Moussoulens Truffle Market

Black truffles grow wild and are cultivated in our region of Aude in southern France. The harvest season is mid-winter. Various towns and villages host truffle markets from December to March.

On 5 January, the village of Moussoulens, a 10-minute drive from our house, presented a truffle and local products market. 

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It was a cold but sunny morning. We found the village square populated by local vendors of food, wine, crafts and beauty products.

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A brass ensemble filled the air with festive tunes.

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But the main purpose of the day was the sale of the local producers’ truffles. Here is the traditional way the market works:

The producers bring their truffles to the market.

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Local expert officials examine all the truffles, ensuring their quality and provenance.

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The public waits for the opening of the market, crowded against a rope, a few steps from the producers’ stations along a table.

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The producers, however, look like they are having a good time on this sunny winter morning.

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Officials make announcements, including the mayor of Moussoulens (the man to the right). 

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The anticipation mounts. We can all see the baskets and piles of the black truffles. The expert says that there are about 5 kg of truffles on this day, so that there are plenty for all. Still, the crowd pushes against the rope line.

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At last, the mayor blows a whistle; the officials drop the rope; and the crowd happily pushes forward to the tables. The sales begin.

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On our winter Saturday, the official had been correct: there were plenty of truffles available. We were able to walk up to the table and select a little truffle just for us. The current price of these Aude black truffles is one euro per gram. That’s more than twice the current price of silver!

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Back home, Mike poached two eggs with truffle crumbs. Then he shaved more truffle on top. The warmth of the eggs and their relatively quiet flavors allowed the aroma of the black truffle to peek forward. However, we found the aroma and flavor extremely subtle. (We are spoiled: the Italian white truffles that we experienced in October had far more personality!)

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These are moments when we are very happy about our life in France!

Annecy

We recently took a road trip to Venice and back. This post comes from some of our travel moments.

A beautiful mountain lake and old town. 

Our hotel was located about a 15 minute walk along the lake from the old town. The view from our window. 

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We walked into town just before dusk. The light on the hills and the water kept changing as we walked. The placid lake is perfect for sailboats and even stand-up-paddlers. Ducks and swans lolled about. 

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A lovely canal just off the lake:

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The old town of Annecy dates back to Roman times, although much of what remains today is from the 12th to the 16th centuries.

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The stone building on a tiny island in the little river — Le Palais de l’Île, or the Palace of the Island —  was the residence of the lords of Annecy from the 12th century and an administrative centre when the counts of Geneva came to Annecy in the 14th century. The Palace was also a prison, operating until 1865.

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Another intensely picturesque medieval town. As usual, turned into a tourist mall of restaurants, cafés and shops. Picturesque nonetheless. 

We sat outside to enjoy a beer and a glass of wine. 

We selected a restaurant called Ô Savoyard. This is the Savoy region of France. The landscape, activities and animals define its character. We could feel the influences from Switzerland and Germany. We thought we should have some food from the region. 

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It seemed that everything on the menu was some combination of potatoes, melted cheese, and sausages. Designed for cold snowy mountain winter nights. Not a bad combination. But when our main courses arrived, we faced two immense bowls of melted cheese, potatoes, sausage and chicken. Really enough for 4 to 6 people. Lubricated by a pleasant bottle of red wine, we dug in … and overate. (Perhaps as usual?) Today, as I’m writing, a few days later, the thought of more cheese and potatoes banishes any feeling of hunger. 

This is a town and lake that we want to visit again. The setting is gorgeous. The town seems to be filled with people biking, sailing, running and strolling, all enjoying the outdoors. The first Saturday in August, the town hosts a massive fireworks festival over the lake. In June each year, there is a festival of animated cinema. Much more to explore. But perhaps less cheese and potatoes. 

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A Season in our Neighbor’s Vineyard

One pleasure of our home outside of Carcassonne is watching the neighbor’s vineyard through the seasons. We see the first sprigs burst forth in April: almost overnight. The vines grow lush under the summer sun. After months of anticipation, in September, the grape harvest is over in a day. And then, slowly, the leaves of the vines grow crispy and brown, and disappear. But we know it will all renew next spring.

We’ve collected photos each week, and used them to make two little time-lapse videos. (I think the videos are visible only when you go to the blog site rather than just the email announcement.)

We hope you’ll enjoy!

Holiday Atmosphere

Bonjour! Here, simply, are a few holiday images and a video from Carcassonne and Toulouse. We hope you enjoy!

