Spirits of Carcassonne

michelinCabanel is a cathedral of alcoholic beverages. This Carcassonne institution not only sells everything imaginable from around the world, but also makes its own spirits. Founded in 1868 by Joseph Cabanel, it’s been in the same Belle Epoque building since 1905, making it not just a shop but practically a museum, or a step back in time.

The herbs, spices and plant extracts that go into micheline.

Its signature product is micheline, which supposedly dates to the fourth century as a potion for eternal youth. Like other spirits, it originally was for medicinal purposes, and contains lemon balm, nutmeg, cardamon and many other spices. A framed box shows the different ingredients.

Byrrh (wine plus plants like cinchona bark); Bonal (a chartreuse with gentian and cinchona); Ambassadeur (a wine-based apéritif flavored with orange); Cap Corse (similar to cartagène) and DuBonnet (an aromatised wine-based apéritif).

Other specialities of the house include Kina, an apéritif made of plants, including the cinchona bark, which is the source of quinine, and spices. Cabanel also makes Or-Kina (gold Kina), crème de noix (walnut liqueur) and Carcasso (walnut wine) among others. Today, they’re distilled on the premises by Jean-Marc Gazel. Another regional specialty is cartagène, a vin de liqueur, or wine of liqueur, drunk as as an apéritif. (Below, hover over the pictures for the explanation.)

This is a boutique to spend time in. The counter stands in the middle of the shop, as was the custom at the turn of the last century. A glass window separating the shop from the office has an opening marked “Caisse/Reseignements“–cashier and information.

The owners are more than happy to explain the different alcohols and liqueurs, from the ingredients to the history. It was fascinating. Did you know that alcohol comes from the Arabic word “al kohl,” or the metallic powder used to darken eyelids and provide relief from the sun?

The shop is full of cool old stuff, like the first phone they had–still with the same phone number, and many old photos.

caisseI apologize for the rotten quality of the photos. I went in on a dark, rainy day and didn’t use a flash. Plus I can’t see a darn thing with or without glasses, much less in the gloom, much less on a little screen. My bad. I took the outside shots on a better day.

frontCabanel is located at 72 allée d’Iéna, just south (uphill) of the Bastide. Don’t miss it!

In the courtyard.
More cool stuff in the courtyard.

St. Jacques d’Albas

tastingAmong the excellent wineries in the Minervois region, the Château St. Jacques d’Albas stands out for having a setting as beautiful as its wines are delicious.

The 11th century chapel on the property. The St. Jacques in the name indicates this was a stopover on the pilgrimage to St. Jacques de Compostelle, or Santiago de Compostela, in Spain.

chapel-towerThe owner, Graham Nutter, left a career in finance in London in 2001 to buy the property and meticulously restore both the buildings and the vineyards. He switched production from quantity-driven for the local cooperative to high-quality organic techniques.

grapes-2vineyardWine bottles have two dominant shapes: high shoulders indicate wines from Bordeaux or other wines that resemble the Bordeaux sensibility vs. sloping shoulders for wines from Burgundy and similar wines. Château St. Jacques d’Albas is one of the few wineries in Minervois to use bottles with sloping shoulders.


grapesHowever, whereas Burgundy wines are of a single variety–pinot noir–in order to carry the Minervois AOC (appellation d’origine contrôlée) wines must be a mix of certain grapes.

A restored windmill that’s now a gîte.

stepsChâteau St. Jacques d’Albas also holds jazz and classical concerts in its large reception room. Some include dinner interludes; all include tastings.

The concert room, which has a beautiful 19th century Steinway piano, with the wine-tasting room behind.
A tapestry in the concert room.

Château St. Jacques d’Albas is outside the village of Laure-Minervois, about 16 kilometers from Carcassonne.


Wine Harvest

grapes-3The vendange, or grape harvest, is in full swing. Well before dawn, I hear the big harvesters rumble down the road to the vineyards. As I write, the hum of a harvester drifts through my open window.

machine-caunesThe hot, dry summer means this year’s harvest is small but good. When rain threatens at vendange time, the winemakers work around the clock to bring in the grapes before the precipitation dilutes their sugar content, or makes the vineyards too muddy to traverse, or, worst of all, brings hail that ruins the crop. This year’s clear blue skies have spared the vines of such problems.

