Truffle time again!!

I’m sure you have eaten truffles – but did you eat chocolate truffles or black truffles? ūüôā

The black truffle, also called Perigord truffle, French black truffle, or, to give the Latin name, tuber melanosporum, is a native European truffle, and it ranks very high on the list of the most expensive foods!

It’s been prized for its flavour since antiquity, and it was regularly served on the tables of princes, kings and emperors. ¬†Towards the end of the 19th century, France produced up to 1000 tonnes of black truffles per year. ¬†Prices were much lower then than they are now, and black truffles were used in great quantities in classic French cooking at that time.

Since the end of the 19th century, France’s truffle output has fallen dramatically – at times it has been as low as 20 tonnes a year! ¬†A variety of causes have contributed to this fall in production: destruction during the 1st and 2nd world wars, deforestation, acid rain, general pollution, changes in farming methods, changes in climate…

For a very long time, the way truffles grew was not very well understood, but by the early 1970s a technique had been developed which allowed hazelnut and oak saplings to be inoculated with truffle spores.  The resulting trees could produce truffles four to eight years after planting, but the success still depends on many factors such as soil type, amount of rainfall, temperatures, etc.

Lucky for us, a good many of the truffle orchards which were planted in Southern France are now producing truffles. ¬†If you visit Languedoc at this time of year, you are in for a treat, as truffle markets in the area take place throughout the winter months. ¬†I’ve visited several of these markets over the years, and I have written about one of these visits here.

Below, I give you a list of the forthcoming markets in the area. ¬†Even if you don’t buy any truffles, these markets are well worth visiting, I promise you!

January 26, 2020 : 21es “Amp√©lofolies du Cabard√®s” √† Moussoulens
January 26, 2020 : 4e F√™te de la Truffe” √† B√©ziers (pourtour des halles)
January 31 to February 2, 2020 : 14e “F√™te de la truffe et des produits du terroir” √† N√ģmes, Place du March√©
February 1, 2020 : “Truffes en f√™te” √† Talairan
February 8, 2020 : March√© aux Truffes” et 15e “Nuit de la Truffe” √† Villeneuve-Minervois
February 9, 2020 : 25e Journ√©e Paysanne” √† Saint-Jean de Bu√®ges
February 14, 2020 : “March√© aux Truffes de la Saint Valentin” √† Narbonne, place de l’H√ītel de Ville de 9h √† 13h.
February 16, 2020 : March√© aux truffes” √† Castelnaudary
February 16, 2020 : 12e F√™te de la Truffe et du terroir” √† Claret
February 23, 2020 : 4e Carnaval des saveurs et de la truffe” √† La Digne d’Aval
March 8, 2020 : “Truffe et patrimoine” √† Trassanel

 

So cheesy!!

Do you remember the time when fondue was all the rage?? ¬†It must have been in the dim and distant 70’s and 80’s when fondue seemed to be so sophisticated and entertaining! ¬†And then somehow fondue fell from favour, and all those fondue sets and special plates were put at the back of some cupboard and more or less forgotten about. ¬†That was pretty much everywhere except in Switzerland, where cheese fondue is very much part of the national identity!!

I’ve just had friends from Switzerland staying in Saint-Chinian, and we had a cheese fondue one evening. ¬†It brought back many happy memories, so I thought you might enjoy reading about it. ¬†In the French language, the word¬†fundu¬†means melted, so that is where cheese fondue got its name from.

For those of you who have never encountered fondue or a fondue set, there is a stand with a small spirit burner, on which is set the fondue pot.  There is an almost infinite variation of possible combinations as to shape and size, and these days electric fondue sets are also available!

Here are the ingredients we used for our cheese fondue:

We had to have Swiss gruyere and Swiss Emmental cheeses Рthe French versions of these cheeses were not an option for my Swiss friends!!  Luckily, the cheeses were easily found in the area!  We also used a dry white wine (Riesling in this case), Kirsch eau de vie, and corn starch.

To accompany the fondue, we had carrots, broccoli, small new potatoes, apples, pears, and bread Рall for dipping into the melted cheese.  And we also had a mixed salad to accompany the fondue.

The cheese was cut into manageable chunks and then grated on the big holes of a box grater.

The carrots and the broccoli were lightly steamed, the potatoes boiled until just cooked, and the bread, apples and pears cut into bite-size chunks.

The stand for the fondue pot was set up in the centre of the table.  The stand would usually sit on a metal tray to protect the table, but my metal tray appears to have gone astray Рperhaps it is at the back of some cupboard, somewhere??  The ceramic dish was a good substitute.

To make the fondue, the wine was heated in a casserole with some sliced garlic.

Once it reached boiling point, the cheese was added a handful at a time, whilst constantly stirring.

