Sparkling all over

Earlier in the year I visited Limoux to experience the famous carnival.  But Limoux is a town worth a visit at any time of year. The reason?  A great drive, some wonderful architecture, AND sparkling wine!  Legend has it that sparkling wine originated from the Abbey of Saint-Hilaire near Limoux and a first recorded mention of sparkling wine dates from 1531.  The legend goes on to say that towards the end of the 16th century Dom Perignon stopped by the Abbey of Saint-Hilaire on a pilgrimage, and found out the secret of how to get the bubbles into the bottle, which he then applied to the wines in Champagne on his return there.

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Strawberry Hill Vineyards in Gloucestershire, England has it on their site that an Englishman called Christoper Merrett was the inventor of the process as he published a paper on it in 1662.  Wikipedia says that an Italian Doctor called Francesco Scacchi first wrote about the production of sparkling wine, and that Dom Perignon’s mission at his abbey in Hautevillers was to prevent the bubbles from forming in the wine. The more I read the more confusing it all gets – one of the problems with the internet of course…

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But I digress.  Limoux is along the banks of the river Aude, with the larger and perhaps older part on the west bank.  At the top of Rue Jean Jaures, where you enter the old town proper, are gate piers, nicely reminding me of the fortified walls which would have been here at one point.  As you walk down this road towards Place de la Republique you pass some beautiful facades such as this one.

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This house must be ancient,yet the carvings are still crisp in most places.  There was also a great shop window, and I have a feeling that they probably keep it going for some time!

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The people in Limoux really live their Carnival, and work on it year round!  Place de la Republique has arcades around three sides, which you can see in my Carnival post.  Just a few steps from there is a church, which has been made over many times, but I found some interesting stone carvings in one of the side porches.

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I wonder how long these guys have been there?

Walking through the narrow streets turned up a fair few interesting things.  I guess the imprisoned door knocker was to stop kids from playing with it?  Those iron grilles with the stylised cockerels are just amazing and I couldn’t pass by all those door knockers without taking a picture :-).

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Recognize that house?  Have a look at the second picture in this post, this is the reverse of the sign.  Widow Tailhan on one side and Tournie and sons on the other – I wonder if they were related?  After the walk I headed for the east bank of the river and to Maison Guinot – the oldest Blanquette house in Limoux, established in 1875.  I first came across this producer back in 1998, when I bought their Blanquette for a birthday party, and I’ve been back a good few times since.  If you want to find out more about the technicalities of what goes into Blanquette there are good articles on Wikipedia in English and French, the latter being the more exhaustive of the two.

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The tasting room at Guinot is packed with cases of different Blanquettes, and the tasting is pretty interesting, the range is definitely worth a try, and I’m sure you’ll be able to find space for a bottle or maybe even a case or two.  The website for Guinot has some lovely pictures from the cellars, and also information on their products.  Sorry we can’t do virtual tastings over the net yet!  The guided visits are by appointment only, but they do look pretty interesting – next time perhaps…

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Of course alcohol should be consumed in moderation, and please don’t drink and drive!

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Mardi Gras in Southern France

in Limoux (not all that far from Carcassonne) to be precise.  Limoux has a carnival tradition which reaches back unbroken to the middle ages, and the carnival takes place each weekend from early January to mid March.  You’ll find the 2013 programme here.   Now, the carnival in Limoux is not like the famous one in Rio, or like some in Germany or elsewhere in France.  There are no floats, nothing particularly showy, just costumed people.  It is a lot about tradition, and it is “by the town for the town”, so not designed to be a magnet for tourists.  My experience of it started on Mardi Gras 2013, mid morning, when I arrived in Limoux with a small group of friends.  The town square, Place de la Republique, where the carnival takes place, looked deserted.

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For a moment we were wondering if we’d picked the wrong day.  But then we came across a poster, and sure enough today was marked, so perhaps we were just a little too early.  So off we went to the Cafe du Commerce for some coffee and hot chocolate.

