Ship ahoy!

Have you ever been close up to a tall ship, or even been on board one??   I hadn’t but I had seen some on TV, all decked out with full sails.  Remember The Onedin Line??  For those of you too young to have seen it, The Onedin Line was a BBC television series in the 1970s, starring a three masted tall ship.

My chance to get up close and personal with tall ships came the week before Easter, when two of the world’s largest sailing ships dropped anchor at Sete, for a week’s stay.  Driving into Sete I could see the two vessels out at sea, with one of them heading for the entrance to the harbour – a pretty spectacular sight!  I found a car park near the railway station and made my way to the Quai du Maroc on foot.  If you have a look at a map of Sete you will see that there is no end of water – canals run in every direction and there are many bridges!  Just as I was approaching to cross the first bridge, a barrier came down to stop traffic and pedestrians, and then the whole bridge started to move! I’ve seen bridges lifting (think of Tower Bridge in London), but I’d not seen a bridge move like this – it pivoted on rollers in the centre, until the roadway was in line with the canal and ships could pass either side of it.


As soon as the bridge had resumed its normal position I could continue on my way to the Quai du Maroc, and as I rounded the last corner, there it was – the first of the two ships, in the process of mooring up!!  It was a pretty spectacular sight, one I won’t forget in a hurry.  Two tug boats were gently pushing this enormous ship very slowly against the wall of the quay – it almost appeared not to be moving at all, so slow was the progress.  The boat I was watching was the STS Kruzenshtern, whose website you can find here.  Of course the sails were not up, but from my vantage point it looked as though there were people up in the rigging.  A zoom with the camera proved that observation right – the sailors were busy furling the sails!!

Once the Kruzenshtern was docked up I went a little closer, only to be told by one of the stewards that the next boat was about to enter the harbour, and that the best vantage point would be from where I had just come.  As I was about to go off to find myself a spot on the edge of the quay to sit and wait, I saw a rather amusing thing: on a balcony, just across the quay from the Kruzenshtern, were a group of women with a sheet.  They were shouting across at the sailors, saying “Hey guys, this is how you do it!” whilst gathering up the sheet!  Everyone had a good laugh and they got a round of applause from the bystanders.

I then took up position further along the quay, and when the STS Sedov finally entered the harbour I was not disappointed – it was a highly atmospheric scene, reminiscent of JMW Turner’s painting of The Fighting Temeraire (with a bit of imagination!!).  A big tugboat was towing the Sedov, and as they got close enough to the quay a smaller boat took lines ashore, which were attached to bollards on the quay.  Then the winches on board the Sedov took over, slowly bringing the ship to its mooring.  The video below is a little lengthy and at times a bit shaky, but you’ll get the idea of just how amazing it is to watch a big ship like that.  Note: E-mail subscribers will have to go to the blog site in order to watch the video.

With both boats safely moored up I decided to get a little closer once more.  The sheer size of the boats was incredible, with the Sedov being 117 meters in length and the Kruzenshtern a little shorter at 114 meters!


The boats were due to allow visitors on board in the afternoon, so for now I admired them from dry land, and after a while I set off with my friends to find a restaurant for a spot of lunch.  We found a great little place on Rue Gaston Escarguel, which served very nice salads.  It looked as though it had not long been open, and on google maps street view, the little restaurant is shown in its previous incarnation, as a bakery :).

After the salads, a Cafe Gourmand hit just the right spot!

P1090385And then it was back to the boats once more!!

The queue at the Sedov was shorter, so after just a few minutes we were stepping on board the largest sailing ship in the world!

The enormous deck area was open to the public, and we caught glimpses of some interiors, such as the long corridors leading to the cabins.  You can get a virtual tour of both ships via their websites – it’s very interesting!   The Sedov was built by Krupp in Kiel, Germany, and launched in 1921, as a cargo carrier.  In 1945 the ship came under Russian ownership as part of war reparations.  The Sedov carries a crew of 54 as well as  148 cadets and trainees.  You’ll be able to find out more about the history of both ships, if you want to, on their websites.

Once we’d toured the Sedov, we joined the lengthening queue for the Kruzenshtern.  Interestingly enough, the two boats didn’t differ all that much.  The Kruzenshtern was built in 1926 in Bremerhaven, and passed into Russian ownership in 1946, again as part of German war reparations.  Today the ship belongs to the Baltic Academy of the Fisheries and is used as a training ship, carrying 70 crew and over 160 cadets.  The Kruzenshtern and the Sedov also carry paying guests, so if you fancy a trip on one of the world’s largest sailing ships, have a look at their websites.


Bloomin’ marvellous

Spring can be the craziest time of year – things are sprouting everywhere, and nature is surprising me with new things every day.  And that’s before you count all the spring fetes and festivals which are seemingly everywhere!

This year we appear to be having unseasonably warm weather, and many plants are growing much faster than they normally would.  Look at the wisteria, it is out in full bloom!!  And the bees love it – there’s a variety of large black bees, with iridescent bluish-black wings, which seem to zip around the flowers like lunatics.



