On a warm Saturday evening recently, our village hosted its annual summer fête. We joined a few hundred of our new neighbors for an open-air evening of food and conversation. Our village has only about 1000 residents.
Instructions were to bring our own couverts, which is flatware, glass and plate. As we were strolling at about 7pm from our house to the center of the village (only about a 5-minute walk), we joined various other groups and families on their way.
We have learned that the center of our village, which is a circle of stone buildings and houses, with a small church and the current town hall, dates from the 13th century. The heart of the village is a simple attractive little square, shaded by a large plane tree. Arriving, we found the square full of long lines of tables, and many clusters of folks chatting, beverages in hand. We noticed that most places at the tables already had plates on them, some with chairs tipped forward for obvious reservation. We found a couple spots at an edge table.
We went in search of some rosé, which we could see in people’s plastic cups. At the crowded beverage table, we found only empty soda bottles and a few peanuts. But under the plane tree was a table with a line of wine boxes, spigots ready for us. Plastic cups in hand, we poured out full cups.
We noticed our neighbors at another table. They exclaimed that they didn’t know that we were coming. They are a retired couple who moved to our village a few years ago after their working life in the Paris region. They have always been kind to us during our first year in the village. We enjoy talking with them, but the husband in particular speaks very quickly and with a bit of a slur, so I struggle to understand what he is saying. He is always jolly, but a bit inscrutable. They were quick to introduce us to a few other expatriate village residents so we could speak some English.
We were interrupted by the announcement of the start of the meal. We headed back to our spot at a distant table. To one side of us was a self-absorbed animated group. To the other, a few couples who were obviously friends. We introduced ourselves as best as we could. We could see the looks on their faces that say, “Oh, great, English speakers.” But as the evening progressed, we were able to exchange small talk — in French. They were lively and pleasant, and fun to talk with. We have learned that (as we did at the Pennautier dining event) we just have to ask for their suggestions of interesting restaurants off the beaten track, and that gets everyone discussing and debating. And we add to our list of places to try.
Even outside, under the village tree, with our own knives, forks and plates, the village presented a three-course dinner. Nothing particularly fancy, but really tasty. Half a melon topped with prosciutto started us off. Then a creamy tender pork stew over rice, with a baguette, of course. Mini-brie packages. Ice cream in the cup with the wooden spoon. And a chocolate éclair. Accompanied by a pitcher of red wine.
Our first village event! It was fascinating to see who else lives here. With our unstructured, non-work life, we see the village quiet and seemingly empty during the day. But the village is full of young families, whose children go off to school everyday and whose adults disperse for work. In everyday life, we are probably as invisible to them as they are to us. It was nice to see the generations and village friendships on this warm summer evening.
In July, the attractive Mediterranean port town of Sète (about an hour’s drive from Carcassonne) hosted a brand-new replica of Columbus’ Santa María. Perfect reason for a history-themed outing.
Our main wonderment was contemplating the experiences, fear, challenges, courage, danger, and uncertainty on this tiny tiny vessel. We stood on the main and quarter decks, imagining mid-ocean waves taller than the ship itself. To sail across the Atlantic — before they knew there was an across the Atlantic — in a ship the size of an 18-wheeler highway truck: impossible to comprehend even while standing amid the ropes and masts.
The notes in this post come from the exhibit itself, and from a news report. I’ve added some image captions for a few of our personal reactions.
THE SANTA MARIA
The Santa Maria was the flagship with which Admiral Christopher Columbus carried out one of the most significant ocean crossings in history. On August 3rd, 1492, it set sail from the port of Palos de la Frontera (Huelva, Spain) together with the caravels “Pinta” and “Niña”, and reached America on October 12th, 1492, causing an encounter between two worlds that had been unknown to each other until that point.
The Santa María 525 project came about with the objective of reliving history in order to promote the heritage, tourism and culture of the province of Huelva, with the construction and development of one of its most recognizable symbols of identity.
This true-scale replica of the Santa María was built by Fundcacíon Nao Victoria, a Spanish institute that specializes in historic ships. The work was carried out in the coastal town of Pinta Umbría (Huelva, Spain) over twelve months starting in January 2017 and ending in March 2018.
The design includes the results of the new studies on the shapes of this famous vessel, in order to achieve greater maneuverability and better control of the steering. During the process, an innovative system was applied in the sector of construction of historical ship replicas, which combines construction in fiberglass and posterior covering in wood. A new technique that implied enormous progress with regards to the environmental impact, costs, durability and maintenance of the vessel, without affecting its historical aspect, seaworthiness or maneuvering.
