Changing places

Earlier this year, I wrote about a visit to Restaurant O’Bontemps in Magalas, and reported the sad fact that the restaurant was to close its doors.  Since then I’ve been keeping an eye out for where and when Olivier and Emmanuelle Bontemps might be opening their new venue.  I recently found on social media that they had taken a lease on a space next to the main library in Beziers, the Mediatheque, and that they had just recently opened their new restaurant O Petits Bontemps for business!!  I was planning a visit to a number of places in Beziers for the European Heritage Weekend, which took place on September 17th and 18th this year.  Florence Nash, who was staying at Acanthus, wanted to treat us, so after a quick phone call I had a reservation for lunch on the Saturday, and a whole lot of interesting places to visit – a perfect day out in the making!  The write-ups of the restaurant had been very good, so I was very much looking forward to it!

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The mediatheque opened in 2008 as part of the new university campus in Beziers, on what was once the site of army barracks.  Today, modern buildings with a fair bit of glass surround a large and empty space.

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The restaurant is at one end of the library, and its terrace overlooks the square.  The weather was unfortunately  a little too windy on the day we went for lunch, so we sat inside.

The restaurant interior has been given a complete makeover by BOH Décoration et Lifestyle, an interior design company from Bordeaux.

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The dominant colours are pink and grey, with a little nod to Alice in Wonderland here and there!🙂

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The lunch menu changes on a regular basis.  These were the choices on the day we went:

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Here is the starter:

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An egg, which has been poached at low temperature, so that it is barely cooked, sits atop an interpretation of tabouleh: grains, croutons and razor clams in a most wonderful broth, the whole sprinkled with flower petals and the egg crowned with deep-fried crispy noodles.  A great start to the meal!!

The three of us chose two of the main courses on offer – before you ask, we had one main course each, but two of us had the same, the neck of lamb, which was prepared like a tagine:

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The curried mackerel was the other main course that we chose.  The fish was cooked just perfectly and only very lightly spiced.

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For dessert, all three of us opted for the chocolate and caramel dome.  The presentation was fabulous, and it tasted every bit as good as it looked!!

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The three course lunch is priced at €22.00, and the restaurant is open from 10am to 6pm on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday.  On Friday the restaurant is open for lunch AND dinner.  Reservations are essential – telephone 04 67 36 20 82 to book.

Thank you for the treat, Florence!

Four in a cloister

The cloister of the old abbey in Saint-Chinian is one of the architectural jewels of the village.  It was restored some years ago and now is a haven of peace, with a tinkling fountain in the centre.  This summer, I went to a concert which took place in the cloister.  A stage had been set up against the modern wing, and chairs were dotted about in amongst the olive trees and the box hedges.

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The evening’s concert was by the Dallas Baumgartner Quartet, playing gypsy jazz.  Depending on which source you look at, Dallas Baumgartner is either Django Reinhardt’s great-grandson, or else his stepfather was a grandson of Django Reinhardt’s.

Once the chairs had all been taken and night started to fall, the musicians began to play.  What they played was utterly enthralling!

Below are five videos, which I hope will capture some of the magic of the evening!  E-mail subscribers, please remember to visit the blog site to watch the videos.

The evening was such a success, that at the end of it the mayor suggested that it could become a regular event in Saint-Chinian.  I certainly hope to hear them all again!

 

Back again!

Once more I have the pleasure of hosting Florence Nash in my house.  Over the past twelve years, Florence has become a dear friend, and I greatly look forward to her visits each year! Florence enthusiastically agreed to write a guest post for the blog, to share her experiences of her visits to Saint-Chinian.

 

Before retiring in 2003, Florence worked as a writer and editor at Duke University Medical Center for 16 years. Her poems, book and music reviews, program notes, and feature articles have appeared in publications across the USA. She has two collections of poetry, Fish Music (Gravity Press, 2010) and Crossing Water (Gravity Press, 1996).  Florence is also a “reckless but enthusiastic” cook, and it’s thanks to her that I have been able to write about the wonderful dish that is tomato pie!!

