Apr 12

Inspiring, Arty Ceret

Located in a picturesque valley of fruit trees, surrounded by hills blanketed in green oak, and watched over by the white peaks of Canigou, it’s easy to understand how Ceret, our ‘home’ for two weeks, inspired so many artists to move here and paint its pastel-coloured houses and colossal plane trees – and how this tiny village came to have such a fine modern art museum.

The most noted artists to spend time here were Picasso and Braque, but many other modern artists also passed through, from Chagall to Soutine. As a result, Ceret’s Museum of Modern Art (Musée d’Art Moderne Céret) must be one of the most impressive art museums to be found in such a small village.

When you buy your tickets, staff will tell you to take the door on the left after seeing the photography collection (comprised of black and white images of Frank Burty Havilland, who started the museum) and visit the downstairs rooms (devoted to a retrospective of Burty Havilland), before heading upstairs, and only then – after you return downstairs – take the door to the right of the one you entered, to see the final rooms.

I recommend you do the reverse, starting with the last rooms first. That door on the right leads to the museum’s prize collection of modern art – the paintings most tourists come to Ceret to see – by Chagall, Picasso, Gris, and other greats.

Most of this collection consists of paintings depicting Ceret itself that artists painted when they lived here or visited. If you’ve already taken a stroll around Ceret you will recognize the Place de la Liberté painted by both Jean Marchand and Arbit Blates, La Place du Barri à Ceret by Pinkus Krémègne, and, in Pierre Brune’s Platanes à Ceret, the town’s famous lofty plane trees, found on our street Boulevard Arago.

There are also works that artists painted while living here that aren’t necessarily of Ceret, although Picasso was obviously very inspired by the village’s toros to produce so many bowls featuring bullfighting scenes. There’s a room of some 28 of these, along with urns, plates and platters he made, and two of his paintings.

The highlight for me were two enchanting paintings by Marc Chagall, including La Guerre (1943) and Les Gens du Voyages (1968), or ‘the travellers’. Instantly recognisable from the other end of the galleries, these vibrant, pretty paintings are magnetic.

Overall, it’s a nice little collection that’s worthy of your time if you love modern art, although if people have told you it’s one of France’s best and you’ve believed them, you might be disappointed. Frustratingly, aside from the labels for the individual artworks, there is no other background or interpretive information. If you want to know more, you better buy the museum guide from the gift shop after you buy your tickets.

The rooms upstairs are devoted to temporary collections of contemporary art, none of which were very interesting (to me) when I visited, which is why I suggest you start downstairs, and spend most of your time here, then head upstairs afterwards.

When you’re done at the museum, pick up the brochure from the tourist office called ‘Céret, un siècle de Paysages sublimés 1909-2009′ which includes a map of Ceret and thumbnails of 22 paintings of the village by artists such as Picasso, Dufy, Gris, and Braque, some of which you would have seen in the museum. At the actual locations of the thumbnails, you’ll find signage featuring the painting and some background information, generally located in front of the scene depicted. Following the map will lead you on a very pleasant art-focused walking tour along the cobblestone streets of Ceret.

Aside from the museum, there are half a dozen art galleries in Ceret, and over a dozen artist ateliers that you can visit, although many were closed when we were there; some can be visited throughout the year by appointment only (there’s usually a sign on the door with a phone number), while others don’t open in winter.

The Ville of Céret (town hall) publishes a glossy brochure for the ‘Saison‘ which they distribute in April, which lists galleries, ateliers, exhibitions, events and festivals for the coming tourist season.

Apr 10

The Hills are Alive with… Catalan Culture and Cherry Blossoms

Walking is one of the most popular things to do in Ceret, so we asked local ‘guide de paysChristian Piquemal to give us a taste of what makes walking in Ceret so special. A French-Catalan guide who has lived in the French and Spanish Pyrénées for 25 years, Christian’s specialty is Catalan history and heritage, and his walks – whether they are gentle hikes in the hills around Ceret or more challenging treks up to Canigou – are imbued with Catalan culture.

