Tuesday 23 November 2010

Olive Harvest

I originally posted a version of this on my Languedoc wine blog but olives are also very relevant to Aspiran of course.

Olive groves have been sprouting up all over the commune and the central Hérault valley over the past decade. Many of these will have been given a start in life by EU vine grubbing up payments - sadly a blunt instrument of a policy that doesn't protect prime vineyards (and Aspiran has some of the best), but that's another subject.

Young olive trees overlooking the Hérault valley
The Clermont l'Hérault olive oil coopérative was founded in 1920 and is famous in the locality. It was one of the few "huileries" to survive the devastating frosts of January 1956 that killed or crippled all the trees (and quite a few vines) in the south of France for years. Recovery has been painfully slow but steady since the 1990s.

This year the trees are heaving with olives and picking for oil production started at the beginning of November (most eating olives are picked from September when green and not fully ripe). While wine overproduction is nothing new in the Languedoc the Clermont huilerie seems to have an oil overproduction crisis as well.

According to the region's Midi Libre daily paper they sell 80,000 litres of their member's oil a year. However, last years harvest generated 215,000 litres so to address this, and help keep the price to the growers at €8 a litre, 15% less olives will be accepted from their members this year (I assume in practice the olives are pressed but the surplus oil is returned). There are exceptions for producers of less than about 40 litres plus those who signed up to the special "Japan" cuvée who will have all their oil accepted.

The challenge for southern French olive oil is the climate is actually at the northern limits for the olive tree. While quality and finesse is excellent and sometimes unbeatable, the yield is low and variable - a fraction of that achievable in southern Spain, Algeria, Greece etc. A typical tree will give just 2 to 3 litres of oil and to be economic local oils need to retail at around €14 to €18 a litre.

Tuesday 16 November 2010

Vines, Oliviers and Oaks

The Aspiran wine cooperative is sadly in decline and this must be the dullest picture on this blog. Wine hasn't been bottled here for several years, it's just tankered away somewhere. Friends who live on the approach road report a decline in harvest traffic each year. Neighbouring villages Adissan, Fontes and Cabrières give the impression of doing better with sales both directly and to supermarkets backed by fair local reputations. Other neighbours Nébian, Paulhan and Belarga have joined forces with two other communes to become a super-cooperative under the Clochers et Terroirs brand. Several friends enjoy their everyday wine and a tempting loyalty scheme ensures they keep returning.

Better news is that Aspiran now has five independent wine producers, that I know of, from the well established Château Malautié (actually not a Château at all) to the relatively new such as the intriguing Ribiera. Some of the vineyard land is as fine as any in the Languedoc with several owned by reputed Domaines based outside the commune.

More good news is a tour round the chemins reveals a surprising number of new plantings at a time of overall vine decline. These are especially evident in the basalt rich soils such as this planting by the geologically recent lava flow described in my Volcanoes post.

Nevertheless, EU grubbing up cash incentive schemes have transformed many vineyards over the last 5 plus years over to growing visually dull cereals. This picture was taken before wheat was planted - poppies just love recently tilled soil.

Others have become attractive olive groves. In more sheltered spots where water is readily available orchards of peach, apricot, cherry and almond trees have appeared. Added to this are three bio vegetable growers in the commune, see my post on one of them La Ferme Lou Selces.

Most curious of all are plantations of oak trees like this one between the roads to Paulhan and Adissan soon after they fork. Acorns? Timber? No, truffle oaks.

For notes on a couple of wines from Aspiran see my wine blog posts on Domaine Ribiera and Château Malautié.

Tuesday 2 November 2010

Spider from Mars

Spotted in a vineyard.

It's purpose is to dispense fertiliser (I assume) into a tractor pulled trailer.

Friday 22 October 2010

Salade Sauvage

Poupier (Purslane)
Early spring is the main season for wild salad plants and I'll blog more on that next year. However, the period after the first autumn rains does bring on a few delights. These two are stars on four counts; they have an excellent taste, are fairly easy to find, are quick to pick and easy to prepare for the salad bowl.

Roquette (below) is the most common great wild salad here and also has a long season. It grows on the banks of most small lanes and, unlike many salad plants, the leaves are still tender after the delightful yellow flowers develop. It's more peppery than the shop bought stuff (rocket in the UK) so needs to be mixed with other leaves or just use as a garnish. There's a white variety called "false" roquette that loves the vineyards but has an inferior taste and texture.

