Going crackers

A few weeks ago, I announced the date for this year’s Cracker Fair Christmas market at the Abbaye de Valmagne near Villeveyrac.  As luck would have it, I entered a prize draw and I was lucky enough to win a free ticket to the Cracker Fair.  I don’t often win anything, so you can imagine how thrilled I was!

The Cracker Fair is a two day event, which takes its name from the traditional British Christmas cracker.  If you are unfamiliar with the tradition, you’ll find the Wikipedia article here.  Many years ago, when the fair first came into being, it was aimed at the British expat community, whose Christmas celebrations would not be complete without Christmas crackers!  In the years since, the fair has caught on with locals and expats alike, and it is now one of the highlights of the area during the run-up to Christmas, for vendors and shoppers alike!

I went to visit last Saturday, on a gloriously sunny day.  It had rained (and stormed) the previous night, and many of the stallholders had not known whether the weather would be good enough for them to set up their stalls.  As it turned out, the day was perfect, almost too nice for a Christmas market!

The path from the entrance gates to the former abbey buildings was lined with colourful booths on one side.

Along the path on the opposite side to the booths was a stall selling garden ornaments.  No garden gnomes here!!  I was very taken by the guinea hens and the chickens!

 

A food court had been set outside the entrance to the cloister.  All kinds of foods were on offer:  fish and chips, burgers, roasted chestnuts, pumpkin soup, fresh oysters, onion bhajis, crepes, tapas, grilled sausages, pastries, and more.

The ‘prize’ for the most original looking stall went to the one selling fish and chips, which was in the shape of a boat.  I treated myself to a lunch of fish and chips, accompanied by mushy peas, another British tradition.  If you don’t know what mushy peas are, you can find a recipe here.  In my excitement, I completely forgot to take a photograph of my lunch, but I can tell you that the fish was perfectly cooked, the batter was wonderfully crisp, and both the chips and mushy peas were delicious!

Before my lunch, I had visited the stalls inside the cloisters and the former abbey church.  Here are some of the stalls in the cloister:

There were many more stalls in the former abbey church:

Valmagne abbey was one of the richest Cistercian abbeys in Languedoc, and its church has almost cathedral-like proportions:  83 metres long and 24 metres high!  During the French Revolution, the abbey was dissolved and the buildings sold.  The church survived because it was used as a wine cellar!  Huge barrels were installed in the chapels.

The old refectory was turned into a living room during the 19th century.  And of cours, there were more stalls in there too!  The monumental fireplace was particularly impressive!!

The chapter house was off the cloister – it had the most amazing vaulted ceiling with a sawtooth pattern along the ribs of the vault.

Placed in the arcade that separated the chapter house from the cloister were some very ornately carved stone vases.  The face reminds me of someone. 🙂

In the cloister garden, opposite the door to the refectory, was a lavabo, a fountain where the monks would wash their hands.  Around the fountain was an octagonal structure which supported an ancient grape vine – lovely and shady in the summer!

Only two of these lavabos have survived in France, one of them at Valmagne!

Here is a picture of the fountain:

The abbey might have been rich, but life for the monks must have been fairly harsh – no central heating, washing outdoors summer and winter, no thermal underwear or fleecy sweaters…

Here is a view from the cloister garden towards the church.

And this is what the buildings of the abbey look like from the road:

I’ll be going back to visit Valmagne next summer, when I’ll be able to visit the mediaeval herb garden, and discover the buildings with fewer other visitors there.  I’ll report back, promise!!

A musical finale!

Having visited the old prison, the former archbishop’s palace, the cellars below the cloister of the cathedral, the market halls (for lunch 🙂 ), the Hotel de Montmorency, and the Theatre des Varietes on my day out in Beziers during the recent European Heritage Weekend, I finished my day at La Boite a Musique!

La Boite a Musique is on Rue du Capus, in one of the oldest parts of Beziers, not all that far from the market halls and the Place de la Madeleine.  As I approached the door, I could hear music being played – one of the reasons this was on my list of places to visit!

Inside, Pierre Charial was in the middle of a presentation.  The room was crowded with people – old and young alike were listening intently to every word and every note!!