My twelve annual September visits to St. Chinian have been a pretty even balance between time on my own and playing host to friends or family, with a pleasant tidal swing between these two states of being. By myself, I grow impatient for guests to arrive so I can share my favorite places and things, show off my French (however spotty), have someone to cook for or with . . . . but after a few days of company I look forward to their departure so I can get back to my own rhythms and ramblings. This year, for the first time, no visitors are scheduled, so I find myself more than usually attentive to my list of daily Projects, various errands devised to take me out of the house and onto the scenic, fragrant little roads that honeycomb these rolling miles of vineyards.

For instance: Yes, of course I can buy Luques olives, my favorites, right here at the market, but with all the day before me, why not drive over to l’Oulibo? Here at this big olive mill on the D5 near Bize-Minervois, you can happily and shamelessly sample your weight in olives and oils and tapenades before picking up a supply of fresh, unpasteurized Luques — more subtle and delicious than the market ones — AND snag a few appealing olive wood or olive-oil-based souvenirs for the folks back home while you’re at it.

If you need to lay in a supply of jambon sec for your stay (as surely you do!), you may have heard Andreas claim that the very best Serrano ham comes from a vendor at the Narbonne central market — he’s the only one whose stall has a bright red slicing machine — so how about a day trip down to that fabulous foodie palace? This project, incidentally, also provides the minor drama of maneuvering a rental car through thickly trafficked city streets, a challenge quite different from that of winding country lanes.

Then there’s the matter of daily bread: St. Chinian boasts plenty of perfectly good boulangeries, but there’s solid consensus that — until recently — right down the road in Azillanet, Stéphane made the best bread in the region, in a boulangerie so small, with an oven so deep, that he had to open his bright blue door to make room for maneuvering the long wooden paddles that shift the loaves over the wood fire. And, since he only opened for retail sale a few hours at a time and you never quite remembered what those hours were, you might find yourself whiling away a half hour or so waiting on a sun-warmed stone wall, watching the efforts of a giant tour bus to turn down a road built a millennium ago for pedestrians and horse carts. Gazing back at the faces peering from the bus’s tinted windows while the bus lurched back and forth, grinding and huffing, you’d be permitted to muse on the difference between tourists and travelers, and to be filled with satisfaction to know you are among the latter. (This year, alas, the boulangerie behind the blue door is gone, and Stéphane is making his bread at a new location yet to be discovered by yours truly.)

My favorite Project so far took nearly all the free days I had available. Early in my wanderings through the Languedoc, I stopped for lunch in a village, took a photo of its strikingly picturesque central square and, once back home, installed it as my new desktop  background image. To this day I confront that idyllic scene every morning: the fountain, the medieval buildings, sunlight through a gigantic central tree dappling the happy diners at tables scattered below. The image has become emblematic to me of the seductions of southern France. Big problem, though: I couldn’t remember what village it was. So, Major Project! Guided only by memory fragments and vague directional instinct — tight climbing turns, mountains: it must be northward — I set out morning after morning with my trusty road atlas and unflagging determination. As someone said — Homer, maybe? — it’s not the destination, it’s the journey. These explorations were full of new scenery, exhilarating driving, and places I might never otherwise have encountered.  At last, after snagging a scarce parking place along the road, I walked down into a hamlet wedged in a steep, narrow canyon too small to admit cars: St. Guilhelm-le-Desert, refuge of Charlemagne’s general-turned-hermit. Bingo! My square at last! I’ve returned a couple of times with visiting friends, who were thrilled. We stayed overnight in an ancient tower turned hostel (which I believe is no longer open) to explore neighboring caverns and take rented kayaks on the river. Maybe I’ll get back there this year. Fingers crossed.

You may have detected in these ruminations a certain preoccupation with driving. You’re right. In contrast to the calm, cushioned passivity of my automatic-everything SUV on the well-groomed highways at home, my little rental car is lively as a jackrabbit, responding instantly — I almost want to say eagerly — as it slaloms along these skinny little roads that flow sensuously over the terrain’s varied contours. It demands unwavering vigilance and constant gear-shifting for blind curves, oncoming vehicles, precipitous dropoffs with no guardrails, cyclists, wandering livestock (a sheep, once, up near Roquefort), and grape-hauling tractors at harvest. It’s tiring, yes, but also as much fun as taking up a new sport. And it creates a sort of hypersensitivity, a connectedness, to all aspects of the surroundings, which can only be good, right? It’s all so beautiful!