The kiwis are also sprouting a fair amount of leaves, as well as flower buds!



The California poppies have been flowering for over a week now, and there’s a lovely plant called Cerinthe Major “Purpurascens” growing next to one of the poppy plants.  The two of them seem to be having a bit of a cuddle 🙂


In my garden both plants are ridiculously easy to grow – I just leave a few of them to set seed, and forget all about them until the fall.  When the seeds sprout I weed out the ones I don’t want, et voila!

My Papa Meilland rose also started to bloom last week; it has the most beautiful old-fashioned rose scent – I wish you could smell it!


And I’m very excited about my artichokes – I planted a row of five artichoke plants last year, tiny little plants, which were immediately attacked by all the slugs and snails in the garden.  Over the winter I managed to stop the damage to the plants (causing carnage amongst the snails and slugs :)), and they have grown into large silvery mounds of foliage.  And now the first flower buds have started to appear!!  If I’m lucky there will be so many that I will really be able to indulge – artichokes are one of my favourite vegetables!!  With the warm weather, I will soon be able to have an artichoke feast!


And so, on to the spring fetes and fairs – lots of exciting stuff to go and see over the coming weeks!!

This past weekend, Chateau Perdiguier in Maraussan hosted the Journées Fleurs et Jardins for the 5th year running.

IMG_9486The Chateau is an incredibly impressive building, so it’s worth a visit to the fair just for a close-up look at the building.  According to the website, the Chateau got its name in the 14th century, when it was given to Jean Perdiguier by Charles V in 1375.  A few years later Perdiguier was assassinated in Montpellier, after introducing an extraordinary tax – modern-day politicians take heed??  Perdiguier didn’t have much time at his chateau, but at least he left his name behind.  Over the centuries, as the estate passed from one owner to the next, the building evolved into the impressive structure we see today.

The exhibitors of the “flower days” were spread out over a large area in front of the chateau, with stands selling all manner of flowers and other garden plants, including citrus trees, acers, and vegetable garden plants; there were decorations for the garden (some very colourful flower pots amongst them); and there was food!!  Tables and chairs were interspersed with the stalls, and the atmosphere was very festive and relaxed!

Today Chateau Perdiguier is a working winery, and part of the exhibitors were inside, in the big wine cellar.  The monumental casks are in reality made of cement, with the fronts made to look like traditional wooden casks.  There were also a number of wooden barrels (used to age wine) in the cellar, with the ends decorated with paintings.  To start off with I thought the pictures had been painted directly on to the barrel, but closer inspection revealed that pictures were detachable.

Upstairs from the cellar is a large function room, where there was an exhibition of paintings, as well as more painted barrels, and some painted wine bottles.




There’s definitely someone with an artistic bent living there!

So there you have it – Spring in Languedoc has started!!

Madeira, my dear?

The last get together of our cooking group had a Portuguese theme.  Our hosts had been to Madeira shortly before, and had returned full of enthusiasm, and with many ideas for Portuguese dishes for us to try out.

We arrived to find everything neatly organised – with a stack of printed recipes to guide our efforts.  The dishes we were to try were the following:

Caldo Verde – Portuguese Cabbage Soup
Bolo do Caco – Portuguese Flat Bread
Bacalhau A Gomes De Sa – Salt Cod, Onions and Potatoes
Peri Peri Roast Chicken – Spicy Roast Chicken
Pastel de Nata – Portuguese Custard Tarts

Quite easy – wouldn’t you think so??  We had some wonderful produce at our disposal – just look at that perfect cabbage!


And the Chicken was the way all chickens should be:  plump and giving the impression of having lived a full life!


Once we had run through the recipes, everyone got their “dish” to prepare – I shared preparing the salt cod with one of our hosts.  The kitchen became a hive of activity as everyone started work on their dish, and as always we had a lot of fun!

The salt cod had been soaked, with the water changed numerous times, and poached, in advance.  The task of removing any skin and bones, and flaking the fish fell to me 😉 – not the most pleasant of jobs, but someone had to do it.


The dish also called for sliced and cooked potatoes, sautéed onions, hard-boiled eggs, chopped parsley, and lots of olive oil!

Once the cod was flaked, the potatoes cooked, and the onions sautéed, the dish was easy to assemble.  Half the sliced potatoes went into the bottom of the oven dish, then the cod and onions were layered (cod – onions – cod – onions) and topped with the remaining half of the potatoes.  I drizzled the top with a little olive oil, just enough to moisten the potatoes, but not as much as called for in the recipe.

Meanwhile my fellow cooks were busy with their recipes.  The Bolo do Caco flat bread dough is made with the addition of cooked and mashed sweet potato.  Once the dough is well risen, it is shaped and left to rise again, before being cooked on a griddle.

The Peri Peri Chicken starts life as a though it was going to be a regular roast chicken.  The transformation comes halfway through the cooking time, when it is liberally anointed with a wonderfully aromatic and spicy Peri Peri sauce.

