Saved in the nut of time

Some of you received this post as a completely blank message a few weeks ago – my apologies for not getting to grips with the new WordPress dashboard !! 🙂

The title refers to the Fete de la Chataigne, the chestnut festival, in St Pons which has been taking place every October for many, many years.  A few months ago, when I enquired for the exact date with the tourist office, I was told that there would be no chestnut festival this year, that it had been cancelled.  I was completely speechless – those of you who know me can attest that that’s not something which happens often! 😀  How could one of the biggest autumn festivals in the area be cancelled?

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A little digging on the grapevine revealed some possible reasons.  During the municipal elections earlier in the year, the voters of St Pons had elected a new mayor.  It appears that some of the organisers of the festival had been on the losing ticket, and felt personally slighted during the electoral campaign.  They decided not to continue with the organising of the festival, and hence the information was put out that there was to be no Fete de la Chataigne this year.

Back in August I spoke with one of the traders who is a regular at the fete, and he was devastated at the prospect, as the fete is an important fixture in his sales calendar.  I imagine that for many of the clubs and associations in St Pons, such as the parent-teacher association and the rugby club, the fete is their main fundraiser of the year, and a cancellation would leave a fairly noticeable hole in their budgets.

As the time of the fete drew nearer, I checked again with the tourist office, and this time the answer was different – the fete would be taking place after all, on the last weekend of October, as before.  Yippee!!! 😀  Apparently the new mayor and his council had mobilised as many of the local associations and clubs as they could, to help make sure that this year’s fete would be as good as ever.

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I visited the fete on the Saturday, as it’s usually the less frequented day of the weekend.  The weather was glorious, sunny and warm, in total contrast to the previous year – see the article here – when the weather was grey and drizzly.  I was joined by a few friends, and we got there early AND bagged a parking space not too far away 🙂 !!

The very first stall we came to looked interesting: a food truck, offering a variety of chestnut themed food.  We decided to earmark that for our lunch, on our way back from exploring the fete!

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The selection of stalls at the fete was eclectic and wonderful, as always!  No changes there!!

From cheese to vanilla, via saffron, garlic, and sausages, from balloons to baby boots, and everything beyond – it was all there, and wonderful to see, smell, taste and buy!

In the big square the chestnuts were being roasted in enormous steel drums as always, with the wood for the fire piled up high.

Here, would you like to try one?  Careful, don’t burn yourself, they are quite hot!!

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There was so much tasty looking food, tempting us to stop for lunch, such as the aligot below (potato puree with fresh cow’s cheese), but we held onto our resolution to try the food truck.

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The nougat was looking luscious, and I know that my sister-in-law will be none too happy that I did not buy any for her…

The basket-weaver from last year was there too, with more beautiful offerings!

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And of course there were chestnuts for sale, either fresh for roasting, or dried, as flour, in syrup, in jars already cooked and peeled, or …  Seems that there is quite a lot you can do with chestnuts 😀

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We did eventually head back towards the car, and “our” food truck for lunch.  The sign said Chez Tina, and the menu had been specially planned for the chestnut festival: small pizzas with bacon, caramelised onions, chestnut pieces, cheese, and chestnut honey; chestnut soup; chestnut gnocchi.  There was also pannacotta with chestnut honey caramel, and a chestnut cake, to follow our main course.  As we stood admiring the inside of the van, and deciding what to order, we noticed a sticker saying “Taos” on the counter.  So we asked Tina whether she’d visited there, and it turned out that she’s actually a native of Taos, New Mexico, who has lived in France for some time.  Her French was very good.  I would have never imagined her to be from the other side of the Atlantic ocean!  We had a good chat and a few laughs.  Here’s Tina preparing our pizzas in her wood-fired oven.

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We decided to have some chestnut soup followed by pizza – since chestnut soup can be a little rich we shared two portions between the four of us.

