24 Oct 2011

Apples, Wine and Rice

There are so many fairs and festivals held in France, and over the last few years I’ve managed to go to quite a few in this region. To name a few, there are celebrations for chestnuts, truffles, mushrooms, onions, olives, cherries, bigarade (bitter oranges), pigs, mimosa (wattle), marrows, and not forgetting wine of course. 

There's also a foire aux gras (that’s ‘Fat Fair’ – a celebration of meat – ducks, geese, pork etc). And many more ……… and then there are the carnivals. There’s rarely a weekend when there’s not something on within a short drive of here.

Last weekend I went with friends Caroline and Trevor to the annual Rice, Wine and Apple festival at Aigues-Vives. 

I knew that rice was widely grown over in the Camargue region, east of here, but didn’t realise we had a small scale production quite so close to home.

The fields of rice, apples and wine are grown in a drained lake near the Canal du Midi (approx 2000 hectares). Apparently it was a process that took hundreds of years and was only finally completed in the 1800s when an Irish woman by the name of Anne Marie Coppinger who lived in France convinced Napoleon to fund and finish the project.

We arrived early to get the first of the three free tourist train trips through the orchards and rice fields. It was an interesting and rather lengthy (2.5 hours) train ride, stopping at various spots and getting an interesting history, in one instance from the only rice grower left in this region. There used to be three – now he tells us he’s the only one left. I think he’s doing ok – this is where he lives – over beyond the vines and the rice fields.

The canal and irrigation system is unique – several hundred kilometres of canals for just this area. 

There are a few major ones, controlled by the sluice gates from the holding basin (water from the River Aude), and many more much smaller ones criss-crossing the entire production area. 

There were even specially constructed boats used to keep the larger canals clear of weed – now this job is done mechanically. 

Not only is the rice totally submerged during its growing cycle, the vine and fruit trees are also periodically flooded as a means of irrigation.

There were two guides – the other was an orchardist and we stopped in his orchards of Chantecler apples (Golden Delicious × Reinette Clochard) and ate some of the windfall while he gave a talk. 

They were absolutely delicious – and given that it was nearly midday by this time - a very welcome snack.

It was one of the windiest days I’ve experienced here. The cold wind from the north, the Tramontane (the Languedoc’s version of the dreaded Mistral wind) was blowing full-force. 

It probably has blown as strongly as this before – I guess I just haven't ventured outside in it for any length of time.

Anyway it was another lovely day out in a village and a festival that I’d not visited before. And after our tourist train excursion, there was nothing left to do really but load up on apples. And delicious they were too.

Some photos around the village:

Some houses' courtyards were very elaborately decorated - here the Occitan cross.

... and here a minimalistic but effective approach

9 Oct 2011

An ASHS reunion - à la française

There was an Albany Senior High School reunion last year held in Albany, Western Australia that I wasn’t able to attend. The next best thing was to have two old school friends come and stay – my old friend Susie (the Bulgarian Connection) who was here visiting this time last year – and Di, who I haven’t seen for probably 20 or more years! 

Colour co-ordinated clothes and drinks. But only one of us is grey!

Susie had gone down to meet Di in Istanbul, then spent a few days back in Bulgaria, then onto Barcelona, and then up to me for a week. I was exhausted just hearing about it!

But still enough energy left when they got here for us to have a fabulous time and catch up.

Some of the places we visited, Susie had seen before – but not all of them. So between lots of eating and drinking (no surprises there), reminiscing and many laughs – here’s some of what we got up to.

A good way of seeing a bit of the countryside and the coast around the Etang de Thau (oysters, oysters, and more oysters – and then there’s the mussels….) and the Mediterranean beaches, is to do a loop. Heading east to Pezenas (preferably on a Saturday when there is a great market), Mèze, Bouzigues, Sète and back along the coast via Agde.

That’s a very rough itinerary; it would take days to call into all the places worthy of a visit.

While we were wandering along the waterfront of Sète – France’s biggest fishing port on the Mediterranean
we noticed a tourist boat tied up, and about to leave on a one hour cruise of the coast. We got on at the last minute and went out of the harbour and along the coast a way.

Given that the whole week has had fabulous weather (low 30s - hottest for this time of year since 1985) – it was a great day to get out on the water.

Sète is a lovely town – the huge fishing boats tie up alongside the man-made canals (quays?) that go right into the centre of town – and restaurants and commerce is all around. You can be sitting at a café or restaurant and be metres from giant trawlers, laden with nets – the smell of the sea and fishing boats. 

Another day we took in Narbonne, Gruissan and Gruissan Plage, where all the chalet houses on stilts are to be found. This was the setting for the 80s cult movie Betty Blue. In fact, in the movie she was shown working at the very restaurant we had lunch at – now called Le Grande Soleil

Sitting on the verandah, looking out over Gruissan Plage

What a setting and what a STEAK!  

We were hungry, but not that hungry. Di made a wise choice of seafood. Susie and I decided on meat. It looks big on the plate. It was HUGE. We took rather a lot of it with us when we left - there was enough for rare beef to be used in another meal at home, and then still some left for Nic’s dog!

We called into the old town of Gruissan and climbed the tower in the centre. A fairly windy day, but the climb was certainly worth it - amazing views out over the rooftops and far beyond. 

And on the outskirts of Gruissan are the salt pans and the Gruissan Salt Museum – well worth a visit. 


I hadn't known that there was a little restaurant next to the museum, overlooking the drying salt beds – selling fresh oysters but also with an interesting looking simple menu of the day. Good to keep in mind for another visit another day.

Casual dining at the edge of the salt pans - table tops supported by piles of roof tiles.

We also had a day in Carcassonne and La Cite:

Le Chateau Comptal within the walls of La Cite
Looking over the ramparts, towards 'new' Carcassonne
Close-up of some of the gargoyles on the Basilica of St-Nazaire
Susie and Di - dwarfed by the outer walls of la Cite

And on the last day a trip up into the hills to Minerve. Susie stayed back for a much-needed rest (having visited last year) and Di and I did the walk around the gorges, and through the cave. 

When you emerge from the other end of the cave, you find hundreds of cairns that people have constructed - it's obviously the thing to do, and they make quite a sight. 

Ours was a rather insignificant offering, but hey, we've left our mark!

errr .... that's ours in the foreground .....
'C' for effort

Moving sideways

Future posts on Bize-Bytes can now be found on Facebook. Link: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Bize-Bytes/895137113876897