Friday, September 30, 2011

Miettes: A Way of Life

Nothing of the sort, of course, just needed a title for this next batch.

As autumn creeps in on the rest of Europe, we're still nice and warm and sunny down here. This unchanging state of affairs shouldn't be mistaken for boredom, however. I mean, things do happen from time to time. For instance, about a month ago, I was coming back home and there was a great to-do at the Comédie tram stop, with all kinds of flashing blue lights. Apparently, the notice board which tells you which tram is next and how many minutes until it arrives had blown up. Smoke was pouring out of it and people were gathered all around.

The real news, of course, is that was a month ago and as of today it still hasn't been repaired.

* * *

The nice warm weather means that stupid t-shirts continue to be worn by our citizens, and since, as I said, I don't carry a notebook around, I've only recorded the ones I've remembered long enough to get back to the slum and write down. We may, in this batch, have a winner, though, for the worst t-shirt slogan ever.

It wasn't on the young guy I saw yesterday, who was walking along wearing one which said


because (surprise!) it was, except for the black lettering. Nor was it the Chinese gentleman whose shirt declared


There was also a young Japanese girl whose shirt made me think.


Does she not want to enrich Yoko Ono, or is the change of word a complete-the-sentence game?

Some men seem to like to display testosterone, like the guy I saw whose t-shirt simply declared


He had a young woman draped all over him, so who knows, it might have been true. Then there was the guy with the enigmatic slogan


which definitely had me thinking all the way home. If stress fuelled what I did, I'd be working 24 hours a day, although I can't say I'd guarantee a quality product.

No, the winner in our really stupid t-shirt contest so far this year is the impeccably made-up woman, very classy-looking, around 50, who had a shirt with one of those leggy female silhouettes which were once confined to truckers' mudflaps, and the words


Should I have asked her for a job, or run away? She vanished into the crowd before I could decide.

* * *

Going through this part of the broke-not-poor cycle, I haven't been able to eat out much, but one very notable food happening has occurred around here recently. A defunct sandwich shop suddenly sprouted a nice new sign and a lovely interior and opened as Omija, a Korean deli.

Now, this is notable because of the specificity of its mission. This is not an "Asia" place: it's 100% Korean. It serves lunch for €7.50, either a dish of the day or one of those lovely rice-with-stuff-on-top dishes called Bibimbap. There are also soups and other dishes, like bulgogi, available at the whim of the chef. The freezer has some Japanese stuff like gyoza and edamame, and there's Japanese and Korean beer available. I forgot to ask about kimchi, although it's inconceivable that it's not there.

I spoke with a young woman named, I believe, On, who was very happy to speak English ("Much easier!"), and who was optimistic about turning the French on to her cuisine. It sure would be nice if it caught on, and so far there seems to be an enthusiastic crowd at lunchtime. There's also free wi-fi if you're hanging out at the outside tables, and apparently the omija the place is named after is a drink made from a Korean berry, which I have yet to try. I wish them luck, because they're going to need it!

Omija Coffee House, 8, rue Boussairolles (a block off the Comédie). Open Mon-Sat, hours still being determined. Phone: 04 67 92 70 18

* * * 

Finally, the Montpellier Opera has just announced its new season, which is mostly the same old same old, with one notable exception: Philip Glass has been working on a revised version of the piece which made his name, the collaboration with Robert Wilson which premiered in Avignon in 1976, Einstein on the Beach, and this new version is having its world premiere here in mid-March. No idea why Montpellier was selected, but this should be fun. Unfortunately, it's happening in the middle of SXSW, so no way I'll be here. Dang.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Broke Not Poor Cuisine: Pastafazool

There are always questions about pastafazool. The first one I was aware of came in third grade, when a new kid, James Mastrobuono, was seated behind me. He weighed around 300 pounds and was about 14, and was the latest immigrant who'd been brought over to work for, um, the local businessmen's association. Sort of a charitable deal. Jimmy would kick the back of my chair rhythmically, and say "Hey, Emmun. Hey, Emmun." (The teachers all called us by our legal given names, at least until Evelyne Thomas Durnford had an audience with one after a particularly severe playground thrashing). "Hey, Emmun. Hey, Emmun." The whole point was to get me to say, "What?" which, in order to get this obese moron to stop kicking me, I'd usually do. "You mama make you pastafazool?" he'd say, and then collapse in helpless laughter. So would some of his friends. (Revenge, of course, came with puberty: nobody with a name like Jimmy Mastrobuono was going to escape verbal savagery, even if, by then, he weighed more like 600 pounds. The last time I saw him, he was heaving  his bulk on and off the back of a city garbage truck.)

But a word had been planted in my head, and it took a while to process. I figured out a couple of things. First, it was a dish. Second, the word pastafazool was Southern Italian (like the kids I grew up with) for the more refined pasta a la fagiole. Third, there are about a hundred ways to make it. Is it a soup? Is it a stew? Is it a sauced pasta dish? The answer is yes. It's also so humble you'll probably never get it in a restaurant -- or even get most chefs to admit they make it. Not me: pastafazool, the way I make it, is a staple of broke-but-not-poor cuisine, and yet it's so good that once riches and the infinite possibilities they offer shower down on me, as I fervently hope they will, I'll keep making it. It's that good.