Life around here still revolves around the vendange even though it no longer requires all hands on deck. For example, the village gym classes don’t begin until late September because traditionally too many participants had to work all day in the vineyards, harvesting grapes. These days, much of the harvest is done by giant machines that, when they roll through a little village, seem like contraptions out of horror movies, with their rows of teeth.



Hauling off a load of future wine

Hand harvesting is back-breaking work. The grapes are just at a level where you have to bend over constantly. It was women’s work, while men collected the buckets of grapes and carried them to a wagon. It was a time for the locals without vineyards to earn a little extra money, though often they were paid in wine. I looked at help-wanted ads to see what seasonal workers earn now; it seems to be €9.67 an hour, which is minimum wage. With many easier ways for the French to earn the SMIC,  it isn’t surprising that the seasonal workers are mostly from Eastern Europe, Spain or Portugal. The New York Times had an article last week about volunteer tourists helping the harvest.

Do you see the towers of la Cité to the left of the electricity pole?

The Domaine Fontaine Grande on the outskirts of Carcassonne is one that harvests by hand. A dozen workers quickly filled bucket after bucket, their secateurs, or clippers, snipping the generous bunches neatly. As fast as they went (most of my photos were blurs), they barely seemed to make headway in the vast vineyard.

It’s hard to miss the vendange. Traces of grapes on the roads. The heady scent of already-fermenting fruit drifting out from the cuves.

spilled-grapesBefore the vendange, taking grapes is theft, but after, the left-behind fruit is fair game. (Beware of the vendange tardive, or late harvest–those aren’t for taking either! The grapes are left on the vine until they start to dry out, to make dessert wine. It’s pretty easy to tell when a vineyard has been harvested–no big bunches are left).  Though it’s mostly the sangliers, or wild boars, that snarf up the last grapes.

The buckets of hand-picked grapes are collected into these bigger baskets….
Then dumped into the wagon.

Soon the 2016 millesime will be developing in the giant wine vats, and the leaves on the vines will change to brilliant hues of red, orange and yellow before falling off for winter.

Minervois vineyards–a great alternative to pricier bordeaux and burgundy.

La Tour Boisée

wood caisseLa rentrée–the re-entry, to work, school and regular life after summer vacation–coincides with le vendange–the grape harvest. France has many famous wines, but also many smaller ones that aren’t as well known but often just as good.

bottlesMinervois is a small region just northeast of Carcassonne, with mostly family-run wineries. It’s one of the oldest wine-growing regions in France: around 6 B.C., the Greeks brought grape vines here.

La tour boisée

We recently joined friends new to the region for a tasting at one of our favorite wineries, Domaine de la Tour Boisée, in Laure-Minervois. The domaine is a family operation headed by Jean-Louis Poudou, producing 14 reds, whites and rosés, on 84 hectares (about 207 acres). It recently took on the bio, or organic, label.

Jean-Louis Poudou

Here, wine-making takes its time. We once went to a tasting in the U.S. where the vines were but three years old and the winemaker bragged about “aging on wood.” When we asked where he got his barrels–which are a big expense–he sniffed that he didn’t use barrels but wood chips in metal tanks. His wine was beyond awful.

Pallets of bottles, ready for the next year’s vintage.

By contrast, at la Tour Boisée, the vines of carignan, a variety that’s typical of the Minervois, are 60 years old, and those of alicante, a Spanish grape, are 80 years old. There’s a special wine, called 1905, that mixes 23 varieties planted on a plot in the village in 1905. It’s VERY good.

And the Marie-Claude wine of syrah, grenache and carignan is aged at least a year in oak barrels. Real ones. An investment in time and materials.

An abreuvoir, or watering trough

While choosing a wine is a personal affair, la Tour Boisée’s large selection caters to many tastes. What I want to focus on is the ritual of a tasting.


First, there was a discussion about our preferences. Our group of five adults leaned toward reds (though I’m a big fan of their chardonnay). Frédérique, the owner’s daughter (who has a wine named after her! Isn’t that sweet?), led us through seven wines. Small amounts were poured into stemmed glasses, swirled and sniffed. The wines’ legs were examined–the legs are the traces of wine that flow back to the bottom of the glass after you’ve swirled. Mouthfuls of wine were swished around, breathed through, and mostly swallowed. The drivers took advantage of the crachoir, or spitoon.

tastedWe spent two hours tasting and talking and learning. Then we filled the trunks of the cars with cases of wine. A big difference with the U.S.: it’s pretty much unheard-of to charge for wine tasting, but it’s considered bad form not to buy at least a case. Of course, if you don’t like the wine, you’re under no obligation.

