Not’s Pots

You may have read the post about my visit to Castelnaudary a couple of weeks ago – if not, you can find it here.  One of the friends who came to Castelnaudary with me is a potter.  For years I had been wanting to visit a rather mythical pottery not far from Castelnaudary, so that day was the day!!  After our lovely lunch, we left Castelnaudary in the direction of Mas-Saintes-Puelles, a small village west of Castelnaudary.  We crossed over the Canal du Midi, then we crossed under the A61 motorway, and finally we arrived in Mas-Saintes Puelles.  We had come to visit Poterie Not Freres, but except for the village I had no address.  The pottery is rather well-known: as we arrived in the village we saw a signpost for the pottery, followed by a second one a little further down the road.  The signs put us on a road which left the village, and went, seemingly, into the middle of nowhere.  We crossed under the motorway again, and then over some railway tracks.  Our excitement grew when we spotted a fairly squat and sturdy brick chimney in the distance – we were on the right road after all!!  Finally we arrived at Poterie Not Freres!  The pottery is right by the Canal du Midi and very close to a lock.

Our arrival was not long after the end of the lunch break, and except for one other couple we were the only ones there.  To step inside the workshop was to step back in time – a time when there were no plastic containers or non-stick pans, and when people would use their pottery dishes every day.

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Behind that open door lies a room which is dominated by the enormous wood fired kiln, which has a capacity of 40 cubic metres!  Just that morning, the kiln had been emptied, after cooling down for three weeks.  It would have been wonderful to see all the pots being taken out!  In the picture below you can just see the doorway into the kiln and the hood, hanging down in the centre of the pictures, is above the fire pit.

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All around us, pots were stacked up to dry.

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These were all garden pots, more or less ready to be loaded into the kiln for the last firing before the summer.  It takes great skill to load such a wood fired kiln – a large part of the success of the entire operation depends on it.  The kiln is fired for 36 hours using only wood, to reach a temperature of over 1000 degrees.  The fire-box is then walled up and the kiln left to cool.  Here is what the pots look like once they are finished:

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The garden pots only form a small part of the output though. All in all, the pottery produces around 500 different models of pots, and 80% of the production consists of cassoles, the traditional dish in which cassoulet is cooked, and from which the name cassoulet derives.  Here’s a look at some of the wares for sale:

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The finished garden pots are impressively stacked outside.  The visitor season had not yet started at the time of our visit, so the pots were stacked high.  By the end of the summer most of the pots will have been sold.

I was particularly intrigued by this pot, which had holes in it and a lid on top.  It took a little while before the penny dropped.

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It’s a snail pot!  Of course, the snail on it was a give-away! 🙂  The snails are collected and put in the pot.  The lid stops the snails from escaping and they have air while they purge, before being cooked.  They are supposed to be delicious…

Back inside there were pots everywhere.  In a corner were some old-fashioned money boxes, the kind which have to be smashed to get at the stash!  I like that idea!! 😉

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Eventually we got to the workroom with the potters’ wheels, where the action was just about to begin.  The pottery by the Canal du Midi at Mas-Saintes-Puelles was started by the Perrutel family in the 19th century.  In 1947 Emile Not took over the pottery in partnership with his brother-in-law, Francois Gleizes.  Emile Not’s two sons started to work in the pottery when they were old enough, and today the third generation is also working at the wheels.  The work area has changed very little over time.  There are four wheels, each with a window in front of it.

Clay is brought in on a sack cart – each block weighing 20 kilos.  With the help of a wire, the block is sliced into smaller pieces, and then the clay is turned on the wheel into whatever shape the potter is making.  I took a few videos for you to watch – probably easier than trying to explain the process (e-mail subscribers, please visit the website to view the videos):

I have also found two videos in French, which give a good idea of the whole manufacturing process.  The second video shows the firing of the large wood fired kiln:

The big kiln is used almost exclusively for the garden pots; for the other items there are two gas fired kilns, which are fired on alternate days.  This is hard, physical work, and whilst some of the work is the same day in day out, no two pots are ever identical.

The clay is prepared in the yard behind the workshops.  The fact that there is a clay seam just outside the door, must have determined the location of the pottery.  The clay extracted here is of a beige colour;  a red clay is extracted at another quarry at Issels, not far away.  The clay is left to dry on a concrete slab in the yard, and once dry it is broken up with steel rollers. before being milled to a fine powder.  The clay powder is then mixed in various proportions with grog, depending on what kind of pots are being made.