Pierre Charial was in the process of explaining and demonstrating a table top organette.  All around the walls of the room were floor-to-ceiling shelves, stacked high with cardboard books.

Pierre Charial is a noteur (a mechanical music notator) and the cardboard books are for making street organs come to life.  Here’s how:

The cardboard strips pass through a “keyframe” and a hole in the cardboard means that the corresponding note will sound on the organ as it passes through the keyframe.  Different types of organs have different numbers of keys, the smaller ones often have 24 keys, while some very large dance or fair organs have up to 101 keys!

Pierre Charial had a collection of different instruments in his workshop.  Below is a barrel piano, another street instrument, where a pinned barrel plays the music.  A spare barrel sat atop the instrument.

Against one wall stood a disc musical box:

And there were other organs:

Pierre Charial has been making organ books since 1975, preserving historical tunes and creating new arrangements of contemporary music.  His catalogue lists around 1400 titles, and he’s still adding to it!

In 2004, Pierre Charial was given the title Maitre d’Art (Master Artist) by the French minister for culture, in recognition of his skills and his contribution to safeguarding a unique heritage.  During the heyday of the street organ there were literally hundreds of noteurs.  Today, this dying art is practiced by very few people.

On the Maitres d’Art website, there’s an interesting video (in French) showing Pierre Charial in his former workshop in Paris: click here for the link.

It was getting to the end of the guided visit – Pierre Charial kept the best for last!  He played his Limonaire Freres organ for us, a beautiful instrument!

Thank you very much to Mr Charial for opening his workshop for us – what a truly fascinating visit!!

Feeling festive?

As the days get shorter, my thoughts are turning to the festive season.  There’s quite a bit happening in and around Saint-Chinian, and things kick off with the Cracker Fair at the Abbaye de Valmagne.  The Cracker Fair is a two-day Christmas market on November 23 and 24, 2019, where you can find all your presents and more.  I’ve visited this Christmas market before (and I have written about it here) and will be heading there again this year!

Hot on the heels of the Cracker Fair comes the Christmas market in Saint-Chinian on December 1, 2019.  The market takes place in the Salle de l’Abbatiale (the former abbey church), the cloisters and in front of the town hall building.

Larger towns such as Montpellier and Carcassonne have Christmas markets which run for most of December.  The one in Montpellier (pictured below) runs from November 28 to December 28, 2019, and the one in Carcassonne is open from December 6, 2019 to January 5, 2020.

In the run-up to Christmas, stocking up on festive provisions is important!  The Foire au Gras, literally translated to “Fat Fair”, aims to fill the need for foie gras, duck fat and other poultry products.  Coursan holds such a fair on November 17, 2019; in Castelnaudary you can buy similar goodies on December 1, 2019; Limoux holds a Foire au Gras on December 23, 2019, just in time for Christmas!!

Truffles are also essential for a Christmas feast, so the truffle markets start just in time for the festive season.  You can find fresh truffles in Moussoulens on December 14, 2019, and in Talairan on December 21, 2019.

For those wishing to stock up on wine in time for Christmas, some of the Saint-Chinian winemakers are holding an open day on December 8, 2019!  For more information visit this site.

I’m saving the best for last – the highlight of the run-up to Christmas in Saint-Chinian!!  On December 11, 2019 at 6pm, there’ll be a concert in the parish church!  The chorus from the Montpellier opera house will be singing a programme of French music and ‘hit tunes’ from various operas!  Full details can be found here.

In the clink!

Last Saturday I went to prison!  Yes, you read that right – I went to prison, in Beziers!!

If you’re starting to get concerned, remember that in my last post I mentioned that I was planning to explore some of Beziers’s lesser known places during the European heritage days! 🙂

The weather was grim.  Heavy rain had been forecast for the weekend, but I decided to go out anyhow!  Dressed in a showerproof jacket, and umbrella in hand I explored.  What I was able to visit was amazing and exceeded all my expectations!!  I managed to pack in a lot, so this is the first of a series of blog posts on the places I visited during my day in Beziers.

And yes, I went to prison in Beziers – the old prison, which is next to the cathedral, and which was closed down ten years ago!!