Pourpier (above), known as Purslane in the UK, is often stocked by up market London grocers. It's a bit harder to find than roquette and while it also likes vineyards this source is best avoided unless known to be an organic. It has a great crunchy texture with a slightly sour and salty taste.

Roquette (Rocket)

Friday 15 October 2010

Autumn Yellow Crocuses

These wild autumn crocuses were spotted by the road to Peret. No doubt brought to life after a couple of days rain earlier in the week.

Wednesday 13 October 2010

Location Location Location

Before we'd ever heard of Aspiran we spent a week in a small Hamlet near Olargues in the Haut Languedoc. The views across and along the valley of chêne vert forested hills were spectacular and the 1000m plus high Espinouse could be walked up from the back door. Pretty idyllic, but the modest remoteness had drawbacks. The boulangerie was a 20 minute round trip. It took 5 minutes to reach the main east-west valley road and the options were turn left or right. The supermarket was nearly half an hour away. Going north to nowhere, or south to Beziers, involved seriously scenic but narrow winding roads.

By complete contrast, Aspiran sits it rolling foothills nicely between Clermont l'Herault and Pézenas. Montpellier's tramway is just over half an hours drive away, as is central Béziers.

Five roads leave the village and seven neighbouring villages are reached directly without passing through others. An eighth, Belarga, counts when the Herault is low enough to walk over the weir. The A75 (Clermont Ferrand via Millau to Beziers autoroute) skirts the commune but is well away from the village and ensures the RN9 is a quiet local road. There are oak woods, a pine tree wood, garrigue and, of course, vines. Along with a baker are a few other commerces, tabac, post office, pharmacy and two bars. Supermarkets and brico sheds at Clermont are 10 minutes away.

Overall a pretty ideal compromise between open spaces, scenery, services and access to the department's facilities.

Wednesday 6 October 2010


At the end of September what looks like a hawthorn tree produces fingertip sized pink-red fruits known around here as Pommettes. They have a sweet and quite intense apple taste and the tree, l'Azérolier (Crataegus azarolus), is actually a Mediterranean species of hawthorn and closely related to the apple.

Pommette trees are quite common along the side of chemins (lanes) but it is unusual to find one like this in a relatively exposed windswept location - most of the pommettes have blow off.

We eat them as a sort of dessert equivalent of olives - they have a core of two grape pip like stones.

They can also be cooked and sieved to make an equivalent of apple conserve.

Saturday 11 September 2010

Our Daily Bread and the definitive Pain Paillasse

A couple of years ago the rather lacklustre village boulangerie acquired new owners Nico and Anaïs and the bread is no longer a relative of cotton wool in brown paper. La Pétrie, which seems to be a franchise, supply decent flour along with the branding. Their Pétrisane is a tasty basic loaf of substance at a baguette price that keeps well, or at least longer than a baguette.

While Lou Pan Aspiranais is a solid village baker, the finest for some distance is at Canet 5.5 Km away. Their star loaf is the Paillasse, also known as Pain de Lodève. Paillasse is named after a large straw basket where the dough was left to rise in one large mass after kneading. It is only cut and formed into a twisted loaf immediately before going into the oven. Like sourdough, it's made from a starter rather than using yeast and the dough is particularly wet. All this results in some large holes forming and the need to sell the baked loaf by weight - about 1.30 to 2.40 €. Another secret is the wood burning oven that helps impart a delicious nutty toasted character to the crust - I always ask for "bien cuit".

So serious is this operation that they open at 4 a.m. Expect the Pailasses to be sold out by lunchtime.

There seems to be some controversy in the bread world over Paillasse. Pain de Lodève had been made since the middle ages but a Swiss baker, claiming to have developed the recipe independently, patented "Pain Paillasse" in the 1990s and has made a fortune out of selling it in hundreds of bakers. Everyone seems to agree it's basically Pain de Lodève.

Sunday 5 September 2010

Millstone Quarry and Basalt Capitelle walk

Nine a.m. is quite an early start for Aspiranaises the morning after the July 13th annual village meal and general merriment, but there was a good if not prompt turnout for this balade patrimoine. We met at the archaeological site of St-Bézard marked "P" on the map - seem my post Oldest Winery in France for more on that.

