Just gorgeous

Springtime in Languedoc is a wonderful and almost miraculous time.  All of a sudden Nature bursts forth, and seemingly dead branches burst into lush flowers almost overnight!

Almond blossom near Minerve

Almond blossom near Minerve

 

On one of those glorious days which herald spring, I went with friends to have lunch in Minerve: not a cloud to be seen, bright blue skies, endless sunshine, not a breeze stirring, and the almond trees in full bloom.

I don’t think I’ve written about Minerve before.  It is a little village which ranks amongst the most beautiful villages of France.  Its location is on a rocky outcrop, a natural oppidum, where the gorges of the Cesse and Briant rivers converge.  A perfect location for a safe haven in pre-historic times, as attested by archaeologists, who have dated occupation of the site to around 850 BC.

view of Minerve

View of Minerve across the gorge of the Cesse river

If the setting of the village is spectacular, it also meant isolation in more modern times, because access was so very difficult.  The road which brings us to the village today was only finished in 1901, and the viaduct, which allows cars and pedestrians to cross the gorge, was completed in 1912. Electricity only came to the village in 1931/32!

From the early Middle Ages, Minerve used to be the seat of the Viscounts of Minerve. The village gave its name to the surrounding area, which is called the Minervois unto this day.  During the Cathar crusades, the village was besieged by Simon de Montfort and his army of Christian soldiers, in the summer of 1210 to be precise.  After five weeks of bombardment, the villagers and the Cathars, who had sought shelter in the village, ran out of food and water.  Guilhelm of Minerve surrendered to Simon de Montfort.  The Cathars were given the option to give up their faith or be killed – 140 Cathar Parfaits (ministers) opted to die by being burnt at the stake, rather than renounce their faith.  It seems that the ordinary Cathar faithful abjured the heresy, and were saved from the flames.

If you want to read a little more about Minerve I would recommend the French Wikipedia entry for the village here.  The English entry is rather brief and concentrates mainly on the Cathar history.

Today, a reconstruction of the Malvoisine, one of the catapults used at the time of the siege, stands across the gorge of the Cesse river, to remind us of the history.

Reconstructed catapult at Minerve

Reconstructed catapult at Minerve

The two rivers which flow in the gorges on either side of the village, have a strange particularity – they flow in the winter, but dry out and run underground in the summer.  The Cesse river has bored through the rocks and created two large tunnels.  The larger of the two is over 200 metres long, and starts just below the viaduct.  The second one is “only” 126 metres long, and a little upstream from the first one.  Do go and have a look if you are in Minerve and if the river beds are dry – the tunnels are spectacular!

The village of Minerve is enjoying a steady flow of visitors year round, and in recent years much has been done to make it more attractive to visitors.  Houses have been renovated, the roads repaved, and of late some of the remaining fortifications have been restored.

The village streets are narrow, and the houses huddled close together.

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If you visit Minerve, make sure that you climb the steps up to the church, and have a look at the stone monument, which commemorates the 140 Cathars burnt at the stake in 1210.  The sculpture was carved by J.L. Severac, a local artist.

 

Memorial stele at Minerve

Memorial stele at Minerve

Not all that far from the church is the Paroli bookshop and tea room.  It’s a wonderful place for those who love old books, and great for resting your weary feet and enjoying some refreshments.

We’d come to have lunch at the restaurant at Relais Chantovent, which overlooks the gorge of the Briant river.

From the street, there is not much to be seen.  The restaurant is on one side of the road, and the hotel, to which it belongs, is on the opposite side.

Inside, the dining room is lofty and spacious, and all along one side are sliding glass doors, which open onto the terrace and the gorge of the Briant.  For those of you who have been to the restaurant in the past, a few years ago the terrace was completely remodeled and enlarged.

Since the weather was so glorious, we jumped at the offer of dining on the terrace.  We had a table right by the railing, and could hear and see the river far below.

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Once we had placed our order, a little mise en bouche arrived:  a small bowl of wonderfully creamy asparagus soup, with asparagus flavoured oil drizzled over.

Mise en bouche

Mise en bouche

 

Our starters were all beautifully presented, and tasted even better.  I have captioned the photographs of the food in the following galleries  – simply move your mouse over the photographs to make the captions appear.  If this does not work for e-mail subscribers, please visit the blog website.

Main courses:

Some of us had cheese!!

Cheese plate at Le Chantovent

Cheese plate at Le Chantovent

 

And finally came dessert:

We lingered over coffee and tea – the sunshine was just too nice!!

Thank you to Nicolas and his patient staff – we had a wonderful time!!

Relais Chantovent is closed Sunday evening, Tuesday evening, and all day Wednesday.  Reservations are highly recommended.

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Feasting at Toussaint

I know I am a little late writing about the 1st of November – but here I am all the same.  November 1st is Toussaint better known to us as All Saint’s Day, and as in many catholic countries All Saint’s Day is a public holiday in France.  Tradition has it that the families visit the graves of their ancestors and decorate them with flowers, and the flowers most used today are chrysanthemums.  They are grown in all kinds of colours, shapes and sizes, and if you manage to pass by the field of a grower at just the right time (sorry, I didn’t this year!!) it is as pretty as a picture or a patchwork quilt.

The two pictures above were taken at Capestang and it’s interesting to see the mailbox outside the cemetery (?).  These wonderful flowers brighten the sometimes austere graveyards throughout the country until the first frost cuts them down.  I took a walk around the cemetery in St Chinian too and found some interesting tombs – they are not dated but I’m intrigued by the lettering and sculpted ornaments – Art Deco?The flowers were everywhere too and brightened up this somewhat sombre day.

Toussaint is also the re-opening (after vendanges and a brief rest) for a restaurant tucked away in the hills above Minerve.  The manor house of Le Bouys has belonged to the Poumeyrac family for many generations, and for some time now the family has run a restaurant on the property.  It’s a real experience, and a very pleasurable one at that!

On the business card it says Ferme Auberge and there is still a farm;  geese, ducks and chickens run around the courtyard, and there’s a stable for the goats.

There’s even a chapel, always immaculately decorated and kept.

The dining room is on the ground floor, in a room with massive vaulting – cozy and warm in the winter and cool in the summer!

On the way in we passed the kitchen door (always good) and next to it is the Rotisserie where the roast of the day was being cooked. Leg of lamb anyone?

There were a few of us, and the friend who had organised the meal had ordered Bouillabaisse for us all.  So we had the usual starters of pate and ham followed by salad (with home-made vinegar used for the dressing – always a delight) .

And then came the Bouillabaisse – an enormous dish of fish in a delicious broth.

Of course accompanied by croutons and rouillie the garlic/saffron mayonnaise.  We did try valiantly to do the dish justice, but there was only so much we could eat…  Then came cheese, and finally dessert, and that was really special:  Omelette Norvegienne better known as Baked Alaska.  Light egg whites encasing a block of ice cream covered in rum soaked sponge.  Need I write any more?  Except to say that you only get the Omelette Norvegienne  when you order the Bouillabaisse!  And of course if you want to go, be sure to book!

And here are a few more pictures.