Have you ever been g**gled?

Earlier this year I visited Montpellier – perhaps there was a specific reason or perhaps it was just for a day out, I don’t remember.  The weather was beautiful, and as it got nearer to lunchtime I headed for the Place de la Comedie, a beautifully open square in the centre of Montpellier.  The square is lined on opposite sides with beautiful buildings, with the most impossibly ornate facades. Some of the detail on those facades is just amazing, and not really visible or able to be appreciated with the naked eye – you really need a very good zoom lens or a magnifying glass!!

The third side of the square is occupied by the Opera Comedie, Montpellier’s municipal opera house and theatre.

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As you can see, it’s pretty grand!  The fourth side is open, and leads towards the Polygone shopping centre, as well as the Esplanade, a beautiful tree-lined area, linking the Place de la Comedie with the Corum, the new opera house and performing arts centre.

To the left of the Opera Comedie stands the Grand Hotel du Midi – you can see the gold mosaic from that building in the first gallery of pictures above.  Walk past the entrance to the hotel, down the side of the theatre, and you get to the Brasserie du Theatre, which is in the same building as the hotel.  The restaurant has a very unassuming frontage onto the street, just a door really, leading into a little foyer, from which stairs lead up to the restaurant.  The interior of the restaurant is very much belle epoque, with mirrors and plaster work everywhere.  I felt too self-conscious to take pictures of the interior – I’m sorry!!  You can see some good shots of the interior on this site.  The weather was so nice that lunch was being served on the terrace.  🙂   The terrace is on the first floor, so from the street you don’t really see it.

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The fountain in the centre was a nice touch, and added to the great ambience.  The midday menu was very reasonably priced at 15.90 EUR for two courses, and it included a glass of wine.  My dining companion and I decided to forego the starter and have dessert instead. 🙂  The steak was delicious, and the salmon was cooked to perfection.  The dessert of the day was tiramisu – yummy!!

After a relaxed and unhurried lunch, we went for a walk around the pedestrianised centre of Montpellier.  There’s much to look at, be it shop windows:

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…or architecture:

The amazing building above is the Hotel des Tresoriers de la Bourse, which dates from the 17th and 18th centuries.

Then there are of course the wonderful door knockers.  If you read this blog regularly you’ll know that I have a kind of fetish for door knockers! 🙂  The variety is seemingly endless, and only limited by the fantasy and imagination of whoever designed and/or made them.

Whilst walking down Grand Rue Jean Moulin I came across this strange-looking car:

On closer examination it turned out to be a G**gle car, not the one which is driver-less, but the one which takes the pictures that allow us to virtually explore in street view.  Here’s the camera array:

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Nobody seemed to pay the G**gle car much attention – the shop windows and the shopping itself were much more interesting.  We continued with our walk, and found some more lovely things to look at:

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I’m sure the Maison Justin Boch is no longer trading, but the lettering is just lovely, and the square so inviting.  Just a few steps away was the Padova ice cream parlour.  It’s not as though I hadn’t had enough to eat at lunchtime, but I couldn’t resist it… 🙂

The Hotel Saint-Come is today part of the headquarters of the Chamber of Commerce.  The tourist office offers guided visits of the building in its program – I’m going to try and book that for a future visit.

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Down one of the side streets I found this wonderful glass veranda.  Look at the detail from the tiled frieze.

Back on the Esplanade I noticed the facade of an old Gaumont Cinema building:

And then it was back to the Place de la Comedie, where it all started.

Now, if you go to G**gle maps, and look at the street view of Grand Rue Jean Moulin, you might just be able to spot me with my camera in my hand, taking a picture of that car.  You’ll have to go to the May 2014 version though – for some reason the street was photographed again in June 2014.  And if you look very carefully, you might even spot me several times!  I had great fun walking past the car a number of times 🙂

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Falling into fall

All too soon the clocks will go back by an hour, and the evenings will feel much longer.  This time of year, nature paints with a rich palette of wonderful colours.  Summer was glorious and bountiful, but towards the end it became a little parched, and somewhat monochrome.  Now autumn is exploding in a riot of colours!  Balm to the heart!!

Have a look at this dahlia:

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The colour variations in the grapevine leaves are endless:

The pomegranates are really starting to show off:

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How about some of these luscious persimmons?

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Or perhaps you are ready for a pumpkin?