One evening in Toulouse after seeing a movie (in English, with French subtitles):

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Floating lights above the street under which we often park
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Simple bulbs in festive cascades at Galéries Lafayette (the Macy’s of France)
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Carpet of lights above the main shopping street

A video of the shopping street and its animated lit Christmas tree:

Now on to Carcassonne:

Each year around St Nicholas’ Day, Carcassonne hosts the Marche aux Flambeaux (the march with torches).

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People gather outside La Cité, buying wax torches. The proceeds support local charities. Led by medieval reenactors, the festive crowd crosses through La Cité, out the stone gate, down the hill, across the Pont Vieux (old bridge – 14th century), and into the main square of the Bastide (the “new” city from the 13th century). Our friends Jef and Val are leaders of the medieval participants.

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The first horse at the head of the crowd, leaving the Aude Gate
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More of the merry medieval band
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Val and Jef above the crowd, with watchful eyes
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Over the Pont Vieux, with La Cité beyond
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Place Carnot
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Among the holiday cabins
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In La Cité

 

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We think Santa has the right idea.

 

Chamonix

We recently took a road trip to Venice and back. This post and a few of the next ones come from some of our travel moments.

Chamonix, France, lies in a valley directly below Mont Blanc, which is Europe’s tallest mountain. There is a lookout called the Aguille du Midi at an elevation of 3,842 m, 968 m lower than the top of Mont Blanc. From there, there are purportedly grand views in all directions atop the peaks of the Alps. Alas, the upper portion of the cable car system was closed for maintenance.

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On the other side of the valley, a cable car ascends halfway up to the place called Flégère at elevation 1,877 m. In winter, additional lifts can take you higher up the mountain to ski runs. We arrived at the base at 10 am, opening time, with the expectation of a nice ride up, a little time enjoying the views, and a return descent.

Just off the cable car, we found clear sunny views across the valley, to Mont Blanc and adjacent peaks, including the Aiguilles du Grépon, du Chardonnet, et Verte. Our view looked directly south, right into the sun. Very little of the peaks were in direct sun, just silhouettes against the brightness. The cable car terminus was in our way, so we thought to walk up the gravel path a little to get a clearer view.

A little higher, and the panorama was full. But still silhouetted by the low sun. We wanted to see the mountains in full bright light, so decided to stay a while longer. The gravel path continued up the mountain to the next switchback. We decided to go up just one more level.

From here the view was even better. The sun was starting to illuminate the edges of the mountain ridges, as well as to cast rays down across the forests facing us. Maybe just a little higher.

Now we spotted a group of people above us who were pulling on what we realized were paragliders that were lying on the ground. We had already seen a number of paragliders over the valley. We wanted to see them take off. So up another level.

We found a spot just above their launching field. The wind was gentle. All but one person were sitting on the ground amid their piles of colored sails. A leader or instructor was on her radio. She had a very strong voice so we could hear her talking about the wind currents, and relaying information coming over the radio. She helped the standing person spread out the sail behind her. We, and they, waited and waited for gusts of wind. Just as we were about to give up on seeing a launch, suddenly the sail was inflated and the person flew off the cliff and into the sky above the valley. It happened so quickly that we missed filming the launch.

We decided to wait for the next launch, determined to capture the jump into the void. A little higher up the hill for us, of course. Now a man was positioning himself. He earlier had been talking cockily about how to turn figure eights in the air, much to the consternation of the leader. He stood, waiting, with his back to the hill. With a new gust, his sail filled and he ran off the cliff. Instantly, the sail deflated, twisting on itself. He disappeared below onto the steep slope below. We think that the only thing that got hurt was his pride.

Finally, our phone was in position for the next launch. Lovely and exhilarating to watch this person, slung beneath what a moment before was a swath of thin fabric, float away high over the deep valley.

By now, the sun was shining on the glaciers on Mont Blanc and the other icy valleys. The upper air was so still that jet contrails stayed fine completely across the sky.

While we talked about staying up here forever, we knew we needed to descend. Looking down at the cable car terminus, we realized just how high we had hiked, one switchback at a time. On the leisurely stroll down the views continued to shine and awe.

Back at the cable car, we realized we had enjoyed the views, air and walks for 4 hours. The time had slipped by just like the paragliders.

Delightful.

Surprising Toulouse City Hall

After making sure that our friends Brenda and Aja successfully found their early-morning flight out of Toulouse, we enjoyed a bit of the sunny morning before heading home. It happened to be the first of November, which is the holiday Toussaint. Two fascinating and lovely surprises greeted us.

An immense sleeping minotaur waited for us just outside our hotel on the central square of Toulouse, la Place du Capitole. Even though his eyes were closed, his rib-cage slowly pulsed with his breathing. He looked like some alien-invasion movie CGI come to life.