100 marine professionals and trades: This is the approximate number of people that have participated in its construction: naval carpenters, net workers, rope workers, historians, engineers and other artisans.
300,000 hours of work: 14 months of work during which the mould of the hull was created, the work with wood was carried out for the cladding, the placement of the masts, the preparation of the rigging and apparel and the installation of the equipment.
Oak wood: Structural pieces
Pine wood: Planking, masts and braces
Olive and holm oak wood: Pulleys and deadheads
Iron: Nails and anchors
Hemp canvas: Sails
Hemp impregnated with tar: Ropes and standing rigging
Esparto (a coarse grass with tough narrow leaves): Anchor ropes
THE SANTA MARIA IN SÈTE
“We intend to go to the east coast of America and Canada, but the construction completion was late; therefore we didn’t have the time to cross the Atlantic during the good weather conditions this year,” explained Carlos Herrera, the captain of the Santa María. It is necessary to wait for the end of hurricane season for the inaugural voyage to America. So various Mediterranean ports will be able to host the ship until November. From tourist to specialist, all will have the chance to be amazed! (France 3, 12 July 2018)
THIS TYPE OF SHIP
A ship of 100 tonnes had an average crew of 45 members. The men at sea consisted of sailors, apprentices, cabin boys, carpenters, caulker, chaplains, steward’s mates and surgeons, who obeyed the high commands of the authorities: owners, pilots, captains and boatswains. There were also royal officers such as sheriff, scribe, treasurer or accountant, who were responsible for ensuring the interests of the Crown.
More than 40 men lived in boats that were just 25 meters in length, with main decks of just 90 m2 of free space to live and work. The responsibilities of each role and trade were clearly established and organized. There was strict discipline on board, so that the operation of the ship was optimized.
The great challenge of the oceanic crossings on the ships was to calculate the position of the ships on the sea, to follow the course traced out and to avoid dangers when approaching an unknown coast. For this, they had rudimentary navigation instruments that, although they did help to determine the latitude through the height of the sun, they made it impossible to calculate the longitude. The mariner’s compass, quadrant, astrolabe, sand time, lead line and log were the navigation instruments used on the Spanish ships. With these, they could measure the height of the sun, the position of the ship, inspect the seabed and determine the speed of the ship in order to draw the route on their navigation charts and determine the course to be followed.
LIFE ON BOARD
Life on board was carried out on the ship’s decks. Daily work was divided into six shifts and only the meals broke the routine. During the night, only the captain had quarters or a cabin to sleep in. The officials rolled out their thin wool mattresses under the awning deck and the rest looked for a place to rest among the scarce free spaces of the forecastle or the main deck on basic mats.
The lack of hygiene, illnesses, the sensation of danger and permanent concern about their destinations were constraint among the crews on these ships, where there was practically no time for leisure. Harsh living conditions that thousands of men experienced on board these ships on the longest ocean crossings recorded in the history of sailing.
Play, talk and read: The difficult sailing conditions didn’t leave much time for entertainment, which was also halted by any maneuver that required the help of all men for rigging or sails. At sea, “playing, talking and reading”, for those that knew how, were the only possible distractions. Despite the express prohibition of games on board, cards and dice ran along the decks without being hidden and the men gambled their breeches, money and weapons.
Meals were prepared by lighting small fires on the main deck. The basic diet consisted of pound cake, legumes, salted meat and fish, dried fruits, vinegar and wine.
Hygiene and illness: The overcrowding on the ships of men with live animals, lice, fleas and rats, and the lack of drinking water, meant that hygiene was visibly lacking. Frequently they suffered diseases, such as the dreaded and deadly scurvy. Health, which was totally precarious, was in the hands of surgeons and barbers who could barely stitch wounds or perform blood-letting.
PARTS OF THE SHIP
Main deck: It is the area where the life of the crew took place: maneuvering, ground-handling, galley… Here the majority of men on board slept on mats, since the hold was used for cargo and gear. During navigation, waves frequently crossed the deck, reducing dry spaces to a minimum.
Quarter deck: It was the center of command for the ship. On it, the Pilot, main responsible for the navigation, could see the sails and the horizon, and he had the basic elements to guide the ship: the navigation needle (compass) situated on the binnacle, and the whipstaff. This deck was used only by the midshipmen.
Stern and rudder: It was the steering system of ships until the appearance of the wheel in the mid-18th century. Exercising a lever over the tiller allowed the crew to control the course of the boat without losing sight of the sails and the sea. Several men were necessary for control of the ship in bad weather.
