Cooking with friends and All that Jazz

A few weeks ago a friend told me about a dinner & concert to take place at Chateau St Jacques d’Albas, near Laure Minervois.  The performance was to be by the James Pearson Trio, known for their appearances at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in London and the theme for the evening was the music of Oscar Peterson.  Chateau St Jacques d’Albas is a little outside the village of Laure Minervois, and has been beautifully restored by Graham and Beatrice Nutter, the current owners.  The evening started with aperitifs in the domaine’s tasting room, from where we filed into the next room, which was set up for the concert.  A beautiful Steinway concert grand took pride of place.  We selected seats on the gallery overlooking the room, to get a better look at the musicians.
The musicians were James Pearson on piano,
Sam Burgess on double bass,
and Pedro Segundo on drums.
We listened to one set before dinner, which was served in another beautiful room next door.
Large glass doors at both ends made this a wonderfully light and airy room.  Dinner was a tomato and mackerel terrine, followed by a very tasty main course, although I’m not sure what it was (could have been a saute de veau).  Pudding was delicious, a slice of brioche or bread topped with blueberries and some sort of syrup and caramel.  By then the light was not good enough for a picture, sorry, and in any case the dessert disappeared rather rapidly! 🙂

After dinner we returned to our seats for the second part of the evening, another set of fantastic music!  The guys really went all out and you really could tell why they are regularly playing at one of the most famous jazz clubs in the world.

Apologies for the poor video quality, but I think you’ll get an idea of what the music was like.  Two more pictures from the concert below, nice cufflinks, James!

And now for the latest in my series of “Cooking with Friends” posts.  I’m writing this a second time, as somehow wordpress managed to lose all my text and pictures :-(.  Our little group got together in Narbonne last week, to try our hand at Paella, and being that our hostess lives very close to Les Halles we had decided to go shopping together for some of the ingredients.  The Halles in Narbonne are an absolute must for any food lover, and I am amazed at the quality and choice each time we go there!  On our way in we passed a stall selling mainly hams, and they have an intriguing slicing machine, which cuts paper-thin slices from great big chunks of dried ham.

The little cups on each ham are for catching little drips of fat!  But we’d come for fish for the Paella, and some fruit and vegetables for the starter and main course.  We settled on squid, mussels and prawns, but not the tuna, tempting as it was.  We’ll leave that for another time!

For starter we’d decided on making Gazpacho, so we needed cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, garlic and onion.  For dessert a Gazpacho of a different kind was on the menu, made with fruit:  strawberries, red currants, peaches, water melon, charentais melon.

Once everything was unpacked back at the ranch, many hands set to to make short work of the preparations.  The most interesting dish was the Paella: first chicken thighs were fried in the large pan (and set aside), followed by the fish and chorizo (and set aside), followed by the vegetables (peppers, garlic, tomatoes).  Then the reserved ingredients were added to the pan and everything mixed & evenly distributed.

Special paella seasoning was added, along with the strained stock from the mussels, which had been steamed open in advance.  Finally in went the rice and then the dish was set to simmer on the stove.

While we waited for the Paella to cook, it was time for a glass of wine, and the Gazpacho.  Doesn’t it look beautiful with that drizzle of basil oil?  There were crutons to go with the soup too!

After a little wait, and let me say this – it was worth every minute, came the Paella, beautifully decorated with the prawns and some mussels!

It looked pretty good on the plate too, and tasted every bit as good.  I’m sorry to torture you, but even as I write I am salivating, and it’s not been long since lunch!  In case you are wondering, the stand the pan is on is a special gas burner for Paella, but since it was a bit too windy we decided to cook it indoors – just to show that you can always improvise!

Once we’d had our fill of the main course we had barely room for dessert, but the fruit Gazpacho was wonderfully light and refreshing.

And on our shopping trip someone had spied a red fruit sorbet, which went perfectly with the cold soup!