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This basic clay mix is then put into a machine which is definitely from the early 20th century.

Great big teeth work away at the clay inside the machine, mixing and kneading it, to make it supple and pliable.  Great big lumps of it drop from the mixer into the next machine, a pug mill, which compacts the clay and removes as much air as possible.  The pug mill extrudes the clay in a long block, which is then cut with a wire cutter.  The resulting 20 kilo blocks are loaded into a wheelbarrow and transported to the store-room next door.  This process happens every other day, and thousands of kilos of clay are prepared this way each year.  Here are two more videos for you:

The pottery produced by Poterie Not Freres has a very honest, down-to-earth feel to it.  There is nothing fancy whatsoever about the pots.  You could call it rustic, coarse or even crude, but it has a goodness that will improve with use and age.  I was tempted by many things, but in the end I came away with a small, round, yellow gratin dish, which is delightful to use.

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I leave you with the opening times of the pottery.  You should visit this place if you have even the slightest interest in potteryl!  Be warned though, it is very tempting to come away with more than you can take home :)!!

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Monday in Mirepoix

Monday morning is when the weekly market takes place in Mirepoix!  I’d been to Mirepoix once before, many years ago, when a friend wanted to show me a particularly interesting church, Notre-Dame-de-Vals, which is not far from Mirepoix.  The interesting thing about the church is that it is partly built into the rock, which makes for a spectacular interior.  After visiting the church, we stopped in Mirepoix for a coffee, before heading home again.  On that first visit I was captivated by Mirepoix and its meandering arcades, and I vowed that I would return one day!

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The town of Mirepoix is in the Ariege, an area where Catharism was well established in the Middle Ages. Of course Simon de Montfort, the well known crusader, laid siege to the town and took it in 1209, presumably killing all the Cathar heretics in the process.  In 1289, when the area had probably recovered from the violent crusade against the Cathars, Mirepoix was completely destroyed by flooding.  The town was immediately rebuilt in its present location, across the river from where it had been.

The prevailing style of town architecture, at the time of the rebuilding, was that of the Bastide, a fortified town with the streets laid out in a grid pattern, and with a central market square surrounded by arcades (couverts).  In Mirepoix there is a Grand Couvert  and a Petit Couvert, the second being somewhat smaller than the first, as implied by the name.

Street sign in Mirepoix

Street sign in Mirepoix

At some point Mirepoix outgrew the old fortifications, and the walls and moats disappeared.  Most of the houses in the old centre of town are timber-framed buildings, and some of them are spectacular.

When you look closely at the timbers, you can see that some of them were sculpted.

You’ll also be able to notice that the wood has been around some time – it’s amazing to think that these buildings have stood for hundreds of years!!

The market in Mirepoix was somewhat different to the market in St Chinian.  One of the first stalls I came to sold live chickens!!  I have not seen that in St Chinian for a very long time!!

The old-fashioned knife grinder would be wonderful to have in “our” market – there would be no more excuses for blunt kitchen knives!!

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There were colourful baskets and wonderful plants, fresh vegetables and dried fruit, cheese and sausages, teas, bread, clothes, housewares – you name it…

There was also a small stand selling beautiful pottery:

Just as I got to that stand, I saw two beautiful goblets being wrapped up.  They had been bought by the lady who had gotten to the stall before me.  She saw me eying the goblets with some jealousy/regret, and noticing my disappointment, suggested that I should visit the potter’s workshop, where he would have a lot more stock.  She told me that it was only ten minutes from Mirepoix by car, and assured me that it would be well worth the drive.  One of the friends who had accompanied me to Mirepoix is a potter herself, so we needed little convincing.  We arranged to come by the workshop in the afternoon, and in the process got a recommendation for a restaurant where we could have lunch.

There was still a little time before noon, so we continued to explore Mirepoix.  The Cafe Castignolles seemed to be a popular meeting place, and it boasts a painted ceiling outside:

The former cathedral has an incredibly wide nave, but is very dark, despite a fair number of windows.

