Let the music play

Under normal circumstances, the Fete de la Musique would be taking place all over France this weekend.  With the current Covid-19 crisis, the events have been cancelled pretty much everywhere.  So here is a virtual Fete de la Musique, by means of an article I wrote in 2014 – I hope you’ll enjoy it!


On June 21st, the whole of France celebrates the Fete de la Musique, with parties and concerts everywhere – and who am I to miss out on a party!!?? 😀

So I rounded up a  few friends and together we went to Beziers to see what we could listen to!  We left fairly early, and as we walked from the underground car park up the Allees Paul Riquet, it became clear that we had arrived a little too early.  But still, it was good to be able to have a look around without missing anything!  The food stalls looked colourful and the smells were tantalising!!

We headed for Place de la Revolution, where the Sardanistes would be dancing later in the evening.  The plan was to have dinner at Brasserie du Palais, and be able to listen to the music and watch the dancers from the comfort of our table.  On the way to Place de la Revolution I came across some interesting details.

The atmosphere in Beziers was very summery and festive – lots of people out in the streets, all getting ready to party in one way or another!

Our meal at Brasserie du Palais was delicious!  A large plate of tapas to share, followed by great main courses, and nice desserts.

The restaurant takes its name from the former archbishop’s palace, which is just across the square, and today houses the local courts of justice.  Next to it is the cathedral, and we had a fine view of that from our table.

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We were just about finishing our desserts, when the musicians started to gather on the stage, and it wasn’t long before they struck up their first tune.

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And as soon as they started to play, the dancers appeared – at first only a few of them joined hands to form a small circle.

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Now a word about the music and dancing – the Sardana is a Catalan tradition, played on instruments of which a few are not found elsewhere in France or Europe.  The band is called “Cobla” and the dancers are called “Sardanistes”.  For the full explanation please have a look at the Wikipedia entry, which I think explains it all very well.

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I was watching in blissful ignorance, enjoying the uplifting sound of the music and watching the dancers with fascination.  It seemed as though anyone could join in, and the circle grew larger and larger, until it was all around the fountain and the square.  The steps seemed to be very simple – it was only later, when talking to a couple of the dancers, that I found out that there was a lot more to it! 🙂 .

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The band, as well as the dancers I spoke with, had come from Perpignan, where they had already performed earlier that day.  They explained that the Sardana is a traditional dance, as opposed to a folkloric dance, so nobody wears any special costumes.  Both the dancers were wearing the traditional espardenya shoes though – you’ll be able to see these shoes in the video below (e-mail subscribers, please visit the webpage to view the video).

 

Did you notice how the flute player also plays the tiny drum, which is strapped to his arm?  The double bass has only three strings, and its player is really going for it!  We sat and listened and watched, and enjoyed every minute of it!!

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It was getting dark and the lights came on, and with the whole square alive with music and dance, it was just magical.

When we had had our fill of the Sardana, we wandered over to the cathedral, where another concert was just coming to the end:  Nicolas Celero at the piano, playing music by Franz Liszt, and Michael Lonsdale reading in between the musical performances.

On our way back we walked down Rue Viennet and passed Place du Forum, across the road from the town hall, which had all been transformed with strings of lights into the most magical of places.

The Eglise de la Madeleine looked very majestic, lit up against the black sky.

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And then we reached the Allees Paul Riquet once more, and wandered amongst the many people who were either watching the act on the main stage in front of the theatre, or just enjoying the start of summer.

Mark your calendar for next year, and plan to be in Herault around June 21st – I promise you’ll enjoy the festivities!

Springtime pleasures revisited

It’s the time of year when the blooms on the elder bushes are out in profusion and I thought I would share this post with you again – it’s been six years since I wrote it, but the recipes are still as good as they were then!!


One of the many pleasures of spring can be found growing all over the countryside – in hedgerows, along streams, sometimes in a garden, but more often growing wild.  It is a large shrub, which bears many heads (panicles) of creamy white flowers, followed by black berries in late summer.  The flowers have a delicate perfume, reminiscent of muscat grapes.  The name of this plant is Sambucus – have you guessed yet what the common name of this plant may be?

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It’s Elder – often overlooked and neglected, and rarely used these days.  But elderflowers can be used to make a number of delicious comestibles, and I am going to tell you about two of them today. The flower heads are made up of many tiny flowers in a complex branching structure, which is fascinating to examine at close range.  The season for the flowers is relatively short; in the South of France it starts in late April/early May and lasts about three weeks at the most.  In more temperate climes you may find elderflowers as late as June.

