The Apicius Way

Recently, it was my turn to host our cookery group.   We had already set the theme for “my” date before Christmas, and now it was time to see what we could do with it.  The idea was to try and cook food which the ancient Romans would have eaten.

2000 years ago cookery books did not proliferate in the way they do today.  BUT a collection of recipes from ancient Rome has somehow survived, and this collection is commonly known as Apicius.  Here  is what Wikipedia has to say: “Apicius is a collection of Roman cookery recipes, usually thought to have been compiled in the late 4th or early 5th century AD and written in a language that is in many ways closer to Vulgar than to Classical Latin.  The name “Apicius” had long been associated with excessively refined love of food, from the habits of an early bearer of the name, Marcus Gavius Apicius, a Roman gourmet and lover of refined luxury who lived sometime in the 1st century AD, during the reign of Tiberius. He is sometimes erroneously asserted to be the author of the book that is pseudepigraphically attributed to him.”  You can read the rest of the article  here.

I wonder if the French word gaver (to stuff, force feed) has anything to do with Gavius??  It sounds as though he was rather fond of filling his belly! 🙂

Searching the net, a great many references to the Apicius texts can be found.  I drew my recipes from two sources: http://www.3owls.org/sca/cook/roman.htm and http://www.press.uchicago.edu/Misc/Chicago/233472.html.  There is also a very interesting site at  http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Apicius/home.html for those of you who would like to take it further!

For our afternoon of cooking I had chosen the following dishes:

Soft boiled eggs in pine nut sauce
Roast tuna
Fried veal escalopes with raisins
Parsnips with coriander
Stuffed dates
Nut tart

You can find the recipes here.  As I was preparing my shopping list, I realised that the ancient Romans must have been rather fond of pine nuts :)!!

The first dish to be prepared was the nut tart, as it needed some time in the oven, and then more time to cool!  I bought almonds and pine nuts for this dish and we used vin santo, an Italian dessert wine, as the sweet wine.

The sauce for the soft-boiled eggs called for an incredible amount of pepper!  Tasting the sauce before it was cooked made several of us choke, but the flavour mellowed with cooking.

The parsnips recipe required a fair amount of peeling, chopping and preparing, but relatively little cooking.

For both the veal escalope and the tuna recipes, the important part was the sauce or dressing, which was poured on after cooking the meat and fish.  The tuna fish was cooked on a red-hot griddle for 30 seconds each side, and turned out perfectly pink, tender and juicy.  The veal escalopes were also cooked very briefly in a hot frying pan.

The stuffed dates required two kinds of nuts – pine nuts and walnuts.

And here is what we ate:

Soft-boiled eggs with pine nut sauce

Soft boiled eggs with pine nut sauce

 

The soft-boiled eggs were delicious.  The sauce was more like a paste, and it did taste very nice, and not as peppery as we had feared earlier.  The quantities given for the sauce can be halved, or the number of eggs doubled.

Roast Tuna

Roast Tuna

 

The sauce with the tuna was much like a Mexican salsa, and went perfectly with the fish.  Definitely a recipe I would do again!

The next course was the Veal escalope with raisins.  I prepared that, and I guess in my excitement I forgot to take a picture, mea culpa!!  I’m not sure if it is because of the lack of photographic evidence to refresh my memory, but somehow this dish is not as memorable as some of the others.  The parsnips were very tasty and eaten with the veal escalopes…

Nut tart

Nut tart

Next came the nut tart – it turned out to be a fairly dense confection, not overly sweet, but very nutty!  I would reduce the quantity of nuts if I were to cook this again.  The recipe hinted at its being a kind of flan, and it wasn’t really very flan like.  Nobody disliked it though, nor did any of us leave anything on our plates, so it must have been pretty tasty!

The stuffed dates came at the very end of our meal, when we all felt rather full.  But we managed to try them all the same, and they were very delicious!

Stuffed dates

Stuffed dates

 

What an interesting afternoon we had, and what tasty food!!  I am sure that we’ll be doing some more historic recipes before too long. 🙂

 

 

On the road for antiques

This post was kindly written by Deidre Simmons, who is currently in the second half of her six month stay in St Chinian.  Thank you, Deidre, for sharing your passion with us all!

Shopping Pour Antiquités dans le sud de France

It was not our intention to do a lot of shopping while living dans le sud de la France. After all, it is costing us a bit to maintain two homes plus travel and enjoy the delicious food and wine. And we prefer not to spend a lot of money on “stuff”.

BUT I have discovered the magic of the French brocante et salons d’antiquaires. I got hooked when I decided I wanted a tarte tatin pan for the traditional apple tart recipe I had found on the Midihideways blog. It was early December, but it turned out we were just in time for the annual Grand Déballage (this translates as ‘big unpacking’, very much like a jumble or garage sale) which is usually held in nearby Pézenas on the 2nd Sunday in October but had been postponed this year. Lucky for us – but it meant a cooler day, albeit sunny. The city of Pézenas is known for its antiques, and the many shops of second-hand goods and antique dealers are open throughout the year. Furniture, old linen, jewellery, crockery, paintings, trinkets, African art, art deco, watches, books and posters, and an interesting selection of 1950s era furniture, china, and household items are available.