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But we each had our own pizza!!
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Of course we couldn’t resist dessert – and somehow I managed to miss taking pictures of the pannacotta, and the chestnut cake, with the chestnut honey caramel.  How greedy of me!  All the food was totally delicious, and we were all so glad we had waited with our lunch!!  Tina is a regular in St Pons with her food truck, and you can find out more via her website.  I can tell you she was planning to take some time off during the winter, but I am looking forward to seeing her again before too long!

So it looks as though the future of the Fete de la Chataigne is in good hands and will continue to attract lots of visitors to St Pons each October. The only thing missing was the amateur dramatics piece, which is usually presented on a stage across the river, below the tourist office…  Perhaps next year??

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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! 🙂

Wildflowers aplenty

A couple of Sundays ago, friends invited me to join them for a walk in Saint Pons de Thomieres.  It was to be a little adventure, followed by a picnic, and since the weather was hot we decided to leave early in the morning.  We were going to attempt part of the walk which loops around Le Lauzet, as on the map below.  You can find maps like this on http://www.geoportail.gouv.fr – it’s a great site for exploring the area in detail!

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We parked the car in the car park in front of the Cathedral in St Pons – if you want to find out a little more about the church have a look here and here.

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From the car park we walked along the narrow back roads, until we came to Rue du Truquet, and that’s where the climbing started!  Soon we took a turning onto Chemin du Coustou, looking back every so often to admire the view as we climbed higher and higher.

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Chemin du Coustou is fairly steep, so onwards and upwards we went.  Once we were past the last house, the road turned into a track, and we started to see the most wonderful wildflowers.

You can see how the view of the town was changing as we climbed ever higher up the mountainside.

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We passed some impressive stone walls, patinated by time, and looking as though they had been there forever.

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And still more wildflowers to be discovered!

The track turned into a path and vegetation drew closer, but it looked well-trodden, so we carried on.

We were all very excited when we found this orchid!

Its name is Himantoglossum Hircinum, or the Lizard Orchid – most impressive!!

The flowers we saw after that paled a little by comparison 🙂

But then we happened on a small meadow, completely covered in white flowers – what a stunning sight!!  You can just make out the path!!

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We were still climbing, and at the same time discovering new flowers!

St Pons became ever more distant as we neared the top of the mountain!  The views were glorious, and we could hear the church bells ringing down below, calling the faithful to mass!  There is a video below (e-mail subscribers, please visit the webpage to view the video), to give you an idea of how wonderful it was.  Make sure you turn up the volume! 🙂

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As we were getting closer to the top we realised that we had been on the wrong track for some time – we’d suspected as much – and now the track disappeared altogether!!  But we found ever more wildflowers, including a Cephalanthera rubra orchid!!

After we scrambled across some woodland, and walked past several patches of earth which had been newly dug up by some wild boar (we kept looking out for them in all directions), we finally reached the regular path again, and soon found ourselves with the most beautiful panorama laid out in front of us.

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The vegetation on the top of the mountain seemed to be somewhat different to what we had encountered further down, and we saw many plants and flowers we had not come across on our climb.

This bee was having fun on one of the cistus flowers – it seemed to be almost drunk on nectar!  There’s a very brief clip of it after the photograph.

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We were now at a spot used by the hunters during the hunting season, and there was a small shelter, with a makeshift table and a few chairs.  Perfect for a brief rest and a drink of water.  A little bug decided to pay me a visit – he really was tiny, but such a wonderful verdigris colour!

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We were now on the path which is marked on the map (see top of the post), and found ourselves very close to the marble quarry.  So we took a little detour, for a quick peek – but only a very quick peek, since it is really closed to the public!!  The piece of marble on the signpost was a hint, I guess, that we were walking on a marble mountain!

The path led us through a bit of woodland – most beautifully dappled with shade.

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And still there were new flowers to discover!!

Just before we got to the quarry we passed this butterfly sitting on a flower.  He was not at all shy and, to my surprise, stayed on the flower as we walked by.

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Melitaea cinxia (Glanville Fritillary) on Scabius

On the way back he was still in the same spot – highly unusual I thought, so decided to take a closer look.  It turned out that he’d fallen prey to a spider, who had perfectly camouflaged itself by imitating the colour of the flower.  Look closely at the pictures and I think you’ll see!  What cruel fate for the poor butterfly!

