Monday, November 1, 2010

Where the Glass-Blowers Were

And so it came to pass that, in the middle of escalating tension, Friday, October 29 arrived, and I realized that this was the day that Hérault Tourisme and I had a date. The date involved getting up way early, then offering up a prayer that the trams weren't on strike, then jumping into my clothes, jamming down some breakfast and coffee, and taking the tram out to the Château d'Ô stop, where a young woman from Hérault Tourisme, Sabrina Lucchese, would pick me up and drive me to Claret, a small village in the east of the department, for a day of varied touristic stuff with other English-language journalists and bloggers. It all started like clockwork: my phone buzzed as I stepped off the tram, and it was Sabrina, asking if I were there yet and then saying never mind, she saw me. Her car pulled up in front of the bus stop and we were off. 

Claret is in the area that's now calling itself Grand Pic St. Loup, but it's got nothing to do with the wine claret. That word, pronounced klarrit, is an outdated British word for French red wine, usually from Burgundy, and is descended from a Latin word. Claret, pronounced klah-RAY, is a smallish town in the garrigue, the brushy ecosystem that exists in flat places up high in these parts. There's no claret or anything else winey grown in Claret, but for centuries it was the center of the regional glass industry. The glassmakers are mostly gone by now, but there is the brand new museum, the Halle du Verre, which has just undergone a million-Euro renovation, and we were going to start with a guided tour in French. 

Industries tend to grow up around places where the raw material is plentiful, and I never did catch the explanation of the special sand that made Claret-area glass so special; our guide was very easy to follow even though she spoke too fast for me to take notes. During the years of early glassmaking, a premium was placed on transparency, a transparency that at first could only be attained by using rare and costly rock crystal. The press-kit I got says that "Beginning in 1290, the oak forests on the Causse de l'Orthus attracted glassmakers and their families," so maybe the oaks got used for fuel. (A "causse" is a geological term for a limestone plateau, and if you remember back to posts this summer, the Orthus is the mountain facing Pic St. Loup which I spelled Horthus back then). 

At any rate, the glassmakers were ennobled by the King, and formed a guild of premium glass-makers whose wares were sold all over Europe from the market at Sommières. They were probably un-nobled by the Revolution eventually, but they left behind some nice specimens of their glassblowing art, which are displayed upstairs in the temporary exhibition hall in a show called Le souffle du verrier en Languedoc: Verre d'usage et de prestige sous l'Ancien Régime, or The breath of the glassmaker in Languedoc: Everyday glass and prestige glass in pre-Revolutionary France. It shows an attention to detail that's mirrored in the permanent exhibit downstairs: two of the notable specialties were the porron, a flat-bottomed spherical bottle with a narrowing tube running off the base of its neck, a wine receptacle made for drinking while working, and a topette, a skinny squarish bottle used to hold medicines, produced in the tens of thousands for the medical school down in Montpellier. The show's up until November 14, and, along with some of the other stuff I'll get to in a minute, or which you can discover on one of the tourist maps, it's worth the trip, especially on these crisp fall days. 


Our next stop was the art glassmakers, Bernadette and Gérard Attard. He blows glass, she does spun glass, and they were conveniently located next door to the museum. First he did us a tiny pitcher, followed by a dolphin which, somehow, he managed to drop, with no ill effects. There was a rumor going around that some of our number had been made depressed by the sight of so many empty glasses, so we headed out of town into the garrigue to remedy that. 


The tourist initiative that helped rebuild the Halle du Verre and the ancient Couloubrines glassworks in the nearby village of Ferrières-les-Verreries also helped kit out the Mas de Baumes near that  village, a farmhouse atop a hill in the garrigue which now contains a hotel and restaurant overseen by famous local chef Eric Tapié. Having received many pornographic e-mails from the local Slow Food convivium of lunches he'd created for them, I was anxious to taste his food. 

The place turned out to be comfortable, but not ostentatious, and our table had a nice view out into the surrounding hills. 

As soon as everyone got there (we were waiting for Helen Cho, a young woman from Oakland who moved to the area a year ago and writes a food blog called Languedoc Zombies), the show began. We started out with a white, a Sauvignon called Salle de Son from St. Hippolite that was perhaps the best white I've ever had. It was all about minerals and vegetables, dry as the garrigue outside, and married perfectly with the two seared scallops resting beside a smear of squash with a pool of balsamic vinegar in it and a little chutney of finely chopped grapefruit skin. The garnish was parsley, but deep-fried. We were also madly scooping up rosemary-infused olive oil and fleur du sel, both from renowned local producers. 

