Thanks to dear friends from Japan (Ari and Shinsuke) who visited us for a few days, and to new friends from Quarante (a village near Béziers) and previously from New York, we have been enjoying our part of France these last few days. Here are a few snippets:
Château de Pennautier
We visited the winery at Château de Pennautier, which is just a few kilometers outside Carcassonne. We will visit the Château proper some other day because it is not often open to the public, but our target was a wine tasting and lunch on the property. We learned that the Château was built at the same time as Versailles outside of Paris (17th century), designed by the same architect (Le Vau) and landscape architect (Le Notre). The proprietors have grown grapes here since that time, but wine production was secondary and just for the local people. Recently, the family that currently owns the château has upgraded the wine production for more general consumption and export. We enjoyed a tasting of about 10 wines just before lunch time, which inevitably led to a lubricated delicious lunch right next door.
We appreciated that they sell immense wine glasses, but decided to stick with standard sizes.
Mike’s French language teacher, Jean-François or Jeff as he prefers, is an accomplished student of medieval France. In addition to teaching language, he gives tours of La Cité (the fortified city and château of Carcassonne). He leads each tour dressed in authentic 13th-century knight’s clothing, carrying a long pointed staff. He doesn’t go full-knight in that he doesn’t wear the padded and the chainmail layers, but he sports wool wrap-around trousers and a long tunic and belt. He led us through the winding streets of La Cité, brandishing the staff while explaining all sorts of defensive design elements of the fortress. The staff was a big determinant of the sizes of portals and passages. The portals needed to be tall enough so that the guards could carry the staffs vertically while on patrol. The portals needed to be a bit less wide than the length of the staff so that the knight or guard could block passage while holding the staff horizontally. We stopped at a barbacane (which turns out to be the part of a fortress, curved in plan, that sticks out beyond the line of the main wall; it is the place where archers and defenders can survey the walls and respond to attack). Jeff showed us how a single man could hold off advancing soldiers while forcing the attackers to collect in plain sight of the defending archers above.
After our tour, he sat us down to teach us about the knights of this region. We learned that his enthusiasm and commitment means that he participates in medieval reenactments, fighting with authentic clothing, equipment and swords. In the 13th century, pre-teen boys were chosen by the local knights and lords to be candidates to become knights. Jeff said that the boys who were most accomplished all around, including leadership and concern for their fellow candidates, were the ones who ultimately became the knights. He stressed that their code of honor, including never being the aggressor, was paramount. (But what of all the bad knights in the movies?) He then explained and showed in detail what the knight wore and carried. When you add up all the layers of wool, padding and chainmail, the helmet, sword and shield, the weight is about 70 pounds. And hot. Mike asked if they avoided summer fighting. Jeff replied that summer was the only time they fought; in winter, the mud and wet made it impossible. None of us could quite imagine how even a burly young knight could be agile and swing the sword swiftly with all the weight and bulk. We will have to go see Jeff portraying a medieval knight one of these days.
A taste of Japan
On another day, Ari and Shinsuke offered to prepare a light lunch of cold somen noodles. They had brought all the ingredients from Japan: the noodles, the sauce, dried chives, shredded nori, crunchy rice puffs, wasabi and ginger pastes, and the appropriate soup bowls! Of course, we said, yes! In just a few minutes, the table was set with all the ingredients and we were slurping cold delicious somen noodles. I was surprised about how much I had missed these flavors of Japan. The noodles and sauce were stunningly delicious. Don’t get me wrong: We are thriving with all the local French food and ingredients. But Hawaii trained us well to enjoy food of the entire world, Japanese at the top of the list.
