Happy Holidays!

For as long as I can remember, the festive season has been synonymous with light for me.  In Germany, the nights draw in very early around Christmas, and the festive illuminations make those dark nights brighter.  I grew up there, in the days before everybody had electric lights on their (sometimes artificial) Christmas trees – we had real candles on a real tree.  I would only lay eyes on the tree on Christmas eve, when the candles were lit as if by magic (my parents never appeared to have anything to do with that!!), and the whole tree was sparkling with glass ornaments, tinsel and sparklers.  At the time you read this, I will be decorating my own tree, with tinsel, glass ornaments AND electric lights!  As I am writing this post before that tree will be trimmed, I won’t be able to share any photographs with you, I’m sorry!

But I do have some other photographs to share with you – I visited Montpellier very recently.  On my meanderings through some of the narrow streets, I passed by the entrance to a church, which had in the past always been locked.  That day the doors were wide open, so I had to have a look in – and I’m very glad I did!  The church was the Chapelle des Penitents Blancs, the chapel of the white penitents. This lay brotherhood was founded in Montpellier in 1517.  In 2013 it had 49 members, aged 25 to 103 years!  The chapel, which dates from the 17th century and earlier, serves as their headquarters.

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The interior is richly decorated, with much gold leaf in evidence.  Parts of the decor have been restored, whilst other parts are still awaiting much needed work.

On the balcony at the rear of the chapel are two mannequins, dressed in the traditional white robes of the penitents.

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There was a reason why the chapel was open to the public that day:  the very large Provençal creche or nativity scene!

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The popular Provençal nativity scenes appeared during the French Revolution, when la Terreur had closed churches and forbidden worship.  In 1793, at Christmas, people in Marseille started to make small figures, which could easily be hidden in case of police checks.  They used clay, paper, the white of a loaf of bread – whatever was to hand.  The figures represented the faithful, who could not go to midnight mass.  They were given the names santouns, little saints in Provençal. Today they are usually called santons.

The tradition became very much part of Christmas in Provence, and spread to Languedoc too.  In 1803 a santons fair was held in Marseille.  The traditional costumes of today’s figures hark back to the days when the santons were first made.

Did you notice the chapel with the white penitents?  And did you notice that baby Jesus was missing?  He will be placed in his crib with great ceremony on Christmas eve!

After that wonderfully unexpected stop, I made my way to Place de la Comedie and the Christmas market.  The centre of Montpellier was beautifully decked out in lights.  Here are some pictures of the Opera Comedie, of the Place de la Comedie, and of the streets surrounding the Place de la Comedie:

This year, the Christmas market stretched from the Place de la Comedie all the way down the Esplanade Charles de Gaulle – there were over 100 stalls in all!

IMG_3724There was a nice assortment of edibles:

. . .  and gift ideas:

Note how I have far more pictures of food 🙂 – somehow I’m drawn to that!!

This will be my last post for 2015, and so I would like to wish all of you and yours a wonderful festive season!!  See you again in the New Year!

 

Have you ever been g**gled?

Earlier this year I visited Montpellier – perhaps there was a specific reason or perhaps it was just for a day out, I don’t remember.  The weather was beautiful, and as it got nearer to lunchtime I headed for the Place de la Comedie, a beautifully open square in the centre of Montpellier.  The square is lined on opposite sides with beautiful buildings, with the most impossibly ornate facades. Some of the detail on those facades is just amazing, and not really visible or able to be appreciated with the naked eye – you really need a very good zoom lens or a magnifying glass!!

The third side of the square is occupied by the Opera Comedie, Montpellier’s municipal opera house and theatre.

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As you can see, it’s pretty grand!  The fourth side is open, and leads towards the Polygone shopping centre, as well as the Esplanade, a beautiful tree-lined area, linking the Place de la Comedie with the Corum, the new opera house and performing arts centre.

To the left of the Opera Comedie stands the Grand Hotel du Midi – you can see the gold mosaic from that building in the first gallery of pictures above.  Walk past the entrance to the hotel, down the side of the theatre, and you get to the Brasserie du Theatre, which is in the same building as the hotel.  The restaurant has a very unassuming frontage onto the street, just a door really, leading into a little foyer, from which stairs lead up to the restaurant.  The interior of the restaurant is very much belle epoque, with mirrors and plaster work everywhere.  I felt too self-conscious to take pictures of the interior – I’m sorry!!  You can see some good shots of the interior on this site.  The weather was so nice that lunch was being served on the terrace.  🙂   The terrace is on the first floor, so from the street you don’t really see it.

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The fountain in the centre was a nice touch, and added to the great ambience.  The midday menu was very reasonably priced at 15.90 EUR for two courses, and it included a glass of wine.  My dining companion and I decided to forego the starter and have dessert instead. 🙂  The steak was delicious, and the salmon was cooked to perfection.  The dessert of the day was tiramisu – yummy!!

After a relaxed and unhurried lunch, we went for a walk around the pedestrianised centre of Montpellier.  There’s much to look at, be it shop windows:

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…or architecture:

The amazing building above is the Hotel des Tresoriers de la Bourse, which dates from the 17th and 18th centuries.

Then there are of course the wonderful door knockers.  If you read this blog regularly you’ll know that I have a kind of fetish for door knockers! 🙂  The variety is seemingly endless, and only limited by the fantasy and imagination of whoever designed and/or made them.

