Sunday, December 07, 2014

Veggie Wars

Gone are the days when I went to Carrouf, ploughing through the aisles to do my weekly shop. I still buy essentials like loo rolls there, but I go elsewhere for food. One of my suppliers is called La Ruche Qui Dit Oui (The hive which says yes), or RQDO. It's a funny name but the idea is good.

A reine, or queen bee decides to set up a ruche. RQDO is a national organisation bringing together a commercial website and local suppliers. It was set up by a couple of whizzo start-up entrepreneurs and is proving to be extremely successful.

The reine signs up on the website to create a ruche. She waits for people to join, which they do by hearing about RQDO and going onto the website to find their nearest ruche. While she's waiting, she searches for suppliers so that when she has enough members, she can go live.

The idea is that suppliers fix a minimum amount of produce that they want to sell before they will 'say yes' to the overall order. There's not much point using petrol to deliver five hundred grams of carrots. If their minimum order is reached, the sale goes ahead; if it doesn't the supplier cancels the orders.

For the consumer, you can choose exactly what you want from the list of produce. If you don't want anything, you don't have to order. At the ruche I go to, you can choose from organic veg, fish, meat, artisan soap, artisan biscuits, and jars of things like caviar d'aubergine and soup, and so on. You can also buy a box of veg according to season from time to time.

There's been a bit of a hoohar recently between the RQDO and AMAP organisations. AMAPs are a similar concept, but you sign up to buy a box of produce every single week, and pay up front or by trimester. It's brilliant for producers because they know they have a fixed consumer list, and can plan ahead for the year's cultivations. For the consumer, they can be reduced to a diet of turnips and cabbage during winter months.

I don't have an AMAP near me, so the decision about which to go for was taken out of my hands, but I'm pretty happy with the RQDO, and like the fact that I can talk to the producers when I go to the ruche on a Thursday evening, and have a bit of a chat.

Hardcore AMAPs fans have been accusing RQDO of being a dirty capitalist organisation consisting of hard-working reines who earn a pittance and evil entrepreneurs who are raking in the profits from their labours. The RQDO takes 16.7% of total sales, gives 8.35% to the reine and uses the rest to pay for salaries of tekkies and admin staff. The average amount earned by a reine per month is €400 apparently although I'm sure my local lady earns a lot less.

The internet was steaming with accusations flying left right and centre (here, here, here) from AMAPers while RQDO reines wrote in to defend their position, and one of the entrepreneurs replied on the RQDO blog.

"La Ruche qui dit Oui ! est un réseau qui réunit des dizaines de milliers de personnes et de multiples organisations. On y trouve des entreprises, des associations, des bénévoles, des clients. Le service qui permet à tous ces gens de se rencontrer, de travailler, de commercer est développé par une entreprise : La Ruche qui dit Oui – Equanum SAS, 50 salariés, une échelle de salaire de 1 à 3, un agrément d’Entreprise Solidaire d’Utilité Sociale.

It's basically a network that brings together thousands of people and multiple organisations, like associations, volunteers, and clients. These people can meet, work and do business via the RQDO which has 50 employees on an earning scale of 1:3. The company has an official status as a socially responsible business.

No system is perfect, but it suits me. This weekend I decided to try the kilo of fish to make into fish soup. The fisherman gave me a polystyrene box of mostly tiny fish, and the recipe, and I made a start. He told me I had to cook the fish and then remove the flesh from the fish. I don't know if this is actually what you should do, but imagine me standing over a hot pot fishing around for very small bits of body and head, getting spiked by vicious bits of bone, and burnt fingers. It took me over half an hour and I was vowing never again would I make a sodding fish soup.

It tasted delicious though, especially with the rouille that I made to go with it which is a fiery mayonnaise. My DB, who moans when I cook fish, was in heaven.

Having looked it up (belatedly), it seems that I just had to put the whole lot through the blender and then sieve it. Have you ever tried to make your own fish soup?

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Just Doing It

Have you ever wondered what would happen if you got in your car, drove off, and kept driving? I was thinking about that on the way to shops yesterday. I usually have that thought when I get on the autoroute because they are designed to take you far and quickly (in Europe at least; in the UK you do tend to come up against the sea fairly quickly unless you're travelling north/south).