Mas Amiel Winery
Through a good website, www.ruedesvignerons.com, we booked a wine tasting and picnic among the vines at a winery about an hour south of Carcassonne. The winery is called Mas Amiel, and their reputation centers on fortified and oxidative wines (dessert wines and wines like port), but they produce conventional wines as well. To get there, we chose a route through the countryside, on smaller roads among the vineyards, mountains and forests. We wanted to give Ari and Shinsuke an experience of this corner of France. The GPS built into the car didn’t have our exact destination in its database, so the target was approximate. Fortunately, Ari’s phone had great reception and she had Mas Amiel in her Japanese Google Maps app. We drove along very narrow country roads (sometimes with only one lane for both directions) with the car’s British voice notifying us of upcoming turns and, from the back seat, a kind Japanese Google voice giving its own instructions. We really did need both systems. A couple of times they disagreed, so we stopped and figured out the best way forward (usually Google was right!).
By the time we finally arrived at Mas Amiel, through the back gate, we were a little light-headed from all the curvy mountain driving. We also were about 30 minutes late. A young English-speaking woman greeted us. She said that the picnic was ready and that she recommended that we come back after lunch for the dégustation, or wine tasting. She handed us a map of the vineyard, circled the location of the picnic, and sent us out the door. We had expected a human-guided tour of the vines on the way to lunch, but instead we headed out on our own along the rocky farm paths. The day was sunny and warm with a cooling breeze. The vineyard sits among rolling terrain, so we traipsed up hills and down, missed a turn or two, lamented their minuscule signage, found our path again, and finally spotted a canvas-covered pavilion atop a hill between grapevine fields. Despite our surprise at being abandoned, we really did enjoy the walk and adventure. Beneath the canvas cover, we found comfortable padded benches around a wood table, coolers full of chilled rosé and water, and four-course picnic lunches. Undulating fields of vines fell away beneath us, and craggy mountains looked down on us from all sides. It really was a charming rustic spot on a beautiful summer afternoon.
Eventually, we packed up the remains of the lunch and strolled down the hill to the tasting room. Our hostess overwhelmed us with a half-dozen each of conventional, fortified and oxidative wines. Some were pleasant, some were interesting, and some were intriguing. All together, they were exhausting!
We had spotted a field of clear and green glass bulbs across the road from the tasting room. They all shown brightly in the clear sunshine. Some liquids were clear, some were rust colored, and some included formations of sediment. Our hostess explained that the bulbs contained fortified wines in process of oxidation; these will become their port-like wines. She also explained that last year’s harvest was not a particularly good one. The vintners were taking the opportunity to experiment this year with diffferent combinations and approaches. We saw the evidence in the variety of colors and silhouettes of sedimentation.
Don’t tell anyone how good this restaurant is…
A few days after Ari and Shinsuke had to return to their life in Japan (we were sad to see them go), we joined our American friends who live in Quarante, a village about an hour from Carcassonne, for a fine dining lunch in the mountains. Some friends of theirs had found this restaurant and now visit it religiously twice a month. The young chef changes the menu twice a month, responding to what the season provides. We drove an hour from Quarante, up into the mountains, amid lush green valleys and forests, and yet more vineyards. We arrived at a single house, nestled in the trees. We found a sunny modern dining room with about 10 tables. A cheerful young woman soon came to our table with a small glass of aperitif (verveine-infused wine) and an array of amuse-bouches morsels. Next appeared a bottle each of local white and red wines, and an invitation to ask for rosé as well if we wished. Three beautiful, fresh, creative courses followed (variations on cauliflower, variations on heirloom tomatoes, and delicately Indian-spiced duck breast), and then pre-dessert, dessert, and mignardises with coffee. Whew! Everything was beautiful to behold, and delightful to taste and explore. All of this, including the wines, was only 32€ per person! Down in the big cities, this would cost 3 – 5 times as much. At the end of the meal, as is the custom in many French fine-dining restaurants, the chef stopped by each table to chat with the diners. He was happy to talk with us. We asked about his inspirations, especially to be able to change the menu twice a month. Of course, what is freshest in the season is a huge part of his process. (He talked about one week when the local tomatoes as well as the raspberries were stellar, so he developed a menu that combined them despite their not usually traveling well together.) But he also said that he looks inside himself and the creativity comes from there. We most certainly will be returning to find out what he creates next.