Thursday 3 November 2011

Four à Chaux

The detailed IGN map of the area indicates "le Four à Chaux Ruines" wedged between the road to Paulhan and Adissan soon after they fork near where electricity pylons cross. Four à Chaux is a lime kiln. Limestone would have been heated in an oven to produce lime principally for use as a building material. Lime mortar is still the material of choice today for renovating old stone house walls. According to the document "Guide d'interprétation des paysages viticoles : exemple de 50 communes en Coeur d'Hérault - décembre 2005" from Observatoire viticole there are seven Four à Chaux remains in the 50 communes surveyed. Along with Aspiran are one in Cabrières and Fontès plus four from Caux - all virtually neighbours. Given that Caux is Occitan for Chaux then such popularity is perhaps appropriate.

There are indeed ruins at the Aspiran site. The above was taken at the spot indicated on the IGN map and is the only "ruin" in the vicinity, although little remains to indicate it was a kiln beyond piles and ridges of white stones. 100m to the north is more convincing evidence, a pit dug in limestone and reaching well into the current water table. These two features are indicated by the paddle markers on the Google map above.

Tuesday 1 November 2011

Rain, floods and river levels

Two days of rain in the last week of October, the first of any real significance since March, is a reminder that the Hérault floods and will be of special concern to those around the Aspiran Gare sector. This link plots real-time levels for the Hérault at Aspiran. The home page displays river flood warnings for the whole of France - click on the map to zoom into the Languedoc.

The weir on the Hérault at Aspiran Gare

Friday 28 October 2011

Village wine makers

Saturday 15th October saw the village fair of associations take place at the Boulodrome. As France were beating Wales in the Rugby World Cup semi-final that morning proceedings made a calm start with a late rush. Many of the stalls were selling children's vide grenier (literally empty the loft) wares, but of adult interest was the presence of four wine producers.

I described in this post how the Cave Cooperative has at last joined a group of neighbouring cooperatives called Clochers et Terroirs this year and their stand showed a range of well made wines. I particularly liked the Chardonnay - quite crisp and not too overbearing.

At the other end of the wine making spectrum were three small independent producers - David Caer (Clos Mathelisse), Jacques Fanet (Mas d'Arlenques) and Régis Pichon (Domaine Ribiera). My grape picking exploits at Domaine Ribiera are described here.

David Caer gauges the reaction to his sublime Coeur de Pépite white and Exorde red from Clos Mathelisse.

The Mairie Jean-Noël Satger demonstrates suave glass holding technique while engaging with Jacques Fanet who make a hearty and gutsy red from his new Mas d'Arlenques. Régis Pichon is in the background, presumably discussing his expressive Domaine Ribiera red Causse Toujours.

Unfortunately these grower's wines are not retailed locally. David Caer exports his production to Switzerland and Canada. Much of Domaine Ribiera goes to Paris and beyond. As hand-crafted small production wines expect to pay €7 and up.

That said, they'll be delighted to receive visitors and will have a few bottles to sell. Contact details can be found in seconds using the on-line directory Pages Blanches - simply enter a surname and Aspiran 34800.

Wednesday 26 October 2011

Cave Cooperative - a new future

Like many Cave Cooperetives in the region, Aspiran's has been in decline. Wine hasn't been bottled for pushing a decade, no doubt because a massive investment in wine making equipment is required to make wine to modern standards. It hasn't always been like that. 1957 saw the first, at least for a Languedoc cooperative, Vaslin horizontal presses installed (replaced in 1975). As recently as 1988 was another first when a Bucher pneumatic press was acquired.

There are similar stories in the area. The cooperative at nearby Caux closed several years ago and is already a decaying building - the grapes go down the road to Les Caves Molière at Pézenas. Nizas has a similar tale.

The trend has been for cooperatives to combine to create even greater economies of scale, but there are notable local exceptions. Fontès and Cabrières seem to be doing well and certainly do better at marketing. Fontès boasts the best rosé in the area and a new customer reception salon has been constructed this year. Cabrières uses their reception space to host art exhibitions and has managed to maintain a reputation for its wine. Further south at Florensac a light and airy tasting and sales space has been created with an excellent and popular attached restaurant Bistro d'Alex serving their wine at near retail price. Neighbour Adissan has more land suited to growing Clairette and their bottles line the shelves of the regions supermarkets. Much will also be supplied to make Noilly Prat in Marseillan (my blog entry is here).

Nevertheless, things are looking up for the grape growers of Aspiran to obtain a higher price. Between 1963 and 2003 eight villages, including Nébian and Paulhan on the Aspiran side of the river Hérault, combined to produce wine under the Clochers et Terroirs branding. An enormous modern facility at Puilacher now makes all the wine and at last the Aspiran cooperative has joined them. The cooperative building survives for now as the harvested grapes are still received and have their stems removed before being tankered off to Puilacher.