My route to the shops was not going to take me far (or quickly), but I could have just kept going until the tank ran out. I didn't of course because the consequences would have been dramatic. I'm too chained to my obligations and duties, but I do envy those who just take off and don't stop (unless they drop their obligations and duties and cause untold misery to their family).

It never occurred to me to do such a thing when I was young and single after university because I had little money and less self-confidence. Instead, I waited until I met my future ex-h to leave home and join him in France, happily shackling myself and throwing away the key.

I must be a confirmed homebody a tad too anxious to confront the unknown. By myself, anyway. I'm rather concerned with my creature-comforts now too. Hopeless.

One of my favourite books when younger was Laurie Lee's "As I walked out one midsummer morning" which gave me material to fantasize with, but no desire to imitate. I convinced myself that things were different then, he was a bloke, and there was no way I was going to walk that far. Also, I realised the reality could entail a lot of hard work and I would probably be uncomfortable. I was a living example of Roosevelt's "The only limit to our realization of tomorrow will be our doubts of today".

Part of my problem, I'm sure, is that having lived in Cairo for a year, I'd had a fair amount of adventure, and much of it was not that pleasant. It was uncomfortable, however.

Another favourite book was "The Count of Monte Cristo" by Alexandre Dumas. He didn't choose to leave but was thrown in jail, and came to make the most of a bad situation. This is something I can understand - making the most of a situation (eventually, in his case), and, 'there's always a silver lining' (ditto).

Those at Nike tells us to forget our reservations, and just 'Do it'. Unfortunately, doing anything by yourself is getting increasingly difficult here in France. Everything is fraught with rules and regulations, and no one should be ignorant of the law ('nul n'est censé ignorer la loi'), all 3078 pages...

I read about one old lady of 76 - Yvette Bert - recently who was hunted down and dragged through the courts by the Fisc. Why? Because she had the temerity to set up an association which held regular lotteries to raise money for charity. She and her friends in the sheltered accommodation where she lives would get together with others on a Sunday afternoon to play the loto and have a lovely sociable chatty time. "Mamie Loto" took none of the money for herself despite living on a pension of 620 Eur per month.

Her association was official, registered at the prefecture, its aims clearly stated. No one told her it was illegal. So when she was sued by the Fisc, given a 6 months suspended sentence, 6000 Eur fine and a tax bill of 88,000 Eur (on the 460,000 Eur she collected for charity), her life fell apart and her health started failing. Does the word 'bully' spring as violently into your mind as it does mine?

Her cause has been taken up by the Institut pour Justice who have created a petition to support her. It already has over 70,000 signatures. Here's hoping for many more.

Have you ever walked out one midsummer (early spring or late winter) morning?

Monday, November 10, 2014

More Odds and Sods, but mostly food...

What's been going on recently in your life?

Sandwich jambon-beurre
I might not be in Britain, but I can answer the Daily Mail's cri de coeur: "Is there no one left in the UK who can make a sandwich ? Or rather my youngest can. He went off on a school visit to Lac de Salagou with a Festive baguette-jambon-beurre, as requested. No tomato, no lettuce, no pickle. Just ham and tasty raw organic butter. The ham came from Hyper U. No one's perfect... The Festive baguette sarnie is one of the simple pleasures of living in France, and certainly better than an industrial triangle in a plastic box full of salt and fat that those poor Hungarians were being brought in to make.

Still on the subject of food, I actually bought a couple of paper recipe books recently rather than print off the net. One is the Oh She Glows Cookbook by Angela Liddon and the other is YumUniverse: Infinite Possibilities for a Gluten-free, Plant-Powerful, Whole-Food Lifestyle by Heather Crosby. Not that I'm either gluten-intolerant or a vegetarian, but I like variety, and my DB would prefer to eat as little meat as possible. Both books are written by successful food bloggers whose recipes I've tried and enjoyed, with lovely appealing photos. Funnily enough, both women came to veganism after years of eating extremely badly resulting in increasingly poor health that popping pills did nothing to cure.

The YU book is a guide really on how to incorporate more plant-based food into the average diet. It has sections on the importance of soaking beans, grains and nuts to remove anti-nutrients, how to sprout, how to cook with new ingredients, how to make it all happen. It's quite a challenge to change habits and it's only by taking it in small steps that you avoid reverting to the old ways after a few months.

