Locked in

We’re into week five of the lockdown – at least I think we are, I sometimes lose track of time! ūüôā ¬†Last Monday, we had some good news – sort of. ¬†Emmanuel Macron announced that France should gradually come out of the lockdown from May 11th onwards. ¬†There were no indications as to how it could work, but no doubt the details will follow. ¬†Of course, that means that we’re in for a little more than three weeks of staying at home!! ¬†ūüėČ

Last Sunday being Easter Sunday, I had planned ahead and bought a piece of saddle of lamb from Boucherie Gerard, my local butcher. ¬†Along with most food shops, Corinne and Nicolas Gerard have stayed open throughout the confinement. ¬†They’ve been incredibly cheerful, and it’s always been a joy to shop there!

I wanted to roast the lamb, but as the joint was relatively small (700 g) I figured that a traditional roast would be somewhat tricky to pull off successfully. ¬†I briefly considered cooking it at a low temperature (80 degrees Centigrade) for many hours but I dismissed that idea too. ¬†In the end, I hit upon cooking the lamb saddle in a salt crust. ¬†I’ve ¬†cooked things in salt crusts a number of times, and it has always worked well for me. ¬†In fact, I’ve previously written about that way of cooking here. ¬†In an old copy of House Beautiful I came across an article by Gabrielle Hamilton of Prune restaurant in Manhattan, in which she gives directions for cooking beef tenderloin in a salt crust. ¬†I used that as my inspiration!

To begin with, I browned the joint all over in a frying pan. ¬†I started in a ‘dry’ frying pan, i.e. without any fat, and I placed the joint with the skin side in contact with the hot iron first. ¬†It soon started to give up some fat, and that was all I needed to help brown the rest of the meat. ¬†It was quite smoky, so I was glad to have an efficient extract fan above my cooker!

While the meat was browning, I prepared my salt crust. ¬†In a large bowl, I beat an egg white until it was foaming, then I added two kilos of coarse sea salt (kosher salt) and a little water. ¬†The texture was that of sand that’s damp enough to build a sandcastle with. ¬†Below is a picture of the lamb nearing completion of the browning:

I placed a layer of the damp salt mixture on a baking sheet, and put the lamb on top of that:

I then encased the lamb with the remaining salt mixture:

Once it was all covered, I put it in the oven, which I had pre-heated to 130 degrees Centigrade.  Gabrielle Hamilton gave the roasting time for her tenderloin as 45 minutes and I stuck with that.

Here’s what the lamb looked like when it came out of the oven: not all that different to when it went in!! ūüôā

I left the meat rest for about 15 minutes, before I cracked open the crust.  It had set very hard, but a sharp blow with the blunt edge of the cleaver soon made it crack!

There was a fair amount of salt clinging to the meat, so I used a pastry brush to get it all off!

I had prepared some mashed potatoes, pan roasted vegetables and mint sauce while the meat was cooking, so I was ready to carve and dish up as soon as the meat had been ‘liberated’ from the crust!

The lamb was wonderfully tender, with just a hint of pink all the way through, and a great savoury flavour. No salt is needed with this method of cooking, the salt crust takes care of all the seasoning!

Best of all, after this wonderful meal there were enough leftovers for lunch the next day!! ūüôā

Since it was Easter Sunday, there was a little dessert to end the meal.  I cut a few slices from the lamb-shaped sponge cake I had made, and topped them with a little rumtopf, fruit which had been macerating in rum and sugar for some months!  Simple and oh so delicious!!

How was your Easter meal – did you have any special treats??

It’s virtually Easter!

We’re in our fourth week of lockdown in France! ¬†With lockdowns in place in numerous countries worldwide, it will mean that many people will be celebrating Easter this year very differently compared to previous years! ¬†The churches will be closed, large family gatherings are out of the question, and even family walks are restricted. ¬†I’ll be taking it in my stride, but I feel for those whose lives are being disrupted by being confined to their homes!

I’ll be following some of my Easter traditions such as dyeing hard-boiled eggs:

baking Hot Cross Buns:

and baking a cake in the shape of a lamb:

I will probably prepare Easter lunch using lamb, though this time I won’t leave the shopping to the last minute, as I did back in 2012!! ūüôā ¬†You can read my story of that Easter lunch here.

The town of Perpignan won’t be holding its traditional Good Friday procession, but you can have a look at what you’ll be able to see next time you visit around Easter!

Traditionally, families in our area of France (and perhaps in other areas of France too?) will go for a walk on Easter Monday to pick wild asparagus for the Easter omelette. ¬†This year being different, perhaps the omelette may have to be made with bought asparagus, but I’m sure the traditional omelette will be eaten!!

