Romans and restaurants

To walk off some of the excesses of the festive seasons I was invited by friends for a walk in Vendres.  I’d not really explored Vendres before, but it’s right next door to Valras, and that’s probably why – for a quick trip to the Med I always head for Valras.  Well, perhaps not next time.  As with so many villages in the area, Vendres has a long history.  The Romans liked the climate well enough to build there, and the remains of one villa can be seen just outside the village, We decided to explore…

IMG_5008

On the map this spot is marked as the Temple de Venus but it seems that may not have been the case!  So the walls we got to see were where the Romans took their baths.  Seems that even Cassini got that one wrong.  The map also marks a Source Sulfureuse, and whilst it was tempting to see whether the map would hold the promise of the sulphur spring, we decided to head south for the nature reserve and the marina.  If you want to have a look at the map it can be found on the Geoportail website – highly informative and useful.

IMG_5012

The boat was just by the remains of the baths, too picturesque to resist!  On the way to the marina we found some more Roman artifacts – and they seemed extensive:  the remains of an aqueduct.  Fascinating, because what is still intact is not visible, and what can be seen is thoroughly broken.  The first picture is of a collection or distribution point – unfortunately the panel explaining it all had disappeared.

IMG_5013
IMG_5014
IMG_5015
IMG_5017
IMG_5020

We had to scramble up the hillside to get to it, but were repaid with wonderful views of the Etang de Vendres.

IMG_5022
IMG_5023

On the Geoportail website there is a possibility to overlay the current map with the map drawn up by Cassini in the 18th century, as well as a map from the 19th century, and it’s interesting to see how the size of the Etang has changed over the centuries, perhaps due to farming practices?  The Port Conchylicole is also a fairly recent development – a great place for getting fresh mussels and oysters, and eating them right by the water.  I’ll be back for that in the summer!  Across the road from the car park by the side of the port is where the path into the nature reserve starts.

IMG_5025
P1010016
P1010022
P1010023

The Etang is a haven for migrating birds and other wildlife, so any of you keen on birdwatching should add this to your list of places to visit.

P1010029 P1010030 P1010033

The connection to the next part of this post is somewhat tenuous to say the least.  Right along the coast from Vendres, in Valras Plage, is a restaurant called Le Delphinium, and until a couple of years ago it was owned and run by Delphine and Louis Louro.  When Delphine and Louis sold up they were going to open another restaurant along the Canal du Midi – and so we waited and waited, until finally last summer their new restaurant opened its doors in Colombiers.  Their new venture, Au Lavoir, was well worth the wait!

IMG_0682

Au Lavoir is both a restaurant and a Maison d’Hote with four bedrooms, by the Canal du Midi.  The restaurant has a large courtyard for outdoor dining in the summer, and a spacious dining room for the rest of the year – all tastefully and comfortably furnished.  BUT we want to know about the food! Summed up in one word:  sublime.  The first time I went was with friends and their children.  The kids had a la carte and us adults had the blow out menu with a glass of wine with each course.

IMG_0685

Starter was the most tender tuna fish

IMG_0692

Then came a giant prawn with vegetable tagliatelle

IMG_0703

Followed by pan-fried foie gras on a slice of apple

IMG_0708

You can see that I’m not a very fast drinker

IMG_0711

For main course there was roast pigeon

IMG_0714

And then a cheese trolley to die for!

IMG_0715

What restraint!!

IMG_0720

And as it was getting dark dessert arrived.  Souffle au Grand Marnier

IMG_0721

IMG_0724

Louis came out to serve the desserts, and he slipped the ice cream and grand marnier into the souffle –  no it does not collapse!  And the combination is divine!  AND so light at the end of the meal…

The children had the same starter, followed by roast rack of lamb, and then a chocolate dessert.  They really were spoilt, and so were we 🙂 !

IMG_0699

IMG_0727

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow…

So here we are in the South of France, where the sun always shines and the palm trees wave in the balmy breeze…  but then along comes winter and for once the forecasters at Meteo France get it right, and it looks like this 🙂

P1010102

And it’s still beautiful, even with all the snow.  And then you go outside and all of a sudden it feels as though the whole village has changed, because the snow muffles noises, and you can’t hear very much going on.

P1010106

P1010090

P1010081

And perhaps that’s also because there really is not much going on.  Anyone with any sense will stay indoors and cozy up by the heater with a good book, and certainly not think about taking the car.

