Bring it on – a collection of recent cook club food

It’s been a few months since I last shared the exploits of our cookery group with you.  So it’s time to catch you up on what we’ve been cooking AND eating! :)  A note before I start – I don’t have the recipes for all of the dishes we cooked.  Where possible I have included the links to the relevant recipes.

Early in the summer, my friend in Narbonne hosted our get together with an Italian theme.  It was prime peach season, so we started our session with Bellini cocktails – peach juice and sparkling wine – way to go!!

For the starter we cooked stuffed round courgettes, which were accompanied by home-made foccacia bread.

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Our main course was vitello tonnato, thinly sliced cold veal (poached the day before), covered with a tuna fish mayonnaise sauce, and decorated with anchovy fillets.  With the vitello tonnato we had a beautifully crunchy salad of green beans and radishes.

For dessert we prepared peach amaretto mess – a take on Eaton mess.  For those of you not familiar with this dessert, it is generally made with whopped cream, meringues and crushed strawberries. You can see how decadent it looked, and it tasted very, very good!

A month later I hosted a Mexican themed session – I adore Mexican food, and perhaps I got a little carried away in my menu planning.  We had a lot to cook and eat!!  Here are the Mojitos we started with:

Some years ago visitors from Texas brought me a cast-iron tortilla press (THANK YOU, Susan and Alan!!), and I decided we could make use of that, to make our own corn tortillas.  For the first course we prepared Ham and chesese quesadillas with mango salsa:

This was followed by a Ceviche of scallops with avocado:

 

Our main course was Meat in tasty broth in the fashion of Guadalajara.  It really was very tasty, and a meal in itself, accompanied by beans and grilled spring onions.

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We also had a Spinach salad with amaranth seeds with our main course!  We were starting to feel rather full at this point!!  So full in fact, that we decided to forego the dessert we had prepared (bunuelos, a kind of doughnut, served with an anise flavoured syrup), and the Mexican hot chocolate!!  :)  We had a great time with all that lovely food though!

An afternoon of Caribbean food was hosted by my friends in Caunes-Minervois. I was put in charge of preparing the Simple Coconut and bean soup.  It was pretty simple and incredibly delicious!!

Jerk chicken kebabs with mango salsa were our main course, but we all agreed that the jerk seasoning mixture was too spicy and lacking depth of flavour.

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With the chicken kebabs we had exotic avocado salad, made prettier with the addition of pomegranate seeds. :)

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Our dessert that day was spiced glazed pineapple with cinnamon fromage frais – quite a mouthful, that recipe name, but a delicious ending to a wonderful meal!

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Our most recent get-together was held in La Caunette, and it had a vegetarian theme.  I have to admit that I was too distracted with the cooking, to be able to take many photographs.  The recipes we used were all taken from Simon Hope’s book “Entertaining with Friends”.

Our first course was a delicious salad topped with a goat’s cheese crouton:

The grilled tomatoes were for a sauce to accompany the corn fritters, which got eaten so quickly that I did not get a chance to take a picture :(

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The parsnip croquettes were delicious too!

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I was in charge of making the wild mushroom filo parcels – a delicious, if somewhat involved recipe.

I managed to slightly overcook the filo parcels – they were nicely crisp, but a little too brown to be photogenic!! :)  No, they weren’t burnt to cinders, how could you??

For dessert we had kiwi compote, which I enjoyed more than my fellow cooks did.

So here you have it, four very different cookery sessions, with very different foods.  What all the sessions have in common though, is that they were all highly enjoyable and that we would probably not have tried to cook the food we prepared on our own.  If you enjoy cooking and food, why not start your own cookery group with some of your friends??  You’ll have fun, I promise!!

 

The abbey in the desert

What do you do when you have friends visiting, and the weather is promising you the most beautiful sunny autumn skies???  Go on a day trip, of course!! :)

That’s how I found myself driving to Saint-Guilhem-le-Desert one sunny day last week.  In my mind Saint-Guilhem-le-Desert was always too far away to visit, but it turns out I was wrong.  The village can be reached in just a little over an hour’s drive from St Chinian, about the same time it takes to reach Montpellier or Carcassonne.  My reason for visiting?  Saint-Guilhem is one of the most beautiful villages of France — a site and sight worth visiting!  I think you’ll agree when you see this picture:

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This is the first glimpse of the old Abbey of Gellone, as you drive to the car park at the top of the village!  Pretty spectacular, wouldn’t you agree?