Now, Americans have an advantage: they can make pastafazool with Italian sausage. The words may indicate otherwise, but Italian sausage is an American dish. It's what Southern Italian salsiccie has evolved into in the New World, and it's better than any of the original I've had. And I've had the original, first from a Berlin restaurant whose proprietoress had it shipped up from Naples, and, then, from an Italian deli in Berlin that started stocking it. Nope: American Italian sausage, redolent with fennel seeds and hot peppers, is the real deal. Around here I make do with a product called chair à saucisse, which is like basic sausage meat with very little seasoning. Or do without, when I'm really broke (but not poor).

Anyway, here's what you do. First, assemble your ingredients:

What we have here is, on the lower row, a can of white beans, some fennel seeds, some crushed canned tomatoes, and an ingredient I have to smuggle in from Germany (although it's also available in the U.S.), namely powdered rosemary. The upper row has an almost-invisible bay leaf, some Japanese chiles (aka chile hontaka, chile japonès or basic dried chiles in the States), an onion, and some garlic. Also some salt and pepper.

So chop your onion and garlic, heat up some olive oil, and start sauteeing the onion. When it's just starting to turn yellow, toss in your garlic and stir-fry for a minute or so. There are four cloves of garlic here; I kinda like garlic.

Now, if you're using Italian sausage, this is the point to add it and stir it around some. It's best if it's loose, but it's also okay to use coins if it's too hard to get the casing off. Stir it around until it's not pink any more. Otherwise, this is the point where you add your chiles -- there are seven in there -- and about this much fennel seed. You might want to do this in lesser quantity even if you do have Italian sausage.

Also add the bay leaf and stir this around some. All three of these flavorings are dependent on the release of oil and a quick toss in the olive oil helps start that process.

Put in your tomatoes. Mine are so dense that I also add some water, about a quarter-can's worth, which'll evaporate during the course of cooking. Not doing this risks burning the sauce. With tomatoes, you do not want to burn the sauce, trust me.

Now sprinkle in your rosemary powder. This is about enough: 

Now you add some salt -- a bit more than you would if you were going to use it as is, because you'll be adding beans -- and let it stew a while. Meanwhile, drain your beans. You can also do the whole routine of cooking dried beans -- or even fresh beans if you've got access to them. This takes a while, though, and with the canned product being so cheap I can't be bothered. I also tried making this with the local cocos, white beans that come in the pod, and undercooked them and gave myself one hell of a stomach ache. 

I always rinse the glutinous crap they're packed in -- although it's only bean water -- from the canned product. It'll thicken your sauce unacceptably. Anyway, you've got about 30 minutes to wait, because you're anticipating the point where some oil separates from the cooking sauce: 

At this point, stir it a bit just to keep it liquid. You've already started your pasta water, right? Because we're about ready here. Add the beans and stir. You won't cook them long -- just long enough to get them hot, although a little longer won't kill anyone. 

Right. Now your pasta's going, and you get the garnishes ready: parsley and Parmigiano. 

That parsley mill is a bog-standard French supermarket one, a copy of the equally useless Mouli herb mill. What you want, if you can find it, is the plastic one made by the Swiss company, Zyliss. It does a better job and, unless you try to grind tree twigs in it, lasts longer. Or you can, you know, be primitive and chop the parsley by hand. 

Anyway, you've cooked the pasta, tipped a tablespoon of the water into your sauce for good luck, and drained it. You've put half the sauce into your pasta pot (assuming, of course, that you're dining alone, as is the lot of the broke-but-not-poor, although this recipe makes two servings), dusted it with the parsley, returned the pasta (which, of course, is fusilli, because that's the right kind with this sort of a sauce, but you knew that, right?) to the pot, stirred it, added a bit of Parmesan, stirred it some more, and turned it out onto the plate, where you dust it with more Parmesan. And then you go eat it, because that's what pastafazool is for. 

I gotta say, I decided to document this particular batch and it turned out better than average. Real good, so check those proportions. And the leftovers were, of course, better than the first time around, because the sauce had had a few days in the fridge to mix all those flavors together. 

Pastafazool: it's what's for dinner!

The next broke-but-not-poor cooking segment will feature a breakfast that will get you going in fine style. But there's other stuff to post first, so go buy your beans. 

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Me & Pat: Day Two, Art and Tuna

The first time I went to Sète, I wasn't too impressed. I wandered around with my then-girlfriend, observing, it being high tourist season, families on vacation who brought back memories of tension-filled similar events in my past. The whole town shouted "beach vacation!," and she was shouting "beach!" because she wanted to parade around topless, which was fine with me. As we drove out of town, the weirdness of the huge long beach which stretches between Sète and Agde became apparent. It's all beach, all sand, but if someone's built a bunch of cabins across the road, the beach is crowded as hell. If not, it's empty beach. We found a nice spot with no one in sight, she did her thing and ran around picking up shells (note from the trip back: please wash your souvenir shells and be absolutely certain the remains of the inhabitants are no longer in them), and then we went back into town for a nice coquillage and a bottle of Picpoul de Pinet from one of the touristy places along the harbor.