The colourful and “exotic” second-hand market we attended extended over a kilometre, with over 150 exhibitors. Many just had blankets laid out along the street, covered with bits and pieces. Others were more serious with tables or cupboards full of goodies. I was looking for copper – remember the tarte tatin pan?. There was not much in evidence but we did notice that items near the entrance had higher prices than further along. About half way into the melee, I saw a set of three copper pots. The man wanted 30 euros – for them all! A good price but not quite what I was looking for, so onward. Looking for anything specific among the melange of objects on display is a bit like trying to find “Waldo”.

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It was a cool day so everyone was bundled up. This lady was selling retro bakelite jewelry from the ’50s – or so she said. It is a bit hard to identify bakelite from plastic, but her merchandise was very nice and included some interesting colour combinations and designs. We had a good look through the bracelets and eventually bought two for gifts.

 

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Along we strolled, looking at no end of strange and unusual “antiques”. We were impressed that there were these guns for sale – no one worried about them lying out there for all to fondle.

 

 

We turned a corner and came upon a jazz ensemble adding music to the atmosphere. But it was lunchtime, and in France, lunch means eating and the ubiquitous bottle of wine – and family time.

 

 

Along a little lane off the antique row, we found Crêperie la Cour Pavee, where we enjoyed traditional Brittany-style galettes and crêpes with traditional cider. Can you imagine the taste of a salted butter caramel crêpe?

 

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Back to the Grand Déballage – we returned to our search back along the way we came and stopped again to look at the copper pots. I decided I might be able to pack one in a suitcase so offered 10 euros for the smallest. Now I am the happy owner of a perfect little saucepan. What an exciting day! And there is more….

About a week or two later, we read about the oldest and the biggest fleamarket of Montpellier – Marche aux Puces. On arriving, we were a bit disappointed to find more of a garage sale en masse with mostly second hand clothes and shoes, etc. And the culture was definitely more middle eastern than French. But, there were some treasures to be found among the mish mash, with a lot of careful looking. I, surprisingly, found an oval copper pan with brass handles in very good shape for 10 euros. We also found a set of speakers to use on the computer when we want to watch movies. 8 euros and, miracle of miracles, when we got home they worked!! Just a little further along, I found another set of copper pots on a mat among a lot of useless items. This time a set of 5 for 20 euros. Again, I did not want five pots. But there were two that were very nice, with stainless steel lining, which apparently is a good thing. They were about the same size as the one I had already bought but since I was able to “bargain” the owner to sell me the best two for 10 euros (I know, that was not exactly bargaining) I now have another copper pot a bit larger and have gifted the smaller one to my “foodie” friend. I still do not have a tarte tatin pan but I will keep looking.

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Now I am getting excited about antique shopping. On a return visit to Pézenas, we went into Les Antiquaires de l’Hotel Genieys. It really is a beautiful shop, and at the back is a room full of antique linens.

Once I started sorting through and feeling the softness of washed linen, I could not resist. I started looking at sheets for about 150 euros but digging through the pile found a very nice one in a natural colour (not bleached) for 30 euros. It is huge – 320cm x 280cm or 126 x 110 inches – bigger than the usual North American queen size – 267cm x 280cm or 105 × 110 inches.

 

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The most common and most desirable sheets are the white matrimonial monogrammed sheets, traditionally embroidered by a future bride for her trousseau. If you are interested, check out this website http://fleurdandeol.com. On a very cold Saturday in Marseillan Plage, I found one (with the odd initials A O). The extremely cold vendor, trying to keep warm in his truck when I dragged him out to unfold the sheets so that I could check the quality, was not into bargaining. I happily paid his asked for 20 euros.

My photos do not do them justice. The sheets need to be washed and ironed, but it’s wonderful to imagine them on our bed at home. The natural coloured one will probably be used as a topper. I am now on a search for pillow shams!

When we have to return home after this French adventure, for sure our suitcases will be overflowing and we will probably have to send a box of stuff home by post. BUT, we have some great souvenirs and more good stories.

À bientôt de notre maison en le sud de France 
Deidre Simmons

PS: We did not buy these!

 

 

Open day at Chateau Milhau

Just a little over a year ago, I wrote about my visit to the Chateau de Seriege near Cruzy (read that post here).  This year, the tourist office of the Communaute de Communes Canal-Lirou Saint Chinianais organised another visit, connected to last year’s visit by a common theme:  Gustave Fayet.

Gustave Fayet was a rich art collector and artist, business man and patron of arts.  He had inherited great wealth from his parents, which he put to good use.