To buy Clochers et Terroirs wines visit the marketing suites at Nebian and Paulhan.

Tuesday 4 October 2011

Commune fires

I am aware of three fires in the commune this year, relatively small at less than a hectare and fortunately dealt with quickly and efficiently. This is the most recent and closest to the village at less than 100m from occupied property.

I fear there will be an increased fire risk in the coming years as the trend is for the surface area under vine to reduce. Vineyards don't easily catch fire and being large make excellent fire breaks. In 2004 50% of the surface area of the commune, amounting to just over 8 square kms, was vineyards. In the 5 years to 2009 this has reduced to just over 40% (source Observatoire viticole for the Hérault). The fire at this site, and at least one of the others, involved vines that had recently been pulled up and the field seemingly abandoned.

Monday 3 October 2011

Pampas Grass

Until recently this field off the road to Paulhan was a vineyard. Grubbed up with the land earmarked for expansion of the village is one story. Pampas grass (Cortaderia selloana native to southern South America) has appeared, presumably having spread from a domestic garden across the road.

The past two months has seen little more than a few drops of rain. While ideal for the vendanges, the land is parched and time is running out for a second "spring" where rain brings on a wave of autumn flowers and a splash of colour. For now, this Pampas grass is the most interesting obvious floral feature.

Tuesday 27 September 2011

Cave Cooperative - end of vendanges

Notice on the office of the Cave Cooperative stating the last time for receiving wine - the 2011 harvest I presume, but with such sad decline over the years on never knows.

The list below states the grape varieties and parcels being accepted on each day, although the conflict with the notice above seems to indicate a determination to take Friday 24th off.

Sunday 25 September 2011

Vendange 2011

I spent my first day grape picking this year at Régis and Christine Pichon's Domaine Ribiera in my village Aspiran. 7 am start yes, but at least there was no commute involved. To my surprise it was going to be Grenache and the 22nd August was believed to be the earliest recorded day for a Grenache harvest the village had know. That said, the objective was to make a fresh and expressive wine for drinking young which is not too rich and not too alcoholic. To achieve this the Grenache was being picked "early" and the instructions were to discard all unripe bunches that, by my estimation, amounted to 30% of the crop. Once it starts to ripen Grenache apparently ripens quickly so waiting until those 30% of bunches were ripe would mean 70% were overripe.

It occurred to me that passing through the vineyard a second time at a later date was an option, but as the photo shows, healthy leaf growth makes it near impossible to see and assess the ripeness of an individual bunch without actually cutting it away from the vine. The discarded bunches will return their goodness to the soil and vines so no waste, just loss. At least ideal spring flowering conditions ensured a good crop.

The team were clearly experienced locals with the classy smooth action of hairdressers and speed of champion sheep shearers. 6 hours of picking had just one pause café when I managed to snatch this picture of the team (Christine had popped back to the cave).

No doubt I was expected to make my apologies but kept going and even helped with the destemming of the last batch before a very late lunch. Here the destemmed grapes will be pumped directly from the base of the machine into the cuve, a system that minimises exposure of the juice to the air.

Thursday 7 July 2011

Look what fell down the chimney

This cicada, locally called a Cigale Grise, ended it's days in our fireplace. They've been singing away in all the trees since mid-June this year, it all depends on how soon the soil warms up to 20ºC apparently. They have a curious life-cycle living deep underground for 10 months to several years and emerging on "their year" to metamorphosis into this 2.5cm long adult.

Wednesday 6 July 2011

Know your crosses

These are the crosses I've found in the commune. My search was started by the excellent booklet Mémoire de pierres published in 2003 by the Aspiran Groupe Mémoire. This describes eight crosses with some clue as to their location in their name. I have yet to locate the Croix du chemin des Aspes. The Croix du St Georges has been destroyed, seeming when a vineyard was pulled up - I have used a photograph I took back in 2004. Others I have found on the IGN map (2643E Série Bleue) or simply spotted them on walks.

Tuesday 14 June 2011


This former basalt quarry is sited at the end of the lava flow (see millstone quarry post) that forms the wooded ridge seen from the route past the cemetery and on to the main road for Clermont l'Hérault. It can be glimpsed in favourable light just below the white water tower.

The vertical black roots and horizontal trunk of this Holm oak are embedded in columns of basalt.

Tuesday 24 May 2011

Industrial Heritage

Spanish broom (Genêt d'Espagne Spartium junceum) and the factory in the background have a strong connection. The Usine de Garrigues at Aspiran Gare operated until the 1950s and employed some 200 people. Spanish broom was grown throughout the area and processed in the factory to make everything from thread and cord to sacks for transporting goods such as coal. Today the factory area is used to process wood.

Wednesday 11 May 2011

Vampire free hillside

Wild garlic growing on a hillside overlooking the Hérault valley and Aspiran Gare. Also growing in the same place is Laitue Vivace (Lactuca perennis) which has a delicious tasting salad leaf.