Do you have any Easter traditions you’d like to share?

Full of flavour

From time to time I hear of a restaurant or a chef and make a mental note to go and eat there one day. ¬†I’ve been meaning to try the Bistrot Saveurs in Castres for some time now and I finally managed to eat there last week, when I went on a day out with friends!!

Castres is about one and a half hours by car from Saint-Chinian – ¬†a beautiful drive through lush countryside! ¬†It’s a town that once was very prosperous through its textile, paper and tannery industries. ¬†A walk around the town will have you enthralled by the beautiful buildings along the river Agout and the renaissance mansions of the rich and nobles of bygone days. ¬†All that is for another post – the prime purpose of my recent visit was food! ūüôā

The Bistrot Saveur is close to the centre of Castres.  Actually, most things are close to the town centre РCastres is eminently walkable!

The kitchen is presided over by Simon Scott, who has worked in prestigious London establishments such as the Ritz Hotel, where he was sous chef, and the Savoy Hotel, where he was head chef!  The dining room reflects the food which is contemporary and elegant.

Here’s a look at one of the menus:

And here is some of the food – the nibbles that accompanied our drinks:

The lollipops were made with parmesan and spices, the little dishes contained marinated fish with citrus fruit and pomegranate seeds, and the macarons were filled with a black curry cream.  All really yummy and a hint of what was to come.

All four of us ordered the¬†Menu Saveurs, which is the restaurant’s lunchtime menu. ¬†Since there were two choices for each course, we did manage to have all the dishes on the menu brought to our table ūüôā

Here’s one of the starters – Pollack prepared like gravadlax, served on a bed of spinach mousse and accompanied by crispy vegetables and leaves and raz-el-hanout sorbet. ¬†Raz-el-hanout is a North African spice blend and it gave a wonderful flavour to the sorbet.

The second starter was equally delicious – it was very much inspired by local ingredients. ¬†If the first starter was¬†mer (as in sea), the second starter was decidedly¬†terre (as in land)! ¬†Beautifully cooked puy lentils, topped with a samosa filled with black pudding, an egg cooked at 63 degrees Centigrade, and ice cream made with fresh goat’s cheese.

For my main course, I ordered the puff pastry topped chicken and mushroom, which was served with a puree of topinambour (Jerusalem artichokes), as well as a mixture of delicious winter vegetables (carrots, Brussel sprouts, Chinese artichoke, baby potatoes).  The portion size was absolutely perfect and the flavours were amazing!

The second main course on the menu was grilled sea bass filet on a sweet potato puree, served with chick peas, cooked ‘red meat’ radishes, and a shellfish reduction. ¬†I only had a little bite to taste but I would have been just as happy having this dish for my main course as the chicken – I can’t really say which I preferred, both were delicious!

I opted for cheese to finish my meal – a selection of Mr Marty’s sheep’s cheeses, accompanied by walnuts and quince pate. ¬†I don’t know who Mr Marty is, but his cheeses were very tasty!!

My dining companions all opted for the chef’s take on tarte tatin: beautifully caramelised apples atop a crispy¬†speculoos (gingerbread) crust, topped with raspberry sorbet.

We ended this great meal with coffee and some wonderful pistachio financier cakes (they were very small), which were still warm from the oven!

The menu, including a glass of wine and coffee was absolutely fantastic value at 25 Euros per person. ¬†I feel that I’ll be going to Castres again before too long and I’ll make sure to take more photographs of the town then, for another blog post!

If you want to eat at Bistrot Saveurs, be sure to book a table Рthe restaurant gets very busy.  You can find the website here.

So cheesy!!

Do you remember the time when fondue was all the rage?? ¬†It must have been in the dim and distant 70’s and 80’s when fondue seemed to be so sophisticated and entertaining! ¬†And then somehow fondue fell from favour, and all those fondue sets and special plates were put at the back of some cupboard and more or less forgotten about. ¬†That was pretty much everywhere except in Switzerland, where cheese fondue is very much part of the national identity!!

I’ve just had friends from Switzerland staying in Saint-Chinian, and we had a cheese fondue one evening. ¬†It brought back many happy memories, so I thought you might enjoy reading about it. ¬†In the French language, the word¬†fundu¬†means melted, so that is where cheese fondue got its name from.

For those of you who have never encountered fondue or a fondue set, there is a stand with a small spirit burner, on which is set the fondue pot.  There is an almost infinite variation of possible combinations as to shape and size, and these days electric fondue sets are also available!