But I knew there must be more to the place, and we'd gotten a hint earlier in the day, when we'd stopped to take a look at the place before heading into the mountains. The parking situation was out of hand, and so we'd deposited her Smart in a parking lot near the Moroccan customs dock: Sète's harbor not only features a horrifying ferry service to Tangier, but is a port of entry for ships from Morocco, Tunisia, and, until recently when I guess the boycott shut it down, Israel. At any rate, we were walking into town, and passed a harborside café where the staff was at one of the outdoor tables, smoking and drinking coffee, when an enormous tuna boat pulled into the slip and honked its horn. One of the waitresses jumped up and returned with a blackboard on which was written "We feature fresh tuna."

So when, for the second day of the Patrimoine weekend, E and J decided they wanted water, that was the destination. Those two are as assiduous as I am about research, and so by the time we'd parked, the Google map printouts were out and a visit to the local tourist office was underway. (At one point, J stopped some locals to ask where it was, and they pointed to it and informed her that it was closed because it was Sunday, so not to bother. She responded that it was Patrimoine weekend, so it must be open, as, indeed, it was. These guys have only been here a few months, but they've already learned that the real motto of France is "pas possible.")

Sète just isn't big enough that the visit to the tourist office was necessary, but it was a nice enough stop, and we learned that we were just a short hop from the place in town I most wanted to see: MIAM, the Musée Internationale des Arts Modèste, or Museum of Modest Arts. I'd seen a video about the place on the Michelin website (I get a newsletter from them from time to time), of all places, and was excited to see more. There was, unfortunately, a guided tour underway, but it proved easy enough to navigate around it. MIAM is extremely hard to describe. It's sort of a collection of collections, which change from time to time, and the current one (only up until October 2, so get down there if you possibly can) is a pip. What's there at the moment is a collection of hand-printed Brazilian booklets, some outsider art including some great paintings on cardboard by a gardener named Germain Tessier, a collection of a kind of American folk art I never knew existed, to wit Chicano prisoner handkerchief art which is being produced in New Mexico, Texas and southern California, absolutely glorious in its over-the-top depictions of religious and romantic scenes, some paintings from Bamoun, Cameroon, some of which can be seen at the bottom of this page, and, finally, works by Bernard Belluc, one of the founders of the museum.

Belluc is one of the strangest artists you'll ever see. He collects things. If flea markets in France aren't very good, he's probably the reason: he collects things in quantity. He then arranges them in installations/tableaux with a theme. The visual assault is beyond belief, and it must be even more powerful if you're French, since so much of the content is boxes and cans and bottles and posters and other detritus of the everyday life of some years back. Toys are marshalled in army-like quantities, ink-pens explode from the center of a piece dedicated to the production of visual art, a large piece dealing with vacation-time asks the question "the mountains or the shore?" with enough crap that the answer seems logical: anywhere but here. MIAM has also displayed these pieces in claustrophobic proximity to each other so it's impossible to stand back: you're forced into the maelstrom of objects. In a way, Belluc's work reminds me of Laura Kikauka, in Berlin, with far more content than her simplistic "kitsch is kitschy" message. Belluc is after something serious here, although just what it is besides a demand for respect for the artifacts of the past and the work of the people who created (and designed) them is hard to say: the piece dedicated to the French electrical system is almost moving in its homage. MIAM has too much here to absorb easily or quickly, but you should at least attempt it. If Belluc is exhibited anywhere else (and I'm not sure he is), it's worth going to see what in the world he's up to.

Our next goal was directly across town (not such a great distance, to be honest), the CRAC, or Centre Régional d'Art Contemporain. On the way, E announced he could use a snack, and, fortunately (compared to what happened when we launched ourselves into the mountains a couple of Mondays ago) not only is there an amazing local snack, the tielle sétoise, but there was an amazing tiny place called Paradiso selling them. In case your French isn't that good, a tielle is a little pie filled with finely minced octopus and cuttlefish in a spicy tomato sauce, and it's just amazing. Furthermore, Paradiso not only had tielles a good twelve inches across (as well as the more traditional little ones), but a mussel turnover, several small pizzas, and a tomato-and chèvre tart. I was still stuffed from breakfast, so I turned down E's offer of one (stupidly enough), but E inhaled his (and J her tart, although I wasn't envious there, my violent allergy to goat cheese being always on my mind), and I'm real glad these people don't have an outlet in Montpellier. Which isn't to say that I won't seek them out next time I'm in Sète.

CRAC turned out to be everything MIAM wasn't. Or, maybe it's more accurate to say it wasn't anything MIAM was, like interesting, challenging, or fun. On display was a show by Philippe Ramette, a contemporary installation artist, with a sound installation by Denis Savary, random sounds on an organ piped into the various rooms by little chartreuse trumpet thingies designed by Ramette. Ramette's work itself was without any unifying concept, and to be honest I've forgotten almost all of it less than a week later. I saw it as the curse of the state-supported avant-garde, although I've got to say that the CRAC facility is top-notch, and if anything interesting ever gets in there, it'll be displayed in style. This ain't it, though.

