Open again!

On October 30, 2020, restaurants, bars and cafes all over France had to close their doors to the public as part of another lockdown. At the time, nobody had any idea as to how long they would have to remain closed, but I don’t think that anyone expected the closure to last as long as it did! Finally, on May 19, 2021 – after six and a half months!! – restaurants, bars and cafes were allowed to serve customers once more. To begin with, diners are only allowed to be seated outside, with tables widely spaced, and the 9pm curfew still in place – but it’s a start!

When you think about how important a role food plays in French life and culture, you can imagine what a deprivation it has been not being able to go out for a meal. Even a glass of wine or a coffee on one of the terraces of the cafes was out of bounds!

I visited Cafe de la Paix in Saint-Chinian last Saturday evening to catch up with friends, and to enjoy a meal prepared by someone else!

The bar at Cafe de la Paix

Cafe de la Paix was taken over by David and Eve four years ago, and they’ve been working hard to improve the guest experience. The garden has had a complete makeover, the gravel being replaced with paving. There is new (comfortable) terrace furniture, and the place has had a general sprucing up inside and outside!!

The garden at Cafe de la Paix

The menu has also had a makeover – the focus is now on bistro cooking and appetising presentation!

Here now are photos of the dishes we enjoyed! 🙂 First off, a couple of delicious starters

Pissaladiere onion tart with smoked trout
Vegetable tart with shavings of Spanish ham

The main courses were equally delicious, and it was bliss to just sit there and have someone bring the food to the table!!

Filet of seabream on a bed of pasta with mussels
Rump steak with red wine sauce and potato gratin
Duck with olives

Our desserts arrived as it was slowly getting darker. The weather was perfect and I didn’t need to put on the jacket I had brought in case I got too cold! The desserts were a yummy ending to a lovely meal!!

Chocolate mousse, chocolate granola, and buckwheat ice cream
Strawberry eclair with strawberry sorbet
Cherry creme brulée

Because of the 9pm curfew, the restaurant had opened at 6.30pm to give diners ample time to enjoy a leisurely meal – it worked very well for us! If you have been to France in the past, you may remember that most restaurants don’t start to serve dinner before 7.30pm. I imagine that we’ll go back to this later starting time once the curfew gets abolished altogether later this summer.

As we head into summer, things are looking a lot more upbeat and I’m keeping my fingers crossed that it’ll continue that way.

Have you visited your favourite restaurant in France yet?

Asparagus time!

Each spring, I await the coming of the asparagus seller to the weekly market with eager anticipation! Asparagus can be had in the supermarkets well before it arrives at the weekly farmers market, but the supermarket offerings have often travelled a fair distance and are not as fresh as they should be. Most vegetables lose some of their quality if stored too long after harvesting, and asparagus is no exception! The sooner it is eaten after being harvested, the better!! I like to eat the first asparagus of the season simply boiled and served with melted butter and some steamed new potatoes. Once I’ve had my fill of it that way, I will prepare it in different ways.

A few weeks ago, a dear friend suggested that I try Jane Grigson’s recipe for Asparagus and Chicken Gratin. The recipe can be found in Jane Grigson’s Vegetable Book, a wonderful collection of delicious recipes for pretty much every kind of vegetable, and one which I just happen to have on my bookshelf! 🙂 . To sum up the recipe, cooked asparagus is layered with cooked chicken, a white sauce is poured over and the whole is topped with grated cheese, breadcrumbs and some melted butter before being baked until golden and bubbly. Sounds simple – and it’s incredibly delicious!!

The ingredients call for 500 g of asparagus and half a large roasted chicken. Since I don’t prepare roasted chicken very often, I bought three chicken leg quarters from the new poultry stand in the market (that’s a story for another article – I promise!) and roasted them.

I cut a thin slice from the end of each stem and peeled the lower parts of the asparagus in order to minimise waste. I cut the prepared asparagus stems into approximately 5 cm pieces before cooking them in boiling salted water.

