Fortified remains

A little while ago, I wrote about my visit to the local history museum in Puisserguier.  There’s a lot more to discover in this town, and today I’d like to take you on a visit of the castle, which is at the heart of the old village.

The origins of the chateau date back to the 11th century, when a fortified castle was built on a hillock.  At that time the people living on the plains were at the mercy of bands of marauders, and very soon a second fortification was built, encircling a small village.  Puisserguier became a circulade, a village built in the round.  Examples of such villages can still be seen in the area – Aigne is one such village which is in very good condition.

This link takes you to a map of Puisserguier.  The chateau is on Plan dals Cathars and the map gives you a good idea of how the village grew up around it.

Entrance to the chateau in Puisserguier

Entrance to the courtyard of the chateau in Puisserguier

The chateau became property of the French state during the French revolution, and was subsequently sold as several lots.  Doorways were created in the outside walls, and the inside was divided into a number of dwellings.

Outside wall of the chateau, with front doors to individual dwellings

When I first visited the chateau many years ago, the vagaries of time had not been kind to it!  Most of the courtyard inside the chateau was taken up by a block of garages, and the arches in the courtyard had been partly blocked up. It all looked in a pitiful state.  The fortunes of the chateau changed, when the municipality decided to claim back this part of local history, by buying up parts of the chateau as they came up for sale.

The garages in the courtyard were cleared away and the arches in the courtyard were opened up again.

Courtyard of the chateau, looking north

Chateau courtyard, looking south-west.

Some of the arrow slits are still visible on the inside the walls; the square holes in the wall would have been for wooden beams, and those beams would have supported walkways for the archers.

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If only some of those walls could tell their story!!  If you look carefully, you can decipher a little bit of the story:  the top of the wall was added later, probably in the 19th century.  As for the black patch at the bottom of the picture, your guess is as good as mine!

Old chateau wall, telling its story.

On the ground floor of the chateau, only one room is open to the public.  It is used for exhibitions, telling the history of the chateau.  This room was originally divided into two rooms, but the last owner decided to do some alterations!

Room on the ground floor of the chateau.

Room on the ground floor of the chateau.

Plans are afoot to restore parts of the chateau and to open more of it to the public.  As always, it will be a question of funding, but we live in hope!

On my way back to the car, I passed through another gateway, which was in the outer walls of the town.  Where once the walls might have been surrounded by a moat, today there is a car park.  Alongside the car park runs the D612 Beziers to Saint-Pons-de-Thomieres road, going straight through Saint-Chinian, to take me home!

Gateway in the old town walls

Remnants of town walls in Puisserguier

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History preserved

Just down the road from Saint-Chinian, on the way to Beziers, lies the village of Puisserguier.  Puisserguier is one of those villages which I have passed through countless times, always on the way to somewhere else. I’m sure you also know a few places like that?  BUT – Puisserguier has several attractions worth stopping for, and I am going to tell you about one of them in this post:  the Ecomusee de la vie d’autrefois.

An ecomuseum is the museographic name for a museum concept which deals with cultural heritage, both material, i.e. displays of objects, and immaterial, such as skills.

The ‘ecomuseum of life in bygone days’ is located in four rooms of an old schoolhouse and the adjacent school playground.  The subtitle of the ecomuseum in Puisserguier is Centre de Ressources des Memoires, the resource centre of memories.  The exhibition does exactly what the subtitle hints at, displaying over 300 objects which have been collected/donated by volunteers, and are arranged to give an idea of what life might have been like in a bygone age.

The displays are arranged by trades.  Here you have a selection of items which would have been sold and used in the epicerie, the grocery store:

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Every display has a “hook”, which provides a link to local history.  The photograph, which is tied into the grocery store display, shows a local shopkeeper in her shop.  Some of the exhibits have come from that very same shop!

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Here is the pharmacy:

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The mercerie has a great selection of items from a haberdasher’s shop:

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The coiffeur shows what a hairdressing salon would have looked like, along with the tools which were used to style and cut people’s hair.   Those wash basins don’t look too comfortable, do they??

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One of the rooms has been set up as a kind of reading room, where folders upon folders, containing all kinds of information, are waiting to be consulted.

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In the schoolroom next door, an exam, typical of those given autrefois was being administered – I was asked whether I wanted to give it a go, but I declined – I’m not sure that my French would have been up to it!

The displays continued outside, in what used to be the playground for the school.  A garage workshop had been set up under the cover of the old playground shelter:

With all the kids’ bikes lined up against the wall, it felt as though the schoolchildren might be sitting in their classrooms, ready to burst forth as soon as the bell was going to ring!