She gives recipes for homemade spice mixes (Ethiopian, Chinese, Taco, Chai etc.), different sauces and vinaigrettes (Kale and Walnut Pesto, Cashew Sauce, Sweet Potato Sauce, etc), sandwich ideas (Smoky Lentil and Dill, Crispy Eggplant, Sprouts & Tomato, etc.), snacks, and so on. This weekend I soaked some mung beans and amaranth to start sprouting them, and I've just put some pumpkin seeds in a jar of water as I add them to salads almost every day and didn't realise they should be soaked.

I also made a soup from Angela's OSG book: 'on the mend spiced red lentil-kale soup' which was surprisingly tasty. You can find the recipe here. It looks really simple, but the flavours blend together beautifully. I also made her black bean burgers which I forgot about in the oven so they came out rather well cooked, but crumbled perfectly over a kale salad that my DB was delighted to eat after driving back from his Zen retreat in Toulouse.

Talking of Zen, my yoga classes are going well, but I don't think I'm ready for one of the full-on weekends they organise. My DB is taking a couple of Zen courses in town and has been on two Zen weekends. One was too religious-based for his liking while the other concentrated more on meditation. I enjoy yoga for the physical element and the peace, but the group yogi is president of the southern France yoga association and she gave me a magazine to read to encourage me to join and go further into yoginess. It was a bit too much for my superficial taste...!

To help us in our pursuit of regular walks, I bought a couple of blue 1/100,000 IGN maps of the region - the ones that show GR routes and other paths. I love maps and spent some of the weekend poring over them. In searching for the link, I came across a site called VisoRando where you can create an itinerary based on these maps! Just what we need!

At the other end of the health spectrum, we spent part of the weekend the other week at Domaine Puech at the Weekend Cave en Fête where we ate charcuterie, cheese, and oysters, drank the Noémie red wine and were très merry. The producers of the cheese, charcuterie, oysters, champagne, and Alsatian wine were there all weekend and available for tastings. We ended up buying... cheese, charcuterie, wine and oysters. The oysters were 7€ the dozen, so I bought two (dozen). We had a feast on Sunday night!

On a sadder note, last week I had to take my cat to the vet after he developed an abscess in his mouth. He was kept in overnight to have it drained, and came home wearing a plastic Elizabethan-style collar to stop him scratching. He's not pleased at all. It comes off on Thursday, and not a day too soon as far as we're all concerned.

When I bought my sofa a few years ago, I didn't expect it to be so badly made that the back would be falling apart after a bit of rough treatment from the boys... I paid about fifteen hundred euro for it so it wasn't exactly cheapo crap. This weekend my youngest and I turned it on its front (where you put your legs) and I cut the material underneath to reveal... bad quality wood held together with STAPLES! Honestly, it looked like an amateur had thrown it together on his first day at a furniture-making class. My son got out the No-Nails glue and, while I held the sofa up, he gunned the glue into place. While he was working away, we had this conversation:
Me: "Oh it's so nice to be doing this with you. It's really cool that you volunteered to help and didn't have to be press-ganged."
Him: "It's only because I didn't have anything better to do..."
Me: "Hey, don't spoil it...!"
That put me in my place! We left the sofa upright with the packet of cat litter, a dictionary and four books weighing it down over twenty-four hours. Today, we put it back in place, and lo, the sofa-back is no longer wobbly! Result!

So that's what's been going on in my life. Living on the edge as ever...

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

The paysan and l'esprit commercial

I was talking to friends recently about "l'esprit commercial" in relation to local shopkeepers and wine producers; how important it is yet how many lack the basics. In these difficult times, they often forget some basic everyday commercial rules:
1. recognise your regular customers - a blank look and indifferent greeting to someone who has been frequenting the place for months and regularly buying produce does not go down well.

2. greet your regular customers with a smile - the bane of the Parisian waiter too, told to smile at customers who he'd rather snarl at for obliging him to fetch and carry to earn a living. It can take some time before a vendor accepts you as a regular customer and instead of just greeting you with a short, sharp "Bonjour", will greet with you a smile and ask you how you are. (I have reached this happy state at my local butcher's. It took me roughly nine months.)

