Vin Chaud

Vin Chaud in Montmarte, Paris, Winter 2012.
Vin Chaud in Montmartre, Paris, Winter 2012.

For me, winter and Christmas mean snow. Or, at least, my Hallmark movie brain tells my Hallmark movie heart that they mean snow as, truthfully, I’ve had a rare few white Christmases. Here in France, there’s rarely any snow in winter. Like much of northern Europe, France is prone to grey skies and drizzly rain, but that does not stop the French from trying to get in the festive mood in the best way they know how: food. That’s right, the best two things about France in the winter are edible, or, truth be told, drinkable: chocolat chaud & vin chaud. Seriously, nothing could make winter better than chocolate and wine.

First there’s chocolat chaud, which may be the best tasting beverage in the world, and this is coming from someone who is not a chocolate fan. Thick and sweet as chocolate molasses the drink is almost too good, leaving you struggling by the end of the cup you initially thought was too large. Made of nothing more than cream (or milk) and high quality chocolate, it is the drink of dentists’ nightmares and the nectar of the sugar plum fairies. Despite what TripAdvisor may say, the best in the land is found at Laduree, not Angelina.

For me, a few mugs of the cloying chocolat chaud are enough to see me through the winter season. What I cannot get enough of is the chocolat chaud’s adult cousin: vin chaudVin chaud is a mulled wine that fulfills all of my favorite food requirements: hot and wine-filled. If only I could figure out a way to incorporate cheese into the mix it I might move to Antarctica with my barrels of wine and live happily ever after. It is that good.

Vin chaud is so good even my friend who does not drink alcohol tried it! (And then promptly gave it to me in favor of chocolat chaud.)
Vin chaud is so good even my friend who does not drink alcohol tried it! (And then promptly gave it to me in favor of chocolat chaud.)

Last winter, during our engagement trip to Paris, the Frenchman had a habit of popping away and coming back a few times a day with the pipping hot vin chaud that he would buy from street merchants who cooked the draught in huge copper kettles or  towering espresso machine-esque contraptions. (The one in Montmartre at the top of the hill is the best and largest I have seen.)

In Toulouse, signs for vin chaud have began popping up, but, with our student budget, we decided to take the wine-matters into our own hands and own kitchenette-in-a-cabinet. The have been delicious, and our tummies and wallets happy. Here is our step-by-step recipe if you want to make your own vin chaud at home. I bet it tastes even better with a crackling fire and snowscape!

Gather the ingredients.  We used: 1 bottle of wine Brandy 6-8 cloves 6-8 whole cardamon pods 4 whole cinnamon sticks 4 heeping tablespoons of sugar Zest of 1 orange Zest of 1 lemon
Step 1: Gather the ingredients:
1 bottle of red wine
Two fingers of brandy or cognac
6-8 whole cloves
6-8 whole cardamon pods
4 whole cinnamon sticks
4 heeping tablespoons of sugar
Zest of 1 orange
Zest of 1 lemon
Step 1: Choose your wine and add the entire bottle to a medium-sized sauce pan, heating it on the lowest setting and ensuring that it does not boil or reach a temperature of more than 78*F.  Bordeaux is a great wine option, and this bottle cost us less than 2 euros!
Step 2: Choose your wine and add the entire bottle to a medium-sized sauce pan, heating it on the lowest setting and ensuring that it does not boil or reach a temperature of more than 78*F.
Bordeaux is a great wine option, and this bottle cost us less than 2 euros!
Step 2: Add 4 heaping tablespoons of sugar to the heated wine.
Step 3: Add 4 heaping tablespoons of sugar to the heated wine.
Step 3: Crush up the cardamon pods. I also like to gently crush the cloves. Bonus points if you do it properly with a mortar and pestle instead of the back of a spoon.
Step 4: Crush up the cardamon pods. I also like to gently crush the cloves. Bonus points if you do it properly with a mortar and pestle instead of the back of a spoon.
(Other optional spices include nutmeg, ginger, and star anise.)
Step 4: Add the whole cinnamon sticks to the wine.
Step 5: Add the whole cinnamon sticks to the wine.
Step 5: Zest your lemon and orange and add the zest to the wine. (My secret ingredient is to add just a little squeeze of the orange to the wine as well.)
Step 5: Zest your lemon and orange and add the zest to the wine.
(Though not called for in any recipe, I like to add just a little squeeze of the orange to the wine as well.)
Step 6: Stir the mixture until the spices have added their flavors and the sugar has dissolved, paying attention to never let the wine boil or the temperature rise above 78*F.
Step 6: Stir the mixture until the spices have added their flavors and the sugar has dissolved, paying attention to never let the wine boil or the temperature rise above 78*F.
Step 7: Strain the spices and zest. Probably you should bundle everything in cheese cloth before you add it to the wine to make things easier. In a pinch, a slotted spoon works perfectly fine.
Step 7: Strain the spices and zest. Probably you should bundle everything in cheese cloth before you add it to the wine to make things easier. In a pinch, a slotted spoon works perfectly fine.
Step 8: Measure out a few fingers of brandy into each glass. Not only does it taste delicious, but the liquor helps to add back in some of the alcohol content that may have been inadvertently boiled out of the wine. (Technically, most recipes call for cognac, but, brandy was on sale, and Wikipedia tells me there is not too much of a difference between the two liquors, so we are using brandy here, and it is working just fine.)
Step 9: Add the wine to the glasses and garnish with a cinnamon stick and a slice of lemon or orange. Enjoy!
Step 9: Add the wine to the glass and garnish with a cinnamon stick and a slice of lemon or orange. Enjoy warm!
(Fancy wine glasses not required!)