P1010096
P1010103
P1010093
P1010092

Tomorrow the sun will shine again, and it’ll all melt almost as quickly as it fell…

P1010087
P1010085
P1010083

And that’ll be us done with snow for another few years!! Or so we think…

P1010117

So this was the most snowfall since 50 years ago – the radio said so in the morning.  All the same, it’s melting, but while it’s still white everythwere I’m enjoying it thoroughly!

P1010116
P1010110-001
IMG_5081
IMG_5069

Drinks anyone?

P1010119-001

Three Kings and cake?

Walk into any bakery in France at this time of year and you’ll see rows of flat cakes with little paper crowns on top lining the counters.  These are the famous galettes des rois, which are traditionally eaten around Epiphany all over France.  The galettes are made of puff pastry, filled with frangipane and they all contain a feve, a small trinket, most often made of porcelain, but in the old days it would have been a dried bean.  The person who finds the trinket or bean in his piece of cake is king or queen for the day.  Wikipedia has a good article about this tradition here, for those of you who’d like to read a little more.    Of course this being the South of France, there is another traditional Epiphany cake:  ring-shaped and made of brioche dough with candied fruit, glazed and sprinkled with decorating sugar.  It’s lighter than the frangipane version and of course it also contains a trinket, AND you get the paper crown with it too!

P1010058

I decided to make my own galette des rois this year, and thought I would share the recipe with you.  I used ready rolled puff pastry (two sheets), but if you like to (and have the time) you can of course make your own.  A 10″ dinner plate was my guide for the rounds, one for the base, one for the top.  Keep the trimmings, you can re-roll them and make cheese straws or such with them.

P1010049-001

For the almond cream I used a recipe found in my old Constance Spry Cookery Book:
3 1/2 oz blanched almonds
3 1/2 oz caster sugar
1 1/4 oz butter (good weight)
2 egg yolks
vanilla or a liqueur glass of orange flower water or rum (you could also add some almond essence)

To blanch the almonds put them in a pan and cover with water, bring to the boil and leave to stand for a couple of minutes.  Drain and refresh under the cold tap, then slip off the skins and leave the almonds to dry.

P1010045

Once dry grind the almonds finely.  Cream the butter with the sugar, add the yolks and beat well, then add the almonds and flavouring of your choice.

You’ll need some egg wash to assemble the cake – beat an egg yolk with a tablespoon of milk and a pinch of salt.  Spread the almond paste evenly to within 3/4″ of the edge of your puff pastry disk.

P1010050-001

Brush the edge with egg wash.

P1010054-001

And don’t forget to put the bean into the almond paste!  I put it towards the edge to minimise the chance of cutting it when dividing the cake.

P1010053-001

Then the top goes on – I scalloped the edges using my fingers and the back of a knife.

P1010055-001

With the back of a knife you trace a pattern – the traditional pattern is a wheel, with the spokes radiating out from the centre.  I always curve my spokes, but decorate it any way you like, allow your fantasy full reign!

P1010056-001

And then you brush the top with some more egg wash.  Careful around the edges, it shouldn’t run down the sides as it’ll stop the puff pastry from rising.  For a deep and extra glossy finish you can put the cake in the fridge and leave the egg wash to dry a little, then go over it again lightly.

Bake in a pre-heated oven at 200 centigrade for 20 – 30 minutes.  Start watching the cake after 25 minutes, and don’t hesitate to leave it a little longer if you think it needs it.  Leave to cool on a wire rack and serve lukewarm.  You’ll have to make your own paper crown, or save one from a Christmas cracker?  What do you drink with it, I hear you ask?  Anything you like, a glass of champagne or sparkling wine, cider, white wine or a cup of tea will all go well with it.  This size cake will give you eight servings.  If you think that sounds a bit mean: I’m usually pretty greedy when it comes to desserts, but an eighth of this cake is just about enough for me; the filling is pretty rich!

Just as an aside – I had some pecans and maple sirup so decided to make another batch of frangipane replacing the almonds and sugar with that.  I’ll be baking it tonight – fingers crossed!!

ADDENDUM  Here is a picture of the pecan and maple frangipane galette.  Not in the traditional round shape, but very delicious!

P1010065

Green gold, a brief story of olive oil (and olives)

At the start of the first post of the new year, I would like to wish you all a happy, healthy and prosperous 2013!!