3. make the odd "geste commercial" such as a bit of extra ham, an extra bottle when you sell someone a significant quantity of wine, or a 10% discount, a bunch of parsley thrown in, etc.

Local wine producers are particularly bad, so bad in fact that they have a reputation for being stingy. Take one story I heard about a basketball player who introduced his Parisian friends to a local wine. They loved it and gave him regular orders when he travelled up to see them. He would pay around 1000 Eur each time. Do you think the vigneron gave him an extra box, or even just one special bottle as a gesture of goodwill? Nothing. Rien. Not even a discount. When he wasn't even being greeted with a smile he decided that enough was enough and stopped going there.

I heard another story about a different vineyard where there too, they are so stingy that they charge 1.50 Eur more at the vineyard for their wine than the same wine for sale in the local fromagerie. You make the effort to go to the vineyard, pay extra petrol, and they sting you on every bottle you buy! As a result, my friend doesn't bother going there any more but just buys it down the road from time to time, and less and less as he's reluctant to give them too much money as he doesn't like their attitude.

What is amazing is that these people are always complaining that they don't sell enough! They won't, of course, bring in a PR professional to give advice. That would cost money! Even though it might make them more in the long run. Actually, they don't need one, I can give out all the advice they need, and I cost no more than a few boxes of wine! :)

The contrast with my friend's butcher is telling. He would be greeted with a cheery hello, and offered special cuts, extra bits, and even the pâté bowls when he bought the last slice. As a result he was a faithful customer and spent a fortune in there. He's moved now and laments the loss of his butcher as the one where he now lives does not have the same attitude to customer service.

My friends reckon that this lack of "esprit commercial" comes from their peasant backgrounds. When there was less choice, before supermarkets brought wine from all regions practically to our doorsteps, people went to their local producers or cave cooperative. They liked or lumped the treatment they received because there was nowhere else to go. Peasants are renowned for being stingy and surly so customers just accepted it.

These days, we all have so much choice, we can buy what we need from a multitude of suppliers in a small area, so anyone who wants to stand out has to make it worth his customer's while - recognition, friendly contact, and commercial gestures. Otherwise we might just as well go to Carrouf.

But how can you tell them?

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Walks in the Cevennes: Sentier des Rouquis

We are having such amazingly gorgeous weather this autumn, it seems criminal not to be out in it at every opportunity. If this is an effect of global warming, bring it on! Unfortunately, work gets in the way for most of the week, so one is restricted to local spots for a daily (or so) constitutional, but at the weekend, one can take advantage of the gratifyingly low petrol prices and wander further afield.

Thus it was that we dug out our pamphlet of walks in the Cévennes and found one an hour or so's drive from home. I packed a picnic (flageolet bean houmous, buckwheat crackers, lettuce, apples) and we drove to the starting point at mountain village of Saint-André de Majencoules thirty or so kilometres south of Mont Aigoual.
Crossing the bridge at Saint-André de Majencoules
Looking back towards the bridge at Saint-André de Majencoules
My DB doesn't like walking on a full stomach, so we packed our lunch in his backpack and set off walking through the picturesque village. It sits strategically on a rocky overhang which gives spectacular views across the valley. You can see the terraces of sweet onions - 'l'oignon doux des Cévennes (AOC)' - which were originally grown for personal consumption but then became commercialised in the 1950s when the silk worm industry died out due to severe winters which killed the mulberry trees.

The village has suffered, like so many in the Cévennes, from desertification. Its population of around 550 today was three times higher in 1913. At that time, it had forty artisans and tradesmen including two blacksmiths (maréchaux-ferrant), six shoemakers, four tailors, three hairdressers and eight grocers.

We were following yellow markers on the 'Sentier des Rouquis' which takes you through a landscape of granite rocks, forests of chestnut, holm oak (chêne vert) and other robust trees; the village of La Rouviérette, and along a crête which overlooks the village.

Looking south towards Pont de l'Hérault
It's a 'facile' walk which means it's accessible for everyone (although they don't mean wheelchair users, pushchairs or those with weak knees, and it's best not to wear flipflops...), is less than 16km and no more than a 400m climb. We are not up to the 'moyen' level yet, which is a shame because the Cévennes Tourist Office organises some really cool walks, like this one on Oct 31 which has as its theme the diversity of flora in the Cevennes. You get a lunch of local products as well as explanations about the plants you encounter as you walk, their rarity and the uses man puts them to.