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When we re-appeared the square already looked a bit livelier.  The carousel in the middle was being uncovered, and a stall had set up, selling carnival masks and such.

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Place de la Republique has arcades around three of its sides a feature in several towns in the area (Mirepoix and Revel).  On the fourth side a mock arcade had been set up, and we thought the action would start there.  Wrong!  It all started outside the Brasserie la Concorde, with the band playing a tune, and the costumed characters emerging from that establishment, to dance a waltz with some of the bystanders.

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The group then proceeded along to the corner, and into the next bar, for a glass of Blanquette de Limoux, what else?

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Limoux has a great many different bandes des carnavaliers and each group is allocated a day, during which they entertain the public three times.  They first come out at 11am, again at 4.30pm and finally with flaming torches at 10pm.  The morning “outing” is dedicated to local events, the afternoon and evening have a “Pierrot” theme.  I saw the morning outing of “Les Anciens” and the characters were superb.  The most fascinating face was the one we called the sweetie lady – she had a cart loaded with sweets and biscuits which she offered to the bystanders.

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Then there was what I thought was the town crier, who carried a drum and later on a megaphone.

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I don’t know who the man with the big wig was supposed to represent, but his mask was particularly life-like.

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The waiter was also very good and later on he would turn into Monsieur le Maire.

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Not to be missed was the curé or town priest

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And even the pope had made the effort!

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Leading the dance (for it was a dance) was Mr Andrieu, the grain merchant who also sold small livestock – he had chickens, pigeons and goldfish on his cart!

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The miller is a traditional character of the Limoux carnival, the millers are the ones opening the very first session each year.  Tradition has it that he carries a whip, why I don’t know?

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The barber was carrying a huge comb and pair of scissors, and occasionally he would try to comb someone in passing 🙂

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The butcher had a clothes rack with him, where he’d suspended a selection of goodies!

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There was a gent who could have been a chauffeur with his peaked cap.

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And then there was a rather large lady with long hair, who had a slightly crazed look about her.

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I’m fairly certain that there was no woman hiding behind that mask.  In fact it was not all that long ago that women were admitted to the carnival groups, before that it was all exclusively male!

There were a few other characters, who could have been anything, local gangsters or mafia or just guys dressed in dark suits.

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Back to the action.  After that first brief dance everyone had piled into the first bar, just off the square for a quick drink.  Meantime everyone outside was eagerly awaiting their reappearance, and as time went on the crowd seemed to be growing.  And then they came, the band struck up again, and they were off in their dance, one or both arms held aloft, turning with graceful movements.  Every so often the grain merchant would throw a shovel-full of wheat or maize over the bystanders, and so they went through the arcade at the bottom of the square and into the next bar!  One thing though, there was an air of solemnity about the procedings, an earnestness that was not spoilt by cheering or clapping from the crowd (except that we did of course, instantly marking ourselves out to be strangers!).

Here’s the video I took for you – sorry about the shakiness, and no the sweet lady is not going to beat the children with her stick!!

Re-emerging thoroughly refreshed, they headed for the third arcade, where they made a pit-stop at the Cafe du Commerce, all that dancing must make one mighty thirsty!!  Or perhaps the rubber masks make you incredibly hot and you just need to take them off for a moment or two?

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When they emerged from their third bar-stop, they made their way up to the fake arcade, and opposite that the crowds were now eagerly awaiting what was to come next.  I had no idea what to expect, but it turned out to be great fun!  Even the chickens thought so, they’d started exploring the cart, and wait, where did the enormous ears come from on the guy with the big wig?  Monsieur le Curé was destined to have a good time with his bottle of blanquette!

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So it turns out that the guy with the big wig was in need of a haircut.  The barber tried with his yellow scissors, but they proved to be useless for the job, so he fetched a pair of hedge clippers!

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Off came bits of the wig, and of course later on the whole wig.  Swiftly followed by first one and then the other ear!!  Ouuch!!  Then it was time for a shave!