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A long, low building in the courtyard housed a great display of domestic paraphernalia.

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Inside, it was brimming over with “stuff” – there was so much to look at!!

Here is la toilette – from a time when most houses did not have bathrooms!  The bucket under the wash stand was for what used to be called “night soil”.  I leave you to work that one out! 🙂

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The kitchen corner had an amazing array of pots, pans, crocks and implements!


The fireplace, complete with family portraits and other everyday items, was the focus of the main room in every house, :

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Entertainment from a bygone era – definitely pre-digital!!

A well stocked linen closet, such as this one, would require a lot of work to keep everything looking good. The foot-powered sewing machine was a big improvement on hand-sewing, but laundry was usually done by hand!  How did they get the sheets to be so snowy-white??

The exhibition is completed by a large selection of tools used in the vineyards:

The ecomuseum in Puisserguier is open on Fridays from 10am to 12noon, and on Mondays from 3pm to 5.30pm, or by appointment.  Entry is free, so why not make a point of stopping in Puisserguier and see for yourself – I’m sure you’ll enjoy it too!

Open day at Chateau Milhau

Just a little over a year ago, I wrote about my visit to the Chateau de Seriege near Cruzy (read that post here).  This year, the tourist office of the Communaute de Communes Canal-Lirou Saint Chinianais organised another visit, connected to last year’s visit by a common theme:  Gustave Fayet.

Gustave Fayet was a rich art collector and artist, business man and patron of arts.  He had inherited great wealth from his parents, which he put to good use.

Our visit was to Chateau Milhau, near Puisserguier.  This estate had been passed to Gustave Fayet in 1893 by his father on the occasion of Gustave’s marriage to Madeleine d’Andoque de Seriege.  He moved to Milhau with his new wife, and immediately made a start on improving the vineyards and embellishing the buildings.  When his father died in 1899 Gustave and Madeleine moved to another of their newly inherited estates, and gave up living at Milhau.  After the death of Gustave Fayet in 1928, his son Leon Fayet sold the estate at Milhau.  The Maison de Maitre was abandoned in the 1970s and fell into total ruin.  In 2008 Norman and Diana Tutt, a couple from Britain, fell in love with the buildings.   Since then they have carried out a restoration project, using original materials wherever possible.  Our visit of the buildings was guided by Norman Tutt, who met us in the garden just outside the house.

We admired the facade with its terracotta decorations, sculpted by Louis Paul, an artist friend of Gustave Fayet.

A frieze of grape-and-vine-leaf relief tiles runs along the roof line.

The porch underneath the tower connected the courtyard behind the house with the garden in front.  On the wall was another terracotta relief, and below this relief would have been the front door into the Fayets’ private accommodation.

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We entered the house by a door from the courtyard, and ascended to the first floor.  When the Tutts had started restoration works, the building was a total ruin, with rotten floors and leaking roofs.  They did uncover a few traces of the former habitants: here and there, patches of old wallpaper had escaped the ravages of time and could be preserved, either in situ or as part of a collage:

Some of the wallpapers were made by the French firm Zuber, which is still producing high quality wallpapers today.  I was totally charmed by some of the details of the restoration, such as these porcelain light switches, produced by Fontini.

We continued to what is today Norman and Diana Tutt’s library:

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The French doors overlook the garden, and open onto a little balcony.  At one time a grand double staircase would have led down to the garden from where the balcony is today.  The spiral staircase in the left hand corner leads up to what had been Gustave Fayet’s atelier.  Before his time, that part of the tower had housed a clock mechanism.  Gustave Fayet had larger windows installed, and used the room to paint.

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Here is a picture which Gabriel Fayet, Gustave’s father, painted of Chateau Milhau – you can see the clock still in place, as well as the grand staircase leading from the first floor down to the garden.P1140916

 

Gustave Fayet painted these watercolours, which were later used as motifs for carpets:

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The views from the house are spectacular.  On a clear day one can see as far as the sea!  This is Domaine La Bouscade, the closest neighbour:

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The spiral staircase is very similar to the one in the dining room at Cafe de la Paix in St Chinian.

I ended my visit with a little walk.  Here are some views of the garden:

The chapel was built by Gustave and Madeleine Fayet:

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The enormous wine cellars were enlarged by Gustave Fayet’s father in 1875:

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If you are interested in finding out more about Gustave Fayet, there’s a very good book, which is available from the tourist office in Capestang, entitled “Gustave Fayet, chateaux, vignobles et mecenat en Languedoc”.  The book is also available on the Midihideaways Bookshop (Amazon) under the heading “Books by Local Authors”.

