I wrote about last week, was commissioned to create a statue of Christ on the cross for the high altar.  When the sculpture was delivered, it was deemed far too modern by the parishioners, so it was hidden away in a corner of the church.  After the first world war, the parish wanted to create a memorial for the parishioners who had been killed in the war, and Injalbert’s statue was used as the centrepiece for the memorial.

The two reliquary busts seemed to be in the same spot where I had seen them four years previous!

I had my telephoto lens with me on the day of my visit, so I decided to try to capture the little putti, which seemed to be proliferating about the church:

Some of the carvings in the nave are very detailed – I can’t tell if they are stone or plaster.  I imagine that they are mostly 18th century.

Some of the altars in the nave are very baroque:

The organ looks impressive.  When the renovation work was finished,  someone decided to see if the organ was still working.  It was given a good clean (several days’ work with vacuum cleaners, removing decades of dust), and then someone flicked the switch.  Almost miraculously, the organ came to life and could be played!!  It still needs a thorough overhaul and tuning, but it is in relatively good shape.  There are plans for organ concerts next year!

Here are two close-up shots of the statues on the pillars of the organ loft:

The association Les Amis de Saint Aphrodise is very active in Beziers.  The members have been involved in organising some of the guided visits I have written about, such as Time with the Swiss and Heritage of Rememberance.

I’ll finish this post with a picture of the collection box.  The postcards were 30 cents in today’s money (bear in mind that the church was abandoned a long time ago!).  The sign reads:  “God says you must earn your bread by the sweat of your brow. Not by robbing the collection box”!  The exclamation mark is mine! 🙂

 

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Time with the Swiss

One grey Saturday morning this spring, I went to meet up with a group of like-minded people for a guided visit on Beziers’ architectural history.  The history of that town has fascinated me for a long time – it goes back so far, and there are so many different layers to discover.  The theme of the guided visit was Chez les Suisses, and very appropriately the visit started on a square just off Boulevard de Geneve.  The boulevard was given its name around 1904 after the town councillors of Beziers had had a particularly cordial welcome on a visit to Geneva.

During the later part of the 19th century and the early part of the 20th century, there were strong commercial ties between Switzerland and Languedoc.  The Swiss would buy wines from the region, and in turn would sell grain.  Swiss merchants opened offices in Beziers, and built themselves sumptuous mansions with their profits.

On our visit we stopped at several of these mansions.  The first one we saw was built by Godefroid Meyer on Boulevard de la Liberte between 1926 and 1928 in a very pure art deco style.

We were fortunate in that the owner of this beautiful white house was one of the guides – there were several of them, each with a different field of expertise.  He had brought several photographs of the interior of the house to show to the group.  The interior looked as stunning as the outside. In fact, my pictures above do not do the building justice, it really has to be seen in person!

The next mansion we saw used to belong to the Bühler family.  Traugott Bühler bought an enormous plot of around 4500 square metres along Avenue Saint-Saëns, and proceeded to build not one but two mansions.  The one on the corner was used as offices, and is a relatively modest brick and stone confection with a mansard roof.

The initial of the family name still decorates the stonework at roof level, and the railings on the balcony just below hint at art nouveau.

The big mansion next door, completed in 1903, was designed by the architects Leopold and Louis Carlier, well-known architects from Montpellier.  The locals called it the Chateau Bühler, on account of its size and air of sumptuousness.

Both of the Bühler mansions have been split into apartments, and a large part of the park has been sold off and covered with very nondescript apartment buildings.  The facade of the chateau as well as the monumental wrought iron gates and railings have listed building status!  Here is one of our guides in front of the gates:

The last of the mansions we visited, was built for Otto Müller, another rich merchant of Swiss extraction, who, if I remember correctly, had married one of the Bühler daughters – or was she a Meyer?  The architect was Leopold Carlier.  He designed the mansion in the Flemish style, with gables and turrets.  The building was finished in 1870.  At the time there were few other buildings surrounding it.

You can still see Otto Müller’s initials on the monumental chimney:

In 1916, the mansion was bought by the brothers Guy.  In 1918, they engaged a renowned landscape architect to turn the land surrounding the house into a park.  They also commissioned original artwork from the local sculptors Antonin Injalbert and Jean Magrou for the park.  Once the Guy brothers bought the house, the locals started to call it Villa Guy.  It retains that name to this day.

We were fortunate in that the current owners of Villa Guy allowed our group to visit the grounds – we got a very close look at the building and the park.  Villa Guy is today an exclusive Bed and Breakfast and function venue.

Here is a selection of photographs of the building and of the sculptures in the park:

Farthest from the house is the Neo-Moorish garden, which was undergoing restoration when I visited.  At the time of writing this post, the fountains should be tinkling again!

And thus ended a fascinating visit into Beziers’ past!

 

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On rocky ground

It’s amazing what you can discover on walks around the villages in Languedoc! (I know that the area has now been renamed Occitanie, but I refuse to call it that!!)  A village which is full of interesting things to discover is Montouliers.  It is perched on a hill in the hinterland, not far from Bize Minervois and Argeliers.  Walk the narrow streets of the old part of the village up towards the chateau, and with a little imagination you could picture yourself transported back in time.

The narrow streets are paved with stones, a surface which is called calade.  Calade is a word that you’ll not find in a French dictionary – it has its roots in the old Gaulish word cal, meaning stone and height.  Calades were built using the materials to hand – stones which had been cleared from the fields to make them arable.  Skill was required so sort the stones and to place them, so that they would form a durable surface.  Mortar was not often used as that would have raised the cost.

Steps were built to shore up the steeper slopes and to allow humans and animals (donkeys and horses in the main) to walk up and down more easily.

In most villages, the calades disappeared with the advent of tarmac in the early 20th century, the old making room for the new.  However, in some villages you can still find calades.  I know of two small patches in Saint-Chinian.

Here are a few more images from Montouliers – along with the Calades, the exteriors of the houses in the old part of the village have also been carefully renovated!

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