This done, a red was brought out, a 2008 Bergerie l'Hortus Classique, which was as typical a top-end Pic St. Loup as you could ask for, kind of a Platonic ideal if you were trying to explain it to someone else. Here, my year of not tasting got to me, and I could identify that it was, indeed, a Pic St. Loup from before my taste buds deserted me, but I'll have to get back with you on the details. Or you could try to find one yourself. 

After the starter, I was primed for the duck breast which came next only to be wildly disappointed: mine had cartilage all through it, making it tough to saw with the knife we had, which was not quite a butter knife. A couple of others reported this, too, and my mashed potatoes, which didn't seem to be anything but mashed potatoes, were actually cold. There was a wine reduction scattered here and there, and a nice little relish made from pine nuts, figs and corn on the side, but if I were in the kitchen I would have either not served that particular breast or trimmed it better. 

I don't usually eat dessert, but then I don't usually eat at places like the Mas de Baumes, either, so I dug right into the chestnut tiramisu with champagne, sauced with coffee. There was a fish-shaped golden thing of caramelized sugar reminiscent of glass, and a black thing that looked like a piece of charcoal garnishing the dish which was chocolate, but, I suspect, a kind of cookie made with chestnut flour, since it had a very sandy texture. Really well-put together and balanced, the garnishes speaking to the glassmaking of the region -- and not too sweet, either. 

We were served little pots of vanilla panacotta with a dollop of rosemary honey with our coffee, and that was it. Just enough. 

Given that there are plenty of other places like this in the area, I don't know if I'd go back, although I have no idea how much this menu would have cost. That main course was a major blunder of kitchen craft sandwiched between two sublime moments. The hotel aspect, on the other hand, is very tempting under the right circumstances. Hell, on a good week, I could even afford it.

Our next stop was back in Claret at a distillery, which had some of us going until we saw that it was an oil distillery: juniper wood is heated until it gives off its essential oil as a gas, which then is sent into a cold-water bath and decanted into a vessel where the oil and water separate. I'd never heard of the stuff, but it's used not only in cosmetics, but also as a treatment for psoriasis and as an all-purpose veterinary medicine. It takes them a hundred kilograms of wood to make seven liters of oil, and they make 15 tons of oil a year, which explains all the wood lying around, as well as the very nice smell, which is hardly noticeable, which you can't say about most distilleries. It's also the only juniper distillery, not only in France, but, once the one in Spain closes down at the end of the year, in Europe. 

I'm sure Hérault Tourisme would have been ashamed to lure all these journalists (well, there were eight of us) up into the Pic St. Loup terroir without showing us a winery, so off we went to the nearby village of Vacquieres, where Chateau Lascaux is located. I was really looking forward to a tasting there, because this is a wine with a strong local reputation, but the owner, Jean-Benoît Cavalier, had had his car break down on his way in and was stranded out in the garrigue somewhere. A young woman with the key to the storage tanks, though, took us in to see the sleeping wine in barrels and then the huge 10,000-liter tanks were the new wine was hanging out. We got to taste some of that, but other than alcohol and yeast, the predominant sensations, the mysteries lying underneath were elusive. The rosé seemed like it already had something going on, but the red was just like liquid fire. Nice color, though. 

That was it. I got back in Sabrina's car, we talked about how happy we were that the impending rain had held off, I gazed at the mist surrounding the Pic as it loomed up in the distance, and I had only two wishes: that I could do something like this every week, and that I wasn't going to have to rush to the English Corner Shop (where I've been using their wi-fi for two weeks while waiting to get turned on at home), and write a very aggressive letter to my landlord, telling him what to do with the pieces of paper he'd forced on me the day before and ordered me to sign. It wasn't the way I wanted the day to end, but it's the way it ended. 

In fact, I hope I do get to do stuff like this more often. The whole area is promoting itself aggressively, and seems to accept bloggers as journalists. I've been itching to write more about all of this stuff, and yet without a car, it's hard to do the self-guided thing. The different tourist agencies, however, don't cooperate with each other, which isn't a good thing when it comes to reaching out internationally, especially to Americans, who I'm sure would love to drop some dollars on this whole corner of France, judging from the ones who passed through here this summer. So now I'm on Hérault's mailing list, and maybe Gard, Alpes-Pyrénées and Aude will come along in due time. Lacking a magazine to write about this stuff for (and, of course, having never known a magazine that'd take junket-generated stories), I'll write it down here, along with my own odd peregrinations. Stay tuned.

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