The village of Saint-Guilhem stretches along the narrow valley of the Verdus river, the houses lined up one next to another.  As you walk along the main street, from the bottom of the valley, the houses appear to tower above you, and there’s little sky to be seen.

But there are many things to admire other than the blue sky!  Along the streets there are a number of fountains, all of them running with fresh water.

Then there are the thistles, which are fixed on many front doors:

In the old days the thistles were collected and eaten, much as we eat artichokes today.  Over time they have become rarer, and today they are used to foretell the weather: when it’s sunny the petals are wide open, and when it’s due to rain the petals will curve in.  I imagine that’s due to the change in humidity?  You can see that it was definitely sunny on the day of my visit! :)

Scallop shells were also in evidence on many buildings — due to the fact that Saint-Guilhem used to be a stopping point on the pilgrims’ route to Santiago de Compostella.  The scallop shell marked a place where the pilgrims were welcome and could stop for the night.

A small street branched off the main street and ran along the Verdus river.  There were many little cascades, burbling away.

There is a sense of drama when you first catch a glimpse of the abbey with the church ahead and above you.

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The buildings are beautifully simple, and yet incredibly impressive.  As you get closer you notice the details.

The foundation of the abbey dates back to 804, when Guilhem of Orange, a cousin of Charlemagne, decided to give up his warrior life and devote himself to God instead.  Charlemagne donated a piece of the true cross, and in time the abbey prospered and became an important place of pilgrimage through the middle ages.  The present day church was built in the 11th century in the romanesque style. When I first entered the church I was struck by the starkness of it — it is almost completely devoid of any decorations.  Initially it also felt very dark.

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But as my eyes got used to the light levels, I found it to be a very peaceful place.  The stone vaulting in the chapels on either side of the apse are amazing to contemplate.  The three windows high above the main altar are representative of the Holy Trinity.  The organ dates from 1789 and was built by Jean-Pierre Cavaille, the grandfather of the celebrated organ builder Aristide Cavaille-Coll.  You can read more about the instrument (in French) here.

Fast forward to the French revolution, when the abbey church became the parish church of the village, and the other buildings of the abbey were sold off.  One part became a spinning mill, another part a tannery.  After a devastating flood in 1817 the abbey buildings were used as a quarry of sorts, with the cut stones being used in the village and further afield.  The beautifully carved columns and capitals of the cloisters ended up scattered all over the area.  There is precious little left of the cloister, which was once the jewel of the abbey.

Imagine a cloister on two stories, with an amazing variety of columns and capitals.  Here is an impression of what it might have looked like:

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Pierre-Yon Verniere, a justice of the peace in nearby Aniane, had a passionate interest in romanesque art.  He managed to amass a collection of 148 pieces from the cloister in Saint-Guilhem, which were apparently used as decorations in his garden.  After his death in 1875, his children sold the collection, and it was eventually acquired by the American sculptor George Grey Barnard.  George Grey Barnard’s collection is today at the core of the Cloisters Museum in New York, and if you are ever there you can see the amazing work of the medieval stonemasons.  For now, you can see a little part of it, virtually, via this link.

Today some of the former abbey buildings are occupied by Carmelite nuns, who hold regular services at the church.  Just as I was about to leave the church, a group of Germans (perhaps pilgrims?) started to sing — the acoustics were wonderful, with the sound all around me.  I took a brief video for you (e-mail subscribers, please visit http://midihideaways.wordpress.com/2014/11/04/saint-guilhelm/ to watch the video).

The square outside the abbey is in great contrast to the atmosphere of peaceful contemplation inside the church.  There is a huge plane tree in the centre, planted in 1855, and all around are cafes and restaurants.

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On the fountain next to the tree, someone from one of the restaurants had lined up water carafes, in readiness for the midday midday meal.