Merrily we float along

This week’s post combines water and food – while friends and family were visiting we took a boat cruise on the Canal du Midi from Colombiers.  “Le Bonpas” is a former hire boat, which has been converted into a beautiful open plan barge for short cruises.  We had decided on a dinner cruise, and met Paule and Rene at 6.45pm one evening in the port of Colombiers.  After the requisite handshakes and introductions we raised anchor and set off, all of us seated in the open area at the bow, watching the trees glide by.  Rene was telling us about the canal, and I’m (almost) ashamed to say that I’ve forgotten most of the figures.  Some of the facts stick in my mind, such as that a large contingent of the workforce who built the canal were women.  The men were digging and shovelling, but the women carried the excavated earth away in baskets – no wheelbarrows in the 17th century!  Rene also told us about mosquitoes in the canal – there are none!  The leaves from the plane trees drop into the water, where they sit and decompose over the space of about three years.  During that process they release gases which stop mosquito larvae from hatching, so no mosquito population in the canal, and since I did not get any stings it must be true :-).  As we were sipping our aperitifs and Rene was entertaining us, Paule was busy at the back of the boat getting dinner ready. But before that we went through the Tunnel de Malpas, one of the many engineering feats along the canal.  The tunnel was dug through the Enserune hill without the help of any machines or dynamite!  Today three tunnels pass through the hill: the oldest one, constructed in medieval times, to drain the Etang de Montady; the most recent tunnel runs just below the canal and carries the high-speed train line!Soon enough we were called to table.  Paule had prepared a vegetable mousse for us, which was served in little individual porcelain dishes, accompanied by a salad.  For the children she’d prepared a tomato and mozzarella salad.  For main course we had chosen in advance from:  Gardiane de Taureau (a tender beef casserole),  Supreme de Canette (roast duckling quarter) or Pave de Saumon (salmon fillet).  All the main courses were accompanied by gratinated potatoes, which I adored.  After that we had a selection of cheeses, and finally there was dessert once we had turned around to head back to port.  Baba au Rhum is a typically French dessert – a brioche like cake which is soaked in a sirup laced with rum and topped with some whipped cream.  For the children the alcohol was of course omitted!The sun was setting as we were nearing Colombiers, and the reflections on the water were beautiful.  Floating along on the water at that time of day was just magical, and we were all sad when our little cruise came to an end.

You may have heard that the plane trees along the Canal du Midi will not be there all that much longer.  Unfortunately there is a fungus which attacks the plane tree, and in the space of about five years the tree dies.  The fungus is transmitted by water and air and there is no cure.  In time all the old trees will have to be cut down and replaced by young saplings, which are resistant to the fungus.  So, do come and visit the Canal du Midi soon, while most of its glory is still alive and intact, be it for a walk or bike ride in the shade, or a little boat trip.