Not to leave out chocolat chaud, the recipe is as follows if you prefer thick and sweet to sweet and boozy. (Though, some Irish Cream mixed into the recipe in lieu of some of the cream may not be a bad idea . . . )

2 cups whole milk or cream
5 oz of the best quality chocolate you can find (Think more luxury chocolate bars and less super market chocolate baking chips.)
optional 2 TBL light brown sugar
optional good quality fleur de sel, if available

1. Slowly heat the milk/cream, taking heed to not let it foam and boil.
2. While the milk is heating, finely chop the chocolate. (A great way to get the chocolate fine is by using a serrated knife or chef’s knife.)
3. Once the milk is warm, whisk in the chocolate until melted.
4. Once mixed, allow to very slowly boil for 2-3 minutes, stirring constantly. Make sure to keep the heat low so as to not quickly boil the mixture or burn the chocolate.
5. Add brown sugar if desired.
6. Serve in warmed cups. (Think espresso or at max a fine china tea cup size not a full belly ache-inducing mug full.)
7. Sprinkle a very small pinch of fleur de sel, if available, on the top of each drink.

Adapted from David Lebovitz

Dead Water

The water in the moat surrounding the old city of Aigues Mortes is neon green in color. Farther out is the marsh; it is  pink. Ironically, the name Aigues Mortes means “Dead Waters” in French, but it is the water that brought and has kept the village alive.

The Tower of Constance in Aigues Mortes
The Tower of Constance in Aigues Mortes and the city’s neon-green moat

My day trip to Aigues Mortes was one of my favorite adventures from our month-long home base of Montpellier. The village offers everything I love: great food, history, climbing up things, and the color pink!

Situated approximately 20 km east of the Montpllier, the completely walled-in medieval town of Aigues Mortes is an hour-long bus ride along the sea from Montpellier. There is one lone bus going to and returning from the city each day, with a five-hour-long  break in between for exploration, plenty of time to take in the city’s main sites, and at only 1.60 euros per direction with Herault Transport, it is a transportation steal.

At first, the notion of dead waters does not seem to mesh with the charm and beauty of the city. Such death, or in another sense, stagnancy, is, however, a critical element to the city’s survival and flourishing.  Since Roman times the city has been one of the world’s largest harvesters of sea salt; the pink marshes surrounding the city are so colored and prized for their sea salt, which requires little water movement for the dehydration of the salt pans. The salt pans are still in operation today and can be visited on a tour. Unfortunately, the tour is too long to fit into the few hour window between buses, so I was unable to get very close to the pans as they are separated from the village by a small canal, which can be seen in the photograph below.

Pink salt pans of Aigues Mortes as seen from the village ramparts
Pink salt pans of Aigues Mortes as seen from the village ramparts

In the 8th century, Charlemagne began to fortify the city for the protection of the salt mine workers.  Five hundred years later, Louis IX made the city his portal to the Medeterranean, using it as his launch point for two crusades. His successor completed the task of completely fortifying the town, and the ramparts still exist today. In Aigues Mortes, there are no signs prohibiting the walking on the walls like in so many other French villages, and, in fact, for a few euros, it is possible to complete the entire mile-long circuit around the town from the unique vantage point above the tiled rooftops.