I drained the asparagus pieces when they were just tender but retained a bit of bite, and refreshed them in cold water. I set the cooking liquid aside as that was to be used for the white sauce. Here are the main ingredients ready to be layered:

For the white sauce I used 1.5 tbsp of butter and 1.5 tbsp of flour, 300 ml of asparagus cooking water, and 150 ml of cream. For extra flavour, I also added the residue left behind in the tin from roasting the chicken!! I seasoned the sauce with salt and pepper and cooked it until it was nice and thick.

While the sauce was cooking, I put a layer of asparagus into my gratin dish from Poterie Not, and topped that with the diced chicken, which I topped with the remaining asparagus. I decided to use the tips for the top layer and to arrange them in a pretty pattern, but you can do it any way you like. I did not want to overfill my gratin dish, so I filled a smaller dish as well.

I poured the white sauce evenly over the filled gratin dishes and sprinkled the tops with breadcrumbs and grated comte cheese. Grigson specified cheddar cheese in her recipe, but alas, it’s not easy to find cheddar in our part of France.

Once the melted butter was drizzled over the gratin, it was ready to go into the oven. The recipe called for a moderate to high temperature – I set the oven to 190 degrees Centigrade and baked it for about half an hour. While the gratin was in the oven, I prepared some tender broad beans which I had picked in my garden that morning. The pods were very young with the beans hardly developed, so I steamed them whole.

Here’s the finished gratin – it was divinely delicious and well worth the effort that went into its preparation!! Do give it a try if you get a chance!

What’s your favourite way of eating asparagus?

Shades of blue

At this time of year, nature is bursting at the seams with new leaves and flowers emerging everywhere! I wanted to share with you some of the many shades of blue that can be found in and around Saint-Chinian right now! Some of the shades may stretch the definition of blue somewhat, but if you look at a colour wheel there are many shades between blue and red!

Erysimum “Bowles Mauve”, a type of wallflower
Cerinthe majus purpurascens
Aphyllantes monspeliensis
Tassel hyacinth, leopoldia comosa
Carpet bugle – ajuga reptans
Hyacinth
Grape hyacinth – muscari
Borage – borago officinalis
Dutch iris – iris x hollandica
Bearded iris
Rosemary
Wild chicory – cichorium intybus
Lilac – syringa vulgaris
Wall bellflower – campanula portenschlagiana
Wisteria sinensis
French lavender – lavandula stoechas

The following pictures show a different kind of blue – one that’s painted on! I found this old wagon on one of my walks – it sat neglected and somewhat broken down in an open shed. Wagons like that one were built in the thousands in Saint-Chinian before the combustion engines made horses obsolete. The factory building is still here – today the Citroen garage occupies it.

A smaller cart stood right next to the first one, even more broken down, but painted in the same blue colour!

Do you have a favourite shade of blue?

Renewal time

We’re in the middle of what I call green-up time, when trees and vineyards are clothed in a haze of pale green from the leaves that are about to burst forth, and elsewhere trees are covered in exuberant blossoms – a time of promise and a time of renewal! I wanted to share this post with you from a few years ago. I think it captures what’s going on outside right now pretty well (but then I’m biased as the writer :)) Where you live, spring may not be as advanced but it will come – I promise!! Enjoy!


We get renewal notices all the time – be it from insurance companies, subscriptions for websites, magazines, software, series of concerts, often marked with ‘Take action now‘ or some such.

Mother nature needs no such reminders or notices, renewal just happens as part of the scheme of things, and seemingly without much effort.  Right now, we’re in the midst of springtime (even though spring won’t officially start until March 21), and there is renewal all around us.  Leaves and blossoms sprout from barren looking trees, bulbs push up flowers, and there is birdsong in the air once more.

I took a walk through the vineyards, to try to experience that wonderful spring feeling.  Here is what I came across, captured for your delectation!

At the end of a path through the vineyards, I followed a little stream.  Where the stream flows into the river, there is a meadow, which is almost totally covered in wild narcissuses – such a joyous sight to behold!!

Nearby, I found some buttercups

Buttercup, also known as lesser celandine (Ficaria verna)

Buttercup, also known as lesser celandine (Ficaria verna)

The bee was having a fun time on the dandelion flower!!!

The plant below is bay laurel (laurus nobilis) –  most of you will have some of its dried leaves in your herb and spice cupboard.  Looking at the plant, it’s not going to be long before the flower buds will burst open!