Making a splash

With friends and family visiting, and the weather being fabulous, we decided to try our hands at canoeing.  My friends from Japan had canoed down the Orb river several times before, but in all the time I’ve been here I’d never managed to go.  Now was the time to do it, and so one sunny morning we set off for a drive to Roquebrun where the adventure starts.  We’d settled for the 10km run, as I felt that for my nephews and myself a 15km ride would be too much for a first experience.  Departures for that particular run are at 11am and 2pm and we had to be at the base half an hour before the start.  The number of people was impressive, but so was the efficiency with which everything was dealt with.  First queue up to pay and fill in the contract.  Then join the queue for the equipment.  A drum for each boat which allows you to take things with you and keep them dry.  Then helmets for the smaller children, life-vests for everyone and finally the paddles.  Now that we have everything we go to where the bus departs to take us to Vieussan, where we’ll get on the river.  After a 15 minute ride, we arrive at Vieussan and get a briefing explaining the basic manoeuvres and rules.  And off everyone rushes to get a boat – there are plenty and so we decide to let the crowds go first, and take it easy.  My friends’ experience came in handy on this trip:  the drums come in three sizes and make great back rests, the larger the better.  And of course the boat needs to have a space at the back and straps so that the drum can be secured there.  All the drums have names written on them, and you have to remember what yours is called, in case it gets washed over board.  You can then pick it up again at the next rapids or in Roquebrun.  My drum was named caillou – French for stone 🙂 .  I’d bought straps for my glasses and sunglasses and tied them securely to the glasses, as well as behind my head to make sure they could not come off.  A good move as it turned out!Our instructor told us that we had to get under the low bridge in Vieussan before noon, as the hydro-electric station further up the valley would be releasing some water, meaning that we would have to carry the boats rather than slide under it if we were too late.  So we set off and I was amazed at how easy it felt.  Under the low bridge, lying down and hoping for the best, under the large bridge in Vieussan, which seemed enormous from down below, and across some small rapids – OK so far.  Then came the Rapide de la Tortue and that’s where things got a little hairy – I managed to flip the boat over!!  Nothing drastic though, a little scrape on the shin, a stubbed toe and bit of water in one ear.  Amazingly I managed to hold on to my paddle and my friends were of course waiting below the rapids and caught the boat.  And my glasses stayed on!!  My nephew also dealt with it really well and came out better than me without any bruises.  After all that excitement we stopped and had a little rest, a drink and a snack, and then carried on.  The scenery from the river is beautiful, and I saw many things which are not visible and accessible from the road.  Along the way we saw an otter jumping over the rocks, and further on a horse was by the waters edge.  I did have my old camera with me, but since it’s not waterproof it only came out when we were taking a break.  We did stop a few more times; there’s no time limit as to when the boat has to be back, so a dip here, a rest there make no difference.  Oh, and I almost forgot to mention the water fights we had between the boats – what a laugh!!The last stretch of water is wide, slow and beautiful and the children just got out and swam almost all the way back to the base while the adults just drifted.  The water was warm and everyone had a wonderful time.  Back at the base we handed in all our gear and before going home we all had a drink and an ice cream at the snack bar – total bliss!One of the most important things on the trip was sun-screen.  My nephews are very fair and burn very easily, but with regular applications neither had any burns.  So all in all a fantastic day out, and one that I’ll be repeating again before too long!

Ail, ail, ail…

The poster read: “Ne dites pas ail avant d’avoir goutte”, loosely translated as “Don’t shout before you’ve tasted it”.  After many years of planning to go but never quite getting there, I made it to the “Fete de l’ail rose” in Lautrec this year.  The fete takes place the first friday in August each year, and has been taking place since the 1970’s.  As the name says, the fete is all about celebrating pink garlic, and the people of Lautrec are proud to market the garlic under Label Rouge and IGP (l’Indication geographique protegee), both of which guarantee quality and place of origin.  There is a prize for the best garlic in terms of quality and presentation, a prize for the best artistic arrangement using pink garlic and a prize for the best garlic tart.  The garlic in the above picture had won first price and it was beautiful to behold – unfortunately it had all been sold already, but I got to see the grower later on in the market and they had more of a very similar look.  Cultivation of the garlic starts in December, when the cloves are planted in the prepared ground; planting can go on until the end of January.  At the beginning of June the flower buds have to be cut so that the plants produce larger cloves (the flower buds can be used in cooking!), and at the end of June the garlic is ready to be lifted.  A lot is still dried the traditional way, with the leaves tied up into bunches and suspended on drying frames in the open air.  After a minimum of two weeks drying the garlic does not look all that pretty and has to be prepared

First the roots have to be cut along with part of the leaves, then the outer layers of the papery skins are removed to show the pink colour of the cloves and finally the garlic is tied into bundles (manouilles), not plaited!  There’s a fair bit of skill involved in the tying of the bundles as you’ll see in the video.

The fete was visited by a large number of Confrereries from the region, including a deputation from Saint-Chinian, but the procession around the village was proudly led by the Confrererie de l’Ail Rose de Lautrec, very fetching in their green and cream robes.The town of Lautrec itself is very beautiful with half-timbered buildings and ancient front doors; I even spotted some more impressive door knockers.  Being on a hill-top there are some amazing views on one side of the village, where the former defence walls have been taken down to create an amphitheatre.