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This red warty thing has been growing in my garden for some time now, and it will be harvested very soon.  A friend in the US sent me the seeds last year, and I just love the colour and texture of the skin;  the seed packet promises that it will make good eating too!

The rose hips are blazing away brilliantly red.

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Some parts of my garden really come into their own during fall.  This salvia just seems to explode at the end of each summer.

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Some leaves turn a bright sulphur yellow colour

and some go flaming red:

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Autumn is really one of the best times to visit the area.  And of course this time of year is also fantastic for wild mushrooms, but that will be a story for another time…

Walking with llamas

I’m up for pretty much anything, so when a friend suggested we go walking with llamas, I agreed right away.  The llamas live in the hamlet of Pez, near Pardailhan, and are owned by Murielle Marcle and Christian Tinel.  Murielle and Christian run Les Lamas du Pardailhan. Murielle trained in animal-assisted therapy, and the farm regularly hosts children from care homes in the area.  She also offers guided visits of the farm, as well as the walks with the llamas, which I had come for.

In the paddock five llamas were waiting for our visit:  Machuca, Chachani, and Hiskalda were female adults; their daughters Lima and Quinoa were both born in May 2013.

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Before we got going, Murielle gave us some facts about llamas.  Llamas are part of the family of camelids, and are related to camels and alpacas.  They are very social animals and only thrive as part of a herd.  Llamas are also very quiet animals, they don’t make noises like any of the other four-legged farm animals.  Llamas have a reputation for spitting, however they tend to spit only at each other, not at humans.  They are entirely vegetarian, and feed on grasses and leaves.  You’ll be able to read up on a whole lot more llama facts in this Wikipedia article.

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Llama wool is very soft and fine, but not as highly prized as alpaca.  Murielle’s llamas are woolly lamas, and they have to be shorn from time to time, to stop them from getting too hot during the summer.  That said, the hair along the neck is usually left long.  The wool contains no lanolin, and the llamas have no noticeable smell.

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Before we started off, Murielle coaxed four of the llamas into the corral, a small enclosure on one side of the paddock, where each llama had a halter put on.  This was followed by some brushing, so that we would get to know the llamas close up 🙂 !

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Once we had done the grooming and getting-to-know-you bit, we set off on our walk.  Unfortunately one of the llamas had to stay behind, and she was not very happy on her own. 😦

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Our walk took us along leafy lanes, with very frequent stops – the llamas found all sorts of delicious leaves and grasses growing along the way.  The leaves of chestnut trees were particularly prized!!

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On the return we came across a beautiful meadow, and that must have been heaven for our four-legged friends. 🙂

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All too soon we were back at the paddock, and once we’d said our goodbyes to the llamas they went for a run around their paddock.  As we walked back to the farmhouse, I couldn’t resist taking a picture of Murielle’s vegetable garden.

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If you would like to book a walk with Murielle and the llamas, please contact her via her website http://www.lamas34.com or by telephone on +33 467 236 118.  There must be a minimum of three persons for each walk, and the walks cost 10 EUR per hour/person.

A feast of colour

On a recent trip to Narbonne I made two discoveries, both prompted by a friend who had recently told me about them.  The first was a restaurant I had never before visited:  L’Ecailler Gourmet, which is just behind the law courts in Narbonne.
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It is a restaurant which specialises in fish, and there is literally nothing else on the menu.  If you don’t like fish and shellfish, don’t go there!!  On the other hand, if you enjoy fish, you’ll be in heaven there!  I went on a Saturday lunchtime, when the prix-fixe menus are not in operation (on weekdays the lunchtime menus are 16 and 18 Euro). Out in front there is a very nice courtyard dining area, with sun sails and umbrellas, and very comfortable outdoor furniture. Inside looked good too;  I just have to tell you about the WC – it’s got the perfect decor, totally in tune with the theme of the restaurant.  I won’t tell you any more, you’ll have to go and see for yourself 🙂 !  L’Ecailler Gourmet also has a shop, where you can buy fresh fish and shellfish.

For starters, my dining companion and I ordered a selection of four different Tapas:  marinated smoked herring, octopus, sesame prawns, and marinated anchovies.

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I am not sure which was the most delicious of the four – I wasn’t sure at the time and I can’t make up my mind now.  The flavour of the herring was sublime and the fish beautifully tender.  The anchovies were perfect, nicely spiced without being too acid.  The prawns were juicy with a lovely sesame flavour.  And the octopus?  Firm, but without being rubbery, as octopus can so often be, and delicately flavoured with chives and peppers.