Olive oil
We also got olive oil. The domaine has over 1,000 olive trees.

We didn’t leave without walking around the property. The namesake tower was part of the village’s ramparts.

tour 2

stairs down
Stairs to a secret walled garden. And the reason for the gate….
…is a goat.
lower arch
Instagrammable cuteness everywhere you look

I don’t do sponsored posts, and this is no exception. We just are fans. Many of the Minervois wineries are too small to export their wines, but la Tour Boisée can be found in the U.S., including at Astor Wines in Manhattan.

under olivier






Summer Truffles

on breadOne of the saving graces of winter is tuber melanosporum: the black truffles that perfume dishes from December to February.

There’s another variety, called tuber aestivum, or the summer truffle, which is whiter and has a more subtle taste.

Philippe Barrière

A couple of years ago, Philippe Barrière opened his Atélier de la Truffe on rue Trivalle, the street just below la Cité. He long was the person who inspected each and every truffle sold at the markets in Aude. As I mentioned before, the truffle trade has long been an under-the-table affair, with unknowledgeable buyers sometimes paying fortunes for nothing more than rocks. In Aude, by contrast, all the truffles sold at the markets are inspected.

A few tables inside, as well as seats at the bar. More tables outside in front and back. A bounty of good wines.

So M. Barrière knows his stuff, and we and a bunch of our friends decided to spend a summer evening enjoying his expertise.

A tip from the master: a sprinkle of salt heightens the truffle flavor. It worked! Gruissan is not far from here, on the Mediterranean, and has sea salt production.

Truffles are costly, so we limited ourselves to having an apéritif chez Barrière and then moving to a main course in the Bastide. First, we went for foie gras with truffles on toast.

foie gras
There’s foie gras under each row. He wasn’t stingy with the truffles!

I am not a foie gras fan, but I must admit it was beyond succulent. When the slates were set on the table, the scent of truffle from the generous portions was intoxicating.

wineWe had a lovely bottle from Borie de Maurel in la Livinière part of Minervois. If you ever see a wine from la Livinière, you can bet it is good.

chevreThen we had truffled chèvre, again delicious, though the foie gras was better. It’s like poor Aly Raisman. She is an amazing gymnast, better than everybody at the Olympics….except for Simone Biles, who got the gold. (Raisman won silver.) The chèvre was amazing…except that the foie gras was even more amazing.

menuHere’s a quick translation of the menu (truffled plates):

Smashed summer truffle on toast

Shirred eggs with summer truffle

Potatoes with summer truffle

Goat cheese with summer truffle

Beef carpaccio with summer truffle

Foie gras and summer truffle (notice the “and”–it means they’re sliced on top and not grated and mixed in like the others)

Fish carpaccio (he said it was tuna), with foie gras, summer truffle

Homemade summer truffle ice cream

bread basket
Do you see what the bread basket is made of?

We’ll be back….

Truffle tools: a scraper for €60; €70 if it folds.



Turn Turn Turn

wheat vines bestIn spring, the vines are brown but the other fields are green, whether with tender shoots of winter wheat or just plain weeds. It’s odd that a place is so verdant in winter. We rarely see snow, or even frost, so everything just keeps growing.

By figs green
Wheat in spring

In summer, it’s the reverse. Already at the start of July, the wheat is being harvested, first shorn like the buzz cuts my brothers used to get every summer. My uncle would come over and shear them outside not to make a mess, one after another, like so many sheep. A rite of summer.

By figs brown
Same field, about a week ago.

It’s funny to drive by and see stiff stubble where days before heavy heads of grain rippled in the wind, shivering like a body of water. Amber waves of grain. Later, the fields are cut again, shaved down to the skin of the earth.