The highlight of the day without any doubt (for me anyhow) was the garlic soup, which was served to all visitors at midday.  The volunteers had prepared 1000 litres of the soup, and the smell of it was wafting around the central square, as we were waiting, listening to the sounds of the jazz band “Les Copains d’Abord“.  The central square in Lautrec is surrounded by arcades on three sides, and all the way under the arcades tables had been set up to distribute the soup, and a kir to go with it.  The crowds were thick and impatient, and you got the impression that nobody had had anything to eat for ages.  Once I had tasted the soup I knew why those in know were in a hurry to get served 🙂 .  If you wanted you could go up for seconds, and I must admit that I did – it was just too good not to.

One of the ladies serving let me in on a few of the tips about the soup. You use 10 cloves of pink garlic, crush it and add it to two litres of water, which you season with salt and pepper and bring to a boil.  Leave to simmer for three minutes and if your garlic is in large pieces you may blend it for a smoother texture.  Add 150g of vermicelli and cook for another three minutes.  Prepare a mayonnaise with 1 egg yolk, a teaspoon of dijon mustard and some oil (colza or sunflower), or use some bought maynnaise.  Take the soup off the heat, in a bowl mix some of the soup with the mayonnaise then add to the soup, stirring well and serve right away.  The soup must not boil again after the addition of the mayonnaise.

After the soup we had a wander round the market, bought some more garlic and honey and ate some aligotAligot is another delicacy, prepared with potatoes and Tomme Fraiche.  When prepared well the puree pulls in great strings, and has a wonderfully buttery flavour!  We had it together with grilled sausage, and to finish off we found some artisanal made ice cream.

After lunch we inspected the creations made with all things garlic, walked round the village some more, before heading back home.

Sadly I did not have a chance to taste the garlic tart, another year perhaps? If you want to find out more about the pink garlic from Lautrec visit the website at

A week of food!

This week has been wonderful as culinary experiences go!  At the end of last week friends arrived for their annual holiday in St Chinian, and we started as we meant to go on, with a great BBQ on Sunday evening at their place (sausages, lamb chops, grilled courgettes and aubergines).   A few days later I visited Domaine Gayda near Limoux to celebrate the birthday of another friend.  The sunflower fields along the way were beautiful, lifting the spirits!

Domaine Gayda is a beautiful property, at the same time winery and restaurant, and if you’re in the area you should stop by for a wine tasting or a meal or both!  I was particularly taken with their Sauvignon Blanc, which was served with lunch and took home a case.  The lunch menu is three courses, and there are two choices per course; wine and coffee are included and the views from the terrace are spectacular!  For starters I chose the tartare of tuna fish with nori which was very good!  Some of my dining companions opted for skewered quail, which smelled divine.  For main course I stayed with Fish, a beautiful piece of pan-fried salmon with smashed potatoes and bean sprouts.  A couple of fellow diners had chosen the roasted pork filet, but I wasn’t fast enough with my camera to capture it – I can assure you though that it was very good and looked it too!  The choices for dessert were apricot soup or chocolate tart.  Can you guess which one I had?

Another BBQ in my garden followed – I decided to make the hamburgers which we’d tried out for our last cooking get-together, accompanied by courgettes marinated in lemon juice with garlic and olive oil, grilled courgettes and grilled potatoes and buttered green beans.  And just in case that wasn’t enough, I’d made an apricot tart for dessert.  My friend Janet has a wonderful recipe for stuffed courgette flowers, and since there were quite a few flowers on my courgette plants we prepared that too!

For the recipe only the male courgette flowers are used and the fresher they are the easier they are to handle. Once they are cleaned, the stamen are removed from each flower, being careful not to tear the flowers open. The filling is made with very fresh goats cheese, roasted pine nuts and chives, seasoned very lightly, and then stuffed into the flowers. I guess a piping bag with a wide nozzle might make this easier, but all we had to hand was a teaspoon. Just before grilling the flowers are drizzled with a little olive oil, and they don’t take very long, perhaps 3 minutes?

Janet had also prepared some parcels of sweet onions, one seasoned simply with pepper, the other with Piment d’Espelette, which cooked for a long time and were beautifully tender.  The left-over goats cheese filling went very well with the smaller of the grilled potatoes.

The sun had started to set by the time we were ready for the apricot tart, which had all the promise of summer, juicy golden fruit and a hint of sweetness from the base.