The cheese soon started to melt – to begin with it looked a bit lumpy!

Before too long it started to come together into a smooth and creamy cheese and wine stew!

At that point a mixture of corn starch and kirsch eau de vie (mixed until there were no lumps) was added to homogenise it further, and to add flavour.  After another couple of minutes the mixture was ready to be transferred to the fondue pot, which had been warmed with boiling water (otherwise the cheese would have cooled too much).  Note: fondue is normally cooked in the pot that it is served in.  Unfortunately, my fondue pot was not compatible with the cooker, so the fondue had to be transferred.

Below is the fondue in the pot, ready to be brought to the table.  The top was sprinkled with freshly grated nutmeg!

We were all set to go!!

Everyone put a selection of goodies on their plates, and then we were ready to dip and enjoy the fondue!

It was absolutely delicious!!  Thank you to Thekla, Jean and Ueli for sharing this with me!!

Here’s the printable recipe:

Cheese Fondue

  • Servings: 4-6
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

400 g Swiss Emmental cheese
200 g Swiss gruyere cheese (Greyezer)
400 ml dry white wine
1 – 2 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced
1 teasp corn starch
2 tbsp kirsch eau de vie
freshly grated nutmeg

For dipping, prepare all or some of the following:
French bread (preferably day old), cut into bite-size cubes, each cube with some crust
Small new potatoes, carrots, broccoli, steamed/cooked until just tender
Apples and pears, etc. cut into bite-size pieces

Grate the cheese.  Mix the corn starch and the kirsch until there are no lumps. Heat wine and garlic in your fondue pot and when at boiling point add cheese a handful at a time whilst stirring continuously with a wooden spoon.  When the cheese is completely melted and the mixture starts to bubble add the corn starch and kirsch mixture, stir well for a couple of minutes, then bring to the table and put on your fondue stand.  

When dipping, make sure that you keep the cheese mixture moving!

Note: If possible, use a heat diffuser mat under your fondue pot once it is on the stand.  That way the cheese mixture is less likely to scorch at the bottom of the pot.

Winter is a perfect time for eating cheese fondue – what are you waiting for??

Bonne annee

At this time of year in France, when you see someone for the first time after New Year’s Eve, it is customary to exchange new year’s greetings. So, without further ado:

Bonne annee, bonne sante, meilleurs voeux to you all!!

This greeting is usually accompanied by a kiss on each cheek, not a real kiss but kind of touching cheeks and making the appropriate noise.  So please feel yourself virtually kissed!!

The new year’s greetings go on until the end of January!

Soon after Christmas, the galettes des rois or Epiphany cakes make an appearance in the shops and bakeries.  The tradition of the cake is closely tied to the three kings who came to Bethlehem bringing myrrh, gold and frankincense to baby Jesus.

Epiphany cakes come in one of two shapes:  there is the flat galette des rois, a frangipane filled puff pastry confection, or a ring shaped cake made with brioche dough which is often called a royaume and is decorated with sugar and/or with glacé fruit.  That same ring-shaped cake can also be found filled with cream!!

Common to all varieties is the fact that a favour is baked into them.  In olden days, the favour would have been a feve, a dried fava bean.  In France the favour is still called a feve and it is usually a tiny porcelain figure (watch your teeth!!).  Whoever finds the feve in their piece of cake is crowned king for the day.  Whenever you buy an Epiphany cake in any bakery or shop, a small cardboard crown is always part of the purchase!

Another tradition attached to the eating of the Epiphany cake concerns the dividing of the cake.  The youngest person usually sits under the dining table.  The cake is then cut into pieces, and the person under the table then calls out the name of the person who is to have the piece which has just been cut.

If you’re tempted to make your own galette des rois, have a look at this article where I give the recipe.

So, here’s to the start of the new year – let’s hope it’s a good one for all of us!!

The photographs for this post were taken at La Gourmandise bakery in Saint-Chinian.  Thank you, Carole!!

Keepers

My own definition of a keeper is a place I’m going to keep in my address book, somewhere I’ll want to go back to again! ¬†The two restaurants in this article both fall into that category!!