Here are the ingredients we used for our cheese fondue:

We had to have Swiss gruyere and Swiss Emmental cheeses Рthe French versions of these cheeses were not an option for my Swiss friends!!  Luckily, the cheeses were easily found in the area!  We also used a dry white wine (Riesling in this case), Kirsch eau de vie, and corn starch.

To accompany the fondue, we had carrots, broccoli, small new potatoes, apples, pears, and bread Рall for dipping into the melted cheese.  And we also had a mixed salad to accompany the fondue.

The cheese was cut into manageable chunks and then grated on the big holes of a box grater.

The carrots and the broccoli were lightly steamed, the potatoes boiled until just cooked, and the bread, apples and pears cut into bite-size chunks.

The stand for the fondue pot was set up in the centre of the table.  The stand would usually sit on a metal tray to protect the table, but my metal tray appears to have gone astray Рperhaps it is at the back of some cupboard, somewhere??  The ceramic dish was a good substitute.

To make the fondue, the wine was heated in a casserole with some sliced garlic.

Once it reached boiling point, the cheese was added a handful at a time, whilst constantly stirring.

The cheese soon started to melt – to begin with it looked a bit lumpy!

Before too long it started to come together into a smooth and creamy cheese and wine stew!

At that point a mixture of corn starch and kirsch eau de vie (mixed until there were no lumps) was added to homogenise it further, and to add flavour.  After another couple of minutes the mixture was ready to be transferred to the fondue pot, which had been warmed with boiling water (otherwise the cheese would have cooled too much).  Note: fondue is normally cooked in the pot that it is served in.  Unfortunately, my fondue pot was not compatible with the cooker, so the fondue had to be transferred.

Below is the fondue in the pot, ready to be brought to the table.  The top was sprinkled with freshly grated nutmeg!

We were all set to go!!

Everyone put a selection of goodies on their plates, and then we were ready to dip and enjoy the fondue!

It was absolutely delicious!!  Thank you to Thekla, Jean and Ueli for sharing this with me!!

Here’s the printable recipe:

Cheese Fondue

  • Servings: 4-6
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

400 g Swiss Emmental cheese
200 g Swiss gruyere cheese (Greyezer)
400 ml dry white wine
1 – 2 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced
1 teasp corn starch
2 tbsp kirsch eau de vie
freshly grated nutmeg

For dipping, prepare all or some of the following:
French bread (preferably day old), cut into bite-size cubes, each cube with some crust
Small new potatoes, carrots, broccoli, steamed/cooked until just tender
Apples and pears, etc. cut into bite-size pieces

Grate the cheese.  Mix the corn starch and the kirsch until there are no lumps. Heat wine and garlic in your fondue pot and when at boiling point add cheese a handful at a time whilst stirring continuously with a wooden spoon.  When the cheese is completely melted and the mixture starts to bubble add the corn starch and kirsch mixture, stir well for a couple of minutes, then bring to the table and put on your fondue stand.  

When dipping, make sure that you keep the cheese mixture moving!

Note: If possible, use a heat diffuser mat under your fondue pot once it is on the stand.  That way the cheese mixture is less likely to scorch at the bottom of the pot.

Winter is a perfect time for eating cheese fondue – what are you waiting for??

Bonne annee

At this time of year in France, when you see someone for the first time after New Year’s Eve, it is customary to exchange new year’s greetings. So, without further ado:

Bonne annee, bonne sante, meilleurs voeux to you all!!

This greeting is usually accompanied by a kiss on each cheek, not a real kiss but kind of touching cheeks and making the appropriate noise.  So please feel yourself virtually kissed!!

The new year’s greetings go on until the end of January!

Soon after Christmas, the galettes des rois or Epiphany cakes make an appearance in the shops and bakeries.  The tradition of the cake is closely tied to the three kings who came to Bethlehem bringing myrrh, gold and frankincense to baby Jesus.

Epiphany cakes come in one of two shapes:  there is the flat galette des rois, a frangipane filled puff pastry confection, or a ring shaped cake made with brioche dough which is often called a royaume and is decorated with sugar and/or with glacé fruit.  That same ring-shaped cake can also be found filled with cream!!

Common to all varieties is the fact that a favour is baked into them.  In olden days, the favour would have been a feve, a dried fava bean.  In France the favour is still called a feve and it is usually a tiny porcelain figure (watch your teeth!!).  Whoever finds the feve in their piece of cake is crowned king for the day.  Whenever you buy an Epiphany cake in any bakery or shop, a small cardboard crown is always part of the purchase!

Another tradition attached to the eating of the Epiphany cake concerns the dividing of the cake.  The youngest person usually sits under the dining table.  The cake is then cut into pieces, and the person under the table then calls out the name of the person who is to have the piece which has just been cut.