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We had a delicious lunch at the Taverne de l’Escuelle, just off the square.

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There was gardiane de taureau, a tasty beef stew, an omelet with wild mushrooms; a chicken salad; and tartiflette, a combination of cooked, sliced potatoes, bacon pieces, onions, reblochon cheese and creme fraiche — can you guess what I ate??  For dessert there were sweet crepes!!

If you want to see Saint-Guilhem-le-Desert for yourself, I would recommend that you visit out of season.  The car park is fairly large, but as we left, it had filled up considerably.  Plan on spending the day, or combine your trip with a visit to nearby Saint-Jean-de-Fos and its pottery museum and studios.  More about that in another post soon!

Oh, I almost forgot — I know that some of you will be asking: “Why Saint-Guilhem-le-Desert?”  The desert was a place of spiritual retreat, harking back to the early Christian monks who lived in the Egyptian desert.  It could also relate to the fact that when Guilhem established his monastery the valley was very much remote and deserted.

Trick or treat?

There’s definitely a treat in this post – whichever way you look at it!  On October 31, I visited Mazamet with friends.  The town is not all that far from St Chinian,  just under an hour by car  along the D612, which connects Beziers to Albi.  The drive is a beautiful one, especially at this time of year with the fall colours.

We drove to Mazamet to have lunch at Mets & Plaisirs, a hotel-restaurant which my friends discovered a little while back.  The restaurant is close to the centre of the town, just across the road from a nice public park.

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We were welcomed at the door by Mr Blancard, the owner, and shown to our table in the cozy dining room.  Nice linen tablecloth and napkins, silver cutlery, quality glasses – all lovely!!

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Soon we had made our choices and were happily chatting away whilst sipping an aperitif.  These are the nibbles which came with the aperitif:  black olive tapenade, roquefort and walnut mousse, crispy bacon pieces and croutons.

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The “amuse bouche”, a kind of pre-starter, consisted of slices of salmon fillet, marinated with lemon juice and olive oil – very tasty!

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I couldn’t resist the foie-gras on the menu, and I’m glad I chose it – it really was very good!!

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My dining companions all opted for gravad-lax style salmon, which was incredibly tender and tasty.  I’ll order that next time :)!!

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I was very pleased with my choice of main course!  I had ordered veal, which was cooked to perfection, and served on a bed of chestnut puree.

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My dining companions all opted for the wild sea bass, which they pronounced excellent!

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I had to pass on cheese, but the cheese selection was very good (sorry about the blurry picture :( ), and the servings generous.

Desserts were heavenly, and this time we almost managed to have one of each amongst the four of us:  quince tarte tatin, roasted figs, and rum baba with pineapple.  I had the rum baba, and I tasted some of the quince tarte tatin – both were very good – the whole meal was a real treat!!

After all that wonderful food we needed to go for a bit of a walk, to exercise off some of the calories! :)

I had often driven through Mazamet, but only once stopped for a brief visit.  There is much to discover in the town, as I found out.  Mazamet had its heyday between the 1880s and 1950s, and its prime source of wealth was the processing of wool and leather.  The wealthy bourgeoisie built themselves beautiful mansions, often very close to their storehouses and factories, and there are many stunning buildings to be discovered!

Today Mazamet is still a lively town of some 10,000 inhabitants, and there are many interesting shops, such as this chocolate and pastry shop!

… or this cheese shop:

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There were several florist shops, but the one in the picture had a particularly appealing display:

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The public spaces in Mazamet are well-kept and nicely planted, and I can imagine that the town is very busy on market days (Tuesdays and Saturdays).  I’ll definitely go back for another exploration of the town!

 

Have you ever been g**gled?

Earlier this year I visited Montpellier – perhaps there was a specific reason or perhaps it was just for a day out, I don’t remember.  The weather was beautiful, and as it got nearer to lunchtime I headed for the Place de la Comedie, a beautifully open square in the centre of Montpellier.  The square is lined on opposite sides with beautiful buildings, with the most impossibly ornate facades. Some of the detail on those facades is just amazing, and not really visible or able to be appreciated with the naked eye – you really need a very good zoom lens or a magnifying glass!!