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The first recipe is for elderflower cordial, which captures the wonderful flavour of the flowers, and allows me to enjoy it whenever I want to throughout the year.  Using elderflowers is something of a tradition in my family – when I grew up there was the most enormous elder bush – well more of a tree, really – in our garden.  Making the syrup is very simple, you just need sugar, lemon, citric acid, and elderflowers.  As so often, timing is everything as the elderflowers should be at their peak when you make this.

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Elderflower Cordial

  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

900g sugar
30 heads of elderflower
2 lemons, sliced
80g citric acid
1 litre boiling water

Shake the elderflowers to remove any stray bugs and dust, then set aside.  Put the sugar, citric acid and lemon slices into a heatproof bowl (I used a large stainless-steel casserole) and pour the boiling water over them.  Stir until the sugar is dissolved.  With a pair of scissors snip the flowers off the stalks.  The aim is to include as little as possible of the green stalks. Stir the flowers into the syrup.  Cover the bowl and put it in a cool place to macerate for four days, stirring at least once a day.

After four days strain the syrup through a fine sieve or a colander lined with cheesecloth, then bottle and cork.  Because of the high sugar content, the cordial will keep for some time if stored in a cool and dark place.  It is ready to be used immediately – mix it with sparkling water for a delicious elderflower lemonade.

Note: For a tangier taste you could squeeze the lemons and use the juice, instead of the lemon slices.

Elderflowers also make wonderful fritters, and I try to make them at least once each year, while the flowers are about.

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The following recipe requires a minimum of effort for a great result.  It is best to harvest the elderflowers just before you make the fritters;  if you need to keep them for a few hours, put them into a plastic bag and keep them in the fridge.

Elderflower Fritters

  • Servings: 2
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

100g flour
1 egg, separated
pinch of salt
pinch of baking powder
125ml white wine (I use half muscat wine and half water)
6 – 8 heads of elderflower, depending on size
Oil for frying
1 tbsp icing sugar

Shake the elderflowers, inspect for bugs and set aside.  In a bowl mix the flour, salt and baking powder.  Add the egg yolk and wine and stir to just combine – stirring the batter too much will result in tough fritters. In another bowl beat the egg whites until stiff, then fold into the batter.  The batter should be the consistency of heavy cream.  If necessary, add a tablespoon or more of water to thin it to the right consistency.

Heat some oil in a frying pan (I prefer to use peanut oil) over medium heat, until hot but not smoking.  Holding the elderflowers by the long stalk dip them into the batter until all the flowers are well covered, and then place them in the frying pan.  The number of fritters you are able to cook at the same time will depend on the size of your frying pan and the size of the flowers.  Once the fritters are cooking, snip off the thick stalks with scissors.

Turn the fritters over when bubbles begin to show around the edges.  You may need to add some more oil after turning them.   Cook until golden brown on both sides, remove, and put on a piece of kitchen paper to drain.  Continue with the remaining flowers.  Dust with icing sugar and serve warm.

Apologies for the green-ish cast on some of the pictures!!  The fritter recipe is very easy to multiply; I doubled it, but feel free to multiply it even more and invite all your friends over for this springtime treat!

Smile!  😀

You will have read by now that the population of France has been confined to their homes since noon last Tuesday.  Extreme measures in order to stop the spread of the Coronavirus!  President Macron announced a 15 day period in which people are to stay indoors, and I have a feeling that this may be extended.  We’ll see how effective it will be, and how people are going to be able to live with this perceived loss of liberty.  Personally, I am not particularly bothered.  I have everything I need at home, and plenty of small projects to finish, books to read, etc.  I’ll have time to telephone friends and family, write e-mails, and catch up with all kinds of things.  I might even be able to start work again on my long-shelved cook book project!!  Now, wouldn’t that be something??  🙂

People will be allowed to leave their homes to go to work if they cannot work remotely, or are working for one of several essential services (electricity, water, medical, food, etc.), to go shopping for essential supplies, to visit their doctor or pharmacy, for imperative family visits (childcare or care of elderly relatives), and for physical exercise or dog walking, the last two are to be done in strict isolation.  The food shops will remain open, and no doubt the shelves will eventually be re-stocked with pasta, rice AND toilet paper!! 😀

It will certainly be challenging for people who live in France’s big cities or areas where population density is high.  In Saint-Chinian we should be OK – people are pretty well spaced apart to begin with, and if contact is limited so should be the spread of the virus.