So, whoever you are reading this, thanks for indulging these extemporaneous musings, and, if you don’t know the Languedoc yet, I sincerely hope you will some day. I wish you as much delight as it’s been my good fortune to have. Make sure you contact Andreas and Anthony at Midihideaways. You couldn’t be in more congenial, knowledgeable, and helpful hands. Tell them I sent you.

Fou de Sud

A little while ago, my “garden neighbours” told me about a new restaurant Fou de Sud on the outskirts of Montpellier.  Their son is a consultant for catering businesses, and he had recommended this place to his parents, who had promptly tried it and were smitten.  Word of mouth is always the best advertising, and the least costly!!  :)

I made a note of the name of the restaurant and looked up where it was, and the next time I was in Montpellier I went to eat there.  Fou de Sud loosely translates as “Crazy for the South”, and the place is more of a concept than a restaurant. The name may be a bilingual double-entendre = “Food de Sud” — because that’s what it’s all about, much more so than the straight French meaning (thank you Annie!).  The restaurant is part of a “market hall”, which was started by seven associates, each an expert in his field, with the aim of showcasing the best food products the South of France has to offer.  Appropriately, the establishment is in the building of the Sud de France marketing consortium, which promotes products from the South of France all over France and worldwide.

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The building appears to be brand-spanking-new, and it is very striking!  Unfortunately, the access to the car park is a little tricky; blink and you miss it, or in this case, I missed it!🙂  But I got there in the end!!

The market hall is large and very well stocked, both with groceries and fresh produce.  The meat and fish counters were very inviting and tempting!  One of the ideas behind the concept is to sell from producer direct to consumer, bypassing the traditional distribution methods and reducing the carbon impact of food and shopping.  80% of the items for sale are produced in the South of France, and there are around 2000 different types of product from over 50 producers.

After I’d had a good look at what was on offer, and made a mental note of all the wonderful foods I wanted to buy later, I went into the restaurant.  There’s a long counter, behind which you can see the chefs prepare the food!  And you can also have a look at some of the wonderful desserts!!🙂

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Since the weather was beautiful, I decided to have lunch outside.  The restaurant has a terrace which is surrounded by glass, and which can be covered with sails for shade.  As you can see, it was pretty busy!

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The food was delicious too!!

octopus salad

Octopus salad

Steak Tartare with wonderful home-made fries

Steak Tartare with wonderful home-made fries and salad

Strawberry mousse

Strawberry mousse

chocolate mousse

Chocolate mousse

Before you ask –  no, I did not eat all this by myself – there were two of us!!🙂  I’m not normally a fan of raw meat, but, having seen the meat counter, I knew that it would be perfectly fresh, and it was incredibly good!!  The fries were very good too!  And can you tell which dessert I had??  Of course the chocolate one – and it was pretty spectacular!

All in all a very good meal and a great place to stop at, if you are in the vicinity!

Fou de Sud is located at 3840 Avenue Georges Freche, 34470 Perols (a suburb of Montpellier).

 

Summer celebrations

By the time you get to read this post, the excitement of the past month will have abated a little!

Saint-Chinian has had a busy summer, packed with events!  Since the night markets were so successful last year, they were held each Tuesday throughout July and August.  There was music, food, and shopping, all in the main square, decorated with French flag bunting and coloured lights!

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The passing of the Tour de France through Saint-Chinian on July 13 was a day of great excitement for the village!  It took the same route as last time (in 2011).  First came the “Caravane”, a long line of all kinds of publicity vehicles!  They distributed all kinds of goodies: hats, bottled water, jelly beans, newspapers, shopping bags, pens – you name it.  All thrown at the bystanders!!