We followed the deserted road as far as the next signpost where we turned to climb up towards the hamlet of La Rouviérette through a chestnut tree wood. The narrow road, at this time of the year, is strewn with chestnut tree leaves and fallen chestnuts. Anyone wanting a cheap dinner would be able to have their fill! 

We didn't gather them up (we'd have to carry them!) but stopped at a handy picnic table at Combe Croze, a tiny hamlet just before La Rouviérette, and, in the total peace and quiet, enjoyed our lunch. At the entrance to the village, a small girl came running out of a house and asked us if we were going to come inside because someone was playing the piano. Hunger forced us to decline... 

Opposite the picnic table was a staircase cut into the granite which takes you up into the châtaigneraie (chestnut grove) and down to Saint-André. The pamphlet relates the story of one old man who used to work in the silk textile mill further down the valley in Peyregrosse. He walked down in clogs carrying his lunch in a billy can, worked for nine hours and then walked back up at night, presumably in the pitch black.

Combe Croze
The châtaignier was a vital part of the local diet until the middle of the twentieth century along with the potato. Villagers also cultivated chickpeas and wheat.

We learned about the clède which is now a ruined building in the village of La Rouviérette, but was once where chestnuts were laid out to dry. They would be put on a griddle (claie) and a small fire would be lit beneath. When the châtaigneraie was abandoned, the inhabitants started cultivating ferns (fougère aigle) which was used for bedding and animal food.

La Rouviérette is on the transhumance route to Mont Aigoual. Now only a couple of herds still pass through.

La Rouviérette. Is that a sheep shed under the arch?
Still on the road, we came across a collection of five blue tubs, the sort that contain fertilizer. They were connected together in a basic manner by a series of tubes. Another tube guided water that came out of the rocks behind into the first tub. When it was full, the overflow was carried by a second tube into the second tub, and so on. They were all pretty full - it's been very wet.

We came to a signpost 'Les Suels' after a gentle but persistent climb, which marks the col (pass) and the start of the crête (crest). The air was clear and pure, and the fragrances from the damp earth, the herbs and other vegetation were delicious. Les Suels seems to have been a grand old building, now a ruin, which was inhabited up until 1945. 
Ruined hamlet of Les Suels
The girls who lived there (according to the pamphlet) used to go down the path to school which must have been about 2.5km, accompanied by a tame boar that followed them like a dog. It came to collect them at the end of the day too. Apparently there were fewer wild boar at that time and so there were only three or four hunters. We found a fair amount of boar activity along the crest - stirred up earth showing where they slept for the night. They have become so numerous now they are a menace and have to be culled.

I don't know if they were looking for mushrooms, but we certainly found quite a few. We didn't pick them though as we know nothing about mushrooms.

Cevenol fungi spotted... but not gathered...
Up on the col, it was amazing how the sound of the traffic on the main road some 600m below rose up as a constant drone. We were following the Rouquiers path which runs along the crest and then goes down to the south side of Saint-André. The descent is a lot more brutal than the ascent; the path a perilous track of loose rocks, hidden tree roots beneath the fallen leaves and large boulders that need careful navigating if one is not to twist an ankle or go careering off over the side of the mountain. Is it really the path taken by those girls, in the dark of winter mornings and evenings?
Tricky path of ankle-twisting loose rocks hidden beneath the leaves
One false step on a dark winter's evening and you'd be over the edge in a jiffy.

We arrived back at the car after nearly 6km of an exceptionally pleasant trek - gorgeous views, lovely smells, peace and quiet, pretty villages, and interesting history.
Happy me enjoying the Great Outdoors wearing a back-to-front bumbag and my zumba outfit.
We finished off the day back in Montpellier with an exceptionally delicious bottle of red from Domaine de la Jasse - the Black Label cuvée. Smooth, beautiful and elegant, it was a fitting end to a fabulous day. Cheers!