Patchwork fields 1Sometimes the harvesters are working at 3 a.m. They probably are far away, but it’s so still at that hour that sound carries effortlessly. The farmers probably are racing the weather, their best frenemy forever. It looked like rain last night–dramatic black clouds, theatrical thunder, impressive lightning, but then nothing more than a few sprinkles that seemed to evaporate before reaching the hot ground. Enough to dirty the car but not enough to sate the tomatoes. Ça ne sert à rien, quoi.

vines wheat treesThe perfume is intoxicating. Cut grass on steroids. That makes sense–wheat is a grass after all. The syrupy sweet smell oozes through the windows. It’s so thick, I want to drink it instead of breathe it. Or bite into it, with melted butter on top. It smells almost, almost, like bread baking. How crazy is that?

long view to carcaWhen we came here, all the fields were vineyards. Nothing but. Since 2008, the European Union has tried to shore up wine prices by reducing supply. Winegrowers get a payout to pull out their vines. Every season, we see more and more vineyards yanked out.

wheat mountains green
Another view in spring

It seems sad because wine is really adapted to the circumstances. The climate here is very hot and dry, and vines send their roots far down to find water underground. Many vines are 40 or 50 years old, gnarled and thick. They are survivors. It hurts to see them pulled out. Plus, the region’s wines have gotten very good.

wheat mountains brown
The same field from almost the same place in summer

In their place? Wheat, colza (rapeseed),  sunflowers, and other things I don’t recognize. They create a patchwork across the countryside, with colors that are continually changing–green, bluish, reddish, brown.

red field
Somebody tell me what the red field in the middle is

It makes me think of that Byrds’ song from the hippie dippy 1960s. A song I never liked (is it because they spelled the band’s name with a y?), but it ran through my head yet again today as I drove past the changing fields. The lyrics, at least, ring true.

Hell on Wheels

over riverWhat is it about guys, dirt and hard rock?

For two days, a sleepy village (because the main advantage of a village is tranquility) was jolted awake at 6 a.m. to the dulcet strains of AC/DC.

This in a country where you aren’t supposed to cut your grass before 9 a.m. on Saturday or 10 a.m. on Sunday.

The music accompanied over 1,000 testosterone-charged mountain bikers (there supposedly were a few women, but I didn’t see any, this year or any other) who were going to ride to the highest point of the Black Mountains, and back down.

Some took buses to the top and just rode down.

The good news is that they take little paths and don’t block the roads. These are VTTs, or vélo-tout-terrain (all-terrain bike). They scoff at roads. The bad news is that an M.C. babbled nonstop over throbbing music from dawn until dusk. For two days.

arrival stageBased on what was forced into our ears, M.C.s must have to pass a unintelligence test.

Animation consisted of bike acrobatics and, this being France, wine tasting, of the Amethyst wine from the Limousis caves.

Although these guys came to ride bikes 25-100 kilometers, they weren’t about to walk 20 extra steps. Many ignored the free parking lot with its shortcut to the activities, sure they could find something even closer.

Maybe they were just staying true to the unwritten French rule of not parking in the parking lot. Maybe because there’s usually a fee. The French (and some other European nationalities….I’m looking at you, Belgians) will put their cars in peril rather than pay for parking. And even in a free parking lot, they pay little attention to those silly white lines marking out spaces for each car. Mostly they specialize in stationnement gênant–blocking sidewalks, driveways, doors, other cars. Car mechanics must make a fortune on realignments.

The law-abiders’ parking lot …. before
…and after. Crowded but not full. And now we’re back to empty grass.

Monday’s wake-up call was once again the singing of birds.




Another round of Banyuls

flowers 1There were too many photos to put into one post, so you’re stuck with Banyuls again. Hardship, right?

police stationThis time we’ll zoom in on a few charming details around the town. For example, how often does the word “adorable”  come up in connection with “police station”? And that scooter is cuteness itself.

Plus it had CLEAN public toilets on the other side! Four of them! With soap and everything!

The wise people of Banyuls knew to leave well enough alone in some cases….

old sign

while keeping most of the place spiffy. There was a lot of Belle Epoque architecture.

belle epoque house 2

building 2


belle epoque house

They had some interesting ideas about electricity, sometimes charming

electric box

sometimes not. I suppose it’s inevitable with stone walls.

electric wires

There were some cute vehicles.

But parking is difficult.

parked car 1
Better not forget the parking brake. (Do you see the van, up high?)

parking flood sign

This sign near the beach says: Attention drivers. In case of a storm, please URGENTLY evacuate your vehicle. The town cannot be held liable in any case.

Of course, steep hills + solid rock or buildings everywhere + sudden rain = flash flood. Get a load of these foundations:

The people of Banyuls like to decorate, whether it’s a rock outcropping, an electric meter cover or a paella pan.

paella painting

Mostly with good taste.

Nicely planted palms around a little bandstand and square.
olive tree
This olive tree must be a couple hundred years old.
street light
Wonderful street lamps. The wiring, not so much.