The objective was the long abandoned site of a millstone quarry. The walk took us up a lane to a col in the basalt lava flow I described in my volcanoes post. We then headed right along an ancient trading route, although according to my book on Drailles probably not the Roman Cami Ferrat as suggested by the girls leading the walk. The track soon enters the wooded whale-back ridge with the arrow in the picture, taken from the start, indicating the quarry.

Half way along the ridge is this basalt capitelle, typically a shepherd's refuge. While common in the area dark basalt ones are rare.

Just before the capitelle find a right turn along a path that passes next to a rather sad semi-abandoned caravan. This weaves through the oak tree trunks and starts to descend, eventually emerging at the millstone quarry occupying a tree free area the size of a few tennis courts. This overlooks a steeper drop to vineyards below.

At the quarry the dark basalt has given way to a pale conglomerate rock. The basalt was formed less than a million years ago from a lava which flowed like a river to fill what was then a valley. Subsequent erosion washed away the softer surrounding sedimentary rocks to leave the basalt on a ridge and exposing this rock at it's edge.

The first photo, with snippets of feet indicating the scale of things, show a millstone that was never extracted - perhaps as it split. The second outlines where one was extracted.

Millstones from this quarry were known to be used in moulins à eau (water mills) along the Hérault valley.

Thursday 26 August 2010

Nebian Fire

In the early hours of Wednesday 11th August there was a fire just before Mas de Roujou by the road to Villeneuvette. So serious was the perceived threat to life and property that, according to the paper Midi Libre, 28 fire engines, a helicopter and three Canadair water dropping planes fought the blaze which took some 6 hours after it started to extinguish. Ash landed in Aspiran 5Kms away. My photographs, taken a couple of weeks later from about 1.5 Km away, show the extent of the damage to the hillside.

The fire was quickly proven to have been started deliberately. The gendarmes suspect disputed hunting rights with the hunting season just weeks away - it follows a number of other (less serious) fires started in the area.

Wednesday 21 July 2010

Know your Onions

Lézignan-la-Cèbe is 9 Km south of Aspiran towards Pézenas. Cèbe is derived from the occitan for onion and the term was appended to the village name in the 17th century. The onions are renowned for their sweet white flesh and are particularly agreeable raw. The bulb is quite flat - more curling stone than tear shaped. They seem particularly suited to the irrigated flood plane soils between the village and the Hérault which flows 2 Km to the east. The soil is certainly richer here than upstream at Aspiran and beyond where vines start to dominate.

The A75 autoroute opened in 2002 and at a stroke eliminated the bulk of the passing trade but La Chaumière, on the N9 northern edge of the village, has a strong local following. They are one of the last producers of the Cèbe and their potager and fields at the back also grow excellent garlic, shallots and tomatoes. Roadside stalls are normally to be avoided but this one deserves an award.

The village has a "Foire à l'oignon doux" every July. For more information (in French) with pictures of these onions and the foire see this village growers site here.

Monday 5 July 2010

Medieval music in the streets

Flyers for this were well hidden, we spotted one in the baker that stated Sunday evening 21h for a tour of the medieval village with music by the group "Sabor". A small crowd gathered at the Place du Peyrou and soon a delay was announced due to storms in Montpellier. Over half and hour later there was the sound of distant thunder that soon became louder, but also took on a distinct beat. "Sabor" turned out to be a medieval band (flutes, horns, drums) who had marched up the Grand Rue in full pomp accompanied by torch bearers.

After the band's opening number a guide and local history expert from Pézenas introduced the village - fortunately he has a clear loud voice. What followed was nearly two hours of parading through streets (and at one stage the river bed) to music with pauses for dancing and, while the musicians gathered their breath, more discourse on historic sites - la Placette, Chapelle des Pénitents, ramparts, river Garelle, Chemin de sous Ville and Portes.

Quite an evening and clearly scheduled to be the first Sunday of the school summer holidays. It's also good to see people have such a good time without alcohol. Apparently this isn't an annual event, but maybe it will be.

Friday 2 July 2010

Champ's Avenue & Vintage

Update - sadly, but not surprisingly, Champ's did not open in 2011 and is for sale.