Our visit was to Chateau Milhau, near Puisserguier.  This estate had been passed to Gustave Fayet in 1893 by his father on the occasion of Gustave’s marriage to Madeleine d’Andoque de Seriege.  He moved to Milhau with his new wife, and immediately made a start on improving the vineyards and embellishing the buildings.  When his father died in 1899 Gustave and Madeleine moved to another of their newly inherited estates, and gave up living at Milhau.  After the death of Gustave Fayet in 1928, his son Leon Fayet sold the estate at Milhau.  The Maison de Maitre was abandoned in the 1970s and fell into total ruin.  In 2008 Norman and Diana Tutt, a couple from Britain, fell in love with the buildings.   Since then they have carried out a restoration project, using original materials wherever possible.  Our visit of the buildings was guided by Norman Tutt, who met us in the garden just outside the house.

We admired the facade with its terracotta decorations, sculpted by Louis Paul, an artist friend of Gustave Fayet.

A frieze of grape-and-vine-leaf relief tiles runs along the roof line.

The porch underneath the tower connected the courtyard behind the house with the garden in front.  On the wall was another terracotta relief, and below this relief would have been the front door into the Fayets’ private accommodation.

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We entered the house by a door from the courtyard, and ascended to the first floor.  When the Tutts had started restoration works, the building was a total ruin, with rotten floors and leaking roofs.  They did uncover a few traces of the former habitants: here and there, patches of old wallpaper had escaped the ravages of time and could be preserved, either in situ or as part of a collage:

Some of the wallpapers were made by the French firm Zuber, which is still producing high quality wallpapers today.  I was totally charmed by some of the details of the restoration, such as these porcelain light switches, produced by Fontini.

We continued to what is today Norman and Diana Tutt’s library:

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The French doors overlook the garden, and open onto a little balcony.  At one time a grand double staircase would have led down to the garden from where the balcony is today.  The spiral staircase in the left hand corner leads up to what had been Gustave Fayet’s atelier.  Before his time, that part of the tower had housed a clock mechanism.  Gustave Fayet had larger windows installed, and used the room to paint.

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Here is a picture which Gabriel Fayet, Gustave’s father, painted of Chateau Milhau – you can see the clock still in place, as well as the grand staircase leading from the first floor down to the garden.P1140916

 

Gustave Fayet painted these watercolours, which were later used as motifs for carpets:

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The views from the house are spectacular.  On a clear day one can see as far as the sea!  This is Domaine La Bouscade, the closest neighbour:

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The spiral staircase is very similar to the one in the dining room at Cafe de la Paix in St Chinian.

I ended my visit with a little walk.  Here are some views of the garden:

The chapel was built by Gustave and Madeleine Fayet:

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The enormous wine cellars were enlarged by Gustave Fayet’s father in 1875:

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If you are interested in finding out more about Gustave Fayet, there’s a very good book, which is available from the tourist office in Capestang, entitled “Gustave Fayet, chateaux, vignobles et mecenat en Languedoc”.  The book is also available on the Midihideaways Bookshop (Amazon) under the heading “Books by Local Authors”.

You can also visit the Musee Fayet in Beziers, a former residence of Gustave Fayet and his family, as well as the Abbaye de Fontfroide near Narbonne, which still belongs to Gustave Fayet’s descendants.  I’ll visit both with/for you before too long!

Unexpected pleasures

Last Friday, friends stopped by to say hello, and to ask whether I would like to join them for dinner at Cafe de la Paix in St Chinian that same evening.  I’m always up for going out to eat at a restaurant, and Cafe de la Paix had just had a bit of a makeover, so it was perfect timing!  The makeover appeared to have been concentrated mainly on the bar, which you walk through in order to get to the restaurant.  I thought that the dining room might have had a makeover too, but my friends assured me that the colour scheme had been in place for some time.  I had walked through the dining room to the garden at the back of the restaurant, when I visited the last few times, but I can’t have been paying any attention :).  Sorry Cafe de la Paix!

Severine, the waitress who had served our table on my previous visit, was on duty again.  The menu appeared to have changed little, but the presentation of the food had changed a great deal!!

Here are our starters:

After a brief wait, a bit of wine, and a lot of chatting and laughing, our main courses arrived:

More laughter, wine and chat followed the main courses, and our desserts arrived shortly after Severine had taken our order:

What a wonderful evening!!  To be repeated!

Cafe de la Paix is located on Grand Rue in St Chinian, and open daily except Sunday evening and Monday all day.  Make sure to book a table if you are planning to visit in the summer – the tables in the beautiful garden at the back of the restaurant are sought after!  Prices range from EUR 12.90 for the three course lunch menu, which includes a 1/4 litre of wine (not Sundays or holidays), to EUR 31.00 for a five course menu.  The prices for the menus in between those two are EUR 19.00 and EUR 23.00, both for three courses.