Wednesday 4 May 2011

Grand paon de nuit

This large moth, known as the Grand paon de nuit (Saturnia pyri), was spotted at dusk on the wall of a friends house. The pot of busy lizzies gives some idea of the size of Europe's largest moth. The markings on the wings are to mimic the eyes of an owl and deter potential predators, although it blends well with the colour tones of the stone wall. Apparently it likes eating the leaves of almond trees.

Friday 22 April 2011

Daily Markets

Aspiran's market days are Monday and Thursday. Monday normally sees a Charcuterie van plus a fruit and veg stall (pictured). Thursday also has fruit and veg plus a fish van that calls mid-morning along with a shellfish van - listen out for the klaxon. Other stalls, vans and even a hardware lorry make cameo appearances on schedules I've yet to twig.

One can "do" markets every day of the week with several, unlike Aspiran, worthy of a trip. All are within 30 Km or so except Agde (a deceptive 40 Km).

Monday: Bedarieux - quite extensive, less touristy and good value, especially for non-food goods.
Tuesday: Canet - good for a couple of seasonal fruit and veg stalls and the excellent Amat Charcuterie van. Visit the terrific wood burning boulangerie for a Paillasse loaf to make the 11 Km round trip worthwhile. For something bigger try St-André-de-Sangonis further north (also in Thursday).
Wednesday: Clermont l'Herault is an archetypal market town market and the weekly market essential for any visitor. Slightly less hectic and fewer tourists than Pezenas (see Saturday).
Thursday: Paulhan's market is a handy size. Big enough for a fair choice of produce but small enough not to dominate the morning's activities. Worth it just for the apricots, peaches and melons etc. that grow near the Aspiran route - look out for the Sylvestre stall near the lowest point on the market street. The large fruit and veg stalls offer some of the best value for basics of any markets listed here.
Friday: Montagnac is a similar size to Paulhan but unless passing by save yourself for Pezenas on Saturday. For a bigger market try Agde, especially if heading to the coast, but note parking nearby is challenging.
Saturday: Pezenas, along with Clermont on Wednesday, are the market events of the week. Has a separate bio marche and a large excellent value fish stall at the top of town. If you're heading north then Lodève is an excellent alternative and Gignac is nearly as good.
Sunday: Meze is the only option for miles but is a good size and makes a pleasant morning out. Alternatively give food a miss and pop down to the Paulhan bric-a-brac market. For a car boot sale on a giant scale go beyond Meze to just inland from Marseillan-plage.

Best olives, pickles, dried fruit etc.

Pezenas fish stall
My market tips: -

Go early for the bigger markets, certainly before 10 am and earlier in summer, near Easter and the endless May holiday weekends. Obviously avoids the worst of the crowds and offers more choice of the best produce plus witness that many locals still shop at markets. It's also cooler early in high summer.

Buy from stalls that are there every week or are seasonal small holders. A must avoid is rip-off cheese stalls that usually push tasting samples. Mass produced dried sausage stalls can be in the same league. Olive and dried fruit prices vary enormously - stick to the big ones in Clermont and Pezenas (l'Olivette stall is the best). Bread from markets is invariably disappointing. In all cases watch where the locals queue.

Market aren't necessarily cheap although for food the quality and freshness is usually top notch - always select your own fruit and vegetable produce. When buying melons and peaches from specialist stalls do say, although the best will ask, how many days before you intend to consume them.

Thursday 21 April 2011

Noilly Prat

Many of the vines growing in the commune are the Clairette variety and their wine is almost certainly still tankered down the road from the cave coopérative to Marseillan where for over 150 years the archetypal French dry vermouth Noilly Prat is produced. Mankind's relatively recent ability to make mass produced crisp dry white wines has rather dented the popularity of these quite alcoholic herb infused aperitifs, although the fashion for utilising vermouth in cocktails continues to prop up demand. I use several bottles a year for cooking whenever white wine is called for and especially in fish dishes. It has two big advantages - more flavour and an opened bottle keeps well.

When in Marseillan one can visit the production facility. The Clairette wine is blended with another local variety Picpoul along and flavourless spirit is added. Next it's piped into these old barrels and left outside for 12 months to oxidise. After that it goes indoors into larger barrels where the secret blend of herbs, roots, spices and the like are added for an infusion period. Finally the resulting vermouth is tankered across to the Rhone valley to be bottled.

Thursday 24 March 2011

Miniature Irises

This field is blanketed in miniature yellow and purple Irises - they are just 10cm to 30cm tall. Known as Iris Nain, Iris des Garrigues or Iris Jaunâtre (Latin Iris Lutescens) they flower in early spring a few weeks before the more common and taller purple variety. The arid limestone soils known as Garrigue is their habitat, but seeing them in these numbers is fairly exceptional. The pictures were taken on the ridge that starts on the pine tree hill behind the village and borders the Hérault valley south-east towards Paulhan.