Of course I couldn’t resist the door knockers:

And I came across a interesting looking second-hand shop which had the most wonderful tiled floors:

On the way to the restaurant I came across La Fromagerie Chez Lucie, a charming little cheese store on Rue Colonel Petitpied (yes, he really was called smallfoot!!).  The shop was very small, but the selection of cheeses comprehensive and irresistible.  If you go to Mirepoix you should make a point of trying the vieux comte, Chez Lucie!

Since we were not far from our car, we deposited all our shopping, and headed back to the Grand Couvert and the Bar Restaurant Le Cantegril, which had been recommended by the potter.

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The lunchtime three course menu was priced at 15 EUR, and the next menu was at 18.50 EUR, also for three courses.  Both offered good value for money.  Here’s what we started our meal with:  Terrine Maison (home-made pate), Piquillos Fracis (stuffed sweet peppers), Potage du Jour (butternut squash soup), Entree du Jour (gratinated seafood):

For main course we enjoyed cassoulet, grilled duck breast, fried fish and sausages with lentils:

None of us wanted cheese, so we went straight on to dessert:  a cafe gourmand, a crispy wafer filled with raspberry cream, and a rice pudding with salted butter caramel:

What a delicious meal!!

Thoroughly sated, we walked around Mirepoix a little more on our way back to the car, and snapped a few more pictures.  Cafe Llobet is my idea of what a typical French Cafe should look like from the outside: 🙂

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I’m not sure why the cow stood where it did – was there perhaps a cheese shop in the arcades?

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Just before reaching the car we saw what looked a little like a haunted house:

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And right at the top of the facade something seemed to move.

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Maybe we’d imagined it, perhaps it was just a pigeon – but wait

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I’m sure it moved again!  Yes, it definitely did!

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The head of it definitely moved, at random intervals.  I would imagine that it is a device designed to scare off the pigeons, but they didn’t take too much notice of it 🙂

Once we got to the car we set off on our short journey to Rieucros, where Jean Napolier was waiting for us at his pottery Le Gres du Vent.  The workshop and shop were just across from the post office, so we had no trouble finding them.  Jean showed us his workshop, where he works with his wife, Francoise Louste.  He explained the techniques he uses, and the materials (stoneware clay and porcelain clay), and covered a fair bit of technical detail with my potter friend.  I just stood by and marvelled!

Afterwards we visited the shop:

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It doesn’t look like much from the outside, but inside it was an wwwAladdin’s cave of beautiful pottery.  Because of space limitations, only so much could be displayed in the shop, but seeing our enthusiasm, Jean allowed us the run of his store-room !  I was too preoccupied with looking at everything, so didn’t photograph any of the pots.  You will just have to visit Rieucros and look for yourself!!  Le Gres du Vent is on Place de la Poste in 09500 Rieucros.  Do call ahead on 05 61 68 73 51 to make sure Jean and/or Francoise will be there.

Potting away

After I visited Saint-Guilhem-le-Desert last fall, I stopped off in the village of Saint-Jean-de-Fos – it was on my way home, so how could I not! 🙂

Saint-Jean-de-Fos has been famous for its pottery workshops since the Middle Ages.  In days gone past, these workshops produced a huge range of everyday items for use inside and outside the home.  Think of items we take for granted today, such as cooking pots and pans.  Until not that long ago, a lot of people in France used terracotta cooking vessels, just as people in parts of India and Africa still do to this day.  Clay is very versatile, and objects were cheap and easy to produce.

In recent years the production of pottery in Saint-Jean-de-Fos has been revived, and one of the former factories has beentransformed into a museum, aptly named Argileum, “argile” being the French word for clay.

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The part of the building with the rusted exterior/roof is the new addition to the old factory, and it houses the visitors centre and reception area, as well as a gallery.  Looking at the main picture above I feel as though the building could be somewhere in Colorado or New Mexico…

The visit of the museum starts in a gallery which was added to the old building.  Just outside the door into the gallery is an installation of sculptures, which sit on a bed of broken terracotta.

The display in the gallery charts the history of this particular factory, as well as the history of ceramics production in the village.

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Here are some examples of items produced in Saint-Jean-de-Fos:

Pitchers, jars, jugs, bowls, plumbing pipes, roof tiles, sugar-loaf moulds, roof decorations, strainers…  There’s much more on display in the gallery than I am showing you in my pictures!