Captain’s cabin: The only cabin of this type of ship was used just by the captain, the pilot, or the man of greatest rank on board. It usually held just one bunk and a trunk with the nautical charts, navigation instruments, and important documents. Non-officers crew were strictly prohibited from entering this cabin without permission from the captain.
Hold: The ship’s holds were usually full of food and merchandise stored in dozens of barrels, bundles and drawers, making their environment unbreathable.
On a recent hot summer day, we visited the very old village of Lagrasse, which is about 30 minutes outside of Carcassonne.
A steep valley protects the village, and a cool stream refreshes it. The inspiration for our visit was tickets to attend the open-air Danse à Lagrasse performance; more about that later in the post!
Sometime in the last year, we had driven by the village, commenting, “Oh, another pretty stone village.” And we continued on our way. Little did we know how much history, architectural beauty, quaint streets, impressive abbey, pretty cafés, artisan shops, and even a swimmable river, grace Lagrasse.
Through the Danse à Lagrasse web site, we found an afternoon tour. Carlos of Entre les Vignes offered a 90-minute exploration of the village. Carlos is personable as well as knowledgeable. He knows how to share interesting stories, not just facts and figures. He helped us see little details in buildings and around the village that, although small, are full of meaning and history.
The village of Lagrasse exists because of the Abbey of St. Mary, which sits on the opposite side of the Orbieu river.
The abbey began where a few hermits had made their home, escaping from the turmoil of the 7th century and the time of Charlemagne and the Saracens (North African and Arab Muslims). It became a major element in a string of abbeys and monasteries in Languedoc, designed by the Church to defend against non-Christian forces. The abbey developed into a major religious and commercial center via tithes and land acquisition.
As the prominence of the abbey grew, so did a lay village across the river. Until the 14th century, the villagers crossed the river to the abbey for their religious life. But the village population and wealth grew, so much so that they petitioned the abbey to allow the construction of a church within the walls of the village for their daily religious life. Once the Church granted permission, they tore down some houses in the middle of the densely built village, and squeezed in the Church of Saint Michel. Here’s the tiny passage between the church and adjacent houses.
The various trade guilds contributed to the construction of the church, and in return, allocated themselves chapels for their own business. You can see the pair of fishes at the top of the vault; this is the fishmonger guild’s chapel.
The French Revolution left its heavy mark on the abbey. Starting in 1789, the revolutionaries aggressively destroyed everything linked to the Church and the nobility. They tore buildings apart; they ripped down religious art and burned archives. At Lagrasse, they stripped the abbey, claimed it for the people, divided it in two, and then sold the parts to the highest bidders. Today, the department of Aude (the local government) owns and hosts half of the building (which we could visit). The community of Canons Regular of the Mother of God moved have inhabited the other half since 2004. They are a very conservative order that even now conducts their services in Latin.
More evidence of revolutionary zeal hides in plain sight in the cemetery. Guillaume Alexandre Segur was born on 19 Thérmidoran IV and died on 23 November 1880. The revolutionaries wanted to eliminate every single connection to religious and royalist heritage, including the calendar and telling time. They zealously strove to base all of revolutionary life on decimal systems. For 12 years, the calendar in France had 12 months, each of which had 3 10-day weeks; they had to work hard to accommodate the remaining 5 days of the year. The Roman numerals designed the years since the revaluation. So, M Segur was born in Year IV of the revolution, but since the revolutionary system did not last long, he died back in the old calendar year of 1880.
Carlos wove together tales from Lagrasse’s early history and from the emergence of the medieval bourgeoisie that loved art and showing off. He showed us painted ceiling panels from the 14th and 15th centuries. Carlos likened these panels to Facebook posts! This was how the well-to-do announced their accomplishments, identity and sense of humor.
The market hall was the center of commercial life. To this day, it shelters the weekly local market of fresh produce, meats, honey and seafood.
You can see the “calling cards” of the fishmonger guild here as well. See again the pair of fishes at the top of the column; the fishmonger association’s headquarters was in this building.
The village streets and squares drip with charm! Many artisan shops, offering pottery, glass art, unique fashion, and books, animate the narrow streets.
OK, now about the dance performance!
Danse à Lagrasse exists because of Johanna Adams Farley, Senior Stage Manager at the Royal Ballet (UK), and many other local enthusiasts, who have homes in Lagrasse. In 2010 and now in 2018, the tour schedule of the Royal Ballet allowed a slight detour for these two performances in Lagrasse.
Stands and stage were erected on the village’s rugby field just for this weekend’s festivities.