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Some spontaneous internet searching revealed that the minotaur along with a giant mechanical spider were in town for a weekend of theater and festivities. The ambitious people of La Machine created these creatures.

We didn’t stay for the weekend’s performances, but of course YouTube showed us what missed:

 

The City Hall — or mairie — creates one of the walls of the Place du Capitole. Guillaume Cammas, a Toulouse architect and artist, designed the facade around 1750. While Toulouse’s characteristic brick provides some warmth, the regular classicism is severe. Whenever we are in the Place du Capitole, we pay more attention to the arcades, cafés, restaurants and shops along the other three sides of the square. But today, the main central door was open, and people were casually wandering in. Curious, we followed.

No great surprises at first: just a couple courtyards, and more brick and stone and sculptures.

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We noticed a few people disappearing to the left within the stone arch on the far side of the courtyard. Might as well see where they were going. Our first glimpse of what awaited us:

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To our good fortune, Toussaint is day for an open-house of the City Hall.

This grand stairway, surrounded by immense lush paintings, is part of the complete reconstruction of the City Hall in the 1880s. The end of the 19th century was a time when the leaders of Toulouse sought to express their political, economic and artistic significance, especially relative to Paris. The art and design of the renovated City Hall expresses themes of this southern part of France. Local painters, sculptors and architects transformed the building.

This is the former wedding hall, with the themes of love and happiness.

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This is the Henri-Martin room, named after its painter. He chose to showcase scenes from the countryside on one side of the room, and scenes from city life on the other. Lovely evocation of light and nature.

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The Hall des Illustres is the grand finale. Twenty Toulouse painters and sculptors embellished this monumental, long space. Each interpreted some aspect of the themes Glorious episodes in Toulouse life, Toulouse city of the arts and culture, and Defense of the Fatherland.

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These are the allegorical figures for the Law, Justice and Truth. Apparently Truth has nothing to hide.

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We were struck by the contrasts between sober prim depictions of women, and unabashed voluptuous figures. Imagine visiting City Hall at the beginning of the 20th century, accompanied by such sensual boldness. Who was scandalized; who was liberated; who was repressed; who was exploited; who was turned on?

The prim:

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The opposite:

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La Cité du Vin

La Cité du Vin (The City of Wine) opened its doors in June 2016. Just this month, it received its millionth visitor. Perhaps we were numbers 1,001,034 and 1,001,035. Maybe I went for the architecture; maybe we both went for the wine. 

La Cité du Vin’s raison-d’être and mission are modest (this is Google’s and my translation from the website): 

Wine is an inseparable part of the culture and living heritage of our country, but also of many other countries on five continents. It has made possible forging bonds between men, shaping landscapes, and generating myths, rituals and a true culture. 

Since 5,500 years before our era, wine has been at the heart of human life. Wine sculpts our landscapes, accompanies our beliefs, our customs, our traditions, our social practices, and it invades our imaginations. 

Universal, plural, it crosses the borders, the centuries, imposes everywhere its material and immaterial mark. It constantly reinvents itself in new forms, in multiple uses. 

The Cité du Vin’s mission is to share this millennial culture with an international audience, to enlighten its meaning, to help protect and transmit this universal intangible heritage.  

The building and its setting 

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The architecture firm XTU from Paris designed the building. The architects described the building this way:

This building does not resemble any recognizable shape because it is an evocation of the soul of wine between the river and the city… Every detail of the architecture evokes wine’s soul and liquid nature: seamless roundness, intangible and sensual.

We think it looks like a wine decanter, and why not?! The owner of the attractive bed & breakfast where we stayed in Bordeaux said that she sees a sock. 

The building is now a monument in a major urban-redevelopment area on the site of the former industrial district of Les Forges along the banks of the Garonne River. The district is one big construction site, full of building cranes and a myriad of new residential and commercial buildings. We had read that Bordeaux is experiencing an exploding real estate market: the high-speed train line — TGV — between Paris and Bordeaux opened in July 2017, making it possible for Parisians to be in Bordeaux in just 2 hours. Now Bordeaux is an attractive outer, albeit upper-crust and increasingly unaffordable, suburb of Paris. 

Have a glass of wine in the markets of the world 

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We selected an hour-long “polysensorial” wine-tasting experience. Along with other English-speaking visitors (from New Zealand, Ireland, Spain, and Germany), we sat at low tables around the edge of a circular room. Seamless photo montages slowly flowed around the room.  

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From time to time, a spritz of scented air came our way: was that the smell of leather, or barbecue, or tomatoes?  