There's one more museum in Sète, the Musée Paul Valéry, which we saw as we went to the last sight of the day, the view from atop Mont St.-Clair, a huge hill on which the town is built, which gives a really panoramic view of the surrounding countryside, most of which is flat. In fact, although I didn't get a chance to really see, I think it's possible to see a bit of Montpellier from there. I'd have used my camera to figure this out, but the battery was on strike, which is why there aren't any pictures in this blog post.

Anyway, I'm glad to find out there's more to Sète than I'd thought, and since I've been introduced to an American photographer who lives there part time (but is in the States until late November) I'm sure I'll be back to check out what MIAM does next -- and get me one of those Paradisical tielles!

* * * 

MIAM, 23, Quai Maréchal de Lattre de Tassigny, 34200 Sète. Open April 1-September 30 every day, 9am-7pm, October 1-March 31, every day except Monday, 10am-12 noon, 2pm-6pm. Entrance €5. Free first Sunday of each month. 

Paradiso, 11, Quai de la Résistance, 34200 Sète. Products also available at Tielle Ciani, 24, rue Honoré Euzet, and the Halles Centrales (central covered market). Large orders and catering: 04 67 74 26 48.

CRAC, 26, Quai Aspirant Herber, 34200 Sète. Open every day except Tuesday 12:30pm-7pm, weekends 3pm-8pm. Entrance free. 

Friday, September 23, 2011

Me & Pat: Day One, Searching For Nostradamus

Note: because I paid my phone bill before the end of the month, my phone was turned off for a week. I hadn't even gotten the next month's bill! But apparently, if you don't pay immediately, you get cut off now. Thus, last weekend's activities haven't been blogged yet, and there's a new post from the Broke But Not Poor Kitchens with an exciting recipe all waiting to go up. Don't expect this kind of prolific activity too often!

* * *

One weekend a year, France has the Jours de Patrimoine, or Heritage Days. I think other European countries do this, too, whether on the same weekend in September or not, I can't say. Basically, it's a good idea: buildings and other properties having historical value, but which may be in government or private hands, are opened up for supervised public visits. Often, a guided tour is the only way to see these places, but the general feeling is that this keeps the French people in touch with their history and culture. All very lofty. 

The reality can be different. Besides the odd private residence or property, all the museums are open for free, and they're jammed. People who wouldn't normally engage in this sort of activity seem to feel pressured to do it, and to haul their kids along. The prospect of saving five euros' admission to some place is irresistable, and lines snake out of attractions that are pretty much open all the time. 

E and J were planning to do something on Sunday, but hadn't quite worked out what. I had no plans at all for Saturday, but it was a really gorgeous day, so I did my bit for my living environment and took a bag of DVDs I'd borrowed from Judi at the English Corner Shop back down there. We talked a while, and I began to feel the tug of patrimoine. There must be something I hadn't seen within walking distance, and so I left the store. 

First stop was St. Roch church. As many hundreds of times as I've passed it, I'd never gone in, mostly because it's not particularlly distinguished architecturally and dates from the 19th century, a counterfeit of a much older style of church. As I figured, there's nothing much inside (except some bits of the saint, which get paraded around on his saint's day here in August, but they're not on public display). The organ was getting a workout, mostly because they're trying to raise funds for it, and to that end, some homemade jams and jellies were for sale at a small table inside the sanctuary, all proceeds going to restoring the organ. 

Unsatisfied by this, I wandered on.  The Chamber of Commerce building is old, and used to be the local stock exchange a few centuries ago, but that was locked up. I turned up the hill, past one of the oldest buildings in town, a former palace for some minor nobleman now in private hands (and divvied up into rentable apartments), but it, too, was closed. Coming onto the Rue de la Loge, I noticed a huge line snaking out of the entrance to the crypt of Notre Dame des Tables, the church which had stood in what is now Square Jean Jaurès. I haven't taken the tour of this subterranean bit of Montpellier history, but I sure wasn't going to do it now. 

Up at the top of the hill is the Préfecture, the building where the French government offices are. If you need your drivers license, or naturalization papers, or political asylum, or many other things, here's where you go to hand in your papers, which will subsequently be lost, causing you untold grief. You enter in the rear, where cubic stone and glass houses most of the offices, but the public face of the building is a mid-19th century pile, which, along with its contemporary the central post office, graces the end of what is now Avenue Foch, which was cut through the center of town back then to divide the two parishes and provide an opportunity to build a bunch of Haussmannesque structures to line it. Astonishingly, people were standing in line to get to go into this part of the Préfecture, whereas most people I know would pay good money to avoid having to go there at all. Ah, well, no accounting for taste. 

I ducked around the side and into the older part of that bit of the hill and wandered around some, seeing nothing much. Finally, I wound up at the Cathedral. I remembered being utterly unimpressed with this the one time I'd been in it, on a patrimoine past, but decided to give it a second chance. But no, it's chock full of lugubrious late 19th Century Catholic crap, except for the organ, which is gigantic. If those pipes up front aren't just for show, that sumbitch can thunder when it wants to. 