The unexpected happens, but when friends told us that a Champagne Bar had opened in the village it was both jaw-dropping disbelief and elation. The village has had a typical bar for years - table football, pool, big TV, sweet beer, pastis and, frankly, rough wine. Champ's is totally complementary, smart but not posh and where products of the vine take pride and place.

The owner Jean Paul was a vignerone in the Champagne region and sold up to presumably fulfil an ambition to run a wine bar. In the too narrow for vehicles Rue du Cazals what was once a shop has been totally renovated.

Original stonework has been exposed and cleaned. The entrance leads to three rooms with the bar in the back room. A small courtyard offers relief for smokers and atop an open spiral staircase is a delightful terrace.
Champagne obviously tops the bill and is extremely reasonably priced - go for the less well known names such as Waris Larmandier, Legras & Haas, Duchene and Villmart. There's also broad selection of nearby wines and beer if you must, but the licence prohibits spirits. While not a place for a full meal a selection of nibbles and tapas like dishes is on offer. Last but not least it's a cavist, so at last somewhere handy to buy a selection of wine and of course Champagne.

Friday 25 June 2010

What's in a name

How did Aspiran get its name? In the village library I borrowed a short booklet "Travers le Temps" which consists of notes made from the work of local historian François Bonnéry. It was published back in 1995 by the village projects group "L’Amical Laïque d’Aspiran".

The 2nd to 5th century AD was the Gallo-Roman period which finally broke down with barbarian invasions dawning the so called dark ages. The centre of village as we know it today didn't really exist, the area would have been a collection of small holdings sited where water was available. During that time one of the village inhabitants was called either ASPER or SPIRIUS and he had a small holding by the Croix du Coq (cross of the cockerel). This exists today and is by the raised junction on the way out of the village 100m past the cave coopérative - rather sadly next to recycling bins and wedged between a lamppost and give-way sign. At one time the river Garelle forded the road here, today it flows underneath.

The Latin suffix “ANUM” indicates ownership and this resulted in the name “ASPIRANUM” or “SPIRANUM”. As the “UM” is nearly silent this presumably evolved at some stage to “SPIRIAN”. The Occitan name for the village is “ESPIAN” – apparently in Occitan the “r” between the vowels is suppressed which supports the name being derived from “ESPIRAN”. In French it is of course “ASPIRAN”.

Tuesday 22 June 2010


Caper bushes (Capparis spinosa in Latin and Capres in French) are native to the Mediterranean but seem relatively rare in this area. Now, thanks to neighbours in the village, I have been alerted to some growing by a chemin (country lane). The plants like to grow on walls, and while there are plenty of those, few sport capers. They're also hard to spot, except in June when the delicate short lived and highly attractive flowers flourish.
The khaki green buds are of course the caper most of us know pickled in tiny jars and dumped on pizzas or skate. One can be seen in the top-left of the above picture. A branch will have small buds forming near the tip that get progressively larger until flowering buds are reached towards the base. Small is best. Those less than 7 mm wide are classed as non pareil (literally unequalled) and the French capers, presumably as the climate is caper marginal, are small. I have some peppercorn to petite pois sized ones maturing in sherry vinegar and another batch in sea salt. Time will tell, but for now they're seriously potent.

Friday 18 June 2010


Volcanism in the Hérault dates back at least 30 million years. The most recent active volcano was by the coast at Agde, today a familiar rounded hill topped with a fat transmitter tower, that finished erupting a relatively recent 0.5 million years ago. Agde marks the southern end of a line of volcanoes that started some 2.5 million years ago in the Larzac and Lodèvois. Less than 30 Km north of Agde around Aspiran the last eruptions have been dated at 0.7 million years ago.

Making a point. Philippe Martin of the Association of Ecologistes de l'Euzière and author of La nature méditerranéenne en France (see here on Amazon).

In his hand is a piece each of basalt and limestone.
On the left in the background is the Roc du Caylar.

Perhaps surprisingly, what remains from this activity is relatively unspectacular scenery for the area. The cliffs of the Roc du Caylar above Nebian (see picture above) and the tooth like Pic de Vissou above Cabrières are eye grabbing rocky landmarks, but were never volcanoes. All erosion has left is a couple of rounded hilltops 5 Km from Aspiran above Lieuran-Cabrières towards Peret.

Maluber (also known as Malhubert) is on the left and Maugno on the far right. The hill between them in the centre is unnamed. Aspiran is behind the camera.