“I’m very proud of the Catalan culture. I feel Mediterranean and Catalan before I feel French. I feel much closer to the Italians, Greeks and Spanish Catalans. I can’t explain why, but that’s how I feel,” Christian says. “I’m proud of what the Catalans have achieved, what they did in the Middle Ages – they were the first to have a constitution and they didn’t have armies of conquest, rather they conquered through business, and they treated their workers well.”

“There is a very strong relationship between the land and man and what has done to it,” Christian explains, “From the churches he has built to the castles he has destroyed – so as you cross the landscapes, you are crossing a whole history, a Catalan history.”

Christian was actually brought up in Toulouse, but his grandparents and parents were from French Catalonia. He remembers as a child hearing them speak a language he couldn’t understand, yet at the time he didn’t know it was Catalan. Until the 1960s, Catalan children were forbidden from speaking the language in French schools, so Christian had to re-learn the language of his family.

“The Catalan culture was crushed by the French for so long… since Napoleon!” Christian explains, “And in Ceret, because the old Catalan people died and so many foreigners arrived, the town lost some of its Catalan spirit.” Christian, who lived in Spanish Catalunya for many years, believes the Spanish Catalans are more dynamic than the French Catalans and have been much more pro-active in terms of protecting and promoting their culture.

“But I think this is changing, partly, as a reaction to globalisation. Now there are many Catalan language courses – more than 8 million people speak Catalan! – and once again, the Catalan people are slowly finding their identity. I like to show this through my walks,” he says. “Most people who come to Ceret don’t know anything about Catalan culture or history – they don’t even know that Ceret is Catalan – they just know this is France and Spain is just across the border, so this is why I cover this content in my walks. It’s a shortcut to our culture.”

We begin our walk on Rue Pierre Brune, or “long street”, as Christian calls it, a narrow alley off our street, Boulevard Arago, that was the beginning of an age-old route, little more than a donkey track, that started at the exterior of the old city walls (long gone) and led right up the hill to at castle that was pulled down in the 19th century.

“People used this track to go from their farm houses to the village. In the old days it would have been two mules wide, although it hasn’t been maintained, because while man can carry 60-70 kilos, a donkey can carry 120! Some people would have travelled up to six hours to get to the village, but then in those days people walked an average of 6-7 hours a day,” Christian explains.

Along the way, Christian points out the rocks that formed the original path, the canal beside the path that carried water down from the mountains, preventing erosion of the path, and sections of the old city walls. He shows us terraced gardens, some still home to Ceret’s famous cherry trees – blossoming beautifully at the moment – others abandoned in the late 19th and early 20th century when people left to find jobs in the city.

Christian show us dandelions, which he encourages us to pick for our salad, and the snipped stems of wild asparagus (good in omelettes), which the people of Ceret come to collect early each morning; he advises getting up here before 6am. He explains that wild mushroom season is starting soon, although most people don’t know where to find them – he was lucky because an old man once revealed to him the secret places where they’re grown. After mushrooms, it’s time for the cherries, then the apricots, almonds, grapes, and more mushrooms, he says.

Christians points out old fig trees; cork oaks, the core of a once-thriving cork-making industry; green oaks, which cover most of the hills around Ceret, keeping the slopes green, as they keep their leaves during winter; and wild olive trees – of which there are few now, most of them dying out in the big freeze of the winter of 1954, which decimated the olive tree population and spelled the end of the industry.

We stop on the route so Christian can share with us his favourite views, including that of old Ceret and the much-painted colossal plane trees on our street, Boulevard Arago; the charming Convent des Capucins, another view reproduced by many artists; and that of Canigou, the snow-covered mountain we can see from Ceret, which at 2,780 metres is the highest in the region, and has become very symbolic for the Catalans.

“Canigou can be seen from most of Catalunya,” Christian explains, “So for many Catalans it’s the first thing they see in the morning when they open their windows, and many Catalans are proud to say they’ve climbed it at least once.”

When we reach a crossroads, Christian shows us the signs that are posted along the path, and the yellow markers on the trunks of the trees, so walkers don’t lose their way. While the path continues up to the top of Fontfrède, where on 15 August the people of Ceret enjoy a feast at long tables they set up beneath the trees, we continue downhill along a narrow lane. At the bottom of the hill, we stop outside the enormous house with the blue shutters that Picasso rented when he came to Ceret to paint. Christian opens the big green gate to show us the garden, and we see a fluffy ginger cat playing with the tip of the tail of a snake that looks like it’s playing dead.