You can also visit the Musee Fayet in Beziers, a former residence of Gustave Fayet and his family, as well as the Abbaye de Fontfroide near Narbonne, which still belongs to Gustave Fayet’s descendants.  I’ll visit both with/for you before too long!

Green gold, a brief story of olive oil (and olives)

At the start of the first post of the new year, I would like to wish you all a happy, healthy and prosperous 2013!!

While writing this post I’ve been wondering why olive oil is called green gold or liquid gold.  Perhaps because of its colour, or because of its virtues?  I cannot imagine cooking without olive oil, and although I use other oils in cooking, the bulk of what I use is made from olives.  Perhaps you’re asking yourself “why is he writing about olives now?”; the reason is that we’re in the middle of olive oil production season in Languedoc.  Olive trees flower from mid may to early june, and the flowers are wind-pollinated.  That means that the pollinators have to be planted in just the right position within the olive grove, so that the prevailing wind blows the pollen onto the flowers.

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About 5% of the flowers turn into olives, and they grow and swell throughout the summer.  From September onwards green olives can be picked and be turned into table olives.

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As time progresses the olives ripen and change colour, from violet to purple to a deep black.

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At any of those stages they can be turned into table olives, but for oil only the ripe olives are used as the oil content increases during the ripening phase, The olive harvest continues until the end of January, by which time most of the trees will have been emptied, and what’s left will be eaten by the birds.

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I have two olive mills in easy reach.  The smaller is in Puisserguier and called Lo Moulinet (Occitan for small mill), and the larger is in Cabezac, near Bize Minervois and called L’Oulibo. Both can be visited for tasting and they sell direct to the public.  If you compare the two, Lo Moulinet is David and L’Oulibo is Goliath, but that’s just for size, I cannot detect any antagonism between the two. The two operations are on very different scales from one another, and where Lo Moulinet has a small production of oils and table olives, L’Oulibo is a large cooperative of over 1700 growers in three departements.

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To pick olives for turning into olive oil big nets are spread out underneath the trees, and the olives are then “raked” off the trees using either specially adapted rakes or vibrating beaters.  The nets are then gathered up and the olives put into crates and off they go to the mill.

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As they arrive at the mill, the crates are weighed, assessed and recorded, and then the olives are processed.  First a machine takes out any leaves and other debris,  then they are washed to remove any dust and dirt, and finally they reach the mill proper.

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At L’Oulibo they have a giant stone mill with two mill stones weighing 1.5 tonnes each.  During the Christmas open days (this year December 22 to January 4) the stone mill is used to crush the olives (including pits) to a pulp.

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At other times a modern hammer mill is used for that purpose.  The pits contain enzymes which help with the conservation of the oil.  The paste is then put in a special mixer, where it is gently warmed (below 27 centigrade) and mixed for 30 to 40 minutes to prepare for the oil extraction.  Pressing is done in a continuous process in a horizontal centrifugal press at L’Oulibo, and in some places (such as Lo Moulinet) using a traditional press, where the paste is spread on discs which are stacked and hydraulically pressed.  The resulting liquid contains both water and oil, and is processed by a separator, which produces a lovely golden oil.

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This oil can now be filtered or left to settle and afterwards decanted – both methods produce beautifully clear and sparkling extra virgin oil.

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Both of the mills produce varietal oils, using the traditional olive varieties of the region:  Lucques, Picholine, Bouteillan (both), Olivier’s and Aglandau (L’Oulibo only).  The flavours vary greatly from one oil to the other, some being smooth and buttery and others spicy and peppery.  Go and taste, you’ll be surprised just how much difference there is!

The picking of green table olives has to be done carefully and by hand to avoid bruising the fruit – any bruises will turn black and unsightly.  Have you ever bitten into an olive straight from the tree?  No?  Well, you’ll never taste anything as bitter and horrid again – one of the compounds responsible for that taste is called oleuropein.  In order to remove the bitter taste green olives are processed most commonly using lye, which is then soaked out again using several changes of water.  Producing top quality table olives is a skill, and the commercial producers guard their recipes jealously.  Once the olives had the bitterness removed they are brined, and in some cases flavoured and sterilised. At L’Oulibo the new harvest Lucques olives are sold having only undergone flash pasteurisation – a real treat!  These olives are a bright green and crunchy with an incomparable flavour!  I’m almost 100%  certain that you’ll like them!  Black table olives are easier to process as the bitterness has reduced during the ripening process.  Most of the time they are simply salted to remove the bitter compounds, then packed in brine or oil, flavoured or not.  If you’ve not already visited either L’Oulibo or Lo Moulinet, you should definitely add them to your list of places to visit for your next holiday in Languedoc!

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