Here is a model of the old factory – the new additions are not shown.  The red dot (if you enlarge the picture) marks the location of the model in the gallery building, which was added to the old factory.

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Also in the gallery are cuttings from a clay pit – this is what clay looks like when it is extracted from the ground:

The first room in the old factory is the throwing room, where the lumps of clay would be turned into pots and other objects – not by throwing the clay around, but by throwing it on a wheel. 😀

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The wheel shown here is a “kick wheel” so-called because the potter kicks the weight at the bottom to turn it.  In this room there was also a video explaining how clay is prepared: once it is dug from the ground it is mixed with water, then sieved to remove impurities such as stones.  The sieved liquid was then left to settle and dry in large basins outside.  You can see the basins on the model above.

When the clay was the right texture it was cut into squares, and the squares stacked inside and left to mature.  Heavy work!!

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In the yard outside, where the basins were located, an exhibition of Raku pottery had been installed.

Raku is a particular technique of firing, where the red-hot objects are pulled from the kiln and put into sawdust, which results in the black surfaces.

Back inside the museum we came to the drying room, where the pots would be left to dry before being fired.  A video in this room explained the decoration particular to pots from Saint-Jean-de-Fos, where different oxides are applied to the clay before being glazed.

The final room was where the big kiln was located – an important part of every pottery!  In days gone by, pottery kilns were always wood fired.  Modern factory kilns can be gas or oil-fired, or powered by electricity.  Some potters still use wood, and the results from a wood fired kiln are very different from what is fired in other kilns.  In the picture below you see the upper level of the kiln, where the pots were stacked.  The hole would be walled up for each firing, and the wood was burned in a chamber beneath.

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If you want to know how an artisan pottery such as this would work in modern days, here is a video for you.  The workshops of the Not brothers are located close to Castelnaudary, and I will get there one of these days!

After the visit to the museum I wanted to see some of the modern-day potters and their wares.  The village itself is very nice for a stroll: narrow roads, squares, fountains…

… and then there were the shops 🙂 – very tempting and subversive to ever-diminishing cupboard space!!

If you visit St Guilhelm le Desert, be sure to leave some time to stop off at Saint-Jean-de-Fos, especially if you enjoy pottery!!

Lazy Sunday afternoon

Looking for a little diversion, one Sunday afternoon, I found myself at the Marche des Potiers, the potters’ market, in Saint Pons. The drive across the mountains was, as always, beautiful, the weather sunny and warm, and on arrival in Saint Pons I found a perfect parking spot – what could be better!!?? 🙂

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The market had been set up on the Place du Forail, in the shade of the plane trees.  The first stand which I came to had enormous jars and vases for sale.

The tallest of these pots came up to my collarbone!!  I wondered what the marks on the inside of the pots were from – you can see them well on the light green pot.  A nearby sign gave me a clue:

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They were in fact formed over a core made from rope!!  Here’s another example where you can see the marks of the rope particularly well!  And the wooden disks are part of the framework, around which the rope is coiled to make up the core.  Unfortunately I was too late for the demonstration of the entire technique.  Next time I’ll know to get there earlier!

On my way around the market I saw many beautiful objects – and I was sorely tempted at almost every stand!!

There was a great cross-section of techniques and styles, from simple earthenware to porcelain, from works fired in an electric kiln to works fired in a wood-fired kiln, from regular tableware to very artistic pieces.

After a leisurely walk around the market I made up my mind to buy something from two stalls – any more would have been subversive of my cupboard space :)!

Fanette Castelbou’s stand caught my eye because of the shapes and colours of her pottery.

There was something about the surface texture which made me want to pick up all the pieces and feel them.  They were beautiful to touch and to hold, and surprisingly light in weight.  I bought two of the larger mugs, the ones right in the centre, with the vertical stripes.  Fanette’s atelier is called Aux Grès de Fanette and on her website you can find pictures of many of her pots.

The other potter, who I had hoped would be there, is called Fernando Gonzalez Urrejola, of Poterie de la Flayssière.  I met Fernando some years ago, at the Saint Pons pottery market, and at that time I bought some beautiful bowls for my early morning tea from him.  Unfortunately, one of the bowls got broken, so I was very pleased to be able to replace it!!  Like Fanette, Fernando works mainly with stoneware clay, but his shapes and glazes are totally different.  You’ll get a good idea of his work by visiting his website, or better still, his workshop!