Monday, October 13, 2014

A Windy Palavas and the Foire de Montpellier

Palavas beach 12 Oct 2014
This was the beach at Palavas yesterday on a day when the wind blew in strong gusts, whipping up the sea which deposited branches and bits of reed in untidy piles. It was an incredibly warm 25°C with what must have been almost 100% humidity, so walking along the front made me feel sticky and sweaty.

Today, it was calm, and a number of John Deere tractors were out tidying everything up. The contrast was remarkable.

We had popped down to the beach in search of a sandwich for lunch. My DB and I had spent the morning at the Foire de Montpellier, a commercial bonanza of Italian leather sofas, ceramic pans, and double glazing. Everywhere you stepped, you got accosted by a desperate sales person. The place was closed yesterday because of the weather, so they'd lost a whole day of potential sales on one of the busiest days - a disaster.

We were drawn in to one spiel at what looked like a vacuum cleaner stand. A short and sparky lady showed us this wonderful cleaner which wasn't just a hoover, but a combined steam cleaner. It hoovered up, steamed cleaned tiles, shampooed carpets and dried the lot in seconds. Lovely. We asked about the price. She said we could pay as little as 40 EUR per month. "A vie?" asked my DB? (For life?). She laughed gaily and said it was so nice to meet people with a sense of humour.

After a suspiciously long time, she finally got round to giving us the price. Don't faint (we were sitting down by this time, just in case...). It cost a snip at 2500 EUR, with a 'special' event price of 2100 EUR.

Of course, she said we could pay it off interest-free in as many months as we liked, up to 48. Can you imagine still paying for your hoover four years later? We told her it was far too expensive, so she suggested we pay less per month. It was difficult explaining that it wasn't the monthly payments that posed a problem, but the total amount which was far too expensive for such a gadget, nifty though it was.

Then she said we could take the display model for... 1700 EUR, or if we were a business, we could get a VAT-free new model for the same price. She was doing her best, but even 1700 EUR was about 1000 EUR more than we thought the hoover should cost. Getting a little desperate, she then gave us the sob story about being closed the day before, and so she couldn't make four potential sales like she did the previous year on that day.

By this time, we were getting a little weary and not a little hungry. I had had my eye on the Italian hall with the intention of nibbling my way through lunch, so we made our excuses and left. Ouf!

After a tour of the Italian hall sampling the cheese and charcuterie which was all delicious but very expensive (pork 30 EUR/kg), I was still hungry so we went to the food court which was also expensive. That was when we decided to leave and go elsewhere, and ended up in Palavas with a tasty baguette sarnie by the canal sitting in the sun (25°C).

The weather is not a little amazing this autumn!

Friday, October 10, 2014

Motorbike and Boats

After the storms of the beginning of the week, the end of it promised sunshine and warm weather. My DB suggested we take advantage of it with a bike ride down the coast.

I made some hummus and packed some buckwheat crackers and a couple of apples and we set off for beach. The temperature was perfect for biking in a leather jacket - not too hot nor too cold. The sky was blue and it felt great to be out and enjoying the advantages of living in the south of France.

We cruised from Villeneuve-les-Maguelones to Marseillan where I saw a flock of flamingoes flying east. Would they be spending the winter in Palavas-les-Flots on the shallow lagoons, or would they be taking a right turn and head further south? They made a magnificent sight in their V formation flapping purposefully en route to their destination.

We, on the other hand, didn't have a destination. Our goal was the journey. Journeys give you time to think and reflect. My DB wanted the opportunity to think about projects and plans which he does best whilst riding. I let the scenery impress itself on me, living in the moment, breathing in the smells of the sea and warm pine.

Along some of the coast, it's so built up and fenced off for camp sites, it's quite tricky finding a place to stop at the beach. Eventually we stopped for lunch at Marseillan Plage, having spotted some concrete picnic tables along the canal near a desolate-looking hotel called Le Richemont. Several people were fishing, and some of the tables were occupied by visitors enjoying al fresco eating. It was not a particularly attractive spot, but it was the best we could find that was near the sea.

Best we could find for a picnic, canal on the right
After lunch we rode on to Valras-Plage where we found a tiny road that gave us access to a beach for a snooze. It looked like people had fenced off plots of land leading down to the sea, but because they were designated as non-constructible, they had installed caravans in amongst the trees. With time, the caravans aged and so it looked like a glorified dump of decay in a beautiful setting. The smell of cooking fish was strong too.