Back out on the street again, there was really only one thing left to do: hit the medical school. The early medical faculty is literally joined to the Cathedral, although the buildings which are open to the public are far later than the school's founding around 1000 AD or even the earliest bits of the Cathedral (most of which dates from the 1850s), which I believe are 13th Century. But this time I had a goal: I was carrying my iPhone, and wanted to sneak some pictures here. 

Just to the left of the entrance, there's a door which is closed except on this weekend, which leads to the faculty board rooms. This is where the faculty of the medical school still meets -- I've seen them there during the winter when the rooms are lit up. Mostly, though, it's a repository for old books and paintings, and that latter is what interested me. See, part of the perks of high office once upon a time was getting your portrait painted. This happened a lot with city governments, which is how we have the only authenticated picture of Bach (Kappelmeister of the Thomaskirche was a Leipzig city office), and it also happened with important municipal organizations, which is where Rembrandt's Night Watch comes from, but also its many, many cousins on display at Amsterdam's City Museum. There are three rooms of these portraits at the medical school, and there was one in particular I was looking for. 

Montpellier's ancient university and medical school has attracted its share of weirdos over the years, and, like it or not, they, too, are part of the patrimoine. I pass a plaque commemorating where Rabelais lived when he was here, for instance, almost every day. But the guy nobody wants to talk about is Nostradamus. And I had heard that Nostradamus'  portrait was one of the ones on the wall, in the oldest section, where the paintings are all black. So I went in, pointed my phone at the wall, and figured I'd find out Nostradamus' real name when I got home and then correlate that with the picture to show you folks his portrait. I also went into the later room and snapped the era when men wore wigs and hats with red pompoms on them. And the really, really important ones got sculpted busts. 

You'll also notice up here in the center a guy named Magnol, a member of a family of great distinction here in town who did a lof of important botanical work, including discovering a plant he named after himself, the magnolia. That's sort of a tradition: there's another Montpellier botanist family named Begon. 

The place was jammed, and it was all the poor administrators could do to keep the crowds under control. In one of the thesis defense rooms, someone had put together a slide show about the anatomy museum, a treat I've managed to miss (and which I think is being renovated at the moment), and there was a huge line for that. In the courtyard a youngish man with a bad rug was conducting a bunch of older folks in some songs, and the audience was joining in. What this had to do with medicine escapes me, but I eventually found my way upstairs, where there's a huge library of old medical books and a small museum displaying some of the choicer manuscripts, many of which deal with alchemy and other tangentially medical subjects, as well as a selection of prints, many of which are anatomical in nature. This, I believe, is open all the time. 

On my way back downstairs, I managed to shoot this, one of a pair of sculptures, showing a severe medical condition being induced. 

I have no idea why this place should have twin sculptures of guys being eaten by lions, but maybe back in the late Middle Ages, lions roamed the streets of Montpellier where today binge-drinking American students prowl for a different kind of prey. And I left without glancing at my favorite part of the huge entry hall. On the walls are two very large marble plaques, on which are inscribed the names of some of the earliest known doctors to graduate from Montpellier University, along with the dates of their being granted the title. What's remarkable about this is that the names are not only French, but also Jewish and, a few of them, Arab. Then, early in the 1400s, this stops. The Jews have been expelled and the Arabs have retreated to Northern Africa. It would be over 600 years until this changed. 

I left the crowds and went back into the streets and up the hill, eventually wandering over to the other big church, Ste. Anne, which is now an arts space. It has a bunch of large abstract paintings of no great distinction sharing space with some circus-y installation kind of things. One quick circuit and I was out. 

Back at my desk in the slum, I logged on to Wikipedia to get the skinny on Nostradamus, whose picture I had certainly captured in Blur-O-Vision with the phone. But…no. Turns out that, far from heading the medical college, ol' Nostro had been tossed out as a student for the crime of selling drugs. Rather, instead of engaging in pure research, he'd maintained a pharmacy business on the side, and that was against the rules. The other interesting fact was that his family had been Jewish and had taken the name of the day they'd converted -- Our Lady, or Nostre Dame, in old French. 

Ah, well. Tomorrow was another day, and lord knows France is full of patrimoine. 

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Into The Unknown, On Monday

So E contacted me because he wanted to take a drive. He's got visitors coming, and was looking for short day-trips, and I have one I do for first-timers which involves going to Sommières, then driving to St. Martin-de-Londres, which takes you between Pic St. Loup and L'Hortus, the limestone escarpment "across the street" from it. From St. Martin, it's off to the famous St. Guilhelm-le-Désert, the Pont du Diable, and Aniane for education about the Terrasses de Larzac terroir. Turned out E and J had never been to most of that, so we decided to do it on Monday.

Note to people who've never been to France: France is closed on Mondays. True, the post office and banks are open, for the most part, but basically, France is closed.