Our charming French host introduced four different glasses of wine for us, without telling us what each one was. Each of four wines was introduced by a seductive stream of images, sounds and smells from different places around the world. The first was Mediterranean areas (Provence, Greece, Italy). Another was scenes from Algeria. Our charming French host invited us to imagine the foods, tastes and experiences of these places as we sniffed and tasted each mystery wine. She did not tell us anything about the wines before we had some time to experience them on our own. She was splendid in assisting us to identify aromas and tastes. I loved it when she said that we come to each glass of wine with our own scent and taste memories and associations. So if I say the nose evokes pineapple, and you say banana, then that is just because of each of our own specific past experiences. Our host made it safe for everyone in the room to share their own associations.  

The wines that we enjoyed, and their world-market contexts were: 

  • A rich vintage Prosecco from Valdobbiadene in the Veneto — Mediterranean markets 
  • A lightly sparkling Pinot Gris from Alsace — Markets along the Mekong River 
  • A Cabernet Sauvignon – Pinotage from South Africa — diverse Algerian scenes and foods 
  • A Malbec – Cabernet Sauvignon blend from Argentina — Andean barbecues and markets 

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The permanent self-guided tour 

At the entrance of the main exhibit area, the staff presents you with an iPhone-like device and headphones. Throughout the exhibit areas, you just point the device at a dot symbol and the audio connects you to the exhibit. You can wander in any order and pace that you want. The exhibits flow in all directions beneath the organically shaped building shell. 

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The interactive displays helped connect scent experiences with their sources. We liked the refined steampunk aesthetic: The shiny glass covers and the brass tubes captivated us. The offered scents were clear and accurate (which is not always the case in this type of olfactory exhibit). 

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One section was entitled The Art of Living. Three long tables were set with virtual items, and surrounded by big chairs. We visitors were invited to sit at the table — along with two animated conversationalists in tall bright monitors. As they talked about experiencing wine and food at the social table, the table top animated and morphed to illustrate their points. 

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Other exhibit areas explored wine in cultures through history, highlighted vintners from many wine regions of the world, visited different terroirs, and helped new wine experiences to understand why wines have the colors, textures and aromas that they do. 

At the end of the tour, we took the elevator to the Belvedere at the top where we were offered a choice of wines from which to select one to taste. Unlike so many places we have visited in France, here there were wines from around the world, not just from France. I selected a red wine from Armenia, because, well, have you ever had an Armenian wine? It was light, slight of aroma, and not very deep. But now I’ve tasted a wine from Armenia. Mike selected a Rioja from Spain, and was rewarded with a rich complex glass. 

While it was inevitable to have wine bottles in the decor, the ceiling of the Belvedere was attractive anyway. 

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A few of the wines for sale in the “wine cellar.” 

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For us, the polysensorial wine tasting was the highlight. No big surprise, because any time we have the opportunity to explore wines, especially with a good guide (or salesperson), we enjoy ourselves. The collection of exhibits was very attractive and engaging; they were extremely well designed and made. But, at the end of the day, smelling, feeling and tasting wine is far more satisfying than just talking about it! 


PS: A foodie dinner 

We went to Restaurant Côte Rue for dinner the night after our Cité du Vin experience. We had selected the restaurant because of good reviews, the work of young chefs, and the fact that it was only a few-minute walk from our B&B. Each dish was beautifully presented, all were tasty, and a couple were notable. Here’s today’s food porn for your enjoyment. 

This was our favorite. Complex when we explain it, but all the textures and flavors cooperated very well. The rose-red sauce at the right is a tomato-beet mousse. Beneath it is a layer of a creamy white cheese. And beneath that were three pieces of white fish, ceviche style, with a bit of caviar. To the left is an arrangement of slightly pickled tomatoes, beets, and radish slices. Neither of us is a fan of beets, but in this dish, the beets were gentle, and the combinations of beet, tomato, vinegar, creamy cheese, crunchy radish, and ceviche fish kept delighting our tongues. 

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Dorade (a white fish), with a verveine foam.

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Roasted beef with young zucchini and carrots, and dried black olive bits.

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The cheese course was just goat cheese. We have discovered that in many restaurants, if there is a cheese course, it can be just three or four slices of unremarkable cheese. Here, the chefs cannily chose a single creamy goat cheese from the Bordeaux region. They decorated it with tiny flowers and herb sprigs; this was not just to be pretty: the tart herbal field flavors complemented the cheese. Little fresh figs, simple almonds, and a delicious slightly crystalline local honey charmed us. 

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PPS: Our B&B 

Our B&B was beautiful, and its owner / host, Béatrice, was full of life. Highly recommended: Bordeaux Wine Lodge. The breakfast table for just the two of us: 

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