Whilst walking down Grand Rue Jean Moulin I came across this strange-looking car:

On closer examination it turned out to be a G**gle car, not the one which is driver-less, but the one which takes the pictures that allow us to virtually explore in street view.  Here’s the camera array:

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Nobody seemed to pay the G**gle car much attention – the shop windows and the shopping itself were much more interesting.  We continued with our walk, and found some more lovely things to look at:

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I’m sure the Maison Justin Boch is no longer trading, but the lettering is just lovely, and the square so inviting.  Just a few steps away was the Padova ice cream parlour.  It’s not as though I hadn’t had enough to eat at lunchtime, but I couldn’t resist it… 🙂

The Hotel Saint-Come is today part of the headquarters of the Chamber of Commerce.  The tourist office offers guided visits of the building in its program – I’m going to try and book that for a future visit.

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Down one of the side streets I found this wonderful glass veranda.  Look at the detail from the tiled frieze.

Back on the Esplanade I noticed the facade of an old Gaumont Cinema building:

And then it was back to the Place de la Comedie, where it all started.

Now, if you go to G**gle maps, and look at the street view of Grand Rue Jean Moulin, you might just be able to spot me with my camera in my hand, taking a picture of that car.  You’ll have to go to the May 2014 version though – for some reason the street was photographed again in June 2014.  And if you look very carefully, you might even spot me several times!  I had great fun walking past the car a number of times 🙂

This is the sparkling season

I mean of course the season of sparkling lights, twinkling away in trees and elsewhere.  Here in France pretty much every village has its own Christmas lights, although in some of the smaller villages it might be just a couple of stars across the street – but still.

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Last week I ventured to Montpellier to visit Les Hivernales, the annual Christmas market.  This year a beautifully lit archway formed the entrance to the market, which is on Esplande Charles de Gaulle just off the Place de la Comedie, and there were about 100 stalls, selling everything from gifts to clothes to food!

As night fell the atmosphere became magical – there were stalls selling mulled wine and the smell of spices was wafting around.  One stand offered a kind of raclette – toasted cheese over either bread or cooked potatoes, whilst another was cooking Tartiflette, potatoes cooked with Reblochon cheese, and yet someone else was cooking Seiche a la Setoise, a well-known local speciality made with cuttlefish.  All of Montpellier was dressed up with beautiful lights, and the Christmas tree near the Opera Comedie was beautifully trimmed.

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Saint Chinian also has some nice Christmas lights, and the tree inside the Mairie is as ever very beautiful.

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At the recent Christmas market, the abbatiale was filled with stands which spilled out into the cloisters and out in front of the Mairie. It gave me a chance to get a good picture of the beautifully vaulted roof of the abbatiale, which was once the church of the abbey.

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The Polygone shopping centre in Béziers also trimmed itself up nicely for Christmas, although the fountains on the top floor dance all year round.

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At the Capestang christmas market there was a stall selling foie gras and ducks for making confit.  Those of you of a sensitive disposition don’t look too closely.  I was fascinated (and a little repulsed at the same time) by the way the butcher opened up the carcasses almost tenderly, to extract the fatty livers.

For those of you interested, I give you below a method of preparing foie gras as given to me by Monique, one of my neighbours in St Chinian.

Allow the livers to come to room temperature.  Separate the lobes and remove all veins with the help of the point of a sharp knife.  Take your time and be thorough, the end result will be better.  Put the livers in a bowl of cold salted water and leave approx. half an hour to disgorge any blood remaining.  Remove and pat dry carefully.  Season with 17g salt and 3g pepper per kilo of liver – this is best done in a roasting tin or bowl where the livers can be turned.  The pepper should be freshly and coarsely ground.  Mix with 1 – 2 tbsp Armagnac or Cognac and leave to marinate for 10 minutes.  During that time prepare your kilner jars.  Fill up the jars, fitting the pieces of liver so there are no gaps.  Clean the rims to remove any trace of grease and close the jars and put them in your sterilizing pan.  Fill to the top of the jars with lukewarm water, the bring the water slowly to a temperature of 75 degrees (use a thermometer) then keep at that temperature for 30 minutes.  Remove at the end of the cooking time and leave to cool.  Two tips from Monique:  smaller livers are better than very large ones, ideal weight is 450 to 500g;  the livers should be very fresh, as older livers have a tendency to render more fat as do larger livers.

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Rain at last!

The rain really did come as a relief at long last!  After four months without a drop it was beginning to show.  The river was running low, and nature was beginning to feel the pinch.  I noticed that all the daffodils and narcissus in the garden were smaller this year, and wilted fairly fast.  The water table won’t have been topped up, but at least the earth has been given a good soaking.  And I think it’s really come at a great moment – all the peach and apricot trees are about to burst into bloom, and over the next few days we’ll be seeing whole orchards in various shades of pink.  In some places it feels overwhelming and somewhat unreal, but it’s another sure sign that spring is on the way.  This week I’ve also seen the first swallows darting about…

In the garden the pruning is finished at last!!  Do you remember the tangled mess of the kiwi vine from last week?  You can see the results of its haircut in one of the pictures below.  The lavenders also got a fairly radical treatment, unless they are pruned hard, almost to the quick, they soon grow leggy and need replacing.  For some of the lavender plants it’ll probably be their last season, but there are plenty of cuttings so they’ll all be replaced.  The tomato seeds I put in the propagator a couple of weeks ago have all sprouted and are coming along nicely, and the chilli pepper seeds are starting to show too.  Soon they’ll all be pricked out and moved to the greenhouse in the garden, but that’s for another time.

If you are visiting the area, then a trip to Montpellier should be on your list.  I went yesterday and it struck me just how much there is to see in the old town.  You can just spend hours and hours walking and discovering, and of course there are many cafes where you can sit and watch the world go by and rest your weary feet.  The Musee Fabre houses a world class collection of paintings, and there are a few other museums worth visiting.  The shopping is pretty good also and whenever the sun is out the terraces around the Place de la Comedie are busy!