Welcoming the rooster

The Chinese zodiac year of the Fire Rooster started on January 28, 2017.  Together with a few friends I decided to welcome the year of the rooster, by cooking a Chinese meal.  Our host had selected the dishes for us to cook and done all the shopping!

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As you can tell, we started proceedings with a glass of bubbly – just one glass though, there was work to be done yet!!  We cooked five dishes in total:

Simple Thai-style Lemongrass Shrimp Soup:

The soup only required two ingredients which might not be in your cupboard:  fish sauce and chili paste with garlic.  You should be able to find both of them at an Asian grocery store or in the speciality section of a larger supermarket.  The remaining ingredients are easy to find.

The finished soup was delicious, wonderful flavours of ginger and lemongrass.  Definitely one I will make again!

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Duck pancakes with hoisin sauce:

Preparing that dish was fairly straightforward, but different to the classic way of using crispy duck.  In this recipe, skinless duck breast was cut into strips, then stir fried and finished off with hoisin sauce.  We decided to substitute lettuce leaves for the pancakes, which made the dish lighter and gave it a bit of a crunch.

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King prawn and scallop stir fry:

The king prawn and scallop stir fry required a fair amount of preparation, but it was very quick to cook!  We substituted sherry for the rice wine, and there were some asparagus spears, so they went in as well! :).

It tasted every bit as good as it looked!

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Chicken and cashew nut stir-fry:

The chicken and cashew nut stir fry is an old favourite, which was easy to make.  It was great in that it required no special ingredients.

Once all the vegetables and ingredients were prepared, the cooking was very quick!  Another delicious dish!

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Mandarin Oranges with Grand Marnier and Mascarpone:

We finished our celebratory meal with a light and refreshing dessert.  It was a perfect ending to a delicious meal!

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A feast of taste

It’s high time I wrote another food related post!  Luckily, I discovered a new restaurant last weekend, with the help of Charlotte and Phil from Languedoc Living!  I met Charlotte and Phil last fall, through mutual friends.  We immediately got to talking about food and restaurants, and agreed to go together to L’Ortensia in Saint-Gervais-sur-Marer!  Charlotte booked a table for last Saturday lunchtime, and so I drove to Saint-Gervais-sur-Mare on a grey and rainy day, along the beautiful Orb valley and over a mountain, to reach the village where L’Ortensia is located.

The restaurant is in a late 19th century mansion (set in a park), which had been bought by the local council some time ago.  The mansion sits high above the village, and it’s park was once a hydrangea nursery.  In 2013, after years of complete renovation, the property opened its doors to the public once more.  The kitchen is run by Eric Balan, who has worked with Alain Ducasse and Marc Veyrat.  His partner, Patricia Rochette, looks after the front of house.

The first impression was one of stark modernity.  A modern glass and metal conservatory extension to the main building serves as the entrance from the car park.  Stairs and a lift go down to the restaurant, which is two floors below.  However, Patricia’s warm welcome immediately broke the ice, and we were soon seated at a round table near the fireplace, where a lovely fire warmed us all.

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Once we’d had a chance to catch up with Charlotte and Phil, we turned to the menus and decided to go for the Menu Plaisir – and a pleasure it definitely was!

The meal started with a Prelude Gourmand, something to get us in the mood for what was to come!   First, we were served a tray of wonderful little morsels, to accompany our aperitif:  Roquefort macarons, crisp linseed “sails”, prunes wrapped in bacon, chorizo madeleines, and in the beaker four straws made with air-dried ham and filo pastry.  All incredibly delicious!!

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Then came an amuse bouche, a small bowl of mussel soup, very delicate, with tiny mussels and a sprinkling of pungent spring onions.

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The starter was pan-fried foie gras, served with quince puree and cranberries.  The foie gras was perfectly cooked and the flavour combination worked really well.  The red cabbage sprouts added an earthy note, which paired very well with the foie gras and the quince.

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After a little interlude, our fish course arrived.  Seared scallops were served on a bed of salsify puree, and garnished with pink grapefruit and bergamot lemon zest.  The citrus fruit in combination with the scallops was very delicious!  And the pretty looking baby leaves were of course edible too!