For the main course my dining companion had chosen the Parillade, a combo of three different fish fillets, plus scallops and king prawns, and I had ordered a Brochette de Saumon, Lotte et Gambas, in other words salmon, monk fish and king prawns on a skewer.  Before it was cooked, the fish was presented at the table – I don’t remember that ever happening before in a restaurant!  The first picture shows the Parillade, and the ingredients for my Brochette are shown on the other half of the plate.  Having eaten all the tapas I was not sure I would be able to manage all the fish, but I figured that it would shrink somewhat during cooking.

When the fish reappeared, this time beautifully cooked and plated, it still looked just as big, AND there were vegetables on the plate too!!

We both managed just fine – the fish was perfectly cooked, juicy and tender!  Monk fish can be a bit tricky to prepare.  It can have a strange kind of texture, which I don’t find all that pleasant, but in this case it was just a pleasure to eat.  Cooking fish is all about timing, and the chefs at L’Ecailler Gourmet have it down to a fine art.

After all that gorgeous fish, I felt that dessert was out of the question, but then came the blackboard with the choices:

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I think you’ll agree that the choices were just too tempting :)!!  I opted for the millefeuille with fresh mango and Chantilly cream – pure delight – whilst my dining companion ordered the tartar of strawberries with black olives and basil.  The latter was a revelation – the flavour of the strawberries was very much enhanced by the basil, and the olives added a nice kick to it.

So all in all a wonderful lunch, and definitely a restaurant to recommend.  If you want to visit, please call ahead to make a reservation, as it can get very busy.

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After this amount of food we definitely needed a walk, so we decided to spend some time exploring Narbonne.  Here’s where my friend’s second tip came in handy:  Narbonne is hosting the 2nd International Biennale of Watercolour during October.  The exhibitions are spread over eight different locations in the town centre.  We started with the exhibit of pictures by Henri Zuber in the hemispherical chamber at the bottom of the keep, part of the archbishop’s palace (now the town hall) on Place de l’Hotel de Ville. The room is amazing (you can climb to the top of the keep for a great view over the town), and the exhibition was delightful.  The acoustics of the room are also amazing – you can clearly hear what people across the other side of the room are whispering about!!

The next stop was in the Salle des Consuls, also in the archbishop’s palace.  This is an impressive hall with a timber beamed ceiling, where the town nobles met to decide on the running of Narbonne.  The pictures on show here were the finalists of the worldwide competition organised by the international magazine, The Art of Watercolour.

There were several pictures which caught my eye, and on finding out that all the works on display were for sale, I asked the price for this picture:

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It is called Smoking old man, and painted by Weixing Guan.  The young man at the desk had to make a phone call, as he did not have a price list.  He was visibly embarrassed when he told me that the picture was valued at $50,000 – just like me to go for one of the most expensive pictures in the whole show!! 😀 .

We went on to the next venue, the Chapelle des Penitents Bleus, the former chapel of one of the poor orders.  Looking at some of the decorations in the chapel I wonder…

The pictures here were by a group of painters who had been specially invited to the Biennale.  Among the pictures on show was the one which was used for the posters of this year’s exhibition, a very atmospheric piece by Uruguayan artist Alvaro Castagnet

Our next stop was at La Poudriere, a former gunpowder store!  Painters selected by the organising committee were showing their pictures here.

On to our final stop that day:  the Ancienne Chapelle des Jacobins – the old chapel of the former Jacobin monastery.  The chapel is an incredibly lofty space, with some amazing stonework!

The pictures by the Belgian painter Martine Vanparijs caught my eye, and they were very much more affordable than the painting which had so attracted me earlier in the afternoon. You could probably buy every single picture in the Ancienne Chapelle des Jacobins for the price of that one!

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The Biennale runs until October 26, 2014 and most of the venues are open every day.  If you are in the area, do go and have a look – I am sure you will enjoy the visit!

How sweet it is …

Some of you will be thinking of the song by the same name by James Taylor – at least I hope some of you will!!  (If you don’t know the song, you can listen to it here.)  I know that once you know the subject of this week’s blog, some of you will be thinking, “But they don’t love me”!

So here it is – this week’s post is about sweet onions :)!  More precisely about the sweet onions grown in the little village of Citou, near Caunes Minervois.  I know that some people do not do well with onions – so my apologies if you happen to find that onions do not love you!