So there you have it – my pottery fix for this summer :)!!

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There are pottery markets all over France, almost throughout the year.  You can find out more about dates and locations on the website of the National Collective of Ceramists.

To round off the day, I met up for drinks and tapas with a group of friends in the village of Assignan.  In early July a wine and tapas bar, La Petite Table de Castigno had opened in this sleepy village, and I was pleased to be able to try it out!

The centre of Assignan has had a complete makeover this past spring, with the roads all being paved with limestone blocks.  Where there had only been cars parked before, there are now trees, tables and sun umbrellas.

The food was imaginative and tasty, the wine nicely chilled, and the atmosphere was fun!

Everything at the wine bar has been carefully designed and styled – all the colours are based on shades of wine!  Even the toilets are amazing!

The wine bar is open every day except Wednesday from 11:30 to 15:00 and from 18:00 to 21:30.  It’s best to book as space is limited:  +33 763 265 517.

Oh, and when you go, tell them you saw them mentioned on my blog! 🙂

Going potty

For two days in August the village of Salleles d’Aude hosts a potters’ market, with potters from near and far exhibiting their wares.  The range is wide, from everyday traditional dishes to very artistic creations and everything in between.  The market always takes place on the 14th and 15th of August, and I can always find yet another piece to buy; this year I purchased a couple of bowls, perfect for serving nibbles in!

One of the highlights of the market for me is the demonstration of how a potter would have made pots in Roman times – not all that easy I imagine!

The reason for the demonstration is that just outside the village is Amphoralis, a museum dedicated to the Roman pottery village which once existed there.  Excavations of the site started in 1976, and over the years the archaeologists have discovered what was one of the largest sites in France for the production of pottery during the 1st to 3rd centuries AD.  After 17 years of excavations a total of 17 kilns had been discovered, as well as the sites of various workshops, houses, clay pits, wells etc. To make all the finds accessible to the larger public a museum was built on part of the site, and opened in 1992.  The design is reminiscent of a butterfly with outstretched wings.  The central body contains exhibition space, offices and workshops, and the wings float over the site, protecting the exposed  artifacts from the elements, whilst walkways above the excavations allow visitors to look directly down.  All very clever!

The visit of the museum starts with a film which explains the history of the site in Roman and modern times.  The film also showcases an exciting experiment which started about 10 years ago:  the reconstruction of one of the kilns on the site, with the aim of firing pottery as the Roman potters would have. Over the years the kiln has been used a good few times, firing a range of items such as roof tiles, pots, jugs, bricks and more.  Some of the items such as bowls, jugs and oil lamps can be bought at the museum, others such as the roof tiles and bricks are being used in the reconstruction of buildings on the site.

After you’ve completed your visit of the museum, you can walk around the rest of the site.  Wander along the marked route and see where some of the clay came from, remains of the aqueduct which supplied the village with water, until you come to first of the reconstructed buildings, which houses a bread oven (seemingly used regularly).  The building next door shelters two replicas of smaller kilns.

The larger building a little further on is the workshop and also shelters the large kiln.  On the day I visited, someone was showing how bricks were made, with the help of a form.  First the inside of the frame is wiped with a damp sponge, and then dusted with wood ash, to help release the clay.  The form is then placed on a board, also dusted with wood ash (from kiln firings), and then the soft clay is thrown in, to ensure that there are no air pockets.  Bit by bit the form fills up and then a wooden stick is used to scrape off of the excess and to level the brick.  The form is then lifted carefully, tapped a little on its side, and the finished brick slid on to a little board and set aside to dry.  Drying takes several days and the bricks have to be turned regularly during the process.

   
   

The path leads on to the next building, a reconstruction of a building where the potters might have lived: a beautifully made, wood-framed barn of a building, with a thatched roof.  The walls are filled in with a variety of materials: partly woven with twigs and covered with earth/clay, partly filled in with bricks.  Inside, at one end of the building is a reconstruction of what the living quarters might have looked like – sparse!

The visit continues past the potters’ garden – a somewhat overgrown maze of beds growing plants which would have been known to the Romans.  By then the the skies were turning very dark and threatening – the famous orage du quinze aout was looming – so I didn’t linger, and once back in the car the heavens opened.  Time for a little reflection on what life must have been like 2000 years ago…