Caldo Verde is simplicity in itself, using mostly ingredients which are to be found in almost every kitchen:  onions, garlic, potatoes, olive oil, bay leaf, cabbage or greens, and chicken stock.  Two important ingredients are a little less common:  Chorizo and smoked paprika.  The flavour of the soup stands or falls with the quality of the chorizo, and the smoked paprika gives it a flavour which makes you try and figure out just where that taste comes from.

The recipe for the Portuguese Custard Tarts was interesting.  It specified puff pastry to line the muffin tin with, but the puff pastry was rolled up, jelly roll fashion, cut into slices and then the slices placed cut side down and rolled into circles again.  After a bit of deliberating, we figured out that it was perfectly logical, as that way the puff pastry would rise sideways and not push the filling up out of the tin.  The custard filling was cooked on the stove, before pastry and filling were assembled in the tins and baked once more.

When all the cooking was well on the way and we were really just waiting for some things to finish, we had a well-earned glass of wine.  Keeping with the Portuguese theme we had some Mateus Rose – anyone out there remember that??  And the lamps that were made with the bottles??

The labelling might have been updated, but the bottle shape is still pretty much the same, and the wine is a very pleasant, slightly fizzy rose – great as an aperitif!

Soon it was time to sit down to lunch, and we started with Caldo Verde, accompanied by Bolo do Caco.


Next up was Bacalhao A Gomes De Sa.  A note on that dish – we decided it looked rather dry, so added a little milk halfway through the cooking time.  The garnish of olives, hard-boiled eggs and parsley went on just before it was brought to the table.


Pride of place went to the Peri Peri Chicken.  We skipped the vegetables specified in the recipe, as we had lots of food to eat apart from the chicken.  The chicken was tender and juicy, and everyone could adjust the spiciness by adding more or less gravy to their portion.  The chicken was served with a light salad.

P1080976All too soon, this was all that was left of the chicken 🙂

P1080985And finally, the custard tarts!  They really were divine, moist and with a lovely vanilla flavour.

All in all a great selection of recipes, and they have all made it into my recipe folder.  And the Caldo Verde has already been made a couple of times.  For individual recipes, here is a scan of the recipes in PDF format.

Good vibrations

Last week a friend from St Chinian called with an invitation.  There was a concert at the Guinguette Le Tournebelle that evening, and she would be happy for me to come along.  I had driven past the Guinguette, on my way from Narbonne to Gruissan, a couple of times, but had never actually stopped there.  A quick look on the internet showed that the music would be right up my street, so I gladly accepted the invitation.


Guinguette translates as tavern, and the tavern at Tournebelle is right by the Canal de la Robine, just past the Mandirac lock, outside of Narbonne.  If you plan to go, make sure you look at a map first; it’s easy to take a wrong turn.

We arrived in time to eat dinner, before the concert, and my friend had booked a table for the four of us.  The Guinguette Le Tournebelle is basically one large room, possibly a former barn, with a raised stage at one end, and a bar at the opposite end.  Along the outside of the building, and overlooking the canal, a covered pergola has been added, with the open sides closed in with see-through plastic for the winter months.  I imagine that it will be a perfect spot for sitting out, as soon as it gets warm enough.  Inside though, a number of people were already at their tables, amongst them the musicians for the evening, and the mood was relaxed and friendly.


Dinner that night was a three course fixed menu, all freshly prepared, with the dishes selected by the chef.  The starter was a creamy soup made with sweet potato and coconut milk, subtly spiced, and accompanied by a gratinated salmon toast.


The main course was delicious too: slices of filet of pork which had been covered in a hazelnut and breadcrumb coating and fried, served on a bed of sweet red cabbage. Alongside was a little mound of truffle flavoured whipped cream, a cherry tomato roasted with balsamic vinegar, and some roasted potato wedges.


Dessert arrived just as the concert was about to start and the lights were dimmed, so I’m sorry there is no picture.  It was a delicious and refreshing tiramisu, where the usual sponge had been replaced with speculoos, spiced shortcrust biscuits.

The musicians for the evening were Jorge Rossy from Barcelona, Gabrielle Koehlhoeffer and Joel Allouche, both from Montpellier.  They had met at a festival the previous year, and decided that they should play a gig together, since Barcelona and Montpellier are not that far away from one another.  We were privileged to be in the audience for that gig!

Jorge Rossy, who headlined the evening, is a very talented musician, well-known as having been the drummer for the Brad Mehldau Trio.  He has also studied trumpet and piano, and this evening he was playing piano and vibraphone.  Gabrielle Koehlhoeffer, on double bass, is a passionate musician with a doctorate in pharmacy, who came to playing jazz when she was 15 and has enjoyed herself ever since.  Joel Allouche is a mover and shaker in the regional music scene, as well as a composer, and a very good drummer!  I hope you’ll enjoy the video below.

The Guinguette Le Tournebelle is open for lunch throughout the year Tuesday to Sunday.  Live music is played every Friday night, and if you want to go for dinner on a concert night I would strongly recommend that you book your table in advance.