The old town of Aigues Mortes from its ramparts
The old town of Aigues Mortes from its ramparts
The ramparts of Aigues Mortes
The ramparts of Aigues Mortes

Aigues Mortes also has several interesting churches, two of which are run by hood-wearing penitents belonging to the grey and white brotherhoods. Quite impressive is the stucco alterpiece of the chapel of the grey penitents. Also interesting are the modern art (polk dot-esque) stained glass windows and other modern aspects of the Church of Notre-Dame-des-Sablons; the contrast of the modern art against the centuries-old stones adds an interesting element to the otherwise ancient feeling of the village.

Altarpiece of the Chapel of the Grey Penitents in Aigues Mortes
Altarpiece of the Chapel of the Grey Penitents in Aigues Mortes
Interior of the The Church of Notre-Dame-des-Sablons, which predates the ramparts of Aigues Mortes
Interior of the The Church of Notre-Dame-des-Sablons, which predates the ramparts of Aigues Mortes

The village is charming. Laid out in a grid with a square in the center dedicated to Louis IX, it is possible to walk from one side to the other in a matter of minutes. The village is full of shops and delicious restaurants, and I spent a leisurely French lunch with a very inexpensive menu of melon wrapped in thin-sliced dried meat from one of the areas famous camargue bulls (“This bull’s horns point up, but the Spanish bull’s horns point straight,” the garcon explained,) moules frites marinieres or mussels in seawater (as far as I can tell) and fries together with a few glasses of lovely white wine and finished with ice cream and an American coffee at one of the little restaurants. Eating meals alone is becoming a situation I am growing more and more comfortable with and coming to even enjoy. Whereas before, I always felt as though I stood out when alone, I now enjoy the time to taste my food more deeply, people watch or read a book without feeling the need to make conversation with my dining partner. The meal in Aigues Mortes was one of the best of the solo meals during Montpellier month.

After my lunch, I spent a few hours exploring the Tower of Constance and walking the perimeter of the city along the ramparts and through the several towers before heading outside the walls to try and get closer to the pink waters. When that proved impossible, I settled for exploring the vineyard just outside the city walls. Though fall had not yet come to southern France, the vineyard leaves were beginning to turn beautiful autumnal shades. After that it was a rush to a camargue-speciaizing boulangerie to buy some bull saucisson for the Frenchman before hopping back onto the only bus back to Montpellier in just the nick of time.

This coming weekend we will be visiting France’s most famous walled city, Carcassonne, with the Frenchman’s father and step-mother, and I am looking forward to seeing how it compares with Aigues Mortes.

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Vineyard outside the ramparts of Aigues Mortes
Vineyard outside the ramparts of Aigues Mortes
Vineyard outside the ramparts of Aigues Mortes
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Aigues Mortes

Underground Herault

As I stand alone, marveling at the enormous rock formations in front of me, the guide sidles up. “Look, do you see him? I find him so beautiful,” she remarks. She is wearing a puffy green parka and shining her enormous flashlight up into the cavern. I squint, peering hard until I see where her beam of light has landed. High above the cavern, an old, wizened man watches over the rock formations of the cathedral room. Roughly one hundred and sixty million years of water and minerals have built up, nanometer by nanometer, to form the rock into the perfect semblance of a cross between Galdalf and Dr. Fu Manchu.

I laugh and agree with her. We have been underground and in the dark for an hour, and, thus far, she has used her flashlight to point out monsters and alligators and all sorts of other creatures in the rock. Essentially, we are in every little child’s nightmare. If there is anyone who could find Jesus on a stalactite it is the guide. And, in fact she has. The crown jewel of the tour is a white stalagmite whose shape conjures up the Virgin Mary, holding her bambino.* Time has carved it to Michelangelo standards, the subterranean Pieta formed millions and millions of years before the cavemen ever road those dinosaurs out of the cavern.

Cathedral Room of La Grotte des Demoiselles. Can you spot Mary and the bambino?
Cathedral Room of La Grotte des Demoiselles. Can you spot Mary and the bambino?

