There are several villages by the name of Aigues Vives in France – I’ve counted eight of them on the ViaMichelin website, so it’s important to pick the right village! The one I visited recently is near Carcassonne, and the postcode is 11800, just so you know. This village has been holding an apple, rice and wine fair for some time – this year was the 20th anniversary.
Aigues Vives is located on the edge of the Etang Asseche de Marseillette, a drained marsh, where the apples, rice and wines for sale at the fair are grown.
The village was beautifully decorated for the occasion – the entrance arch to one of the streets was made from apples and rice straw.
In one of the squares, the iconic Citroen 2CV car had been recreated with apples; the rock on which the church stands was decorated with strands of apples; near the entrance to the church stood a windmill decorated with apples – the thatch on top was made with rice straw, and the sails were turning!
There was even a woman with an apple skirt.
Apples were for sale at almost every corner.
Around the park, a number of signs had been put up, showing all the producers in the Etang de Marseillette, and some local sayings:
One grain of rice can tip the scale
Three apples a day – everlasting health
Wine gets better over time, and we get better with wine!
A cider press had been set up on a stage in the village. The apples (granny smith, golden and gala) were pulped. The pulp was then collected in buckets lined with large squares of fabric. Once the buckets were full, the cloth was tied up and the bags were put into the press – soon the juice started to flow.
The apple juice was poured into plastic cups, and everyone could have as much as they wanted, it was delicious!!
In order for visitors to find out more about the Etang de Marseillette, a number of guided visits had been arranged. Two “little trains” were taking groups of people on the guided visits.
The Etang de Marseillette is left over from the time when the Mediterranean sea covered large tracts of land about two million years ago. When the water levels dropped and the sea receded, a number of lakes stayed behind, and one of them was at Marseillette. In time this became a marshy salt lake, covering an area of around 2000 hectares (20 square km. Three small streams fed the lake, and it was often deemed to be the reason for outbreaks of local epidemics.
In the Middle Ages, attempts were made to drain the lake, which were more or less successful, but the drains silted up and nature reclaimed the lake. In 1804, Marie Anne Coppinger, the then owner of the Etang, carried out immense works and drained the lake, but the returns from the land were insufficient, and she bankrupted herself with the project. The next owner carried on with improvements. He built a tunnel to bring water for irrigation from the river Aude. The tunnel is over 2 km long and in some places it is 60m below ground! In 1852 the Etang was sold once more, and the new owners decided to divide the land and sell off smaller parcels. With no overall owner, the maintenance of the irrigation and drainage canals was soon neglected again.
In 1901, Joseph Camman, an engineer, bought 800 hectares of land in the Etang and started a campaign to improve the irrigation. One of the main problems is the fact that salt left in the soil will come to the surface if the land is not sufficiently irrigated. Plants which grow there, produce only very shallow roots of about 35cm, partly because of the heavy clay soil and partly because of the salt. Keeping the soil well hydrated is the key to successful cultivation!
Joseph Camman also built a hydroelectric power station, to harness the power of the water coming from the river Aude. Unfortunately, the power station has long since been abandoned, and the building is in a very poor state of repair.
The pond on which the power station stands serves as a holding tank for the distribution of water to the three main irrigation channels.
In order to keep the canals from silting up, Joseph Camman designed “cleaning boats”, which increased the current in the canals as they travelled through and flushed the silt away. These days, modern diggers are used.
As we travelled through the Etang, we saw orchards, vineyards and a rice field. The rice had mostly been harvested, but a little bit had been left standing for us to see. The apple trees were heavy with fruit, and of course all the fruit from the pictures was grown here.
There is only one grower of rice active in the Etang. He produces a number of different kinds: red, long grain, short grain etc. I bought several different kinds of rice, and I have already tried the mix of red and white rice which was delicious! And of course I also bought some apples!!