So yesterday when I got to the train station, where I was to join them, E was alone; apparently J had decided to stay home. He had planned to pick up a couple of quiches to eat, so we wouldn't really have to stop for lunch, but I told him that one thing about this part of the country is that just about any bakery you stop in has some local specialty for sale, and it's always better to try that. I was remembering my last trip to St. Martin, when I'd ducked into the bakery on the market square there and come out with some fantastic pastry with ham and cheese in it that set me back €1.50. I don't even remember what it was called. So he didn't bother with the quiches. (Fine with me; cold scrambled eggs doesn't do much for me).

One of the huge disadvantages of Montpellier is getting out of town. It takes forever. But once we got past Castelneau-le-Lez, we were in the clear, and rolled on to Sommières. Fortunately, E had been there several times, so we didn't need to stop and do the tourist thing there, and, once we got to town, we went left instead of going across the Roman Bridge, and headed straight to the road to St. Martin.

The mountains performed as expected: it really is an awe-inducing sight, and this time I concentrated on looking at l'Hortus instead of Pic St. Loup going through its changes. The trip to the Dordogne had made me more aware of prehistoric dwellings, and I was wondering if l'Hortus' Neanderthal site was visible from the road. I saw a couple of suspects, but nothing definite, and then something utterly unexpected: a fort of some sort built into a corner of the mountain. This came and went so quickly I didn't really have time to check it out, but, not for the first time seeing old fortifications, I found myself wondering who was defending what from whom. That there was a commanding view there was no doubt. But what were they looking for? Given the history of this region, there's certainly more than one answer.

At any rate, we got to St. Martin, parked the car, and hiked up the hill to the famous Romanesque church. For the first time in all the years I'd been coming there, the church was open  (it closes at noon, opens again at 3), and its interior is gorgeous, albeit pretty much unadorned; the proportions alone give off a wonderful feeling of comfort. Adding to that were four little old ladies, who were singing unison hymns of some sort. They seemed to be in some sort of French, and totally acappella. Amateurs all, they still knew how to fill the space with their sound, which comes with a fairly robust echo for such a small space. Just your typical magic moment in Languedoc.

We went back to the town square and noticed both bakeries were still closed. This might have had something to do with it being Monday. Did I mention that most of France is closed on Monday? We walked back to the car, and I said we'd get our lunchtime pastry in St. Guilhelm. The question was how to get there, so I unleashed E's super-detailed map, and was looking for the way to the road there when two young guys came up and unlocked the car near us. "Where are you going?" they asked, and I said St. Guilhelm. "If you go there via the road to Montpellier, there's a lot of construction," one of them said. "You'd be better off taking another route. Hey, I know: why not go via St. Jean-de-Buèges?" He grabbed the map, and sure enough, it was kind of the long ways around, but there was a little town up there. "That's where we're going: just follow us!" Hell, why not? We had no plans. So we did.

We went up. We went up a lot. We went over a mountain ridge. We started going down. Then we went up some more. Limestone towers poked out of the woods. I'd seen these sorts of rock formations before, when I'd gotten lost somewhere else not far from here, and recalled that there are also natural bridges in the vicinity. I knew that below us was the Hérault River. Somewhere: it was a long ways down. Finally, we crossed it, and started going up again. I had no idea whatever where we were. I also knew that that wasn't a problem: I had a basic idea what direction we were going in, and could steer us towards the Mediterranean -- and the freeway -- if I had to. Plus, we had a map. A very detailed map.

So the only thing to do was groove, stay on the road, and trust that it would take us to St. Jean-de-Buèges. Finally, the landscape opened up, and there, right by the side of the road, was a picnic table. We had no picnic, but surely there was a bakery where we were going. And man, was the view amazing. Off to the left was this:

Look, a vineyard! We were near civilization! And over to the left...

Wait! Was that a village poking its head out next to that huge piece of limestone? It was indeed. Was it the village we were headed to? It was indeed. And so, heading down, down, down, we found ourselves headed in just that direction. We stopped outside of town, and I grabbed a couple of shots.

I kind of like the picture-within-a-picture aspect of this, but it's also the best shot I had at the Château, the fort/whatzis on top of the hill. The two guys we'd met in St. Martin had arrived, and were walking into town, having left their car well outside. As we drove in, it turned out that there was a lot more to St. Jean-de-Buèges than was immediately visible, though, and there was even a parking lot. This was well signposted, but E did something I thought was silly but turned out to be a good idea. He asked a local woman with a blue blouse who was sitting on a bench where the parking was and she said "Just a little ways up this street and to the right." Just where I thought it was, in other words.

It was also next to the local cave cooperative, where the local winegrowers brought their grapes. It wasn't in operation (did I mention that France is closed on Mondays?), but there was much evidence of what the building was:

Those of you who have enlarged the photo to look at it will see the grapes that didn't make it into the trough, to be screwed into the crusher. None of you, however, will be able to smell it. This is really too bad. There was a kind of tourist center-cum-grocery store across the street from this which had a plaque which gave a weird version of the history of the village, although the one on the village's own website (French only) is much better. I wanted to put my fist through the window (the place was closed, it being Monday) and grab a bottle of Château St. Jean-de-Buèges, since the odor of the grapes was still with me, but I restrained myself.