While the route we’ve taken normally forms part of a much longer walk that Christian offers that loops around the whole of Ceret, because we are stuck for time, we hop in Christian’s car and drive 5kms out of the village and up a hill to a splendid 14th century chapel, the Ermitage Saint Ferréol, named after Ceret’s patron saint. With 360-degree views that take in Canigou, Ceret, and, in the distance, the Mediterranean Sea, we can understand why this is Christian’s favourite spot – and what makes walking in Ceret rather special.

“It’s Ceret’s vicinity to the mountains and the sea,” Christian affirms, “As well as its variety of diversities and landscapes – you can do a completely different kind of walk every day – plus the fact that there are 300 different possibilities a year of good weather!”

And what make Christian’s job special? “I love discovering walks and places not in the guidebooks,” he says, “Fortunately, there are more secret places than well-known places – and I love taking people to those places.”

If you want Christian to take you to one of his secret places, visit his website www.enchemin.com where you’ll find information on the wide variety of walks he offers in Ceret, the Pyrénées, and French Catalan Coast.

Apr 10

Weekend Eggs: the Ceret Edition

In the interests of bringing the fine season of Spring on with a rush – after all we’re already a few days into April – I’ve decided that this egg dish should be a message to the weather gods.

While checking out the markets and supermarkets here in Céret and Perpignan, Spring could be felt in the produce, if not really in the air!

Asparagus is particularly fine here at the moment, big and bright green, but the dish I like to make with asparagus is served with parmesan cheese – not very French or Catalan, but it does involve poached eggs, which I have not tackled on our Grand Tour yet.

What I also noticed at the markets was lots of great frisée, curly lettuce. It has a slightly bitter, peppery taste, which is why it’s often mixed with other types of lettuce, and it brings something crunchy to the lettuce mix of a sald. But frisée on its own is great with poached eggs and is a super Spring dish.

Salade Lyonnaise was my solution for bringing these two ingredients together, and while the dish is not from around this part of France, the ingredients to make it are all superb here. Just don’t tell the locals until after I’ve left the region!

The salad basically consists of soft poached eggs atop the frisée, and some croutons, crispy bacon pieces, and a vinaigrette dressing of olive oil and vinegar mixed throughout. The idea is that you get some frisée, egg white and yolk, a crouton and some bacon in every mouthful. It’s a brilliant mix of textures and a perfect marriage of flavours.

The other factor in choosing this dish was the pork – poitrine salée. This pork belly is phenomenal here in this part of France and is an essential ingredient in French cooking more generally, remembering the motto ‘fat is flavour’.

While this is a very straightforward dish, I know that poaching eggs isn’t a relaxing weekend pastime for some cooks! It can be daunting and frustrating, ending up overcooked and stringy, with broken yolks, and cold when it gets to the table! In fact, even after years of making them I still have not settled on a definitive way to poach eggs.

My current favourite way to poach eggs is in the recipe – no vinegar used and you need fresh free-range eggs. Fresh works best for poaching and free-range eggs simply have a better tasting yolk. When they’re cooked, the whites should just be set but the yolk runny. If you don’t like runny eggs or you can’t eat eggs that aren’t fully cooked, then choose another dish to make. Anyone who tells you that you should poach the eggs for 3–4 minutes doesn’t like eggs or is paranoid.

I generally do two eggs at a time. The problem comes when cooking for lots of people. By the time you’ve finished the last eggs the first ones are cold. The best solution is to place the eggs in cold water to halt the cooking process once the two minutes in the pan is up. When your salad is prepared in the bowls, plunge the eggs back in the near-boiling water for 10–15 seconds to reheat. Amazingly, they will still be soft and they’ll be hot. This is how most restaurants do it, especially when they have a high volume favourite like Eggs Benedict. It’s worth it! Toast your success with some Champagne!