While Carlos had kept us engaged with the history and attractiveness of Lagrasse, the summer afternoon had also scorched us. After the tour, in the late afternoon, we lingered over cold drinks, an ice cream, and then a few glasses of rosé in the village. We were waiting for the open-air pre-performance supper to start at 7 pm. At last the food tent welcomed us. We enjoyed a relaxed three-course supper under the trees.
The start of the performance needed to wait until after dusk. By 9:45, we, and about 600 other enthusiasts, were in our seats, savoring the summer sky and dark surrounding hills.
The lights dimmed. Two pianists appeared, bowed, and took their places at a pair of grand pianos at the corner of the stage.
Then we were treated to a very generous succession of solo dancers, duets, and ensemble pieces. There was a mixture of classical ballet and robust contemporary pieces. We generally prefer contemporary dance over classical, but the immediacy of this relatively small setting and the accomplishment of these dancers kept us rapt. The dynamic choreography and physicality of the contemporary pieces, vigorously embodied by beautiful young dancers, made me think over and over, “This is why I love dance!” Beautiful, moving, astonishing, passionate, transfixing.
This was the night of the celebrated lunar eclipse. While the surrounding hills concealed the blood moon from us, the waning eclipse rose later in the evening. The music and dance filled the night. The moon ascended. The air started to freshen. The performances followed one after the other until after midnight! A glorious evening — and day — in little Lagrasse!
PS: A little unexpected moment of beauty: At the abbey, I followed the signs for the restroom. Up some stairs, around a corner, and then into the restroom — with this open window straight ahead.
Since we first met Jean-François Vassal and Valérie Michel last year, we have learned a lot about what the Middle Ages was really like here in Carcassonne.
One of Jean-François and Valérie’s businesses is the Centre d’Histoire Vivante Médiévale (CHVM). The mission of CHVM is to provide authentic experiences of medieval culture and society, with focus on the region of Carcassonne between the 12th and 15th centuries. While other enterprises offer anecdotal tours, CHVM’s tours, workshops and presentations dispel so many romantic myths about the Middle Ages, and replace them with even more interesting authentic experiences. The main theme is Myth Versus Reality. We are starting to be able to distinguish what is true (and fascinating!) from what Hollywood has delightfully made up.
Two events form the sources for this blog: A medieval fair within the walls of the medieval city, La Cité de Carcassonne, last fall; and a medieval encampment just outside the château of La Cité a few weeks ago.
Here are views of the medieval encampment. The arched bridge leads from the interior of La Cité into the château. The château — or castle — sits within the walls of La Cité. A medieval citadel becomes a Cité once it contains a château, a cathedral, and the residences and commerce of at least a village. The tents of this encampment are relatively authentic for a group of merceneries around 1355. The people in short pants are not.
May I present Valérie and Jean-François in summer — a bit relaxed — and in winter — ready for battle. Their garments are as authentic as they can achieve so far. For each part of the outfits, they have spent at least 10 hours of research. They confirm the textiles, all the details, and the accessories.
While the man on the right is a good friend of Jean-François and Valérie, his clothes and arms would not have existed at the same time as those worn by Jean-François. Before the middle of the 14th century, the chevalier’s protection would have been only chain mail (all riveted; a full covering of mail contains about 42,000 rings!). In the middle of the 14th century, individual plates started to be added, like the plates and gloves that Jean-François is wearing. By 1410, the chevalier protected himself completely with plates.
Jean-François’ armor approaches what a chevalier probably wore at about 1350. Pursuit of authenticity comes step by step: Jean-François is continually refining this combination of mail and plates. Despite what you see in this photo, in 1350, the chain mail would have formed a higher collar beneath his chin, and there would have likely been less sleeve. For the knight on the right, of the mid-15th century, plates would have covered his arms and all his joints.
In the 14th and 15th centuries, our two friends could not have met each other, much less fought.
This is a fairly authentic collection of arms, armor and shields from the 14th century. During this period, shields were made of wood and leather, not metal.
This collection compares arrows, horseshoes and other items from the medieval period with those of today. A subtitle for the arrowhead collection would be 40 ways to kill with arrow heads.
Within the overall medieval fair last fall, Jean-François and his colleagues hosted an area and events dedicated to authentic living medieval history. A centerpiece of this area was re-enactment of fighting chevalier. Jean-François is on the left, in white. Everything he is wearing and carrying, including his underwear, is authentic for about 1350. His opponent’s clothes and equipment are from a later period, around the end of the 14th century, with more armor plates than what was available in 1350.
The re-enactors were fighting with real but blunted swords and equipment. They hit quite hard, although with a guiding value of respect for the opponent. Jean-François broke a finger during this set of matches. The man in red with the long pole is called the maréchal de lice. His job is to enforce the rules of the matches, such as three touches of the sword constituting a win.