While writing this post I’ve been wondering why olive oil is called green gold or liquid gold.  Perhaps because of its colour, or because of its virtues?  I cannot imagine cooking without olive oil, and although I use other oils in cooking, the bulk of what I use is made from olives.  Perhaps you’re asking yourself “why is he writing about olives now?”; the reason is that we’re in the middle of olive oil production season in Languedoc.  Olive trees flower from mid may to early june, and the flowers are wind-pollinated.  That means that the pollinators have to be planted in just the right position within the olive grove, so that the prevailing wind blows the pollen onto the flowers.

IMG_7136

About 5% of the flowers turn into olives, and they grow and swell throughout the summer.  From September onwards green olives can be picked and be turned into table olives.

PICT0257

As time progresses the olives ripen and change colour, from violet to purple to a deep black.

PICT3551

PICT7650

At any of those stages they can be turned into table olives, but for oil only the ripe olives are used as the oil content increases during the ripening phase, The olive harvest continues until the end of January, by which time most of the trees will have been emptied, and what’s left will be eaten by the birds.

IMG_0921

I have two olive mills in easy reach.  The smaller is in Puisserguier and called Lo Moulinet (Occitan for small mill), and the larger is in Cabezac, near Bize Minervois and called L’Oulibo. Both can be visited for tasting and they sell direct to the public.  If you compare the two, Lo Moulinet is David and L’Oulibo is Goliath, but that’s just for size, I cannot detect any antagonism between the two. The two operations are on very different scales from one another, and where Lo Moulinet has a small production of oils and table olives, L’Oulibo is a large cooperative of over 1700 growers in three departements.

PICT7222 IMG_1173

To pick olives for turning into olive oil big nets are spread out underneath the trees, and the olives are then “raked” off the trees using either specially adapted rakes or vibrating beaters.  The nets are then gathered up and the olives put into crates and off they go to the mill.

IMG_6644

As they arrive at the mill, the crates are weighed, assessed and recorded, and then the olives are processed.  First a machine takes out any leaves and other debris,  then they are washed to remove any dust and dirt, and finally they reach the mill proper.

IMG_6669

At L’Oulibo they have a giant stone mill with two mill stones weighing 1.5 tonnes each.  During the Christmas open days (this year December 22 to January 4) the stone mill is used to crush the olives (including pits) to a pulp.

IMG_6654 IMG_6659

At other times a modern hammer mill is used for that purpose.  The pits contain enzymes which help with the conservation of the oil.  The paste is then put in a special mixer, where it is gently warmed (below 27 centigrade) and mixed for 30 to 40 minutes to prepare for the oil extraction.  Pressing is done in a continuous process in a horizontal centrifugal press at L’Oulibo, and in some places (such as Lo Moulinet) using a traditional press, where the paste is spread on discs which are stacked and hydraulically pressed.  The resulting liquid contains both water and oil, and is processed by a separator, which produces a lovely golden oil.

IMG_6661 IMG_6665

This oil can now be filtered or left to settle and afterwards decanted – both methods produce beautifully clear and sparkling extra virgin oil.

IMG_6676

Both of the mills produce varietal oils, using the traditional olive varieties of the region:  Lucques, Picholine, Bouteillan (both), Olivier’s and Aglandau (L’Oulibo only).  The flavours vary greatly from one oil to the other, some being smooth and buttery and others spicy and peppery.  Go and taste, you’ll be surprised just how much difference there is!

The picking of green table olives has to be done carefully and by hand to avoid bruising the fruit – any bruises will turn black and unsightly.  Have you ever bitten into an olive straight from the tree?  No?  Well, you’ll never taste anything as bitter and horrid again – one of the compounds responsible for that taste is called oleuropein.  In order to remove the bitter taste green olives are processed most commonly using lye, which is then soaked out again using several changes of water.  Producing top quality table olives is a skill, and the commercial producers guard their recipes jealously.  Once the olives had the bitterness removed they are brined, and in some cases flavoured and sterilised. At L’Oulibo the new harvest Lucques olives are sold having only undergone flash pasteurisation – a real treat!  These olives are a bright green and crunchy with an incomparable flavour!  I’m almost 100%  certain that you’ll like them!  Black table olives are easier to process as the bitterness has reduced during the ripening process.  Most of the time they are simply salted to remove the bitter compounds, then packed in brine or oil, flavoured or not.  If you’ve not already visited either L’Oulibo or Lo Moulinet, you should definitely add them to your list of places to visit for your next holiday in Languedoc!

PICT5732