The third side of the square is occupied by the Opera Comedie, Montpellier’s municipal opera house and theatre.

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As you can see, it’s pretty grand!  The fourth side is open, and leads towards the Polygone shopping centre, as well as the Esplanade, a beautiful tree-lined area, linking the Place de la Comedie with the Corum, the new opera house and performing arts centre.

To the left of the Opera Comedie stands the Grand Hotel du Midi – you can see the gold mosaic from that building in the first gallery of pictures above.  Walk past the entrance to the hotel, down the side of the theatre, and you get to the Brasserie du Theatre, which is in the same building as the hotel.  The restaurant has a very unassuming frontage onto the street, just a door really, leading into a little foyer, from which stairs lead up to the restaurant.  The interior of the restaurant is very much belle epoque, with mirrors and plaster work everywhere.  I felt too self-conscious to take pictures of the interior – I’m sorry!!  You can see some good shots of the interior on this site.  The weather was so nice that lunch was being served on the terrace.  :)   The terrace is on the first floor, so from the street you don’t really see it.

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The fountain in the centre was a nice touch, and added to the great ambience.  The midday menu was very reasonably priced at 15.90 EUR for two courses, and it included a glass of wine.  My dining companion and I decided to forego the starter and have dessert instead. :)  The steak was delicious, and the salmon was cooked to perfection.  The dessert of the day was tiramisu – yummy!!

After a relaxed and unhurried lunch, we went for a walk around the pedestrianised centre of Montpellier.  There’s much to look at, be it shop windows:

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…or architecture:

The amazing building above is the Hotel des Tresoriers de la Bourse, which dates from the 17th and 18th centuries.

Then there are of course the wonderful door knockers.  If you read this blog regularly you’ll know that I have a kind of fetish for door knockers! :)  The variety is seemingly endless, and only limited by the fantasy and imagination of whoever designed and/or made them.

Whilst walking down Grand Rue Jean Moulin I came across this strange-looking car:

On closer examination it turned out to be a G**gle car, not the one which is driver-less, but the one which takes the pictures that allow us to virtually explore in street view.  Here’s the camera array:

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Nobody seemed to pay the G**gle car much attention – the shop windows and the shopping itself were much more interesting.  We continued with our walk, and found some more lovely things to look at:

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I’m sure the Maison Justin Boch is no longer trading, but the lettering is just lovely, and the square so inviting.  Just a few steps away was the Padova ice cream parlour.  It’s not as though I hadn’t had enough to eat at lunchtime, but I couldn’t resist it… :)

The Hotel Saint-Come is today part of the headquarters of the Chamber of Commerce.  The tourist office offers guided visits of the building in its program – I’m going to try and book that for a future visit.

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Down one of the side streets I found this wonderful glass veranda.  Look at the detail from the tiled frieze.

Back on the Esplanade I noticed the facade of an old Gaumont Cinema building:

And then it was back to the Place de la Comedie, where it all started.

Now, if you go to G**gle maps, and look at the street view of Grand Rue Jean Moulin, you might just be able to spot me with my camera in my hand, taking a picture of that car.  You’ll have to go to the May 2014 version though – for some reason the street was photographed again in June 2014.  And if you look very carefully, you might even spot me several times!  I had great fun walking past the car a number of times :)

Falling into fall

All too soon the clocks will go back by an hour, and the evenings will feel much longer.  This time of year, nature paints with a rich palette of wonderful colours.  Summer was glorious and bountiful, but towards the end it became a little parched, and somewhat monochrome.  Now autumn is exploding in a riot of colours!  Balm to the heart!!

Have a look at this dahlia:

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The colour variations in the grapevine leaves are endless:

The pomegranates are really starting to show off:

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How about some of these luscious persimmons?

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Or perhaps you are ready for a pumpkin?

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This red warty thing has been growing in my garden for some time now, and it will be harvested very soon.  A friend in the US sent me the seeds last year, and I just love the colour and texture of the skin;  the seed packet promises that it will make good eating too!