Heading back to St Pons, we were watching out for the yellow markings which are painted on trees and stones along the path, to keep us on the right track!

The town soon came into view, but seen from a totally different angle than when we had started our climb.

Another couple of flowers…

… and we were back in town!  On the way down we realised where we went wrong – and how wonderful it was that we missed that turning to the right.  We’d have never seen all those wonderful views and wildflowers!!

And just to finish, here are some quirky images of St Pons, taken on our way back to the car.

Thank you, Pam and David, for sharing this beautiful walk!!  And the picnic?  We had that once we got back to St Chinian, in my potager, sitting below the wisteria. 🙂

Three little piggies…..

What a difference a week makes!  As I am writing this (Sunday March 3) the weather couldn’t be more different to what I experienced last Sunday in St Pons!  An arctic wind, blasting the falling snow horizontally at the Fete du Cochon, chilling me to the bone.  I’d decided to go come what may, so that I could write about it, and I’m very glad “you” made me go :-)!

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The fete has been going for some 20 years, and this year the organisers had wisely commandeered the covered bouledrome for the market and the show.   It had been billed as a pig fest and truffle market, and it lived up to both.  I’ll spare you the truffles, you’ve already read about them no doubt.  Suffice it to say that there were a good number of producers, selling some wonderful truffles, and that I bought another one, this time to have with scrambled eggs, and very delicious they were too!

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As I got to the bouledrome a sheep dog show was underway.  It really was amazing to watch the dogs herd the ducks and geese, especially the ducks.

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I met up with some friends from St Chinian and we decided that we would see if there were any tickets for the big communal meal in the Salle des Fetes next door.  Usually it is completely sold out in advance, but that day was our lucky day and we got four seats.  The food here is always cooked the old-fashioned way, in big cauldrons set over a blazing fire. That alone is worth the visit!

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Just across from where the cook-house was set up, a whole row of shops had been created with printed canvas – great job.  And there were volunteers showing how to make sausages and bougnettes!  They really deserved a medal for braving the cold!

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We traded the cold for the relative warmth of the Salle des Fetes and found our alloted seats – there were probably about 300 other patrons in the hall with us – and sat down to be entertained for the aperitif by a local band.

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The tables had all been set beautifully, and judging by the plate we figured there would be some kind of soup for starters.

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And we were right!!  After a brief introduction and welcome by one of the organisers, an army of young helpers arrived with cauldrons and ladles to serve the first course – a beautiful vegetable soup.

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Then came a brief interlude, while the bougnettes were prepared.  The bougnettes are a speciality of the bougnette triangle, which is formed by the towns of Mazamet, Lacaune and at the southern tip by St Pons of course.  It is a kind of large dumpling, made from stale bread, pork, eggs and seasonings.  The pork is meat from the neck and head, which is simmered in stock and when tender the meat is picked off any bones.  The bread is cut into cubes, moistened with some of the seasoned broth, the egg and meat added, and well seasoned.  Balls are formed and wrapped in caul fat, and they are then slowly simmered in fat.  A bougnette is cut into slices and either eaten cold or the slices fried or grilled and eaten hot.  Either way it’s delicious – you can buy them at Boucherie Peyras in St Chinian. In honour of the bougnette the brotherhood formed to promote this delicacy, had prepared a song-and dance routine.  I took a video of it for your enjoyment:

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The bougnettes were delicious and again served by a small army of helpers.  By this time some of the other helpers had come by to replenish the bottles of wine and water on the table, and so we waited for our main course.  I’d seen the hams being grilled outside, so knew what was coming.  When our compere told us there would be a little wait he offered to sing a few songs for us!  And he did sing them very well.  Before we knew it the next course was being served.  The cauldrons came out once more, this time filled with a wonderful bean stew.  Almost like cassoulet but without the meat, and I’m sure that the flavour owed some to a liberal use of garlic.

