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!!

Carnival!!

It’s at this time of year that the carnival celebrations start to get underway.

The Carnaval de Limoux started on January 19 this year!  It runs through to March 29, 2020, so there’s plenty of time to go and visit!  A few years ago, I wrote an article about my visit, which you can find here.   The programme of the Limoux carnival can be found via this link.

In our corner of Southern France, the celebrations kick off with the Fete de Saint Blaise on February 1st.  On the programme are guided visits of the chapel dedicated to Saint Blaise, a tasting of the herbal tea and the elixir of Saint Blaise (probably a liqueur), a carnival procession through the town, and to finish the evening, a communal meal followed by a dance.

Details can be found via this link.

A little farther afield, the town of Albi celebrates carnival with two big processions on February 16 and 23, 2020.  The full programme can be found here.

This year, Mardi Gras is on February 25.  Narbonne holds it annual carnival procession on the preceding Sunday, February 23.  This year’s theme is Les metiers, the trades, as in jobs.

Will you be celebrating carnival anywhere??

Truffle time again!!

I’m sure you have eaten truffles – but did you eat chocolate truffles or black truffles? 🙂

The black truffle, also called Perigord truffle, French black truffle, or, to give the Latin name, tuber melanosporum, is a native European truffle, and it ranks very high on the list of the most expensive foods!

It’s been prized for its flavour since antiquity, and it was regularly served on the tables of princes, kings and emperors.  Towards the end of the 19th century, France produced up to 1000 tonnes of black truffles per year.  Prices were much lower then than they are now, and black truffles were used in great quantities in classic French cooking at that time.

Since the end of the 19th century, France’s truffle output has fallen dramatically – at times it has been as low as 20 tonnes a year!  A variety of causes have contributed to this fall in production: destruction during the 1st and 2nd world wars, deforestation, acid rain, general pollution, changes in farming methods, changes in climate…

For a very long time, the way truffles grew was not very well understood, but by the early 1970s a technique had been developed which allowed hazelnut and oak saplings to be inoculated with truffle spores.  The resulting trees could produce truffles four to eight years after planting, but the success still depends on many factors such as soil type, amount of rainfall, temperatures, etc.

Lucky for us, a good many of the truffle orchards which were planted in Southern France are now producing truffles.  If you visit Languedoc at this time of year, you are in for a treat, as truffle markets in the area take place throughout the winter months.  I’ve visited several of these markets over the years, and I have written about one of these visits here.

Below, I give you a list of the forthcoming markets in the area.  Even if you don’t buy any truffles, these markets are well worth visiting, I promise you!

January 26, 2020 : 21es “Ampélofolies du Cabardès” à Moussoulens
January 26, 2020 : 4e Fête de la Truffe” à Béziers (pourtour des halles)
January 31 to February 2, 2020 : 14e “Fête de la truffe et des produits du terroir” à Nîmes, Place du Marché
February 1, 2020 : “Truffes en fête” à Talairan
February 8, 2020 : Marché aux Truffes” et 15e “Nuit de la Truffe” à Villeneuve-Minervois
February 9, 2020 : 25e Journée Paysanne” à Saint-Jean de Buèges
February 14, 2020 : “Marché aux Truffes de la Saint Valentin” à Narbonne, place de l’Hôtel de Ville de 9h à 13h.
February 16, 2020 : Marché aux truffes” à Castelnaudary
February 16, 2020 : 12e Fête de la Truffe et du terroir” à Claret
February 23, 2020 : 4e Carnaval des saveurs et de la truffe” à La Digne d’Aval
March 8, 2020 : “Truffe et patrimoine” à Trassanel

 

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!!

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