No one seems too upset that they are all dead.
This is blacksmithing equipment. The blacksmith was, other than the local lord, the most important person in a community. Without his (and it was always a man as far as we know) skills and products, almost nothing in communities during the Middle Ages would have been possible. Farming implements, carts and carriages, the tools of war — all depended on the blacksmith. His role meant he was usually well respected and wealthy.
The trash can isn’t quite authentic while the rest of the equipment, tent, and what the man is wearing are. The clothes of the visiting young lady, under the historian’s intense eye, don’t fit in this vignette. On the other hand, their flirting over a winter brasier is authentic in another way.
Now we will steer much farther away from authenticity. While Jean-François learns and shows through re-enactment, others take a looser romantic approach. They evoke; they play; they party. Hollywood, romantic novels and television inspire.
There is a pair of movies that illustrates romance versus authenticity. Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves is a fun movie, and was even filmed in Carcassonne, but it presents a jumble of inaccurate costumes, arms, and other details. On the other hand, Arn: The Knight Templar, is a good story and accurate in its depiction. Next time you’re feeling medieval, nest with this double feature.
Our passionate dancer and her accomplishes are having a good time, but they have made up almost all their costumes and activities.
While a knight and his lady on his-and-her horses are perfect for a romance-novel cover, you would never have witnessed a scene like this in the Middle Ages. Much more like Game of Thrones.
Sorry, once again: You would never have seen our charming lady vendor with fabric head ring in the medieval era. Draping scarves, however, were at times in fashion.
Nonetheless, it is great seeing the kids and families work with leather and parchment in ways that evoke medieval workmanship.
Shooting arrows with authentic equipment lets you live a medieval archer’s experience. While this type of curved bow had been used in Asia and Eastern Europe for a long time, it was used in the south of France from the 13th century.
Whether re-enacting with authenticity, or evoking just to have fun, a main goal is for the history of the Middle Ages to come alive. You can immerse yourself and, through activities, get glimpses of bits of a remote part of our shared history. Why not immerse yourself in the real clothes, arms, equipment, and tournament tents, rather than Hollywood’s fantasies?!
On our drive back from the lavender festival at Ferrassières, in order to avoid the tough city driving through Avignon, we forced our GPS to route us through Orange. We hadn’t yet visited Orange, which is famous for its Roman theater and triumphal arch. (We knew about these antiquities thanks to our dear friend Elise’s recommendation of the fine The Road from the Past: Traveling through History in France, by Ina Caro.) We were just thinking about how to make the journey less stressful. Once we arrived in Orange and were following GPS’s street-by-street instructions through the center of town, it dawned on us that the arch must be around here somewhere. Quick check on the phone and we realized that it was just around the corner. One turn later and there it was, centered on our avenue, shining in the hot afternoon sun. Spontaneous tourist moment!
We are so glad that we stopped. The arch is glorious. The city has created a new clear round-about, with tidy paving and great vantages. We slowly strolled around and under the arch, seeking shadows from the intense sun, listening to cicadas, and marveling at this 2000-year-old monument!
We learned that the arch was probably built during the reign of Augustus, sometime between 27 BC and 14 AD. It was built on the former Via Agrippa to honor the veterans of the Gallic Wars and Legio II Augusta. It was later reconstructed by emperor Tiberius to celebrate the victories of Germanicus over the German tribes in Rhineland.
There is a vestige of an inscription that once was affixed to the architrave. Gold-coated bronze letters probably spelled out:
TI • CAESAR • DIVI • AVGVSTI • F • DIVI • IVLI • NEPOTI • AVGVSTO • PONTIFICI • MAXIPOTESTATE • XXVIII • IMPERATORI • IIX • COS • IIII • RESTITVIT • R • P • COLONIAE (or RESTITVTORI • COLONIAE)
Ti(berio) Caesar(i), divi Augusti f(ilio), divi Iuli nepoti, Augusto, Pontifici Maximo, [Tribunicia]Potestate XXVIII Imperatori IIX Co(n)s(uli) IIII restituit R(es) P(ublica) coloniae (or : restitutori coloniae)
To Tiberius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus, grandson of the divine Iulius, Augustus, pontifex maximus, exercising tribunician power for the twenty eighth time, imperator for the eighth time, consul for the fourth time, given back to him by the administration of the colony (or refounder of the colony).
The arch is decorated with various reliefs of military themes, including naval battles, spoils of war and Romans battling Germanics and Gauls. A Roman foot soldier carrying the shield of Legio II Augusta can be seen on the north front battle relief.