Last Tuesday morning, as I took a quick walk around my garden, my eye was caught by the blooms on my tree peony.  Seeing the sparkling water drops on the gorgeous blooms brought a smile to my face!  I cut several stems to bring home with me, so I could admire them for a few days.  I hope you’ll enjoy them too!

So, it might be au revoir for a little while.  Rest assured, I’ll write again as soon as inspiration strikes or whenever I feel I have something worth telling you about!  Until then, stay well and safe, and smile! 🙂

Up in the air

For some time I’ve been thinking of visiting the Passerelle de Mazamet, a footbridge across a gorge above Mazamet.  The footbridge allows pedestrian access to the mediaeval village of Hautpoul, which is also on my list of places to visit!!

Here is a map of the location:

Since I’m not going to be able to visit any time soon – and even if I did visit, I might not be able to walk across the bridge because of my fear of heights – I thought I would share the post below with you.  It was published recently on www.francetaste.wordpress.com.  A big thank you to the author for allowing me to re-post the article!


IMG_5111What is it about humans that we love to look down on everything? To get up high, for a better view? The chill of vertige with the thrill of omniscience.IMG_5092On a balmy February day, a friend and I went to the Passerelle of Mazamet, which has been on my bucket list for a moment. One of those things that’s too nearby to miss, but far enough that I never got around to it. The drive from Carcassonne to Mazamet takes nearly an hour. Longer if a nervous retiree from a distant department is ahead of you and slowing to a crawl around the curves but, with a bigger engine, speeding like an idiot on the rare straightaways, as if that makes up for anything. IMG_5151The $*%&ing driver ahead of us aside, the route was absolutely gorgeous. It goes up and up and up, and the vegetation changes to dense forest. There were signs about the pass being open, snow markers on the sides of the road, but we were in fleece jackets and during our hike had to take those off. A weird winter. It was 70 F here yesterday.IMG_5129

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Lush February forest.

IMG_5117The passerelle was inaugurated in 2018. It’s 140 meters (460 feet) long over the Arnette river and 70 meters (230 feet) above the ground. It’s free and open 24/7, but you’d be crazy to go after dark. We were glad to be there in February–plus it was lunch time and the French do one thing during lunch time: eat. So we had the place almost to ourselves. It would be much less fun in the heat of summer with a gazillion people on the narrow path. Even worse, a gazillion people on the passerelle. It can hold 42 tons, which is a lot of people, but even a couple of other people walking made it bounce such that I was glad I hadn’t eaten.

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Into the void.

The only other people were grandparents with three girls. One was maybe two or three years old, and she galloped up and down the passerelle fearlessly. One was maybe 12 and she clung to her grandmother for dear life. We passed them in the middle of the passerelle on their way back. And we discovered another girl, maybe 7 or 8, on the other side, steadfastly refusing to budge.

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Looking down.

We saw the grandfather start back and figured he was coming to the aid of the middle girl. He stopped and took photos. Lots of photos. The littlest girl came tearing down toward him. She passed him, then turned around and came back to him. He never stopped taking photos.

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Going back.

We started back and were about halfway when the grandmother and the oldest girl, still clinging and looking like she was going to puke, came back. Grandpa wanted to film them. As if the granddaughter would want to remember this moment. Who was the middle girl supposed to hold onto? Grandma was taken, and grandpa was filming. Nobody seemed worried about the middle girl or even the little one. Yes, the passerelle had no holes where the little one could fall through, but she was at that nimble age where she could climb the chain link side, which came up to my armpit, and be over it in a flash, and grandpa still wouldn’t stop filming. His obliviousness reminded me of a type: “I’m doing this for you! You’re going to do it and enjoy it whether you like it or not!”

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Mazamet.

On the way down, we passed other grandparents out with the grandkids, starting to show up once it was 2 p.m. And more retirees. A lady with very inappropriate shoes (ballerinas with wedge heels…what are those called?).

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La Voie Romaine.

To go up, we took the steep route, called the Voie Romaine, or Roman Way, which was the ancient salt route, and partly paved with stones. It had a heart-pounding 19% grade, but I’d rather take that going up than down.

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Stone walls of the former gardens.
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This seems to have been a protohistoric home, naturally protected from the wind and rain on the south side of the slope. But I’m not sure. The gardens also had little towers.
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On the wall of the circular structure. Looks like a donkey to me.

IMG_5124IMG_5142IMG_5138The descent, on a path with an 8% grade, was via the Jardins Cormouls Houlès, which date to the middle of the 19th century, with interesting towers and stone walls. First we checked out the ruins of the church of Saint-Saveur, which dates to the 1100s. IMG_5099IMG_5101IMG_5098IMG_5113The church was built on a hilltop, for views. Up in the air. Like life right now, waiting to see where things will land, trying not to fall.