If you’re tempted to make your own galette des rois, have a look at this article where I give the recipe.

So, here’s to the start of the new year – let’s hope it’s a good one for all of us!!

The photographs for this post were taken at La Gourmandise bakery in Saint-Chinian.  Thank you, Carole!!

Keepers

My own definition of a keeper is a place I’m going to keep in my address book, somewhere I’ll want to go back to again! ¬†The two restaurants in this article both fall into that category!!

On a recent visit to Montpellier, I had wanted to have lunch at L’Heure Bleue, an antiques store cum restaurant cum tearoom on Rue de la Carbonnerie. ¬†The last time I had been to L’Heure Bleue was a few years ago. ¬†I had fond memories of it’s cozy and kitsch decor and the delicious food! ¬†The concept was fun – everything in the restaurant was for sale: the tables, the chairs, the china, literally anything around you could be bought and taken home, if you so wished. ¬†When I pushed the door open on my most recent visit, there was none of the usual hum, and nobody was seated at the tables. ¬†Perhaps I was a little too early? ¬†Alas I was too late! ¬†When I asked about having lunch, the owner said that they had stopped serving food about a year ago. ūüė¶ ¬†He could see how disappointed I was (he probably was too), and suggested that I try another¬†Salon de The just around the corner – L’Appart’The. ¬†So off I went, down Rue de la Carbonnerie, turning right into Rue de l’Aiguillerie, and finally left into Rue Glaize. ¬†I was so pleased when I spotted L’Appart’The, that I almost went flying when I missed a step outside the restaurant! ¬† ūüė≤

There were tables outside the restaurant, and even though it was a nice and sunny day, it felt a little too cool for me to be sitting outside.  Inside, the dining room was small but bright, with a lovely warm feel to it.  There was space for only eight persons at four tables for two.  A counter at one end of the room separated the kitchen from the dining room, and allowed me to watch the chef preparing the dishes.  There were already some people seated and I felt a little too self-conscious to take photographs.

The menu was very simple: a choice of three starters, two main courses, and four desserts.  My dining companion and I both opted to have the fresh ravioli for our starters.  The ravioli were filled with mountain (raw cured) ham and curd cheese, and served with a creamy sauce.  The ravioli were very delicious!

For his main course, my dining companion chose the slowly braised pork chop:

I had the roast beef:

Both of the main courses were delicious!  What we really liked was that for once there was a good amount of vegetables on the plates Рthat happens so rarely in restaurants in France.  The vegetables were perfectly cooked and totally appropriate for the season: turnips, carrots, cabbage, sweet potato and regular potato.

From the five desserts on the menu I chose the apple tart:

and my companion chose the apricot dessert with a caramelized top:

Both desserts were very yummy!!  When I came to pay the bill at the counter (the menus were 25,50 Euros for three courses), I saw that there was a second room to the side, which was set up as a lounge with sofas, armchairs and coffee tables Рvery cozy and perfect for afternoon tea!


I came across another “find” recently on a visit to Capestang. ¬†Again, I wasn’t able to go to the restaurant I had hoped to go to, which was La Galiniere. ¬†I had timed my trip badly, it was the day off for the restaurant. ¬†I knew that there were several restaurants around the main square in Capestang, so I walked there and had a look. ¬†Le Caveau de la Place looked interesting and there were a couple of people outside, enjoying a drink in the sunshine, so I decided to give it a whirl.

The word caveau usually denotes a wine cellar where you can sample and buy wine. The interior of the restaurant made the wines a prominent feature:

The lunchtime menu was simple and straightforward Рthree courses, no choice of dishes, but what was on offer suited me fine.  The first course consisted of deep-fried squid nuggets with a little green salad.  The batter around the squid was very well seasoned, and the olive oil on the salad was wonderfully tasty.  The portion was very generous, almost a meal in itself!


For the main course there was blanquette de veau, veal in a creamy sauce with carrots and mushrooms, and accompanied by a creamy risotto.  The veal was lovely and tender, and oh-so-tasty!!

Dessert came in the form of a lemon meringue tart – not home-made I’m guessing, but good all the same!

To go with the food, I had a glass of white wine from Domaine Saint-Georges d’Ibry, a winery near Abeilhan. ¬†In the photo below, the white wine was the bottle in the centre.

The three-course lunch with a (very generous) glass of wine came to ‚ā¨17.80 – great value!

When I arrived back in Saint-Chinian there was a rainbow on the horizon – if you look carefully, you’ll be able make out the start of a second rainbow. ¬†Just perfect!! ūüôā