Salade Lyonnaise recipe

Author: Terence Carter
Recipe type: Salad

Prep time:  15 mins
Cook time:  10 mins
Total time:  25 mins

Serves: 4

The salad basically consists of soft poached eggs atop the frisée, and some croutons, crispy bacon pieces, and a vinaigrette dressing of olive oil and vinegar mixed throughout. The idea is that you get some frisée, egg white and yolk, a crouton and some bacon in every mouthful. It’s a brilliant mix of textures and a perfect marriage of flavours.
• 1 tablespoon butter
• 1 dash of olive oil
• ½ baguette, sliced
• 100grams (0.22 pounds) sliced bacon (we’re using poitrine salée)
• 250grams (1/2 pound) frisée – tear up those pieces!
• 4 large, fresh eggs (the fresher the better for poaching)
• Salt and pepper to taste
• The vinaigrette:
• 3 parts extra virgin olive oil
• 1 part vinegar (whichever type you like)
• optional items (to taste):
• A little Dijon mustard
• A little lemon juice
• Freshly ground salt and pepper

1. In a saucepan over high heat bring a couple of inches of water to the boil – you should have small bubbles rather than a rolling boil.
2. Heat a non-stick pan to medium heat and add the butter and olive oil.
3. Add the baguette slices and cook each side until golden brown.
4. Remove the baguette slices and add the bacon to the pan. Cook until crisp.
5. If you’re a pork lover (and not on a diet – these two things may be mutually exclusive), set the rendered pork fat aside to add to the vinaigrette. It’s delicious!
6. To poach the eggs, break each egg into a small tea-cup and gently immerse the cup into the water allowing the water to start cooking the egg in the cup. Then gently release the egg into the water. Start a timer for two minutes.
7. At two minutes, the whites should be set but the yolk runny. Remove with a slotted spoon.
8. Chop the toasted baguette into crouton-sized pieces, except for four pieces.
9. Place the frisée leaves into a salad bowl and add the bacon and croutons.
10. To make the vinaigrette, pour the olive oil and vinegar into a sterilized jar with your optional extras. Shake vigorously. Add salt and pepper to taste.
11. When your poached eggs are ready – or ready to be reheated – mix the salad with the vinaigrette and place into the bowls in a nice mound. Place the piece of baguette on top.
12. Place the poached egg on top of the piece of baguette and serve. Remember to offer salt and pepper to taste.

Apr 10

Local Knowledge: Coralie from Ceret

Local Knowledge is a series of posts in which we interview a local person we’ve met in a destination who has helped us get beneath the skin of the place.

A fashion designer who studied Fine Arts at Goldsmiths and Textile Design at Central St Martins in London, Coralie Scarnato moved to Ceret eight years ago and opened La Boheme, a boutique and atelier where she makes and sells her vibrant striped Catalan cloth products, and her own collections of winter clothes.

Born in Provence to Sicilian parents, Coralie moved to London for a few months on an exchange programme and ended up staying 15 years! “I don’t like being a tourist,” she tells us, “If I like a place, as I did with London, I want to find something to do there and live there.”

After completing her studied at Goldsmiths, Coralie started working. It was after a show of her collection that she was offered a scholarship to study at Central St Martins. Following graduation, she worked on catwalks, designed men’s fashion and accessories, and worked as a commercial fashion designer for many years for brands such as Top Shop. “I actually loved working there,” she says, “It was fast fashion, so I never got bored.” Coralie also organized exhibitions of work by French artists in London.

After a decade and a half in London, Coralie decided she wanted to settle down and returned to France to find a Frenchman to marry. Ironically – and she starts to giggle as she tells us this – while taking sailing lessons off the coast nearby at Coulliere, she met and fell in love with her sailing instructor, a translator and language teacher who lived in Ceret – an Englishman! She moved to Ceret and shortly after opened her boutique.

“At first I thought, what am I doing here? I hated it in the beginning – it was so small – but now I love it. The Catalans are easygoing and very warm people. It’s real village life here, but it’s also very cosmopolitan – there are people from all over the world living here, English, Spanish, Scandinavians…” Will she stay in Ceret for 15 years? “I don’t know… we have bought a boat and our plan is to sail the world… we’ll see.”

What do you most love about your work?
I love working with colours and a material that is more meaningful than just any factory product. Each fabric has a story and it contributes to the local identity.

Why should people come to Ceret?
For the people, and ‘la douceur de vivre’, a real quality of life on a human scale.