On a recent visit to Montpellier, I had wanted to have lunch at L’Heure Bleue, an antiques store cum restaurant cum tearoom on Rue de la Carbonnerie. ¬†The last time I had been to L’Heure Bleue was a few years ago. ¬†I had fond memories of it’s cozy and kitsch decor and the delicious food! ¬†The concept was fun – everything in the restaurant was for sale: the tables, the chairs, the china, literally anything around you could be bought and taken home, if you so wished. ¬†When I pushed the door open on my most recent visit, there was none of the usual hum, and nobody was seated at the tables. ¬†Perhaps I was a little too early? ¬†Alas I was too late! ¬†When I asked about having lunch, the owner said that they had stopped serving food about a year ago. ūüė¶ ¬†He could see how disappointed I was (he probably was too), and suggested that I try another¬†Salon de The just around the corner – L’Appart’The. ¬†So off I went, down Rue de la Carbonnerie, turning right into Rue de l’Aiguillerie, and finally left into Rue Glaize. ¬†I was so pleased when I spotted L’Appart’The, that I almost went flying when I missed a step outside the restaurant! ¬† ūüė≤

There were tables outside the restaurant, and even though it was a nice and sunny day, it felt a little too cool for me to be sitting outside.  Inside, the dining room was small but bright, with a lovely warm feel to it.  There was space for only eight persons at four tables for two.  A counter at one end of the room separated the kitchen from the dining room, and allowed me to watch the chef preparing the dishes.  There were already some people seated and I felt a little too self-conscious to take photographs.

The menu was very simple: a choice of three starters, two main courses, and four desserts.  My dining companion and I both opted to have the fresh ravioli for our starters.  The ravioli were filled with mountain (raw cured) ham and curd cheese, and served with a creamy sauce.  The ravioli were very delicious!

For his main course, my dining companion chose the slowly braised pork chop:

I had the roast beef:

Both of the main courses were delicious!  What we really liked was that for once there was a good amount of vegetables on the plates Рthat happens so rarely in restaurants in France.  The vegetables were perfectly cooked and totally appropriate for the season: turnips, carrots, cabbage, sweet potato and regular potato.

From the five desserts on the menu I chose the apple tart:

and my companion chose the apricot dessert with a caramelized top:

Both desserts were very yummy!!  When I came to pay the bill at the counter (the menus were 25,50 Euros for three courses), I saw that there was a second room to the side, which was set up as a lounge with sofas, armchairs and coffee tables Рvery cozy and perfect for afternoon tea!


I came across another “find” recently on a visit to Capestang. ¬†Again, I wasn’t able to go to the restaurant I had hoped to go to, which was La Galiniere. ¬†I had timed my trip badly, it was the day off for the restaurant. ¬†I knew that there were several restaurants around the main square in Capestang, so I walked there and had a look. ¬†Le Caveau de la Place looked interesting and there were a couple of people outside, enjoying a drink in the sunshine, so I decided to give it a whirl.

The word caveau usually denotes a wine cellar where you can sample and buy wine. The interior of the restaurant made the wines a prominent feature:

The lunchtime menu was simple and straightforward Рthree courses, no choice of dishes, but what was on offer suited me fine.  The first course consisted of deep-fried squid nuggets with a little green salad.  The batter around the squid was very well seasoned, and the olive oil on the salad was wonderfully tasty.  The portion was very generous, almost a meal in itself!


For the main course there was blanquette de veau, veal in a creamy sauce with carrots and mushrooms, and accompanied by a creamy risotto.  The veal was lovely and tender, and oh-so-tasty!!

Dessert came in the form of a lemon meringue tart – not home-made I’m guessing, but good all the same!

To go with the food, I had a glass of white wine from Domaine Saint-Georges d’Ibry, a winery near Abeilhan. ¬†In the photo below, the white wine was the bottle in the centre.

The three-course lunch with a (very generous) glass of wine came to ‚ā¨17.80 – great value!

When I arrived back in Saint-Chinian there was a rainbow on the horizon – if you look carefully, you’ll be able make out the start of a second rainbow. ¬†Just perfect!! ūüôā

Going crackers

A few weeks ago, I announced the date for this year’s¬†Cracker Fair Christmas market at the Abbaye de Valmagne near Villeveyrac. ¬†As luck would have it, I entered a prize draw and I was lucky enough to win a free ticket to the Cracker Fair. ¬†I don’t often win anything, so you can imagine how thrilled I was!

The Cracker Fair is a two day event, which takes its name from the traditional British Christmas cracker. ¬†If you are unfamiliar with the tradition, you’ll find the Wikipedia article here. ¬†Many years ago, when the fair first came into being, it was aimed at the British expat community, whose Christmas celebrations would not be complete without Christmas crackers! ¬†In the years since, the fair has caught on with locals and expats alike, and it is now one of the highlights of the area during the run-up to Christmas, for vendors and shoppers alike!

I went to visit last Saturday, on a gloriously sunny day.  It had rained (and stormed) the previous night, and many of the stallholders had not known whether the weather would be good enough for them to set up their stalls.  As it turned out, the day was perfect, almost too nice for a Christmas market!

The path from the entrance gates to the former abbey buildings was lined with colourful booths on one side.