The rose hips are blazing away brilliantly red.

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Some parts of my garden really come into their own during fall.  This salvia just seems to explode at the end of each summer.

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Some leaves turn a bright sulphur yellow colour

and some go flaming red:

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Autumn is really one of the best times to visit the area.  And of course this time of year is also fantastic for wild mushrooms, but that will be a story for another time…

Walking with llamas

I’m up for pretty much anything, so when a friend suggested we go walking with llamas, I agreed right away.  The llamas live in the hamlet of Pez, near Pardailhan, and are owned by Murielle Marcle and Christian Tinel.  Murielle and Christian run Les Lamas du Pardailhan. Murielle trained in animal-assisted therapy, and the farm regularly hosts children from care homes in the area.  She also offers guided visits of the farm, as well as the walks with the llamas, which I had come for.

In the paddock five llamas were waiting for our visit:  Machuca, Chachani, and Hiskalda were female adults; their daughters Lima and Quinoa were both born in May 2013.

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Before we got going, Murielle gave us some facts about llamas.  Llamas are part of the family of camelids, and are related to camels and alpacas.  They are very social animals and only thrive as part of a herd.  Llamas are also very quiet animals, they don’t make noises like any of the other four-legged farm animals.  Llamas have a reputation for spitting, however they tend to spit only at each other, not at humans.  They are entirely vegetarian, and feed on grasses and leaves.  You’ll be able to read up on a whole lot more llama facts in this Wikipedia article.

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Llama wool is very soft and fine, but not as highly prized as alpaca.  Murielle’s llamas are woolly lamas, and they have to be shorn from time to time, to stop them from getting too hot during the summer.  That said, the hair along the neck is usually left long.  The wool contains no lanolin, and the llamas have no noticeable smell.

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Before we started off, Murielle coaxed four of the llamas into the corral, a small enclosure on one side of the paddock, where each llama had a halter put on.  This was followed by some brushing, so that we would get to know the llamas close up :) !

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Once we had done the grooming and getting-to-know-you bit, we set off on our walk.  Unfortunately one of the llamas had to stay behind, and she was not very happy on her own. :(

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Our walk took us along leafy lanes, with very frequent stops – the llamas found all sorts of delicious leaves and grasses growing along the way.  The leaves of chestnut trees were particularly prized!!

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On the return we came across a beautiful meadow, and that must have been heaven for our four-legged friends. :)

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All too soon we were back at the paddock, and once we’d said our goodbyes to the llamas they went for a run around their paddock.  As we walked back to the farmhouse, I couldn’t resist taking a picture of Murielle’s vegetable garden.

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If you would like to book a walk with Murielle and the llamas, please contact her via her website http://www.lamas34.com or by telephone on +33 467 236 118.  There must be a minimum of three persons for each walk, and the walks cost 10 EUR per hour/person.

A feast of colour

On a recent trip to Narbonne I made two discoveries, both prompted by a friend who had recently told me about them.  The first was a restaurant I had never before visited:  L’Ecailler Gourmet, which is just behind the law courts in Narbonne.
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It is a restaurant which specialises in fish, and there is literally nothing else on the menu.  If you don’t like fish and shellfish, don’t go there!!  On the other hand, if you enjoy fish, you’ll be in heaven there!  I went on a Saturday lunchtime, when the prix-fixe menus are not in operation (on weekdays the lunchtime menus are 16 and 18 Euro). Out in front there is a very nice courtyard dining area, with sun sails and umbrellas, and very comfortable outdoor furniture. Inside looked good too;  I just have to tell you about the WC – it’s got the perfect decor, totally in tune with the theme of the restaurant.  I won’t tell you any more, you’ll have to go and see for yourself :) !  L’Ecailler Gourmet also has a shop, where you can buy fresh fish and shellfish.

For starters, my dining companion and I ordered a selection of four different Tapas:  marinated smoked herring, octopus, sesame prawns, and marinated anchovies.