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I’m not sure what the tree in the pictures below is – could it be witch hazel?

I think that the flowers below are wild rocket, a plant which grows abundantly in the vineyards, where it flowers almost all year long!  The leaves are edible, but tougher, and more pungent than the leaves of the cultivated variety.

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Of course there were daisies too – such cheerful flowers!!

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Here’s one of the many different kinds of euphorbia, which grow so well in our region.

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The leaves below promise that there will be wild tulip flowers – and lots of them!!

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These blossoms were tiny, no larger than 5mm across, and the branches were very close to the ground.  Any suggestions as to what the plant might be?

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Botany is not my strong suit – I think the flowers below could belong to a type of viburnum, but I’m far from sure 🙂

I do know what plant the exotic looking balls belong to – they are the fruits of a plane tree (platanus).

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This is most probably a periwinkle (vinca) flower:

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I could not resist taking a picture of this beautiful branch – the colours of the lichen against the bark is so beautiful!

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Here’s another mystery plant – these seed pods look a little bit like a cardinal’s hat.  Or is that my imagination??  Any ideas about the name?

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Another bee, this time on a marigold flower (calendula):

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I don’t know what the following flowers could be, but they looked so pretty!!

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I came across a small cluster of grape hyacinths (muscari), right by the path.

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The river at the Platanettes was so pretty – it will be lovely to take a dip in the cool water during the summer!

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A cornilla bush (coronilla glauca) was flowering quite close to the river.

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Here is another unknown plant – it has the most beautiful feathery foliage, and very delicate little flowers!

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On my way home I came across this explosion of pink flowers, probably an apricot tree, or perhaps a peach tree?

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Here’s a close-up of some of the flowers from this beautiful tree:

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And there you have it – nature’s springtime abundance, to be found for the looking!

Coming out

Since the start of this year, we seem to have had more gray or rainy days than sunny days – at least it feels that way to me! That said, we had very little rain last fall, so the rain we have had since the beginning of the year is somewhat reducing the rainfall deficit, which can only be a good thing for our area! Another side effect of the rain is that the spring flowers should be absolutely spectacular this year!

When the sun came out last week, I met up on Friday with a couple of friends for a two and a half hour hike. We met in Agel, in the car park behind the church. A signpost pointed across the river to ‘Le Pech’, the hill we were going to climb. There was a marked walk on Le Pech many years ago, but the markings are no longer maintained, so we relied on the knowledge of one of our fellow walkers to guide us.

There were wonderful views of the village of Agel as we climbed the hill:

We walked past beautifully maintained olive groves:

And we came to the ruins of the chapel of Saint Symphorien:

On we walked through dense pine forests, inhaling the wonderful scents from the pine trees and the rosemary bushes. We walked past vineyards, the vines neatly pruned and the ground carpeted with flowering wild rocket (arugula).

We came to a bit of landscape that looked as though it might belong somewhere else – Arizona or Utah, perhaps?

We walked past enormous bushes of flowering gorse, interspersed with some rosemary, also in flower, which diffused a wonderful scent.

Before long we came upon these strange looking mounds – made by ants?

And then the village of Agel came into view again – we were on the home straight!

As we got closer to the village, we came across a field that was sprinkled with anemones – such beautiful and cheerful colours!

Here is another view of the village from across the river:

And then we were back where we started. I’d packed some banana bread and a thermos flask with tea, so had a well earned picnic before I left my friends and headed back to Saint-Chinian again.

There’ll be more spring flowers and walks soon!! Have you been out walking lately?

Festival foods

Ash Wednesday marks the start of Lent. During the Middle Ages, that day meant the start to 40 days of strict religious fasting. Dairy products along with meat and eggs were forbidden foods until 1491, when Pope Julius III allowed Catholics to eat butter/oil, eggs, cheese, and milk during Lent. Until 1491, people had to find ways to use up the ‘forbidden ingredients’ before Ash Wednesday, and thus were born some of the foods which today are still associated with this time of year. In Britain, Shrove Tuesday is synonymous with pancakes, a dish with simple ingredients – flour, eggs, milk, butter. Making pancakes the day before the fasting started was a way to use up all those ingredients rather than throw them out or, perish the thought, risk sinning!!

