A lady in waiting and other tales from Languedoc

I’ll start with the last bit first – a visit to Sete last night, so see Stacey Kent in Concert at the Theatre de la Mer.  The Theatre de la Mer was built on what remained of the fort built by Vauban in the 18th century – it was perfect for an amphitheater and the view from the seats beyond the stage is magical.  If you want to find out a bit more of the history of the fort/theatre have a look here.  The concert was due to start at 9pm, with a warm up by Terez Montcalm, a Canadian singer, who’s currently promoting her tribute album to Shirley Horn, followed at about 10.30 by Stacey Kent and her quintet.  The evening was great, the lights twinkling and the occasional boat going by and the atmosphere in the theater wonderful.  Of the two Terez Montcalm got the audience going much more, Stacey Kent was missing that je ne sais quoi that would have turned her performance into something more memorable.  But still….
 We had arrived in Sete in plenty of time before the doors opened, so decided to wander along the port and look for somewhere to have a bite to eat.  The romantic looking restaurant we all wanted to go to didn’t start serving until 8pm, which was too late, so we settled for a small cafe type place a few doors up.  The menu was small and the rose wine came in large bucket full of ice, and our table was right by the water’s edge, perfect for watching all kinds of boats going by!  Here’s the food we had:  an assortment of tapas (cold fish and prawns), and grilled octopus, both very delicious.

The seagull was watching our plates with a beady eye, but didn’t make any attempts at snatching morsels. It looked pretty well fed…. On the way back to the theatre we saw some youngsters training for jousting. They had motor powered boats, and really went for it. If you look closely the second picture you can just about see the splash!  As an aside – if you’re ever going to the Theatre de la Mer, bring some seat cushions with you, and don’t arrive too late.  Seating is first come first served, and it can get very packed.  At the top of the theatre are two terraces, where there are food stalls, so if you want to have something to eat you can take it back to your hard-won seats!

Earlier in the week I met with friends for a picnic along the banks of the Canal du Midi – at Capestang to be precise. There are picnic tables from where you have a great view of the pleasure boats driving by and the magnificent plane trees are still providing shade. With the courgettes starting to glut I decided I would try a Turkish recipe by Yottam Ottolenghi for a courgette frittata, to use up a fair few. The recipe was a little fiddly and lengthy (grating the courgettes, salting and leaving them to stand, then draining and squeezing them out in a teatowel) but the end result was worth every bit of effort. To go with the frittata I made humus and tzaziki, and my friends brought bread, ham and cheese. I could not resist dessert so took some poached rhubarb to be served with custard.

Now back to St Chinian – last Saturday I heard the unfamiliar sound of the clip-clop of hooves coming round a corner.  Luckily my camera was to hand to snap these pictures of a newlywed couple on their way to their wedding breakfast.

Finally, the Lady-in-waiting is Marianne – awaiting her big day on July 14! I think every municipality in France has a bust or statue of Marianne, the national emblem of France.  In the days leading up to Bastille day, our Mairie is beautifully decked out with flags and Marianne takes pride of place on the central balcony. More decorations will be going up this afternoon as the whole park in front of the town hall will be decked out with lampions, which will be lit tonight before a torch-lit procession around town, with a brass band, and all the children carrying flags and lampions.  Tomorrow night it’ll be the same procession, only we’ll end up at the football ground to watch the fireworks!

The park will be scented by the magnolia grandiflora trees, which are in flower now – I’d never paid attention to the perfume, but it is a beautiful smell with a hint of citrus.

I’m sure even the goldfish will have a good time at the forthcoming parties!!

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Plant fairs, carpets and doorknockers

At the start of the week was a visit to La Petite Pepiniere in Caunes Minervois, last Sunday, for the annual Open Weekend. Despite all expectations to the contrary, Sunday turned out to be a little wet, but we set off undeterred. Gill Pound who runs La Petite Pepiniere has created the most magnificent garden from a former vineyard, and at 11am she welcomed us for a guided tour of her kingdom. The range of plants is vast, but all are planted with the same aim – to withstand the dry climate and the sometimes cold winter. If you’re a keen gardener a visit is a must, there is much to interest and of course Gill has a great range of plants for sale.  Towards the end of our visit a lady came to take a picture of our group – you can find the picture and accompanying article here –  yours truly is hidden behind the lady in the purple raincoat!