3 words to describe Ceret?
Authentic, creative and unpretentious.

And the locals in Ceret?
Warm, open minded, down to earth.

Top 3 recommendations for visitors?
Visit the Museum of Modern Art, browse around the lively market on Saturday mornings, and bring your walking boots to see the surrounding landscapes that have inspired so many painters.

Best souvenir from Ceret?
Well, my products, of course!

Must-do eating experiences?
Eat at Le Petit Grill on rue St Ferreol, a down-to-earth worker’s café (I eat lunch there all the time) and El Catala on Boulevard Clemenceau, the best restaurant for authentic traditional Catalan food (my friends and I like to go here for dinner). Also eat our cherries – cherry jam, Paté aux Cerise – and go to the cherry-stone spitting competition during the cherry festival at the end of May.

Most essential thing to learn?
Understand the influence of Ceret on 20th century art – Picasso, Soutine, Chagall, Matisse, and Dali all spent time here painting in Ceret.

Most important phrase to learn in Catalan?
Sempre endavant which mans ‘always ahead’, the motto of the USAP rugby team – the local religion!

Any other advice?
Go to the Feria and the bullfighting (controversial!), but it’s an extremely important part of the village life, as well as a huge excuse for a three day party (mid July)… you have been warned!

Apr 08

Ceret Take-Homes: Catalan’s Sunny Striped Cloth

Stroll around Ceret for a while and you’ll start to see stripes – Catalan stripes. These bold colourful lines seem to enliven everything here in the village from screens in bistros to pot-plants on windowsills, and even appear on plastic shopping bags. In boutiques and gift shops, you’ll find them brightening anything from summery espadrilles to ceramic bowls.

The candy-striped pattern is such a source of pride it has become synonymous with French Catalan culture. Not only are tourists buying striped souvenirs but locals are collecting a little bit of their heritage too.

The original source of all things striped is the distinctive, traditional handmade Catalan fabric called Les Toiles Du Soleil, or ‘The Cloth of the Sun’, which has been produced in the village of Saint Laurent de Cerdans at the same factory for 150 years.

In the early 20th century, practically the entire village was devoted to producing the vibrant textile, with some 3,000-odd people employed in its production. Numbers gradually declined as machine manufacturing expanded elsewhere, until a man called Joseph Sans introduced power looms at his factory, Sans et Garcerie, to produce handmade espadrilles from the colourful cloth. By the 1960s, business was booming again, although the factory employed only 170 workers.

Another period of decline followed until the 1990s when the Quinta family took over and decided to retain the traditional techniques that made the cloth so versatile, hardwearing and durable, but to update its use to appeal to contemporary tastes. As a result, the company has strict control over how the cloth is used.

In Ceret, only three designers have the rights to use the fabric, and the three friends are collaborating to establish a business called Made In Ceret. Jerome Perez, an interior designer, decorates lamps with the textile and uses it on upholstery and in other interior design elements, while Raphaelle Reixach makes cute Catalan sailor jackets from the fabric. Coralie Scarnato, a fashion designer who graduated from Central St Martins in London, is putting the textile to its widest use.

In her little boutique called La Bohème, Coralie sits at her sewing machine, making all of her gorgeous products by hand: reversible handbags, shoulder bags and sunhats, napkins, placemats, and table runners, and pretty cosmetic purses.

So what makes the fabric so special? First, it’s the dying process, which results in fabric so fast it can be bleached and not change colour, and is therefore sun- and stain proof. Then it’s the strength and durability – the dyed cotton (100%) is tightly woven (warp and weft twisted) on traditional old looms. Coralie swears it will last forever. But even if it doesn’t, it will certainly brighten up hundreds, if not thousands, of days.

La Boheme, 04 68 39 81 57

Boulevard Jean Jaurès, Ceret


Take-Homes is a series of posts from each destination in which I recommend mementos to buy. My suggestions, and my own purchase choices, are based on sustainable travel criteria: they must be things that are authentically local, that are traditionally made by locals, or things locally produced that are used on an everyday basis by locals, and could include anything from handicrafts to regional food produce. See our previous posts from Marrakech, Jerez (food and flamenco), and Barcelona (chocolate!)

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