In Germany, doughnuts or Krapfen are traditionally eaten during the Carnival celebrations which precede Ash Wednesday. The ingredients are pretty much the same as for pancakes, so this is another recipe which uses up ‘forbidden foods’! Following a recent phone call with my parents where we chatted about Carnival and food, I developed a serious craving for doughnuts!! I knew that none of the shop-bought doughnuts would satisfy that craving – they are nice enough, but they just don’t measure up to a freshly-made yeast-raised doughnut!! Bakeries in France don’t tend to make deep fried pastries, so doughnuts are usually bought-in. And more often than not they are made with baking powder rather than yeast.

So, the only way I could satisfy my craving was to make the doughnuts myself – and that’s exactly what I did!! I started my search for a recipe in my grandmother’s old Regensburger Kochbuch – a book which has seen much use over the decades! It is one of those old-fashioned encyclopaedic cookery books where there are no pictures (yes, none whatsoever!! :)) and where the instructions for each recipe are kept to a minimum. In the picture below you have all the ingredients I used, apart from the oil I used for frying. Just so that there is no confusion – I was going to make jam (or jelly) filled doughnuts!

I used 500 g flour, 25 g fresh baker’s yeast, 1/2 tsp fine salt, 250 ml milk, 4 egg yolks, 80 g butter, 50 g icing sugar (you can use regular sugar too), 1 tbsp rum, and the finely grated zest from one lemon. I also used one jar of apricot jam for filling the doughnuts and icing sugar to dust the cooked doughnuts. I compared various other recipes and they all seemed to agree on the flour and egg ratio. The rum was not in the recipe in my grandmother’s book, but I had a little left in the bottle, and I thought it would do no harm. In case you are wondering, it didn’t, quite the opposite in fact!

I warmed the milk to lukewarm and dissolved the yeast in four tablespoons of the warm milk. To the remaining milk I added the butter, sugar, salt, and the egg yolks, and mixed it until blended. I put the flour into the bowl of my stand mixer, made a well in the centre and put in the dissolved yeast. With the mixer running on low speed, I added the milk/egg/etc. mixture, the lemon zest, and the rum, and left the machine to do the work until a soft dough formed. Once that was done, I increased the speed of the mixer a little and let it knead the dough for 10 minutes while I had a cup of tea. 🙂

Here’s what the finished dough looked like:

I covered the bowl and let the dough rise – the kitchen was not very warm that day, so I heated the oven to 50 degrees centigrade, turned it off and put the covered dough in the oven. It was lovely and cosy in there and in next to no time the dough looked like this:

Looks fabulous, doesn’t it?? I turned the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and deflated it by kneading it a little. I then used a rolling pin to flatten the dough to a thickness of about 2 cm. Using a round cookie cutter (mine was about 8 cm in diameter) I cut out rounds which weighed about 50 g each. I put the rounds on a lightly floured cloth and covered them to rise once more. I formed the dough scraps into balls which also weighed 50 g each.

While the doughnuts were rising, I prepared the oil bath. I used grape-seed oil because of its neutral flavour and also because of it’s fairly high smoke point (420 F / 215 C). I also like using grape-seed oil because it is a byproduct from winemaking! ;). I prepared my cooling racks by lining them with paper towels, and I sieved the apricot jam to remove any bits and skins which might block the nozzle of the filling tube.

And then it was time to start the frying – the doughnuts were beautifully puffed up, and the oil was at the right temperature, 320 F / 160 C.

After three minutes I flipped them over and cooked them for a further 2 minutes.

The oil always bubbled a little more once doughnuts were flipped over, but it was easy cooking without any splattering. I cooked the doughnuts in four batches and left them to cool before I filled them with the apricot jam. Just before serving, I dusted them with icing sugar.

They were beautifully fluffy and the outside had a slight crunch – heavenly! The flavour was fabulous with a hint of lemon and rum. They definitely hit the spot and fulfilled my craving!!

Have you ever made your own doughnuts? How do you like your doughnuts filled? Or do you prefer your doughnuts with a hole in the middle??