Spice it up!

In last week’s post, I hinted at my visit to two wineries.  My first stop that afternoon, following the morning’s wine tasting, discussed last week, was at the cooperative winery in Saint-Chinian.  I had come not to taste wine, but to look at the “Art en Cave” – enormous works of art which are painted on the fronts of the wine tanks in the cellar.  The project started in 2013 and since then at least one new painting has been commissioned each year.

Each year a new cuvee is created in tandem with the new artwork.  The wine is issued in a limited edition, with the painting featured on the label of the bottle.

When the project was first started, it was a unique concept.  “Art en Cave” is now a registered trademark!

After my visit to the cooperative winery, I went on to say hello to my friends Nadia and Cyril Bourgne at Domaine la Madura.  For the occasion of the winery open day, they had decided to pair visual arts with their wine.  I enjoyed the paintings of Stéphane Villafane as much as I enjoyed the wines of Domaine La Madura!!

This will be my last post this year – I’m going to take a break for the holidays.  So, here is my Christmas present to you: my recipe for mulled wine!  I recently made a large quantity of mulled wine for a Christmas concert in Saint-Chinian.  The lucky visitors went through 15 litres of it!

Mulled Wine

  • Servings: 6 - 8
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

A wonderfully fragrant and tasty mulled wine, ideal for the holidays. The quantities in the foreground are for one bottle of wine, the quantities in the background are for 10 litres!

It’s not necessary to use an expensive wine for this recipe, but if you use a decent quality wine you’ll end up with great mulled wine.  The secret is to ensure that it does not get too hot – use a sugar or yoghurt thermometer if you have one.

Ingredients

  • 6 cloves
  • 4 allspice berries
  • 4 cardamom pods
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 1 orange, zest only, peeled thinly
  • 3 tbsp sugar
  • 1 bottle red wine

Directions

  1. In a non-reactive saucepan (stainless steel or enamel) heat the wine with the other ingredients to 80 degrees celsius. Use a thermometer if possible.
  2. Leave to infuse for 15 to 20 minutes over a very low flame.
  3. Strain and serve.

If you want to make a non-alcoholic version, substitute red grape juice or a mixture of grape and apple juice for the red wine, add the juice of the orange and omit the sugar.

Leftover mulled wine can be bottled and kept for several days.  Reheat gently

Happy Holidays to you and yours!

Drink responsibly!

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Good old Saint Nick

We’ve been having some beautiful sunny weather and gorgeous blue skies, and it’s been difficult to get into the Christmas spirit. I thought I could remedy that with a visit to the Fete de la Saint-Nicolas” Carcassonne, and what a good idea that was. On the way I passed through Trebes, where the Canal du Midi runs beside the road for a short while. Take a good look at the picture.  It’s not often that you’ll be able to see the Canal du Midi without water, and it won’t be all that long before it will be filled again. The canal closes to navigation at the end of October, for two months of maintenance works. During that time some sections of the canal get drained of water, to allow work on lock gates and such to be carried out.

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On to Carcassonne though! I found a great parking spot near the railway station and walked right across the lower town and up the hill to the Castle – strictly speaking it’s a fortified town with a castle inside it. It is not as far to walk as you think and it’s a very pleasant stroll down the pedestrian Rue G. Clemenceau, turning left into Rue de Verdun, past the Dome and across the Pont Vieux.

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The Dome is a curious building, and I’ve not been able to find out just what it was for, but my theory is that it might have been the building at the centre of a covered market like the one at Revel, not all that far away.

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From the Pont Vieux the views of the Castle are spectacular! (If you are around for the fireworks on July 14 it’s a good viewpoint, but it will be very crowded!) On the bridge a young man sat playing his accordion, seemingly only for himself, not for an audience. It was lovely to sit in the sunshine, watch the world go by and listen to the music.

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Once across the Pont Vieux you enter the Trivalle neighbourhood, which has a lovely feel to it. There are many old buildings which have been beautifully restored, and others which have a completely original and unrestored feel to them.

To get to the castle there are two different paths: you can either walk to the Porte d’Aude on the western side or to the Porte Narbonnaise on the eastern side. I chose to go to the Porte Narbonnaise as the climb is not as steep; however it’s the principal entrance and might be the busier of the two when you visit.

When I got there the Castle was not as crowded as it usually is during the summer months, but I was there not long after lunchtime, and perhaps everyone was still eating? I was looking for the arts and crafts market, held on the occasion of the Fete de la Saint-Nicolas, from December 6 (Saint Nicholas Day) to December 8 this year. There was a lovely selection of items and the backdrop was of course wonderful. The market was held right next door to the open-air theatre where all kinds of concerts are performed in the summer.

After a stroll around the rest of the castle, and a snack, I was off again, down the hill and across the bridge, to explore the main Christmas market in Carcassonne, which is held on Square Gambetta. From the castle I had already seen the big ferris wheel, and there was a lot more when I got there!

The children’s interests were well provided for with several rides: reindeer for the little ones, a Disney themed magic sleigh ride, and the beautiful carousel which is normally outside the castle, in addition to the big ferris wheel.

The stalls around the square sold a variety of goods, with food and mulled wine being at the fore! I couldn’t resist the sweet pretzels, which were really doughnuts in a different disguise. With a glass of mulled wine they were heavenly! And they got eaten so quickly that the thought of a photograph never even entered my mind :-)! Not far away in Place Carnot a skating rink had been erected, taking up pretty much the whole square.

On the way back to the station there was yet one more stop – by the Andre Chenier car park the sledge runs had been set up! An enormous structure, clad in white fabric, with runs on either side. One side allows the children to race down on small toboggans, the other side is for children and adults and you race down on large inner tubes – what fun!!

Around the sledge runs there were more fair ground rides, a fairly tame reindeer rollercoaster and some lovely “ride-your-own-reindeer” bicycles for the smaller children!

Across the Canal du Midi once more to get to the car, and a quick snap of a lovely scene in the port.

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And then it got dark, and the whole magic of Christmas came to life!!

I don’t think anyone can say “bah humbug” to all that!

IMG_8877A final note:  the market and rides on Square Gambetta and the sledge runs by the Andre Chenier car park are open until January 5, 2014;  the skating rink on Place Carnot is open until December 20, 2013.

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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