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The roast pork came along a little later, and because I was so busy with the beans I didn’t get a picture of it – sorry!  But then you’ll probably know what roast pork looks like, and you wouldn’t be able to smell the flavour – unfortunately!  There was just a hint of smokiness and the meat was juicy and tender.  There were seconds of both beans and pork for those who felt the need 🙂

And so on to dessert, which was rather simple and just as well really!  Oreillettes were really rather apt, being that it means ear and that the colour is not unlike a pig’s ear.  But they are made of pastry, deep-fried and sprinkled with sugar.  When they are well made, as they were in this case, they are light, crunchy and not at all greasy.  Ours were flavoured with orange flower water – yummy!!

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Once we’d had our coffee we headed back to the bouledrome, where the afternoon’s entertainment was about to begin.  But first there was the piglet race:  four cute looking piglets, each with a different colored ribbon round its belly were put into a ring made of straw bales.  Somehow, the piglets were then motivated to go around the course – I couldn’t quite figure out how – and then the order of the colours was announced.  I’d missed the bit where I could have bought a ticket or a betting slip, but a lot of people were there checking theirs to see if they had won!

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The piglet race over, the next spectacle was set up right away.  It was a re-enactment of the day the pig was killed in the olden days, by the Compagnie de la Source, a local amateur dramatics society.  The backdrop had been installed already and the scene was set very quickly, and so the play took its course.  From the farmer having breakfast with his helpers, to the arrival of the postman, then the farmer finding that the pig has gone missing, to the neighbour telling him that it’s eating his crops.  Then the priest comes along, having heard that someone has died, and so it went.  They did a pretty convincing job of wrestling with the pig, which was of course already dead. I heard from our friends that they carried on for some time, cutting it all up, but by then I had left – the cold was getting to me.

If you’re of a squeamish disposition don’t scroll all the way down!

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Please don’t scroll past this picture if you are squeamish.

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Knights in shining armour and New York?

What do the two have in common?  The answer is at the end of this post 🙂  !  Each year in mid September France along with most of Europe celebrates its heritage; museums are open free of charge, there are guided visits, and often buildings which are not accessible to the public offer visits.  In honour of the occasion the village of Olargues put on a Fete Medievale this year, and I just couldn’t resist to see what it was all about!  Olargues is listed as one of the most beautiful villages in France, and when you approach from the direction of St Pons the view from across the river is just gorgeous.

On this picture you don’t quite get the full effect, the branch is obscuring the tower at the top of the hill, the only remainder of the château which once stood there. Anyhow, Olargues has plenty to remind us of its medieval past, such as the small narrow streets, and the remains of the gates into the village.

All along the “main street” through the old village, market stalls had been set up, selling all manner of things.

I was particularly taken by the nougat – can you tell?  It’s made with lavender honey and almonds and there were all kinds of flavours:  pistachio, fig and date, cinnamon and orange, chestnut, caramel….

The chapel in the former headquarters of the Knights of St John of Jerusalem (there must be a better name for them in English?) was open and in the courtyard one of the associations of the village had set up tables selling spiced wine and cider.

Eventually I came to the square where the MEDIO EVO group had set up camp.  Beautiful tents, and just opposite a spit roast – in readiness for the communal meal.

The communal dinner looked great, but I’d already made other plans.  As I arrived there sat a knight waiting for his adversary.

Soon enough someone showed up, and they went for it – very good fighting with swords…

After all that excitement there was still time for a little more walking around Olargues, and more to discover of course.

On the drive back home I caught the most stunning view of Caroux, fabulous blue skies!

And then on along the way I took a little detour via New York!

There she stands, Lady Liberty in all her splendour!  And in the village of Lugne!  A plaque on the pedestal explains that this scale copy of th statue of Liberty graced the bow on the Maxim’s des Mers in 1987 (perhaps on a voyage to New York?), and that the captain of the ship, Albert Abelanet is a native of the village.  From the meager info I could find on the net, the Maxim’s des Mers was a small luxury cruise ship designed by Pierre Cardin.  And there you have it all!