As you approach Beziers from across the river, the old prison is very visible as it sits at the top of the hill, with the cathedral next door.  But because it’s built with the same kind of stone as the cathedral, and because it has a crenelated tower on one side, it looks from afar as though all the buildings belong together.  Not altogether far-fetched – on the site of the prison were buildings which at one point belonged to the archbishopric of Beziers, housing clerics until the French Revolution.  These buildings were demolished to make way for the prison!

Building work started in 1850 and lasted until 1857.  The building site was on the side of a very steep hill, so it could not have been easy to build.  Only in 1867 did the prisoners and staff move in.  The prison closed down in 2009, when a new facility opened on the outskirts of Beziers.  Here is an aerial shot from google maps which shows the T-shaped building of the old prison, with another building just north of it.

A curtain wall encloses the yard in front of the prison – to the right of the entrance, visitors would have been waiting on visiting days; the yard on the left had a large gate which allowed vehicle access to the outside world.  It was also where the guillotine was located!  The last execution took place in Beziers in 1949!!

The door we entered through had a kind of cat-flap in it!  Might cats have been allowed in without a pass, as long as they helped keep the rodent population in check??

Just Inside the building was the reception area, where prisoners would be “processed” before being taken to their cells.  It was rather cramped for our group of 20, so taking pictures was not possible.  The room in the picture below was for prison visits.  One wall had been decorated to make the families of the prisoners feel more at ease.  I wonder how that would have worked, since they would have been sitting with their backs to that wall.

This is where people would have been able to talk but not touch!  Comfort was not of prime consideration!!

Through another set of doors and we were in the prison proper.  Three floors of cells were arranged around a central light well.

In case you are wondering, the netting is there to stop people from jumping down!

Each cell had a vaulted ceiling and measured about 10 – 12 square metres.  There were 56 cells, each housing two to three (and at times even four) prisoners.  Nothing has been done to the prison since the last prisoners left in 2009 – what you see in the pictures is what it was like when the inmates would have last been there!

The cells had toilets and wash basins, some of them also had showers, but all of them had minimum privacy!  The prisoners would have been in their cells most of the day, but there were some physical activities:  on the lowest level of the prison there were four wedge-shaped yards, each with high walls and covered with steel netting – there was no escaping.  Can you magine the boredom of walking around the edge of this yard day after day??

There was also a gym:

and a library:

Some of the prisoners were allowed to work in the kitchen – the kitchen knives were counted after each session!!

Those who mis-behaved could be locked up in very small spaces!

Wooden stairs connected the three levels.  I was very glad when we made our way back up!
As we left the prison we walked along a corridor in the building in front of the prison proper – the view from a window along the corridor showed the drop outside the windows of the cells!

Of course, there was some barbed wire too!!

We left via the garage and the gate by which the prisoner transport vans would have passed.  I was very glad to be outside again!!

This was probably the last time that the prison will be open to the public in its current state.  The building has been sold and planning is underway for it to be turned into a luxury hotel!  Pass the champagne, darling! 🙂

Watch out for next week’s post, which will continue my story of my visit to Beziers!

And lastly, if you are still wondering about the title of this post, “clink” is a colloquial term, referring to a jail or prison.  It comes from the Clink prison in London – Wikipedia has all the information here.

Cherry Celebration

Since the cherry season has started and the cherry festival in Mons-la-Trivalle will be taking place this Sunday, June 2, 2019, I thought it appropriate to share this post from a few years ago.  Details of this year’s cherry festival can be found on the website of the Mairie of Mons-la-Trivalle.  I do hope you’ll enjoy your fill of delicious cherries!!


The cherry harvest is in full swing right now, and to celebrate it, the village of Mons-la-Trivalle holds a cherry festival each year, at the beginning of June.  Cherries are grown all over the Languedoc region, but they seem to especially thrive in some areas.  The upper valley of the River Orb is one of these areas, and if you go for a drive at the right time during spring, you’ll see the most amazing sights of trees, white with cherry blossoms!  Later on you’ll see stalls set up by the roadside, selling cherries :).

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The growing season for cherries is pretty short.  From mid to late May, locally grown cherries start to make an appearance in our weekly farmers market.