Standing and pondering this impressive fragment of antiquity, we wondered what it had looked like when it was built and how it could have managed to last this long. A bit of internet research later…
We found a few artistic reconstructions, including one on the information board near the arch. We don’t know which of these are founded in modern archeological rigor, and which are romantic imaginings.
During the Middle Ages, the town’s walls appropriated the arch to be the control point for the northern entry of the town. These drawings date from about 1640.
In 1721, the Arc was in ruins, and part of the western facade of the Arc had collapsed. The local Prince directed the residents of Orange to repair the arch, including demolition of the house built on the arch, opening of the arches, restoration of the collapsed corner, removal of the surrounding walls, filling of the ditches, and flattening of the slope which served as support.
During the romantic movement, ruins and their evocations were the rage. One could ponder the awe-inspiring passage of millennia and the inevitable ravages of time.
In 1824, A. Caristie, an architect, undertook a first restoration by removing the piers and other elements that had been added in the Middle Ages. The west side was almost entirely rebuilt based on sketches of the old sculptures.
In 2009, the arch was thoroughly cleaned. The Arc de Triomphe regained all its splendor!
Foodie alert. Excessive food and wine commentary follows!
A couple of weeks ago, we found an announcement online for a special culinary event at the Château de Pennautier*, not far from our house. The organizers promised to bring together six noted chefs from the Carcassonne area. Hence the name Les Toqués d’Oc (toqués comes from the toque, or chef’s hat; Oc is the traditional name of this region and its language). Each would prepare a course for the event. We would be dining with about 200 of our closest friends within the 17th century château. It all started at noon on Saturday.
At the reception office for the château, a young woman handed us perforated tickets, and invited us to stroll through the garden to the main entrance of the château. Six panels comprised the tickets, one for each course. Instead of being served each course at the table as we expected, we were going to get our courses at chefs’ stations. We envisioned Honolulu Food & Wine Festival, with plastic plates, snippets of food, and general chaos.
We found the château’s ballroom filled with round tables. They were dressed with white table cloths, metal flatware, and wine and water glasses. Things were looking up: no plastic plates, knives and forks here. At the entrance to the ballroom, a young man dressed in black instructed us in French and English. Being among the first to arrive, he directed us to the tables at the far end of the room. He asked that we choose seats at a table already filling, or if full, start a new one; and please don’t choose seats with a single empty seat to each side. He expressly reminded us that we were there for both food and conviviality.
The table filled around us with couples who didn’t seem to know each other but who fell into conversation immediately. The woman to our left tried to strike up a conversation, but instantly realized that we aren’t exactly from these parts. (It only takes our saying just “Bonjour” and the French know we are Anglo!) She smiled and hesitated. We smiled and hesitated. We all studied the menu. Time to get some wine.
Along one wall of the entrance hall, which is not very large considering that 200 guests were expected, four vintners offered their wines. One of the vintners is associated with the Château de Pennautier: Lorgeril. We have many times visited their boutique and restaurant which is near the château. A couple of their red wines are among our favorites. We chose a summery rosé with which to start the party.
Back at the table, I was relaxing into the fact of 10 nice French people, and our table mates were becoming less wary of the English speakers. It seemed that this event was as new to most of them as it was to us. A few, although living in Carcassonne, had never been in the château. Everyone was unsure about how the event would unroll. We were starting to feel a bit less alien.
There was a set of loudspeakers. The announcements, in French, were as legible as those of a subway conductor, even for our French companions. However, at one point, the table deciphered enough to realize that the first course was ready for us to retrieve. The instruction was to bring your wine glass. By the time we returned to the entrance hall, the crowd filled it, waiting for the first dish on the one side, and selecting wines on the other. Behind a white-cloth-covered table stood about 6 young chefs. Through en-filade doors, we could see tents outside where presumably the food was being prepared. Soon, servers starting bringing attractive plates to the chefs, who in turn finished dressing each one. As you will see, each course was beautiful, as composed and well presented as if we were in one of their restaurants.
With plates and (empty) glasses in hand, we maneuvered back through the crowd to find the wine paired with this course. Except for the later fish and dessert courses, the paired wines were all robust reds from the immediate region, including one of our favorites from Lorgeril. Even with starters and main courses with oysters, escargot and chicken, and on a summery Saturday afternoon, the sommeliers (and probably sponsors) chose characterful reds. Right up our alley!