As part of the open weekend a number of artists and artisans were exhibiting their works over the two days, but because of the rain several had to pack up and leave early. One of the few who stayed was Garth Bowden, who was showing a range of wooden furniture and sculptures. I was particularly taken by his wooden benches, where the surface textures were simply wonderful. After lunch the drizzle stopped and it brightened up a bit. There was much excitement, when a rare orchid (see picture above) was found by one of the visitors, growing near the riverbank.

I treated myself to two plants for my garden, a verbena bonariense, for which I’ve yet to find a spot and an Amicia Zygomeris which is planted and getting established.  The rain was good for the garden, and I’ve managed to do a fair bit of weeding and general work.  The tomatoes are growing well and need to be tied to their supporting canes.  The kiwis have finished flowering and there a good many little furry fruits dangling!! On the grapevines the flowers are incredibly unspectacular, the petals are almost non-existent, but this year’s flowering looks very promising! The air is heavy with the heady perfume from the linden tree outside the garden, and there is a loud buzz from the bees in that tree! Oh, and the raspberries are starting to ripen – always a good sign!!
On the way home from Caunes I found one of the most spectacular fields of poppies ever – so much for me writing that there was not much of a show this year!  And the handsome flower-pot-man was found in Caunes Minervois too.

   
 

Thursday I made a trip to Lodeve with friends, to explore the town and to visit the Savonnerie carpet workshop.  Let’s start with Lodeve:  from the middle ages onwards this was an important town for the manufactue of woollen fabrics because of its location and the pure water of the two rivers running through it, and from Louis XIV it received the monopoly for supplying the fabric from which all soldier’s uniforms were made.  Booming during war times but poor during peace times.  Of course that monopoly did not last, and by 1960 the last mill closed in Lodeve, leading to the decline and depopulation of the town.  Go for a walk through the centre – it’s well worth it!! The architectural history is all there, be it the cathedral or humble lanes. One thing which holds much fascination for me are doors and door knockers – Lodeve has a great deal and  I could have found many more with a bit more time!  The shap of the knockers are only limited by the imagination of the creators:  hands (with and without a ring on the ring finger), animal heads, cornucopias, and some incredibly ornate designs.  The sad pictures are of the doors where you can see that the knocker has been removed, sometimes stolen, sometimes sold…. but I won’t include any of those here.There are many quirky details, such as the bell-pull on the side of an ancient doorway, and the bell still above the door inside!

   

And then we found an incredible mural at the end of a little alleyway.  The artist really got his perspectives right, from afar it’s difficult to distinguish what is real and what is painted on.

A few more bits and pieces, before I wrap it up for today – I think I know what a Frigoriste is, but what about Ressemelage?  I have no idea!!

In the next post I’ll tell you about lunch and the visit to the Manufacture Nationale de la Savonnerie.  And before I forget, the riddle photograph from last week showed the leaves of a cyca unfurling!

Flowers, flowers, everywhere!

With the arrival of the warm weather there is an explosion of blooms everywhere!  In my garden the roses are particularly good this year, and Mme Meilland (also called Peace) is really going for it.  She starts of with a tame and decorous bud of the palest yellow, with splashes of pink along the edges of the petals, but once fully open she turns into one of the blowsiest roses you’ve seen, just amazing!  That rose always reminds me a bit of some of the hats the Queen Mother was famous for at one time.

With the help of two friends I spent most of Wednesday gardening, trying to catch up!  Between the three of us we managed to get a fair bit done:  weeded and butted the potatoes (lots of tasty purslane in there – edible weeds which are good for you!), planted aubergines, peppers, chilis, melons and courgettes, and did a lot of other general weeding and clearing up.  As you’ll see the in the picture, watering in my garden is mostly done by gravity.  There is a canal system which brings water into the village and so long as I level the earth well enough I can just let the water run along the rows of plants!  This morning I managed to get lettuce, beetroot and onions planted, as well as carrots and parsnips sown and watered in – it’s slowly taking shape!