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The first of the crop are usually quite expensive, but as the season gets under way the prices drop.  Cherries can never be a cheap fruit though: each cherry has to be carefully picked by hand, and that takes time!

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I arrived at the “Fete de la Cerise” just after lunchtime – parking was well signposted, and the view from the car park (up the hill from where the fete was taking place) was spectacular!

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Walking down the road to the village, the cherry trees I passed were heavy with fruit, and the sun was shining – what could be better??

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When I got to the fete I made a beeline for the flea market; there I found a very good selection of all things bric-a-brac, and fell in love with a bentwood armchair – more on that later :)!

The “cherry market” was great too – although, since I was relatively late, the cherries were not as much in abundance as they had been in the morning. But there were enough for me to snap pictures of, and to buy.  I had it in mind to make a Clafoutis, a dessert traditionally made with cherries.  The selection of stalls was excellent, colourful ceramics vying with equally colourful baskets, and there were plants, and hats and of course food!!  I couldn’t resist the French Fries from the Belgian food stand :)!

Entertainment was provided for all ages:  Donkeys would take children for a ride, there was a gyroscope, a stilt-walker, and then there was a corner where a number of games had been set up!  I decided to try a game called Quarto, where wooden pieces are placed on a board, with the aim of forming a line where either the colour, height, shape, or top of the pieces match.  The interesting part is that you chose the piece which your opponent has to put down on the board.  Can’t be that difficult, I thought, and promptly lost the first two games :(, but then I won the third 😀 !

The cherry theme was in evidence everywhere!  Even the members of the roaming drum band had decorated their drums, and in some cases themselves, with cherries!

After all the exertions in the market, I had an ice cream and a glass of water in the local cafe.  From where I was sitting I had a great view of the bentwood armchair – it just kept calling to me.  In the end I simply had to go and take another look at it, and guess what – I came away with the chair in my hands :).  The seat needs re-caning, but the price was good and the shape just so beautiful!

Once I’d gotten my chair home (luckily it fit into the car!), I made the cherry clafoutis.  It’s a very simple dessert: cherries baked in a kind of pancake batter.  Originally from the Limousin, clafoutis is now popular all over the south.  Over the years I’ve tried a number of different recipes and methods, and I’ve now hit on one which I like best.

Cherry Clafoutis

  • Servings: 4-6
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

500 g cherries
125 ml milk
60 ml cream (single or whipping)
2 eggs
50 g sugar
1 tbsp flour
1 tbsp kirsch
butter for greasing

Pre-heat the oven to 180°C.  Butter a round or square oven-proof dish, just large enough to hold your fruit in a single layer;  I used a 23×23 cm sized ceramic dish for this recipe.

Wash your cherries and decide on whether or not you want to stone them – I’m not sure whether cooking the cherries with their stones adds any flavour, so when I have enough time I will stone them.

In a bowl mix the flour and sugar, then add the cream, milk, kirsch and eggs and stir with a wire whisk until combined.  Leave the batter to rest for 10 minutes; stir briefly, then pour over the cherries and bake for 30 – 35 minutes.  The exact cooking time may vary depending on your oven, but the clafoutis is cooked when it starts getting puffed around the edges and is no longer wobbly in the centre.

Serve warm or at room temperature.  If serving to children you can omit the kirsch and add a drop (but only one drop!) of almond essence.  You can make this a day ahead, in which case you cover the dish with clingfilm once it’s cooled enough not to melt the clingfilm, and put it in the fridge right away.  Ensure you let it come to room temperature before serving.

Three cistus

You may have come across cistus plants under their common name of rock rose.  They grow very abundantly in the area around Saint-Chinian, and right now they are flowering their hearts out.  I went on a little photo safari last Saturday, to shoot a few pictures for you.

In the map below, you can see the itinerary I followed for my walk, and this link will take you to the geoportail website, where you can see the map, albeit without the itinerary markings.