Same view taken from the pine trees south of Aspiran.

Pic de Vissou from Maluber. Vissou is not a volcano but was formed by folding of the land - rather like a swiss roll bursting open when the sponge won't flex.

Maugno viewed from near the col between Maluber and Maugno.

In their day these were what are known as Strombolian volcanoes, picture postcard cone shaped and complete with craters. This type produce lava flows that cool to give relatively pure dark basalt rock. One particularly large flow went as far as the Hérault valley (5 Kms). Today it’s a mainly wooded whaleback ridge that can be seen on the left after one passes the cemetery on leaving Aspiran en route to the main road - the top ends near the water tower. During the eruption the lava would have flowed down the valley of the river Dourbie, but subsequent erosion has left the harder basalt rock as a ridge and the Dourbie now flows to the north east.

Aspiran from the 316m summit of Maugno. The lava flow is out of picture to the left.

The edge of an ancient quarry with Aspiran in the background.
Basalt is more durable stone than limestone, but for most less attractive. Buildings in the area are constructed using a mixture of both giving a speckled appearance, although much of Agde, including the large church, are entirely basalt giving the town a somewhat gloomy feel on dark wet days.

Further down the Hérault valley there’s a large working quarry at Lézignan-la-Cèbe where an even larger and longer 10 Km lava flow ends having emerged from the volcano Les Baumes above Fontès.

These vines are on the basalt lava flow about 500m from the end of the flow at the old quarry. Large boulders of basalt can be seen forming a bank at the back having been removed from the vineyard as they would wreck a plough. Sites like this are being sought after by modern wine makers as the basalt gives the grapes and resulting wine a refreshing acidity.

Close up these ancient volcanoes are more spectacular. There are areas with boulders of basalt like the vineyard picture above. In places volcanic “bombs” of rock are spewed all over the land like natural litter – the result of molten rock meeting water under the volcano. Elsewhere the basalt has weathered and been coated with attractive orange/yellow lichens, there are some specs on the quarry picture.

Botanically this is known as garrigue and is packed with herbs and flowers such as thyme, mint, camomile along with less well known Mediterranean species like thé de garrigue (Sideritis romana). A massive subject.

Wednesday 2 June 2010

On the Bus

Buses have always served outlying villages with school commuting based schedules. Back around the millennium time in London, the then Mayor Ken Livingstone revolutionised London's bus network by upping services, investing in new vehicles, introducing swipe cards for faster boarding and slashing fares.

Having previously researched buses as an option for airport or station transport it was possible if an early start, some waiting time and hardly bargain fares were accepted - around €6 plus per person just to get to Montpellier for example.

A bus revolution of perhaps equivalent proportions to London's happened in the Hérault this May. The buses have always been more like coaches, air conditioned and comfortable bar the cosy legroom in quite a few seats. Finding anything out about schedules was seriously challenging with fares treated like military secrets. Now timetables are available in tourist offices, posted on bus stops and are on-line at a new and informative Herault Transport website. The well advertised headline grabber is the €1 fare, including transfers to connecting services, for a carnet of 10 tickets (€1,50 for a single fare).

This made a day in Montpellier for two €4. This is less than the Mosson Parking Tramway deal we usually use and saves 80Km of car costs. OK, the journey takes 30 mins longer and you get to see quite a few villages and towns on the way, but otherwise well worth doing for a full day out.

Monday 24 May 2010

Balloon and Blood on the Rooftops

After a day with a long cycle ride for an even longer Sunday lunch, an evening on the terrace would perhaps be uneventful. Not so. First up was a hot air balloon. We've seen plenty over the years at the Bristol Balloon Festival, but can't recall ever seeing one in the Languedoc, perhaps because they only fly at dawn or dusk to avoid the worst of the regions notorious winds. Suitable landing sites must also be scarce. Dumping a sizeable basket supported by delicate fabric into a meadow or cornfield may be fine, but vinyards with their vine stumps and trailing wires don't bear thinking about.

This colourful balloon is decending into the sunset. The Hitchcokian black birds are Swallows doing their last circuits of the village before nightfall.

There's also a Swallow in this shot. It was nearly dark so the picture is grainy, but then that may be just as well for the faint hearted. A Kestrel has somehow caught and dragged a swallow onto some roof tiles and is about to crush its head before flying off with it, presumably to the nest.