The cyclists came into the village along the Avenue de Villespassans, down the main street, and then they took a sharp right onto Avenue Raoul Bayou.  Luckily for us, the sharp turn slowed them down somewhat!! 😀

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And hot on the heels of the cyclists (excuse the pun) came Bastille Day!!  The national holiday celebrates the storming of the Bastille (a prison in Paris) on July 14, 1789, an important event of the French revolution, and also celebrates the Fete de la Federation, which took place on July 14, 1790, and which celebrated the unity of the French people.

In Paris there is a huge military parade, along with an impressive display of planes flying in formation overhead:

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And at night, the Eiffel Tower is lit up with the most amazing fireworks:

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But all over France, even the smallest villages ‘go to town’ and make the national holiday a festive event!  Look at how prettily the town hall in Saint-Chinian was decorated:

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The fireworks in Saint-Chinian are usually not be sniffed at either – they are pretty impressive!!

Unfortunately, this year’s fireworks in Saint-Chinan had to be postponed, due to very strong winds.  To everybody’s great distress, Bastille day ended in horror for the people of Nice and throughout France – next year it won’t feel the same.

After Bastille day came the Fete du Cru.  Since it was not really a celebration but a wine fair, it was deemed to be OK to go ahead during the mourning period for the victims of the terrorist attack in Nice.  As always, the market square had been lined with two rows of booths, and you could taste the wines on display simply by buying a glass at the booth by the entrance.  I’ve written about this great event a few years back.  You can read the post here.

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Did you go to any festivities this year?  What was your favourite?

Flaming hot

Summertime is BBQ time for me – there’s nothing I enjoy more than grilling food over hot coals!!  At the butcher’s shop I usually go to in Saint-Chinian, Boucherie Peyras, I saw some beautiful rump steak.  I thought it would be perfect for a meal with friends, and even more tasty if cooked on the BBQ.  Right now, the garden is yielding a great many tomatoes, courgettes and aubergines, so they were all added to my basket of ingredients, and also some freshly dug potatoes.  Along with the steak, I also got some chicken breasts for one of my invitees.

Here are all my ingredients ready to go on the grill!  I seasoned the steak and chicken breasts with my uncle’s secret spice mixture.  It’s a blend of various herbs and spices, such as caraway, curry, paprika, powdered garlic, oregano, and more, all mixed up with salt.

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The BBQ I use is the type which has a domed cover on it – you’ve probably heard of the German-sounding US brand which seems to have cornered the BBQ market?🙂  I find it really easy to use and it works very well for me.  Here it is, all set up and ready to light:

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The chimney is a great tool to get the coals heated up without much effort.  Once it was filled with coal (I used charcoal briquettes), I lit a firelighter, which was put on the lower rack, and placed the chimney over it.

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About 20 – 30 minutes later the coals were glowing nicely, and were ready to be turned out onto the grill.

Once the coals had been distributed and the top grill was in place, I put on the potatoes, since they take the longest.

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After about 15 minutes I started the other vegetables.  First were the courgettes, which had been tossed with olive oil and seasoning.

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Next came the aubergine slices, which had been lightly brushed with olive oil on both sides.

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While all this cooking was going on, I was enjoying an aperitif with my friends.  Once we had finished our drinks and nibbles, we moved on to our starter of ice-cold gazpacho, made with tomatoes from the garden, and some cucumbers from the market.

With the vegetables cooked, it was time to put the meat on the grill!

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There was the most wonderful smell coming from the grill as the steak was cooking!  I waited with the chicken until the steak was done on one side.

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The potatoes turned out perfectly, and the flavour was great!

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Here’s what the finished steak looked like – it had had a busy day, so it was resting!🙂

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The chicken strips were perfectly tender!

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And the courgettes and aubergines were delicious too!

Here’s a picture of a heaped plate – I hope you’re not feeling too hungry!!

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No French meal would be complete without cheese and dessert – we had a selection of local cheeses, bought at the market.  For our dessert I had prepared a flan, or creme caramel, as it’s called in France.

All very yummy and perfect for a summer’s evening!  Do you have any favourite BBQ recipes?