Earlier in the week on a visit to Bize Minervois I came across these charming sights.  Above the door you can just about see that something was once written there – could it have been CAVE? But what was the rest??  The street signs in Bize Minervois are all individually hand-made by a ceramicist and they look delightful!  Placette St Genies is the home of Les Remparts, and the picture with the wonderful irises and roses was taken in the garden of Le Figuier – both holiday homes for rent (a few weeks only remain at each for this season!)

On the way back to St Chinian I just had to stop to snap this for you.  It’s Valerian (Centranthus Ruber) in its red and white form.  Valerian seems to grow very well in our area, and right now forms great big patches of pink in areas.  When combined with the yellow broom it is simply stunning.  The poppies this year have put on a good show, but not quite as spectacular as the ones in Monet’s painting of the poppy field in Argenteuil, perhaps next year?

Last Sunday I stopped at Villespassans for their annual fete – a charming affair with a small brocante (flea market), some old cars and a number of stalls selling artisan made products and wine.  The field next to the old cars was home to hundreds of Pyramidal Orchid (Anacamptis Pyramidalis) and there was some cistus and broom blooming as well.  The birds were singing all around and the sun shone – what more could I possibly want?  The top of the bell tower in Villespassans always looked pretty interesting from afar.  But looking at the close-up I noticed a raft of aerials and last year’s Christmas decorations – ho hum…

A walk around St Chinian brought some more delights:  Yellow irises growing alongside a stream (there are masses along parts of the Canal du Midi),  a white climbing rose on a fence, a wild cherry beginning to ripen and some Spanish broom caught in the evening light.  May really is one of the best months to spend in Languedoc!!

The last picture in today’s post is a riddle – I wonder if anyone knows the name of this plant? It’s growing in a pot in my garden 🙂

Versatile Blogger Award

A few weeks ago I was nominated by Peri from Peri’s Spice Ladle for the Versatile Blogger Award – I was very surprised and deeply honored – THANK YOU Peri!!  Peri writes wonderfully about Indian food and I enjoy her blog a great deal!

The Rules of Acceptance:
Thank the person who gave you this award

  • Include a link to their blog
  • Next, select 15 blogs/bloggers that you’ve recently discovered or follow regularly (I’ll go for 10)
  • Nominate those 15 bloggers for the Versatile Blogger Award
  • Finally, tell the person who nominated you 7 things about yourself.
  • In the same post, include this set of rules.
  • Inform each nominated blogger of their nomination by posting a comment on each of their blogs.

I’d like to nominate the following blogs for the Versatile Blogger Award

Sky Hacienda
Cathy Bidini
The Craving Chronicles
Cooking in Sens
Five and Spice
Pholloyo
Frugal Feeding
Tasting Tales
Lula Harp
The Soulsby Farm

A day at the Fetes

Last weekend the fete season was in full swing, with a number of villages celebrating spring!  Prades sur Vernazobre had its annual Foire Artisanale de Printemps, celebrating the diversity which exists in the village, with the various nationalities representing their countries mostly through food.  I stopped at the British stall, where I met Jane from Restaurant Les Platanes in Poilhes, who had helped making some of the delicious treats on offer.  I took home some of the carrot and lemon cakes as well as a couple of their pasties, and all of it got eaten up very quickly – it was yummy.  I wonder what the French locals made of the cream teas and the pasties??  Other stalls were offering treats from La Reunion (very nice looking spicy food), Germany (pretzels, sausages & beer), Holland (more beer and sausages) and Maghreb (delicious pastries), and the local Comite de Fete, the organisers of the day, were offering oreillettes (crispy thin sheets of deep-fried pastry) and grilled sausages with fries.  Further up was a stand with mussels done the Catalan way.  In between were stalls selling a variety of handicrafts, plants, gifts and someone was offering magic.  The band (La Fanfare “Paradix”) in their pink shirts and white trousers played a terrific mix of jazz and the sun shone brightly – what more do you need??

The very same day Olargues was holding its annual Fete de la Brouette (wheelbarrow fete).  The town hall building glowed against the blue skies and the whole village was awash with people browsing the essentially plant based selection of stalls.  There were rare varieties of tomatoes, some beautiful roses and lots of other flowers, and even a local saffron grower, who reassured me when I asked why my little patch of six saffron bulbs had not flowered this spring  and the leaves were drying up.  Apparently that’s completely normal, they’ll flower in the fall!!