The holy sculpture of the rock is not just the guide or a marketing scheme that La Grotte des Demoiselles has conjured up. The legend about finding supernatural apparitions in the cave goes back to the Middle Ages when a shepherd noticed one of his sheep had disappeared into a hole. Fearing the wrath of the sheep’s owners, the shepherd climbed down into the hole as well to rescue the miraculously unharmed sheep. The shepherd slipped and fell 50 meters to the cave floor, somehow surviving impalement by the stalagmites. When he awoke all around him were dancing little maidens. Somehow, he climbed out, reported the magical cave to the townspeople, and they christened it the cave of the maidens, Des Demoiselles. I picture the shepherd as a cartoon character who rubs his head while little birds chirp in a circle around him.

Old entrance to La Grotte des Demoiselles
Original entrance to La Grotte des Demoiselles

What happened to the sheep is unknown, but inside the cave have been found skeletons of several animals, including a prehistoric cave bear, which went extinct during the last ice age. (Side note, listen to this TED talk by Stewart Brand about genetic modification of extinct animals. Thank you NPR TED talk hour.) At various points during the wars of religion, it also served as a hiding place for the Huguenots.

Today, in addition to an information attraction, the cave also serves as a concert hall due to its impressive acoustics; it even has its own built in percussion system, which our guide showed our group, inviting me to bang on the stone drapes as hard as I could, the cathedral room reverberating with the sound of stone bongos.

Funicular entrance to La Grotte des Demoiselles
Funicular entrance to La Grotte des Demoiselles

Located a bit south of La Grotte des Demoiselles is its sister cave in the Herault region of Southern France, La Grotte de Clamouse. We visited Clamouse with a group the same day we visited the Pont du Diable, located perhaps 1 km south of the cave. The men “oohed” and “aahed” at the cave, confirming it was the highlight of their trip.

Unlike des Demoiselles, de Clamouse is still growing due to the river that runs through it, a river so powerful that after a storm the cave is shut off as it fills with raging, eroding and reforming water.

Though located in the same geographical area of France, the two caves could not be more different. De Clamouse feels more rustic, more dirty, and larger. Des Demoiselles, with its funicular and stone-carved steps and strategically-placed lighting feels more modern. Cathedrale room aside, it also feels overall smaller, though, given that the tours are carefully regulated, the true size of the caverns is difficult to tell. Perhaps the difference is due to the river as it must be difficult to control and keep modern the interior of a cave that is constantly being flooded. The natural feel, in fact, adds greatly to the experience.

Pathway through La Grotte de Clamouse
Pathway through La Grotte de Clamouse

De Clamouse was a fascinating experience for its various formations that are unique to the cave, including fistulas and aragonite crystals that explode from the rock like little sea urchins. There is also an area that looks like grated parmesan cheese and an albino, eyeless cave lizard though he has only been brought into the cave for show and tell purposes.

La Grotte de Clamouse
Fistulas in La Grotte de Clamouse
La Grotte de Clamouse
Argonite in La Grotte de Clamouse
La Grotte de Clamouse
La Grotte de Clamouse

La Grotte de Clamouse

La Grotte de Clamouse

The caves have been a surprising and unexpected part of our French adventures. And, they have proven so fascinating we have began to look into caves around Toulouse as well. Gouffre de Padirac looks to be the most interesting with its underground boat tour. Though, like des Demoiselles and unlike de Clamouse, it is not accessible by public transportation, a fact I did not realize about Demoiselles until I had jumped off the regional bus only to find out that the cave is located several kilometers up the mountain side, and the once-a-day bus does not return to Montpellier for five to six hours.

After the sweaty hike up des Demoiselles, I ordered a cold double (a/k/a American normal sized) beer from the bartender. He looked at me, surprised, and inquired whether I planed to drink the entire beer myself. I gawked at him, questioning whether I should feel guilty about my beer and confirming that it was at least lunchtime before directing him to the table of aged picnickers next time mine, each person with their own bottle of wine. It was both a cool down and a warm up, I told him, reminding him that unlike the tour guide I did not have a parka.

*When we were in Italy, all of the museum artwork descriptions list Jesus as the “bambino,” which continues to amuse me.

Cathedral room of La Grotte de Clamouse
Cathedral room of La Grotte de Clamouse
Cathedral room of La Grotte de Clamouse
Cathedral room of La Grotte de Clamouse