The car park was tiny. Obviously the beach was supposed to be a well-kept secret and available to residents and the odd stray visitor who happened upon it by accident. Storm damage was evident in the detritus that was collected on the sand, from whole tree trunks to strands of reeds and other bits of wood.

A right mess after the storm

After our snooze, we carried on, hugging the coast where possible or following the green roads inland for a while in the Massif de la Clape near Narbonne. From flat and wild scrub, they took us through some rugged hills and sweet-smelling forests. The view of the blue sea between the trees from on high just before the road descended to the coast was spectacular.

At Gruissan, we decided to look for a hotel. Unfortunately, the only one we could find that was open, not full and not a dump was at the casino. It was a busy weekend because there was a jousting competition going on. So we tried Gruissan-Plage where the film 37°2 was filmed amongst the cabins on stilts. It was a little eery all closed up except for the odd weekender tending to his garage. We retraced our steps back to Narbonne-Plage where everywhere was full. This we hadn't expected - the first weekend in October, and not a room to be had?

Gruissan-Plage chalets, location for the film 37°2
Eventually, with Trip Advisor and suggesting the only place with rooms was the casino, we headed back and took a very pleasant room overlooking a lake. It was slightly confusing taking a shower though as the taps had been plumbed in the wrong way, so there I was, wondering why there was no hot water...

View from hotel room
That evening, we didn't go for a flutter in the casino, but walked into Gruissan to the port for dinner. There were lots of places open, so it was hard choosing, and we walked up and down several times before I chose one place where we could eat outside. It turned out to be the restaurant of the hotel that was full, the Hotel du Port. My fresh daube was delicious, its flesh soft and creamy and enhanced by citrus slices. My DB had a tasty salmon tartare which he said was just what he needed after stuffing his face with barbecue flavoured crisps earlier. The staff were very friendly, and we were the last to leave just as it started getting chilly. It was a lovely evening and the port was alive with people enjoying one of the last balmy evenings of the year.

The next morning, we woke up refreshed from the extremely comfortable bed, and walked to the port for coffee and croissants. It was extremely lively with a rowing competition in full flow. Teams (both men and women, and even mixed) in heavy wooden boats rowed 50m or so up to a buoy, then turned around it and rowed back cheered on by enthusiastic onlookers. It was extremely windy and I should think it was exhausting rowing the final straight into the wind.

We ate a couple of croissants before my DB decided to look up the number of calories in each one. Did you know a croissant has 406 calories? I thought it would be about 200! We needed the walk around the port after that to burn them off!

Gruissan port is huge and very busy with sail boats in every berth. The architecture of the flats is very 70s although they made a bit of an effort with the rounded tops, but the actual construction is pretty crappy. Still, there are lovely views over the port. We walked round to the dry docks where there were many different types of boats on supports including an old grey landing craft. The rigging clanged and thwacked in the gusty wind. We had to battle against round but I could feel those calories burn right off.

Quite a variety of boats, from sleek modern to traditional wooden. 

A landing craft incongruous amongst the other boats.

A man fishing for his cat?
The wind was actually a bit of a problem as my DB didn't want to ride the bike in the strong gusts. He negotiated with the hotel for us to stay until 1.30pm when hopefully it would have died down somewhat.

We left on time in a more subdued breeze and headed back to Montpellier via a north-easterly direction following the sat-nav's idea of scenic routes, and those green roads where possible.

Tiny single-lane track of the scenic type
We passed through the villages of Aude and Hérault, some barely bigger than they were fifty years ago, others expanded in sprawling estates of new boxy houses on the outskirts.

Boxy houses at the entrance to charming old village
We crossed the Canal du Midi, still magnificently lined with plane trees... for the moment.

Canal du Midi
The previous day we had crossed a bridge where on one side the age old (diseased) trees were still in place, and on the other, they had been cut down and replaced with young trees. One side was shady and atmospheric, an historic waterway listed as a world heritage site, the other was glaringly open to the elements, and... just a canal.

We made it back in good time to find the house relatively clean and tidy and no evidence of anything untoward... like wild parties or extreme cooking.