We decided to have lunch at the cafe/restaurant opposite the old station building at the end of the high street. A lovely terrace in the shade of old plane trees, and there was just one table available. It turned out to be a memorable meal, but unfortunately not for the right reasons. The kitchen could not cope with the volume of customers even though the food was fairly simple (salads, omelette, steak etc), the very friendly but inexperienced waitress got her orders mixed up and the wait seemed interminable, but we did get fed and it was great to see the world go by. Perhaps better to be tried on a day when they are not run off their feet!? One definite plus of sitting on the terrace was the view of the band Les Buffarels who came to play just across the road. This was a traditional band of wind instruments with two drums, and their speciality were the bagpipes. I’d never seen bagpipes like these;  here you can see that they are made from the skin of a lamb or small sheep, and they did sound pretty good.

If you approach Olargues from Tarrassac the first thing you see is the old railway bridge, spanning the valley. A sign below it proudly proclaims it as the Pont Eiffel, 1889 – a claim which is dismissed on Wikipedia. Last year the bridge, which now carries a walking and cycling path (La Piste Verte) across the valley was re-painted bright red.

On the way back from Olargues we stopped at Roquebrun to have a drink, and a rest from all the activity of the day, in the local cafe. Sitting once more in the shade of old plane trees, we watched the world and the few tourists go by, including a group of motorcyclists with some serious gear! I am always fascinated by the fading signs on some of the buildings around the area – this one hints that the building might have housed the post office and telephone exchange at some point in the distant past, perhaps in 1911?  Driving home to Saint Chinian there was a field of irises in full flower. I just couldn’t resist and had to take a few shots!

Spring is full of promises ….

very much a cliché but just look at the buds of this wisteria:  there really is promise in them, luxuriant flowers and a delicate scent, and the humming of bees. 

On Easter Monday I did something I’ve been meaning to do for a very long time:  visit the poplar forest at Cabezac during green-up time.  For years and years this forest has held a lot of visual appeal for me.  Driving from Carcassonne towards Cabezac you can see the outline from afar, the rows uponrows of trunks with the leaves hovering over them like clouds.  To me it looks best at springtime when the leaves are just about coming out and form a  green haze above the silvery trunks.  Easter Monday was definitely the day for it, bright blue skies and nobody about.  Bordered at one end by the D607 and the river Cesse at the other, the forest has been planted following a strict grid pattern (on the Google aerial view you can more or less count each tree). 

In some parts you can see how the wind shapes the trees – I did stand up straight and lined the camera up in that shot 🙂  Walking through the forest was magical, the cars were just a distant hum, but there was lots of birdsong.  At the river end, the edge was colonized by coronilla bushes, and the river banks were almost cliff like, as if someone had cut the earth with a huge knife.  It looked as though there might be some great swimming spots on the opposite bank! At the end of the walk, I thought I would clear what looked like a bit of mud off my shoes.  In the end it took a lot of scraping to get the soles cleaned, not from mud but from the husks that shield the buds on the trees.  As the leaves unfurl the husks drop to the ground and they are seriously sticky!!
On the way back to St Chinian I stopped at L’Appaloosa restaurant in Bize Minervois (home to Le Figuier and Les Remparts) for lunch.  Rachel and Jean-Marc are always very welcoming and friendly and their food is delicious.  Lunch was three courses, and we decided to have one each of the day’s specials to share.  Starters were a goats cheese salad with a pine nut and basil dressing, and an asian salad with prawns and mango and a sesame dressing.

For main course there was grilled chicken (very tender and juicy) served with vegetables and chunky fries (one of my vices!), and filet of dorade and prawns cooked in banana leaves and served with asian vegetables and sauce.  Both were very delicious and very different from one another.  I was so pleasantly replete that I could only manage a scoop of lime sorbet!

On the way home to Saint-Chinian there were a few more picture opportunities, including the fairly kitsch cherry blossom, the judas tree and a Banks rose.And for those who have read through all this, here is the picture which spring promised.  An amazing waterfall of wisteria!If any of this makes you want to visit St Chinian or the area please get in touch!