We wandered around the town. It was another world. As you can see from the town history, it was once a center of silk production, but that got zapped by frost in 1956, and it never recovered. No, it would appear that the major industry here is gîtes, which is French for B&Bs. Pretty much anything that isn't a gîte is for sale. Because the Buège is a river, it's been tamed to run through the town, and the place is mighty green and cool as a result. That, plus the thick walls, meant that when we stepped into this street to walk to the church, the temperature dropped a good ten degrees Fahrenheit:

The church was as old as the one in St. Martin, but it was closed.

We wandered around some, but there wasn't much more to see. On the way to the car, we met some recently-arrived tourists who wanted to find the source of the Buège, which was a ways out of town. When I looked at the map to see how to get us to St. Guilhelm, I saw the road there, and by chance, as we drove out, we saw them again, and stopped to show them the map. Someone was behind us, though, so I told E we'd better move on, and he pulled over. Within seconds, the woman with the blue blouse was there. "Okay, where do you want to go?" she asked the tourists, and they told her. "Now," she asked us, "where do you want to go?" and we said St. Guilhelm. "Over the bridge," she said. Like there was another road.

But I realized that these people, these older folks you see sitting around these villages in twos or threes, it's not only polite to say hi to them as you pass, but it'll mean that they'll come to your rescue when or if you get lost. (These people are sometimes also joined by a cat, but it's no use cultivating the damn cat, because you'll get treated with the same contempt cats always treat people with).

At any rate, there seemed to be only two roads: the one we came in on and another one. So we took the other one.

Hoo boy.

It's called the D 122, and it will take you to places you've never been before. On my map, it's mostly a red dotted line, which, in the comfort of my slum apartment, I see is Michelin's way of saying "difficult or dangerous road." It's one-lane, and it's about 20km long. It ends in a town called Arboras, so keep that in mind: it does end. There is nothing there. E mused that, although his car is in good shape, an accident or a flat tire or something would be, um, a major inconvenience. It winds ("Don't worry: I learned to drive in Switzerland!"), it goes up and down, and, if you have the luxury of looking, it has some of the most spectacular scenery I've yet seen here. Far-off peaks, walls of limestone, forest and garrigue, and not one single person. Well, that's not right: after about an hour, we passed a house perched in the middle of nowhere with a post box. Given how long we still had to go, we decided he must be the most hated person in the region as far as the post office is concerned.

Every fifteen minutes or so we'd pass a sign indicating we were on the D122 and there would be a number, lower each time. But that number was a kilometer. Fifteen minutes of winding crazy road to travel one kilometer! At long last, we were dumped in Arboras. As we took stock of which way to go, E exclaimed "That was great!" So if you're going to do this, do it with a Swiss person who loves twisty dangerous roads. As with the Cirque de Navacelles, I'm glad I did it, and I'm glad I wasn't driving.

As we got closer to the end of the road, vineyards started appearing, some with familiar names, and this just increased as we twisted down into St. Saturnin, through Montpeyroux. Occasionally, one of the tiny trailers behind a diesel-stinking tractor would hold us up, another carefully-selected bunch of grapes going to the crusher. This seems to be the height of the vendage, and the word I've heard is that it's a small, but superb, crop this year. We'll find out soon enough, but the few vineyards we saw that were unpicked sure looked good: big fat dark grapes hanging in classic pyramidal form.

Okay, we missed St. Guilhelm-le-Désert and its UNESCO church (which was probably closed anyway because it was Monday), and the Pont du Diable down the hill from it, and we also missed Aniane, where I've still never been when it's open (it was Monday, after all), where I want to check out the wine scene (it's the gateway to the Terrasses du Larzac, one of the best-kept local secrets in terms of amazing wine) and visit the olive oil mill, because that's where my olive oil comes from. But instead we hit the freeway and zoomed back to Montpellier, very happy indeed with what we had seen. I mused some about St. Jean, its tower which was supposed to be protecting someone from somebody (but who would march over all that landscape to get 300 people making wine and silk?), and how one lives in a place like that year round. But it was a magic place, and when you're leaving, I suggest going back up the hill the way you came and finding the fork in the road that'll take you to St. Guilhelm. Unless you have a Swiss at the wheel.

Monday, September 5, 2011

First Sunday: Wet Tomatoes and Nailing Heads to the Wall

Long-time readers will remember that a couple of years ago, I went to the Tomato Festival in Clapiers, an all-but-inaccessible suburb of Montpellier, and, thanks to the astonishing display by Eric the Tomatologist,  saw this astonishing fruit in all its multiple forms and glory. I missed it last year, but with E&J newly moved here and always looking for cool stuff to do, I'd been babbling about it for some time, and finally started seeing notices about its impending arrival yesterday, so we made plans to attend.

Only one problem: as the week wore on, threats of heavy rain kept appearing on the weather forecast and then getting pushed forward. We agreed to meet at the train station and then see what seemed to be the right thing to do.