Along the path on the opposite side to the booths was a stall selling garden ornaments.  No garden gnomes here!!  I was very taken by the guinea hens and the chickens!

 

A food court had been set outside the entrance to the cloister.  All kinds of foods were on offer:  fish and chips, burgers, roasted chestnuts, pumpkin soup, fresh oysters, onion bhajis, crepes, tapas, grilled sausages, pastries, and more.

The ‘prize’ for the most original looking stall went to the one selling fish and chips, which was in the shape of a boat. ¬†I treated myself to a lunch of fish and chips, accompanied by mushy peas, another British tradition. ¬†If you don’t know what mushy peas are, you can find a recipe here. ¬†In my excitement, I completely forgot to take a photograph of my lunch, but I can tell you that the fish was perfectly cooked, the batter was wonderfully crisp, and both the chips and mushy peas were delicious!

Before my lunch, I had visited the stalls inside the cloisters and the former abbey church.  Here are some of the stalls in the cloister:

There were many more stalls in the former abbey church:

Valmagne abbey was one of the richest Cistercian abbeys in Languedoc, and its church has almost cathedral-like proportions:  83 metres long and 24 metres high!  During the French Revolution, the abbey was dissolved and the buildings sold.  The church survived because it was used as a wine cellar!  Huge barrels were installed in the chapels.

The old refectory was turned into a living room during the 19th century.  And of cours, there were more stalls in there too!  The monumental fireplace was particularly impressive!!

The chapter house was off the cloister – it had the most amazing vaulted ceiling with a sawtooth pattern along the ribs of the vault.

Placed in the arcade that separated the chapter house from the cloister were some very ornately carved stone vases. ¬†The face reminds me of someone. ūüôā

In the cloister garden, opposite the door to the refectory, was a lavabo, a fountain where the monks would wash their hands.  Around the fountain was an octagonal structure which supported an ancient grape vine Рlovely and shady in the summer!

Only two of these lavabos have survived in France, one of them at Valmagne!

Here is a picture of the fountain:

The abbey might have been rich, but life for the monks must have been fairly harsh – no central heating, washing outdoors summer and winter, no thermal underwear or fleecy sweaters…

Here is a view from the cloister garden towards the church.

And this is what the buildings of the abbey look like from the road:

I’ll be going back to visit Valmagne next summer, when I’ll be able to visit the mediaeval herb garden, and discover the buildings with fewer other visitors there. ¬†I’ll report back, promise!!

A musical finale!

Having visited the old prison, the former archbishop’s palace, the cellars below the cloister of the cathedral, the market halls (for lunch ūüôā ), the Hotel de Montmorency, and the Theatre des Varietes on my day out in Beziers during the recent European Heritage Weekend, I finished my day at¬†La Boite a Musique!

La Boite a Musique is on Rue du Capus, in one of the oldest parts of Beziers, not all that far from the market halls and the Place de la Madeleine.  As I approached the door, I could hear music being played Рone of the reasons this was on my list of places to visit!

Inside, Pierre Charial was in the middle of a presentation.  The room was crowded with people Рold and young alike were listening intently to every word and every note!!

Pierre Charial was in the process of explaining and demonstrating a table top organette.  All around the walls of the room were floor-to-ceiling shelves, stacked high with cardboard books.

Pierre Charial is a¬†noteur¬†(a mechanical music notator) and the cardboard books are for making street organs come to life. ¬†Here’s how:

The cardboard strips pass through a “keyframe” and a hole in the cardboard means that the corresponding note will sound on the organ as it passes through the keyframe. ¬†Different types of organs have different numbers of keys, the smaller ones often have 24 keys, while some very large dance or fair organs have up to 101 keys!

Pierre Charial had a collection of different instruments in his workshop.  Below is a barrel piano, another street instrument, where a pinned barrel plays the music.  A spare barrel sat atop the instrument.

Against one wall stood a disc musical box:

And there were other organs:

Pierre Charial has been making organ books since 1975, preserving historical tunes and creating new arrangements of contemporary music. ¬†His catalogue lists around 1400 titles, and he’s still adding to it!

In 2004, Pierre Charial was given the title Maitre d’Art (Master Artist) by the French minister for culture, in recognition of his skills and his contribution to safeguarding a unique heritage. ¬†During the heyday of the street organ there were literally hundreds of¬†noteurs. ¬†Today, this dying art is practiced by very few people.

On the Maitres d’Art website, there’s an interesting video (in French) showing Pierre Charial in his former workshop in Paris: click here for the link.

It was getting to the end of the guided visit РPierre Charial kept the best for last!  He played his Limonaire Freres organ for us, a beautiful instrument!

Thank you very much to Mr Charial for opening his workshop for us – what a truly fascinating visit!!