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A little shrine at the start of the path.
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Interesting plastic bottle for holy water. What will they think of next?
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Another bustling shrine.
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Am haunted by the possible meaning of that doll.

I’m leaving you with these ghostly images. I couldn’t pick one, so you get three.IMG_5130IMG_5131IMG_5132

Full of flavour

From time to time I hear of a restaurant or a chef and make a mental note to go and eat there one day.  I’ve been meaning to try the Bistrot Saveurs in Castres for some time now and I finally managed to eat there last week, when I went on a day out with friends!!

Castres is about one and a half hours by car from Saint-Chinian –  a beautiful drive through lush countryside!  It’s a town that once was very prosperous through its textile, paper and tannery industries.  A walk around the town will have you enthralled by the beautiful buildings along the river Agout and the renaissance mansions of the rich and nobles of bygone days.  All that is for another post – the prime purpose of my recent visit was food! 🙂

The Bistrot Saveur is close to the centre of Castres.  Actually, most things are close to the town centre – Castres is eminently walkable!

The kitchen is presided over by Simon Scott, who has worked in prestigious London establishments such as the Ritz Hotel, where he was sous chef, and the Savoy Hotel, where he was head chef!  The dining room reflects the food which is contemporary and elegant.

Here’s a look at one of the menus:

And here is some of the food – the nibbles that accompanied our drinks:

The lollipops were made with parmesan and spices, the little dishes contained marinated fish with citrus fruit and pomegranate seeds, and the macarons were filled with a black curry cream.  All really yummy and a hint of what was to come.

All four of us ordered the Menu Saveurs, which is the restaurant’s lunchtime menu.  Since there were two choices for each course, we did manage to have all the dishes on the menu brought to our table 🙂

Here’s one of the starters – Pollack prepared like gravadlax, served on a bed of spinach mousse and accompanied by crispy vegetables and leaves and raz-el-hanout sorbet.  Raz-el-hanout is a North African spice blend and it gave a wonderful flavour to the sorbet.

The second starter was equally delicious – it was very much inspired by local ingredients.  If the first starter was mer (as in sea), the second starter was decidedly terre (as in land)!  Beautifully cooked puy lentils, topped with a samosa filled with black pudding, an egg cooked at 63 degrees Centigrade, and ice cream made with fresh goat’s cheese.

For my main course, I ordered the puff pastry topped chicken and mushroom, which was served with a puree of topinambour (Jerusalem artichokes), as well as a mixture of delicious winter vegetables (carrots, Brussel sprouts, Chinese artichoke, baby potatoes).  The portion size was absolutely perfect and the flavours were amazing!

The second main course on the menu was grilled sea bass filet on a sweet potato puree, served with chick peas, cooked ‘red meat’ radishes, and a shellfish reduction.  I only had a little bite to taste but I would have been just as happy having this dish for my main course as the chicken – I can’t really say which I preferred, both were delicious!

I opted for cheese to finish my meal – a selection of Mr Marty’s sheep’s cheeses, accompanied by walnuts and quince pate.  I don’t know who Mr Marty is, but his cheeses were very tasty!!

My dining companions all opted for the chef’s take on tarte tatin: beautifully caramelised apples atop a crispy speculoos (gingerbread) crust, topped with raspberry sorbet.

We ended this great meal with coffee and some wonderful pistachio financier cakes (they were very small), which were still warm from the oven!

The menu, including a glass of wine and coffee was absolutely fantastic value at 25 Euros per person.  I feel that I’ll be going to Castres again before too long and I’ll make sure to take more photographs of the town then, for another blog post!

If you want to eat at Bistrot Saveurs, be sure to book a table – the restaurant gets very busy.  You can find the website here.

Shades of colour

February has arrived.  The days are getting longer, and there is a promise of spring in the air!!  Nature is showing us that renewal is on the way!  😀

This is a wonderful time of the year to go for a walk – be patient and observe, and you’ll be richly rewarded!

The almond trees have started to flower:

The mimosa trees are producing an absolutely glorious amount of bright yellow fluffy blossoms:

The red flowers of the red Japanese quince bush provide a jewel-like cheerful spot of colour

In some vineyards, the ground between the rows of plants is carpeted with wildflowers:

All these sights gladden my heart and lift my spirits!!  I hope they lift your spirits too!!

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