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Sweet onions are grown in many parts of the Languedoc, and the onions of each locality have their own character, a result of what the French call terroir.  The village of Citou celebrates the sweet onion each year with a fete in early September.  To reach the village means driving along a sinuous road, climbing high into the foothills of the Montagne Noire.  Knowing the road and the parking situation in Citou (there isn’t much), I decided to take the free shuttle bus, which left from outside the cooperative winery in Caunes Minervois.

After a scenic journey, I arrived just in time for the opening of the fete – well, that was what the plan had been.  The assembled dignitaries were waiting for someone to arrive, and when that person finally arrived, the cordless microphone stopped working :D.  There then ensued a bit of a rush to find new batteries, and when it became clear that the microphone was not going to work after all, the speeches were given without amplification, and everyone stood a little closer to the speaker!  While all this was going on, the local band entertained the waiting crowd – it was charming – they were so bad it was great!!  After the pictures there is a brief video of the band for you (e-mail subscribers, you’ll have to visit the site to watch the video).

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The main part of the fete was a market of about 30 stands, with a variety of local produce.  Top of the list were the locally grown onions and apples.

The Oustal de Citou restaurant had tables set up outside, in addition to their regular inside tables, for a special meal.  The menu looked very tempting, but unfortunately all the places were already reserved.

There was, however, plenty of food available at the stands for a picnic lunch:  goats cheese, breads of various kinds, tarts, AND ice cream!  For some reason I only have pictures of the ice cream 🙂 – I wonder why?

After lunch I took a little stroll to explore the village.  It is not very large, but holds a few interesting things:

The lavoir was built to commemorate the revolution, and dedicated in 1889.  I have never seen such an ornate spout!

High above the village sit the ruins of the castle – it was a hot day and the climb just a little too arduous, but I made it close enough tot take the above picture!

 

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Numerous fountains are found throughout the village, all running continuously.  There is certainly no shortage of water.

The vegetable gardens were a joy to behold – all neat and orderly!

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The village church held some beautiful pieces of marble – though I’m not sure what the significance of the lion’s foot is in connection with an altar.  Any ideas, anyone?

On the way back to the shuttle bus stop, I had a chat with Mr Fabre, who is one of the onion and apple growers in Citou.  He told me that the onion seeds are sown into seed trays in February, and when they are the size of a pencil the seedlings are trimmed and re-planted, generally in May.  Regular watering is required during the growing season, until about two weeks before the onions are due to be harvested.  The period without water allows the onions to consolidate, and is important for the keeping qualities.  The onions are then pulled up and dried, before being trimmed and prepared for sale.

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I brought some onions back to make a Pissaladiere, a kind of onion pizza originally from Nice.  I looked through several recipe books until I found one which used pie crust, rather than the bread dough most other books specified.  Since I’m a lazy cook – and the pie crust suited my schedule much better than the bread dough – I decided to give that a try.  I made my pastry with 150 g of flour, a pinch of salt, and 3 tbsp each of butter and duck fat.  You could use lard instead.  I rubbed the fat into the flour until it resembled coarse breadcrumbs, then added 3 tbsp water until the mixture held together.  I chilled the pastry, wrapped up in tinfoil, in the fridge, overnight.

I also prepared the onion topping that same evening.  Four very large, sweet onions (about 800 g), peeled and sliced, and cooked very slowly with a generous amount of olive oil – about 60 ml (4 tbsp).  The cooking time is approximately 30 minutes.  I cooked the onions, with a pinch of salt, in a deep non-stick frying pan, with the lid on for the first 15 minutes.  Regular stirring is required.  By the end of the cooking time the onions will be very soft and golden.  I left the onions to cool and stored them in the fridge overnight, along with the pastry.

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The following day I rolled the pastry out thinly to line a large round baking dish.  Since the filling is not very runny you don’t need much of a rim.  The onion puree is spread on the pastry and then you add anchovy fillets in a lattice pattern.  I cut my anchovy fillets in half lengthwise.  I find that otherwise you need too many anchovies, and they will overpower the onions.  Each diamond is garnished with a black olive, and the whole is baked at 220 Celsius for 20 minutes.  Serve warm with a salad of mixed leaves, and a few cherry tomatoes.  If you enjoy onions and anchovies, this could be absolute heaven for you!

Feel free to try this tart with the traditional bread/pizza dough, and vary the garnishing.  I’ve seen tomatoes and even cheese added to the topping.  Bon appetit!!

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