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I am not sure which was the most delicious of the four – I wasn’t sure at the time and I can’t make up my mind now.  The flavour of the herring was sublime and the fish beautifully tender.  The anchovies were perfect, nicely spiced without being too acid.  The prawns were juicy with a lovely sesame flavour.  And the octopus?  Firm, but without being rubbery, as octopus can so often be, and delicately flavoured with chives and peppers.

For the main course my dining companion had chosen the Parillade, a combo of three different fish fillets, plus scallops and king prawns, and I had ordered a Brochette de Saumon, Lotte et Gambas, in other words salmon, monk fish and king prawns on a skewer.  Before it was cooked, the fish was presented at the table – I don’t remember that ever happening before in a restaurant!  The first picture shows the Parillade, and the ingredients for my Brochette are shown on the other half of the plate.  Having eaten all the tapas I was not sure I would be able to manage all the fish, but I figured that it would shrink somewhat during cooking.

When the fish reappeared, this time beautifully cooked and plated, it still looked just as big, AND there were vegetables on the plate too!!

We both managed just fine – the fish was perfectly cooked, juicy and tender!  Monk fish can be a bit tricky to prepare.  It can have a strange kind of texture, which I don’t find all that pleasant, but in this case it was just a pleasure to eat.  Cooking fish is all about timing, and the chefs at L’Ecailler Gourmet have it down to a fine art.

After all that gorgeous fish, I felt that dessert was out of the question, but then came the blackboard with the choices:

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I think you’ll agree that the choices were just too tempting :)!!  I opted for the millefeuille with fresh mango and Chantilly cream – pure delight – whilst my dining companion ordered the tartar of strawberries with black olives and basil.  The latter was a revelation – the flavour of the strawberries was very much enhanced by the basil, and the olives added a nice kick to it.

So all in all a wonderful lunch, and definitely a restaurant to recommend.  If you want to visit, please call ahead to make a reservation, as it can get very busy.

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After this amount of food we definitely needed a walk, so we decided to spend some time exploring Narbonne.  Here’s where my friend’s second tip came in handy:  Narbonne is hosting the 2nd International Biennale of Watercolour during October.  The exhibitions are spread over eight different locations in the town centre.  We started with the exhibit of pictures by Henri Zuber in the hemispherical chamber at the bottom of the keep, part of the archbishop’s palace (now the town hall) on Place de l’Hotel de Ville. The room is amazing (you can climb to the top of the keep for a great view over the town), and the exhibition was delightful.  The acoustics of the room are also amazing – you can clearly hear what people across the other side of the room are whispering about!!

The next stop was in the Salle des Consuls, also in the archbishop’s palace.  This is an impressive hall with a timber beamed ceiling, where the town nobles met to decide on the running of Narbonne.  The pictures on show here were the finalists of the worldwide competition organised by the international magazine, The Art of Watercolour.

There were several pictures which caught my eye, and on finding out that all the works on display were for sale, I asked the price for this picture:

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It is called Smoking old man, and painted by Weixing Guan.  The young man at the desk had to make a phone call, as he did not have a price list.  He was visibly embarrassed when he told me that the picture was valued at $50,000 – just like me to go for one of the most expensive pictures in the whole show!! :D .

We went on to the next venue, the Chapelle des Penitents Bleus, the former chapel of one of the poor orders.  Looking at some of the decorations in the chapel I wonder…

The pictures here were by a group of painters who had been specially invited to the Biennale.  Among the pictures on show was the one which was used for the posters of this year’s exhibition, a very atmospheric piece by Uruguayan artist Alvaro Castagnet

Our next stop was at La Poudriere, a former gunpowder store!  Painters selected by the organising committee were showing their pictures here.

On to our final stop that day:  the Ancienne Chapelle des Jacobins – the old chapel of the former Jacobin monastery.  The chapel is an incredibly lofty space, with some amazing stonework!

The pictures by the Belgian painter Martine Vanparijs caught my eye, and they were very much more affordable than the painting which had so attracted me earlier in the afternoon. You could probably buy every single picture in the Ancienne Chapelle des Jacobins for the price of that one!

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The Biennale runs until October 26, 2014 and most of the venues are open every day.  If you are in the area, do go and have a look – I am sure you will enjoy the visit!