I started my walk by the cooperative winery in Saint-Chinian.  Most of the walk was on fairly well kept tracks which are used by vineyard workers and hunters.  If you want to do the walk yourself, you should wear reasonably sturdy shoes – high heels are definitely out of the question!!  The whole walk can be completed in an hour.  Of course it took me longer since I stopped frequently to take pictures! 🙂

Before starting the walk proper, I visited the cistus display bed beside the cooperative winery in Saint-Chinian.  It was planted some years ago, and all of the plants have now reached maturity.  A plaque by the bed identifies the various species on show:

Cistus plants thrive in a Mediterranean climate and grow well on poor soils.  According to the wikipedia article, the seeds can lay dormant for up to 100 years before germinating.

Around Saint-Chinian, the most commonly encountered species of cistus are C. monspeliensis:

Cistus monspeliensis

Cistus monspeliensis

C. albidus:

Cistus albidus

Cistus albidus

… C. ladanifer:

Cistus ladanifer

Cistus ladanifer

… and C. salviifolius:

Cistus salviifolius

Cistus salviifolius

The display bed at the cooperative winery also contains a species which is more rarely seen around here:  C. populifolius:

Cistus populifolius

Cistus populifolius

The plant in the following picture was also growing in the display bed, but I could not find it on the panel.  Cistus species hybridise readily, so, if my identification is correct, this should be C. x purpureus, a cross between C. ladanifer and C. creticus.  It’s a plant with very pretty flowers, and you can see the heritage from c. ladanifer with the purple blotches at the base of the petals!

Cistus x purpueus

Cistus x purpureus

As I was starting my walk, I walked past this stand of trees.  A nightingale, well hidden from view, was singing directly at me.  I thought I would share the video with you!

My walk took me up and down some gentle slopes – being a little higher than the surrounding countryside always makes for nice views!

The first flower picture I took after I started my walk was of an orchid – orchis provincialis:

Orchis provincialis

Orchis provincialis

It wasn’t long before I came to a clump of C. salviifolius by the side of the path.

C. salviifolius

Cistus salviifolius

Wild garlic was also in flower along the path.  The flowers have a pleasant onion/garlic flavour and can be added to salads.

Wild garlic

Allium rosea

I couldn’t pass by this doughnut-shaped tree lichen without taking a picture!

Farther along I found a clump of C. albidus in full flower, it’s pink flowers standing out nicely from the the grey, woolly leaves.

Cistus albidus

Cistus albidus

Nature’s flower arrangements are always worth studying – here we have lavender and heather flowers, with a background of blackberry leaves! 🙂

The leaves of some cistus species secrete a sticky substance which has a lovely resinous fragrance.  C. ladanifer is one of these species.  Incidentally, the picture below shows the point where the walk starts to loop back.

C. ladanifer

Cistus ladanifer

I came across some more Orchis provincialis – a whole stand of them, in fact.  The leaf rosette showed the typical brown splotches.

In this close-up you can see some of the delicate markings on the flowers:

Orchis provencialis

Orchis provincialis

I rounded a bend in the path and came to this wonderful sight:  a whole hillside covered in flowering cistus bushes!!  The photograph doesn’t really do it justice – it was spectacular to behold!

Here’s a picture of C. monspeliensis – you can see the leaves glistening with the sticky resin.

C. monspeliensis

Cistus monspeliensis

I found some interesting flowers towards the end of my walk:  Serapias lingua is an orchid whose flower petals are like tongues sticking out at you (or me).

Serapias lingua

Serapias lingua

I’ve not been able to identify the following flower, but I think it’s a species of vetch.

Then I found a rather mysterious looking plant – it’s fairly tiny, with a pitcher like flower and one petal folded over that like a lid.  From the top you just see a kind of purple black leaf, about the size of a thumbnail, but when you tilt the flower somewhat, you can see that it’s part of the flower which is pitcher shaped.  I immediately wondered if it was part of the arum family or a carnivorous plant.  Looking through some of the plant books I have at home, it turns out to be Aristolochia pistolochia.

I found a violet limodore orchid just around the corner from the mystery plant above:

Limodorum abortivum

Limodorum abortivum

The last picture I took on my walk is of a white flowered tamarix shrub.  With the flowers not yet quite open, the buds look like white peppercorns, tightly clustered on the branches.  I’m sure it’ll look gorgeous in a week or so.

I hope you enjoyed the wonderful flowers that can be found around Saint-Chinian.  Thanks for coming along with me on this wonderful walk!