Once there, it appeared that the worst was over, so we piled into the car and headed to Clapiers. There were some intermittent showers, but no big thing. We parked, walked to the park where the event was...and the heavens opened up. "What's that rock festival..?" E asked and I knew immediately what he was thinking: Glastonbury. Off at one end, an oboe band tootled bravely, while the various merchants hustled to cover their stuff up with thick plastic. This was Glastonbury with tomatoes.

Amazing tomatoes, it should be noted: the same long table, but pretty much every variety was different from last time. A huge amount of tomatoes was for sale, too, although not the more exotic varieties he was displaying. Still, very impressive, even if the ground was liquefying under our feet. Eventually, the rain let up somewhat and we made a dash for the car. It wasn't quite 3pm, and already a guy from the city was cutting down the signs directing people to the festival.

Back in the car, E said "Well, want to try something else?" Sure, but what? He had the answer: "Let's go to Lattes." Specifically, to the Lattara site. I wasn't quite sure of what this was, having confused it with another local Roman site which had just reopened, but it was absolutely the solution to the day.

* * *

Lattes lies south of Montpellier. In fact, as I discovered, at one point it more or less was Montpellier in terms of its domination of the local population and economy. It's just that it was all over 900 years before Montpellier got invented. It was huge, and was the natural outgrowth of the human settlement which had been there for 5000 years: there was a small display of Neolithic pottery and such, but the buildings you can see from the museum there are from the Roman era:

(Pardon the raindrops over on the left: you can only view the site through the windows).

From what I could make out, Lattera was populated by Gauls, Celts, and Romans, and administered by the Romans, who, in the great tradition of Romans out in the boondocks, went pretty native. Unlike the ones in Cologne and Mainz, though, the Latterans were kept somewhat in check by their higher-ups in Nimes, who really weren't that far away on the Via Domitia, the Roman superhighway that connected Spain and France.

What they did in Lattera was pretty unsurprising: they made wine and olive oil for export. The Greeks had started all of this, although there doesn't seem to have been much of a Greek presence in Lattera. But the Romans took full advantage of the ideal conditions for producing both. The wine got exported in amphorae

which stacked nicely in the holds of the smallish ships used to transport them, while up on deck were the much larger vats of oil.

Sorry, lady, nobody home.

There were also plenty of grains and fruits for the locals, and there was a chart on the wall showing the kinds of fish archaeozoologists have discovered in the trash from this era. Latterans ate well, and lived in houses with nice decorations: there's a reconstructed mosaic floor from a well-to-do house, as well as this charming, albeit downscale, mosaic made from seashells:

But the harbor, the source of all the action, began silting up and eventually, about 200 AD, it had to be abandoned. The Latterans moved elsewhere, until there was just a tiny village left. Then, the population center turned slighty to the northwest, the site of current Lattes, and around 400, a church went up, and the more or less modern history of the place started.

All of this is documented on the top two floors of the four-story museum, which would be worth a visit anyway, but one of the great things about this place is that the bottom two floors host year-long exhibitions. I'm still pissed that I missed the one about the wine business that ran when I first got here, because that would have filled in a lot of gaps in my understanding of the area. The one they have now is pretty spectacular, albeit not as well focussed geographically.

It's called Of Rites and Men, and is about some of the rituals, both private and public, practiced by the Celts, Iberians, and Greeks in Provence, Languedoc, and Catalonia. One of the big surprises was that Castelneau-le-Lez, the bourgeois suburb north of Montpellier where people move when they've made their money, the main street of which is one real estate office after another, had a major Celtic archeological site dating from the 8-9th century BC. I wasn't even aware there were Celts down here; clearly I've got more reading to do. Apparently one of the things they really liked to do was to take the heads of particularly gallant warriors they'd defeated back home with them and nail their heads to the wall in the village or exhibit them in their religious spaces. They also did this with their own heroes who fell in battle, and enjoyed carrying the severed hands of their enemies around, all strung together. Lovely folks otherwise, I'm sure.

The attempt to draw such a large and diverse geographical and cultural area into one themed exhibit sort of strains the show at its edges, and I found it a lot easier just to take each site as its artifacts are displayed and move on to the next one. Part of the problem is that not much is known about these rites from ancient texts because they weren't  particularly significant in anyone's big picture. Only the Greeks had writing, so what little we can surmise about these artifacts and the rites which produced them comes from them. The rest gets inferred from the disposition of the artifacts around the site.

In 2186, when they finally finish Tram 3 here in Montpellier, Lattes will be an end-point for the line (and maybe I'll finally be able to get a senior discount from them), and the Lattera site and its attendant Henri Prades museum (named for the archaeologist who started the modern excavation of the city) will be a short walk from the tram-stop. It's also accessible from Bus 18, from the Le Stade stop. Either way, it's well worth your time and attention, particularly once the weather changes and it's not so damn sunny outside. We got a taste of that on Sunday.

Oh, and one more thing: I'd been aware of it from the Fabre Museum here, but apparently all the local museums and so forth are free on the first Sunday of the month, which makes me want to research what else would make a good destination next month. Lattera's only €3.50 to visit, but hey, free's free!

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