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Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Carcassonne/Albi (3rd in a series)

Sparky's Blog

The Canal du Midi

The Picnic
Next up is a picnic on the Canal du Midi which is a 240 km long canal that connects a short cut around Spain from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea (as you should know the French and Spanish didn’t get along too well for a very long time).  We arrived at a clearing along-side the canal that was complete with more white linen and a banquet-style long table set with real crystal, flowers and china-ware.  I have to keep pinching myself to see if this is really happening to me.  What the hell did I do to deserve this?  I feel as if I’m a king of some far-away land and that I’m traveling my realm surveying all that is mine.  To be catered to at this level of sophistication is a bit daunting but supremely enjoyable.

Elegance on the Canal du Midi

A quiet table as we stuffed our faces!

The lunch was prepared by a local company that specializes in grilled treats and on this day we were offered skewers of fish, pork and fowl that were seasoned perfectly.  Every other accompaniment served to balance our meal all the while being subservient to wonderful wines of the region.  This meal by the canal was probably the most light-hearted and carefree one that we’ll experience as there are no pretentious waiters or stuffy atmospheres of an interior joint that might frown upon burping.  Yes, this setting will be one of my favorite as I’m quite fond of the great outdoors….quite fond indeed!

Quite the starter!

Surf and Turf on skewers.

 Dining al-fresco is one thing but dining in the outdoors resplendent with a symphony of bird songs, cricket chirps, babbling water, rustling leaves from above as the wind gently caresses the trees on its way to the Mediterranean Sea will put one in a state of ideal harmony.  That is what I felt on this day – this hour – with these people as like-minded as I; truly enjoying a fantastical moment in time!

Our dinner was to be a very special party because we would be schooled in our preparation this evening by a master chef in addition to his specialty being Cassoulet.  We are dining at Chateau de Saint-Martin with Master Chef Rodrigues (the Pope of Cassoulet).  He has been making and perfecting this dish for over 19 years and has brought his son into the business as well.

Master Chef Rodrigues

Chef Rodrigues passing the torch to his son

 The recipe is peasant-based in nature as the country-men would use what they found often at arm’s length.  Most ingredients like garlic, onions, leeks and beans could be harvested in one’s own personal garden - the sausage and chicken could be purchased cheap or absconded from a local farm while the herbs could be taken from the country-side.  In addition, the wine can be either made by them or again, stolen from a merchant.  It’s more romantic for me to fantasize about a minor criminal element being associated with this recipe….I’m just saying.

We were regaled with stories from Chef’s Rodriquez and Bouit on the art of making Cassoulet.  It takes at least 3 hours to bake in a special earthen pot and when done properly tastes like the land of its origin.  Cassoulet is very hearty (various meats) and bold (garlic, onions) and herbaceous (thyme, bouquet garni) and quite filling!  I was very satisfied due to the many levels of flavor and textures aside from the fact that it was expertly made by the pope himself!  Wonderful stuff, really good.

But that wasn’t it – oh no there was more, much more.  We would be entertained by the president of Cassoulet with wine and song, after all – we are in France and it wouldn't be neighborly to just feed their guests when you can give them an entire evening of traditional amusement welcoming us into their country as one of their own.  This would be a night not soon forgotten. 

A man in a red robe appeared from behind a mysterious door (okay, it was the kitchen door) bellowing dulcet tones of baritone that tickled my ears as they were expertly delivered.  This man can sing!  We encouraged him to engage in an encore and much to our delight he sang additional songs associated with the land, region and food.  I wasn't expecting such entertainment and our Cassoulet encounter became something much, much more.

The President of the Cassoulet historic society

Soon enough, the singing was over and another robed man appeared with parcels of paper; looks like we’re all about to become the entertainment as we would receive a diploma of accomplishment for our Cassoulet instruction and later culinary pleasure.  There was a catch, however, because we would have to repeat a historic Occitan (medieval language) chant that its meaning is wrapped in mystery.  AKOL BYMIE!  Again and again we heard this chant repeated by each member of our traveling team.  And one by one we would receive our coveted diploma.  Later in our trip we would by happen-stance ask casual French folks what AKOL BYMIE meant and every single time we were greeted with snickers and giggling but never a proper definition.  It is my belief that our mysterious phrase is somewhat akin to the “Snipe-hunt” that young adolescents are sent on as a harmless joke by those in-the-know.

A tour .....

..... and lecture of preparation made this a wonderful night!

(May 18th)
Albi (giant gouffre of Cabrespine / natural cave)
Today we depart for Albi, France and as we leave the great castle behind us growing every more faint with the distance catching glimpses through the misty rain; I can’t help but harken back on the first two days of this fantastic journey and wonder what could possibly top this? 

Along the way we will visit an enormous cave that is a giant gouffre of Cabrespine (natural cave).  The drive here is a bit more interesting as the cave is nestled in the foot hills of the Pyrenees Mountains.  In the distance I can see the terrain become more like a relief map than actual road.  Before we know it, we are slowly snaking our way back and forth on switch-back roads ascending our way to the top to find our visual prize awaiting us.

Felt like I was either on or IN the moon

Stalagmites and Stalactites were beautiful

It’s starting to rain in earnest as we disembark the bus and the fog floats lazily through the hills giving way to a spooky nature of an area that needs no extra help in this regard.  There is something about large hills and mountains that evoke a mystic nature as lore and legend springs forth among the locals while engaged in conversation, there is always going to be a figure that lurks just beyond reality but firmly planted within the community as a proper legend.

We enter the doors of the store to purchase tickets and we’re bombarded by the trinkets and souvenirs that litter every road-side attraction just like in the states.  While walking into the doors that house the great spectacle I begin to smell the odoriferous makings of something wet, dark and dead (there are over 30,000 bats surviving in the great gouffre among other species).

This is the "nature" that I appreciate and love so much!

Just outside the great cave on a rainy afternoon.

As we come upon the great expanse that slowly becomes evident with each careful step – my jaw drops with astonishment to behold the spectacle that lies before us.  There is a huge gorge INSIDE the mountain unlike anything I’ve ever seen.  The artificial lighting provided helps to illuminate the varying different species of rock and development that have taken place over millions of years.  The colors are varied and spectacular and the differing textures, seemingly, never end.

The sheer enormity of this place makes you feel minuscule

Eerily discomforting!
I’m humbled by the enormity of this scene and also can’t help but understand that something much bigger than myself is represented here inside this mountain - for inside this bedrock of limestone, granite, quartz and other various minerals resides a countless number of stories that carve out the history of mankind in this region.  The species and sub-species that make up this eco-system gave birth to that of which supported and sustained the land, air and water to provide us with the start of the fabric that weaves our story.  Yeah, more cool stuff to think about that makes me feel very small.

Have a great day and never give up!

Mark (Sparky)

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