The first starter (entrée in French) was a variation of steak tartare topped with a slice of a freshlarge Mediterranean oyster, a celebrated variety in the region. We had never had such a combination, but it was wonderful. The joining of the oyster and the beef, along with the slight acidic contribution from capers, onions and lemon, popped with freshness. Our winter and spring have been notably gray, cool and rainy. Only in the last few days has sunny warm summer finally pushed the gloom out. This starter felt like a giddy sigh of relief that vacation weather had at last arrived.
But not to everyone. Much to our surprise, two women at the table really didn’t like raw oysters. One, sitting near me, confessed that this was the first time in her life that she had eaten a raw oyster. She said she enjoyed the dish, but needed to eat it with her eyes closed. The two women then realized that an escargot was to be at the heart of the next dish, which pleased them just about as much as the raw oyster. To their credit, they ate both dishes. For us, their reaction, which was full of humor as well as authenticity, humanized our French neighbors. We thought that the French — I mean, all the French — so love and defend their cuisine, that nothing would be off-limits. Turns out it is a bit more normal.
As promised, the second starter’s focus was a round fritter with an escargot center. It floated in a super-fresh pea and fava soup, garnished with purple flower petals. To the chefs’ station, the servers from the tents outside brought the soup plates. The chefs added the fritter and selected the flower petals. For each course, we witnessed the same clever approach: The front-of-house chefs put final aesthetic touches on the heart of the dish, which had been more easily prepared off-site and in volume. We had feared that, for an event of 200 people, the food would recall banquets at Hilton Hawaiian Village. Very happily, these chefs and their teams succeeded tremendously in choosing dishes for such a large group while retaining their signature taste and visual styles.
During the time of the starters, a late arrival sat at our table. Her husband had not yet arrived. The reason was that an air-traffic-controllers strike had delayed his flight from Belgium to Carcassonne. Everyone rolled their eyes in knowing sympathy at the table. Notably contentious rail and air strikes in France have filled this spring and now summer. All that anyone can do is try to plan around them, and if caught by surprise, stoically power through. The woman said that, ironically, it was her husband who had chosen this event, and was now missing it.
The first main course (plat in French) was a white fish surrounded by fennel in at least three forms: purée, crispy thin slices of the bulb, and perfectly poached stems.
The second main course was our favorite. The description in the menu was relatively simple: chicken, rice, pear, ginger. Fortunately, its synergy made most of the table ooh and aah. The white chicken meat was juicy and firm as it is supposed to be. But it was all the other ingredients that lit up the dish. The rice was a very specific red rice from the village of Marseillette, about 15 minutes from Carcassonne. The rice was nutty and bright. A jus of beef stock and ginger linked the ingredients. Little balls of poached pear, skewered with a verveine leaf, were like the models at a car show, framing the dish. Somehow, all these ingredients and their preparation harmonized beyond what we had expected.
A patisserie in Carcassonne, whose creations we have often admired, provided the dessert: white chocolate mousse in a lime glaze and hiding a pineapple center, a wafer with hints of ginger, coconut gelato, and a sprig of chocolate. I loved it; Mike was less enthusiastic, probably because he would have preferred the white chocolate to have been dark. The wine pairing was a silky dessert wine, again from Lorgeril.
At the time of the dessert course, the lost husband from Belgium arrived. Impressively, the chefs still were able to provide him with each course. We noticed that his plates were fuller than ours had been. Air traffic controller strikes have little hidden benefits.
By the end of the meal, our table was lingering in conversation more than almost all the others. The couple at my right had opened up, as had we, in the course of the courses. At one point, I asked if they had any recommendations for good restaurants in the area that might not be as well known as others. At first, they seemed to struggle a little; they spread the question to others at the table. After a few suggestions of the usual known restaurants, they started to come up with interesting options off in various villages, which we noted in our phones. It was fun to experience everyone’s enthusiasm about the food and restaurants of their — and our — region. One of the best ways to get a conversation going in France is to ask about food. Works every time!
Finally, after all these courses and almost four hours, we headed outside. Fresh-ground espressos in the sun helped counteract the surfeit of food and wine.
We walked back to our car and safely drove home in a bubble of enthusiasm. It was remarkable that such good food, wine, ambiance and company were possible with so many people. And at a good price — much less than in one of these chefs’ restaurants. Somehow, we couldn’t bring ourselves to eat or even drink anything else for the rest of the day. Would we do it again? Yes indeed!
*You can see more about the Château in an earlier post.