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The poor man was covered in shaving foam, and the whole then rinsed off with a bucket of water that was thrown over him!!  Lucky there was a plastic sheet covering him!  Meantime the butcher had been cutting up bits of offal and throwing it to the crowd, the curé had popped the cork and showered everyone with bubbly, and the grain merchant slung out several more shovels of barley over the heads fo the crowd.

Just when I thought it was about over, I could hear the band play again.  Oh yes, where had the musicians disappeared to?  Now they were coming down a side street, preceded by the loveliest majorettes I have seen in a long time :-), closely followed by the driver and M. le Maire.

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And then they all started up again, not going far mind, because there was another cafe just by the corner…

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The crowds started to disperse and we thought it was time we should look for somewhere to eat.  We had a look into Brasserie La Concorde and saw that they were advertising vin chaud; since it was cold we thought it was just what we wanted.  And while warming ourselves with that we had our last glimpse of Limoux Carnival as the characters came into the bar for their last stop, or perhaps it was their headquarters, as they all disappeared downstairs.

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My first experience of this famous carnival and I’m very certain that I’ll be back before too long!  We finished our morning with lunch at Le Cafe Gourmand on Place de la Republique, which I can heartily recommend.  The lunch menu was EUR 14.50 for three courses and included a glass of wine and coffee.  The food was freshly prepared and delicious, and the service very friendly.  We all had Potee aux Choux for main course, a wonderfully warming stew with beef ribs, smoked sausage, potatoes, carrots, celery, and of course cabbage.

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After that we went for a walk around Limoux and bought some Blanquette, but I’ll leave that for another post!

A week of food!

This week has been wonderful as culinary experiences go!  At the end of last week friends arrived for their annual holiday in St Chinian, and we started as we meant to go on, with a great BBQ on Sunday evening at their place (sausages, lamb chops, grilled courgettes and aubergines).   A few days later I visited Domaine Gayda near Limoux to celebrate the birthday of another friend.  The sunflower fields along the way were beautiful, lifting the spirits!

Domaine Gayda is a beautiful property, at the same time winery and restaurant, and if you’re in the area you should stop by for a wine tasting or a meal or both!  I was particularly taken with their Sauvignon Blanc, which was served with lunch and took home a case.  The lunch menu is three courses, and there are two choices per course; wine and coffee are included and the views from the terrace are spectacular!  For starters I chose the tartare of tuna fish with nori which was very good!  Some of my dining companions opted for skewered quail, which smelled divine.  For main course I stayed with Fish, a beautiful piece of pan-fried salmon with smashed potatoes and bean sprouts.  A couple of fellow diners had chosen the roasted pork filet, but I wasn’t fast enough with my camera to capture it – I can assure you though that it was very good and looked it too!  The choices for dessert were apricot soup or chocolate tart.  Can you guess which one I had?

Another BBQ in my garden followed – I decided to make the hamburgers which we’d tried out for our last cooking get-together, accompanied by courgettes marinated in lemon juice with garlic and olive oil, grilled courgettes and grilled potatoes and buttered green beans.  And just in case that wasn’t enough, I’d made an apricot tart for dessert.  My friend Janet has a wonderful recipe for stuffed courgette flowers, and since there were quite a few flowers on my courgette plants we prepared that too!

For the recipe only the male courgette flowers are used and the fresher they are the easier they are to handle. Once they are cleaned, the stamen are removed from each flower, being careful not to tear the flowers open. The filling is made with very fresh goats cheese, roasted pine nuts and chives, seasoned very lightly, and then stuffed into the flowers. I guess a piping bag with a wide nozzle might make this easier, but all we had to hand was a teaspoon. Just before grilling the flowers are drizzled with a little olive oil, and they don’t take very long, perhaps 3 minutes?

Janet had also prepared some parcels of sweet onions, one seasoned simply with pepper, the other with Piment d’Espelette, which cooked for a long time and were beautifully tender.  The left-over goats cheese filling went very well with the smaller of the grilled potatoes.

The sun had started to set by the time we were ready for the apricot tart, which had all the promise of summer, juicy golden fruit and a hint of sweetness from the base.