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!
Last year at the end of June, we spent a few days in Provence in search of lavender. We were very fortunate; we found fields and fields of purple. (Last year’s post.) During our touring, we noticed the announcement for the annual Lavender Festival in Ferrassières, always on the first Sunday of July. We plotted our return. One must never run out of lavender, you know.
Ferrassières is a little village in the middle of a broad valley in the heart of lavender-growing Provence. While the nearby town of Sault gets a lot of tourist attention, the valley around Ferrassières is major lavender producing territory. Here are the farms and the farmers who make lavender in Provence famous.
While last year the fields were densely and deeply purple at the start of July, this year the colors were paler and the tufts were scruffier — at least to our eyes. The end of winter and most of spring of 2018 was exceptionally wet, chilly and gray. People in our village said that it hadn’t been this wet in the last 50 years. We speculate: perhaps the rains stunted the lavender plants, or delayed their development. Nonetheless, a few poppy hangers-on from early summer offered sparks of red.
The festival proper was simply stands strung out along the village’s main street. We found what you find in most street fairs anywhere, although with deep Provence themes and local products: fresh summer produce, Provençal linens, sausages, pottery, glass painted with lavendar motifs, cheese, olives, paintings, decorated objects, jewelry, and sun hats. And, of course, lavender: dried lavender flowers, lavender honey, lavender-based cosmetics, lavendar oils, sachets, lavender biscuits, soaps, lavender bath salts, and lavender-infused sugar.
We bought two kilos of dried lavender flowers! With the help of our friend Sharon, we are going to make lavender pillow inserts. In past travels, in Seattle and in Hokkaido, we had found flat pads stuffed with lavender that are designed to slip into the pillow case along with the main pillow. One then dreams in lavender.
This lavender-oil vendor cleverly mocked up the stills that distill the flowers.
At the entrance to the village, this proud phalanx of tractors stood at attention. While we laymen play with the pretty scent and colors, these tractors represent the farmers’ real hard work of the entire year.
The day was hot, about 35 degrees C or 95 degrees F. Strolling a street fair in the heat makes one hungry. Just to the left of the truck in this photo, a family of three was grilling sausages and composing picnic lunches. We paid for our lunch ticket, and then waited for the griller to catch up. The refrigerator truck held the sausages ready for the grill, but also brown paper bags with a chilled barley salad, bread with Serrano ham, and fromage blanc (somewhere between yogurt and cottage cheese) with fruit sauce. The griller served up hot sausages, a baked potato, and a creamy mustard sauce. While the operation had one foot in comic chaos, the food was delicious.
Of course, lavender was the main reason for the fair. It may just be an aroma, but it has captivated us. We are relieved that we have replenished our supply, and we can now muddle through until next year’s fix.
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.
On a recent spring afternoon, we visited the site of the Oppidum of Ensérune, not far from Béziers and the Mediterranean. A delightful knowledgeable young woman, Bérengère, guided us around the site.
We learned that an oppidum, of which there are many in Europe, is an elevated fortified settlement.
Pre-Roman Gauls established this oppidum around the 6th century BCE. Presumably its elevation, with outstanding defensive views, encouraged its habitation. At first, the settlement was only a collection of a few circular mud huts, roofed with thatch. As the centuries passed, the population slowly grew, and the organization of the settlement became more ordered. Once the Romans arrived and conquered this region, the town grew to have a population of about 4,000 people. Roman construction and infrastructure techniques appeared on top of the earlier Gallic town.
In the first century AD, the inhabitants abandoned the oppidum. The reasons include a lack of easily accessible water, the establishment of the Pax Romana (the extended period of peace in which defensive positions became much less relevant), and the development of the major trading city and harbor of Narbo Martius (modern Narbonne) a few kilometers away.
We’re happy to offer a fresh change from all the recent arctic-themed posts. Spring, and even a bit of summer, have at last arrived in our neighborhood. Colors and freshness are everywhere.
After weeks of gray skies and rainy days, the sun’s warmth has incited fields of red poppies. Some fields and roadsides have become carpets of scarlet.
It seems to us that there are many many more poppies this year than what we remember from last year. Perhaps, since last year was our first spring in Carcassonne, we hadn’t noticed as much as we do now. I looked online for some explanation about why this year’s “crop” is so rich. I couldn’t find any conversation: apparently it is not as remarkable to long-time residents as it is to us. In fact, in rural areas, poppies, however attractive to artists and tourists, are considered weeds. They grow easily in just about any soil; they compete with other crops like wheat; and one poppy plant can generate over 50,000 seeds in a season.
The red poppy is a resonant symbol from the First World War. The centenary of the war’s end is this year. After years of horrific battles in the fields of Flanders, during which the ground was trampled and drenched in blood, poppies were the first flowers to push through. Each flower represents a fallen combatant.
I found one more poppy symbol. The writer says that this connection is a bit poetic as well as an old rural legend. Usually, the red, white and blue of the French flag recall the blue and red of the French Revolution, which frame the white of the king. Instead, out here in the country, the colors are those of wildflowers: the blue of cornflower, the white of camomille, and the red of the poppy.
Poppies try to steal the thunder from the newly awake grape vines, but the vines will have much more endurance through the summer. The stripes of vineyards drape over almost every hill and plain of this region. In the course of a single week, we noticed the first pale green sprouts atop the dark old vine trunks. And then, almost overnight, the vineyards transformed into fluffy fields of new grape leaves.
We have learned that this first spring stage is called bud-breaking. This is the time when the vigneron (the farmer of the grapes) finishes pruning the vines and starts preventive treatments to combat grapevine pests and diseases. We can see from our living room window our neighboring vigneron on his narrow tractor systematically passing between the lines of vines. Octopus arms spray what we imagine are pesticides (we hope no) or fertilizers. He mows down the grasses (including a few poppies) that are flourishing between the vine rows. (When the tractor is absent, we see earth-colored white-tailed rabbits hopping among the vines. We trust that they wait out the vigneron in safe burrows.)
The vines are now growing swiftly, lengthening by 5 – 15 centimeters each day. Before the next milestone, when the vines bloom, the vigneron will select the new branches that promise the best grapes.