A few times each year, a few farms, vineyards and bee keepers in our region open their places to the public. This past Sunday was De ferme en ferme (from farm to farm) en Val de Dagne. All the open farms are located within about 45 minutes of Carcassonne, to the southeast. The announcement says:
We are happy to help you discover our crafts, our animals and our products. We all have the same passion, the same drive to offer products that are healthy and natural. You will be able to taste and discover the true products of the farm…Goat cheese, meat of goat and buffalo, pork sausages and meat, duck breast, foie gras, escargots, olives, olive oil, honey, jams, ice cream, sorbets, syrups, preserved plants, herbal teas, essential oils, wine, saffron, mushrooms…
We chose two farms: one with water buffalo, and the other with goats.
Domaine de la Bourdasse (La Bourdasso)
The proprietor, Eduardo Antonini, raises water buffalo. Water buffalo are typically found in Italy, and have been since Roman times. Antonini has brought them to Aude (our region of France). He sells buffalo meat, which he says is less fatty than beef and contains more protein; and buffalo milk, richer in fat and protein than cows’ milk. He also runs a noted Italian restaurant at the farm that features his products.
After about 20 minutes driving along a one-lane road through the Corbière mountains, we arrived at the farm. The parking lot was already full; we found a vineyard road instead.
On this Sunday, La Bourdasso offered a grilled lunch. We arrived a few minutes after noon, and there was already a line for the lunch plates. Families with kids, young couples, older couples, and even a few hipsters gathered at picnic tables to enjoy lunch. We bought our lunch ticket and a bottle of local organic red wine, and waited in line, downwind from the delicious grill smoke. The smiling server presented us with a plate of grilled buffalo sausage, grilled zucchini, salad, hearty bread, and a sweet cake somewhere between a scone, soda bread and a chocolate chip cookie.
It was a windy day, typical for our region. We fortunately found a couple chairs at a table inside the barn-like building. In one direction, one of the hipsters was working with a stainless steel vat of buffalo mozzarella cheese. In another direction, the bar had been turned into a charcuterie for buffalo meat (we bought a few rib steaks to try at home on the grill). The group of adults next to us were debating which farms to visit next.
Trying to be sensible, we didn’t drink the entire bottle of wine. After our lunch and finding nothing much else to experience, we headed back along the country road to our car. There was Mike, strolling the road, bottle in hand. Emblematic of our French life.
Les Genivrières: the goat farm of Matthieu Bouette
Further along the one-lane country road, we found this goat farm. (Mike drove with a certain amount of caution, which was appropriate since we came head-to-head to on-coming cars a few times. The country roads in this part of France are challenging because they are so narrow and there are deep drainage ditches immediately to each side of the roads, without any shoulders.)
After a walk from the parking area through the woods, full of early summer wild flowers, we found a buzz of activity. Beneath tents, vendors were selling goat cheese and meat. We could hear the festive families and visitors even before we could see them gathered around big tables beneath the trees.
Since we’d already had lunch, we bypassed the food and strolled up a pathway between stone walls. At the top, we found a goat enclosure with a single rather handsome goat. She was obviously ready to be milked. We saw an open door to the left and stepped in. In front of us was a raised walkway with a line of bowls. Just beyond the walkway was a throng of goats clamoring for feed. As we were puzzling out the line of bowls, a young man with an infant strapped to his chest came in, followed by a bundle of kids (the human kind). It was evident that this fellow was the owner of this farm, Matthieu Bouette. His youth shone brightly. We imagined a young family with their goat farm in the hills of Aude. He proceeded to explain how they led the goats onto the walkway, stopping them at the feeding bowls. While the goats munched, the farmers would milk them. The milk flowed through a pipe to the stone cheese-making building just below.
As we left the milking room, our host asked if we’d seen the kids yet. He pointed up the hill. We found a small building with four-month-old goats. The sign said that they are kept separate from the adult goats for a few months. Born in April, they would join their parents and other adults in July. Kids are cute! Some were munching enthusiastically on the hay in the feeder racks. Others were very interested in their human visitors. They obviously savored a head scratch and a face rub.
Many years ago, we visited a goat farm in California. Its pungent aroma stayed in our nostrils for quite a while after our visit. At this farm, the only smells were of hay, grass, greenery and fresh mud. Everything felt healthy and clean.
On our way out, we noticed a stand selling wine. They offered red, white and rosé wine in bottles and in BiBs. BiBs are “bag in box.” We have to confess that we have discovered quite a few pleasant wines available in BiBs. We call them weekday wines. We also think BiB really stands for “buzz in box.” They are tremendously cost-effective, and, when well chosen, are very nice wines. By cost-effective, I mean between two and four euros per bottle equivalent! We can buy a decent 5-liter BiB for less than what a mediocre glass of pinot cost us in a New York lunch restaurant last fall. Sorry to gloat, but here in a tremendous wine-producing region, we are so fortunate to enjoy delicious wines that are deliciously affordable.