On the flatter, more spread-out end of town, the villas hid behind grand gates.

gate 5

gate 4

gate 3

gate 2

gate 1

More modest homes also had handsome entries, even if they seemed sized for third graders.

And they are crazy about flowers. Especially bougainvillea, in every neon shade.

flowers 7

flowers 2

flowers 3

flowers 4

flowers 5

flowers 6

flowers 8

flowers 10

flowers 9

flowers 13 cactus

flowers 12

flowers 11

There was another verbiose sign:

boules rules

“Thank you for your public-spiritedness”! These pétanque players seemed to be minding the rules.


Must be rough playing right next to the beach, especially on hot summer nights.

wine shop 1

Banyuls is a highly recommended day trip from Carcassonne. And until you can come, you can pretend, by getting a bottle of Banyuls’ famous fortified wine (it’s like port, but DO NOT say that to anybody from Banyuls). Santé!

Risotto with Strawberries and Mushrooms

Risotto doneI first ate this at the now-defunct Piano Bar restaurant in Nairobi. It’s so good that everything else in the meal can be very understated. A good dish to wow guests.

Strawberries market
Bernard, our strawberry dealer, at the market in Carcassonne with long-awaited Ciflorettes
glass for the cook
Step 1: Apéro. Kir royal for the chef, straight blanquette de Limoux for the sous-chef.

Time: 45 minutes

Serves 4

1.5 cups arborio rice (or round rice—NOT basmati)

1 onion, minced

2 TBS butter

2 cups grated parmesan—the good stuff you grate yourself, not the fakey powder

1 cup white wine (not sweet)

4 cups chicken broth—homemade, from a can, or from 2 cubes in 4 cups of water

2 threads of saffron (optional)

2 cups fresh strawberries, cut in quarters (not too small or they’ll get mushy)

2 cups fresh mushrooms, sliced thinly

Plan of Attack:

Bring the chicken bouillon to a boil, then reduce the heat to simmer.

Melt the butter in a big pot (big enough to hold 8 cups. I use a Dutch oven). Add the onion and cook on very low heat until the onion is transparent but not brown. Add the rice and saffron and stir so the rice starts to brown a little.

brown rice
Stir the rice into the butter and onions

Stir in the wine.

add liquid
Let the rice absorb the liquid before adding more

When the liquid is absorbed, stir in about a cup of bouillon. Stir the risotto frequently. When that liquid is absorbed, add another cup.

Stir that risotto. Add another cup (#3) of broth when the liquid has been soaked up.

Put in any more liquid, give it a good stir. Sometimes the risotto looks nice and creamy without using all the liquid.

Turn off the heat. Stir in the parmesan, strawberries and mushrooms. Cover. Serve immediately. DO NOT COOK!

Risotto 3The steam from the risotto will partially cook the strawberries and mushrooms without overdoing it.

Bonus: This goes really well with the other star of the season, asparagus. Since risotto requires a lot of attention, cook the asparagus the no-brainer way:

Asparagus ready to nukeIn the microwave, on high, for 6-7 minutes (depends on the quantity). Pick off the rosemary and drizzle with olive oil, salt and pepper.


IMG_0402It’s the time of year when the vignerons, or winegrowers trim their vines. On the lovely, sunny days, I’m jealous of them, out in the fresh air. On the cold, gray days, with piercing rains and howling winds, they’re out, working, and I feel guilty that they have to go through so much so I can have a glass of wine at dinner.

IMG_0401To trim, or tailler, the vines requires a kind of zen patience. The vineyards are so vast. Row after row of gnarled stalks, called pieds, or feet, extend to the horizon. The poor winegrowers start in one corner and work their way slowly across.

IMG_0411Everything about wine takes time. Whether it’s trimming the vines, waiting for the wine to ferment to be bottled, waiting again for It to age or tending the vineyards for decades for them to produce truly excellent wine. Just look at these pieds. They have seen generations.

IMG_0413The vines must suffer to produce good fruit. Poor soil. Rocks. Not enough water. They send roots down, down, to find what they need. It isn’t so different from a child who has everything he wants and, while probably a really nice, sweet kid, doesn’t have the kind of character that comes from having to make hard choices or not getting everything he wants. The hardship makes success so much sweeter.

The fallen branches, by the way, are called sarments, and when used to make a fire for grilling, they add wonderful flavor.

049.Vines in Villegly
What they’ll look like in August