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!