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Pigeon breast in a gingerbread crust was the main course, accompanied by different members of the brassica tribe: romanesco, kohlrabi, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, cress, and thin slices of radish.  Someone in the kitchen was having fun, and we enjoyed eating it!! 🙂

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Our dessert had a very sculpted look – two curved biscuits were holding a delicious “blond” chocolate cream, topped with pears poached in red wine, cubes of pear jelly, and citrus sorbet.  It was a sublime combination of flavours, and a dessert which had been very carefully constructed.  The “blond” chocolate used for the cream was Valrhona’s Orelys; the poached pear was a poire martin sec, an old (and mostly forgotten)  French variety of pear which is perfect cooked in red wine; the citrus sorbet was made with calamondines, a hybrid between a kumquat and a mandarin orange.  The sorbet was sharp with an incredible citrus flavour, a perfect foil for the sweetness of the chocolate cream.

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After dessert came coffee, and with it Les Mignardises – a beautiful selection of treats to round off this wonderful meal.  The beaker held a coffee foam;  the chocolate lollipop was flavoured with pear, and the madeleine with rhubarb.

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What a fantastic meal – wonderful food AND great company!

On the way back I stopped at Colombieres sur Orb to take a picture of the rather spectacular waterfall.

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Just by the waterfall is the starting point for a marked walk, up the Gorges de Colombieres – it looks like a really interesting hike, and I’ve earmarked it for the spring!

Open farm Sunday

During the early part of last year, I came across an event called De Ferme en Ferme, which translates to ‘from farm to farm’, and which takes place in farming areas all over France at various times of the year!  I managed to pick up a leaflet for last year’s fall edition of the event, and found that some of the farms were not all that far from Saint-Chinian, relatively speaking 🙂 .

I set my eyes on visiting a farm called Le Rodier, up in the mountains between Saint-Pons-de-Thomieres and Mazamet.  The day started a little misty and overcast, and as I drove up the mountain, the tops of the trees started to disappear into the fog. The farm is in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by meadows and trees.

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As I walked from the car park to the farm I passed this magnificent mushroom, its top as big as my hand!  I don’t know many mushrooms, but I do know this one is edible.

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Le Rodier is run as a dairy farm by Marie and her husband Sebastien, and Marie’s parents, Martine and Jean-Louis.  The farm has been owned by successive generations of Marie’s family for 100 years!  Marie and Sebastien had careers in law and finance, but when Martine and Jean-Louis began to look at possible retirement, Marie and Sebastien decided that they would carry on the family’s farming tradition!  With lots of enthusiasm they re-trained and became expert cheese makers and farmers!

They farm an area of 70 hectares (70,000 square metres or 173 acres), either as pasture or to produce hay and cereal feed for their 45 cows.  The cows are called Brune des Alpes, and they are out on the pasture from the end of winter until the first snow, producing a total of 270,000 litres of milk during the course of the year.  60,000 litres of that milk are used for cheese production on the farm, the rest is sold to a dairy.

Sebastian had set up a display of various equipment used for the production of their cheeses.  For hygiene reasons, a visit to the dairy itself was not possible.

Before I had a chance to visit the shop, Martine took a group of us to see the cows!  On the way we passed the hay barn – they had certainly made hay while the sun had shone!!

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The cow shed was large and spacious, and very clean-smelling!  I remembered that sweet smell from when I went as a child to a farm in the neighbourhood to get fresh milk.  Most of the time I would be allowed to visit the cows as they were being milked!

There weren’t many cows about, most of them were out grazing.  The ones in the barn were about to give birth, or had very recently given birth.

Here are the calves:  the one on the right had been born the day before!

The milking parlour was our next stop – the cows walk in at one end of the parlour and line up with their rear ends towards the pit, where the milking machinery is located.  Once they have been milked they walk out the other end of the parlour and back into the barn – all very organised and efficient.

Martine was a wonderful guide, and she communicated her passion for her work and her animals so well – it was a privilege being able to spend time with her!

Finally to the shop, where Sebastien was busy serving customers.  The range was relatively small compared to what you would find in a cheese shop, but for a small family business it was impressive!

On the top shelf there was faisselle (cheese curds), butter, creme fraiche and fromage blanc.

On the second shelf there was half a blue cheese (left), and three trays of frisquet, a fresh cheese much like goats cheese, either as is or with various ‘coatings’ such as herbs, pepper or paprika.

The third shelf held desserts 🙂 : Creme caramel, chocolate cream, rice pudding with caramel, and plain rice pudding!

Finally, on the bottom shelf were bottles of fresh raw = unpasteurized milk, and some camembert.

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The firmer cheeses are the ones made in the large moulds, which Sebastien had on show outside.

The Pastural is the softest of them – 18 litres of milk are needed for one cheese.  For the blue cheese to the right, 20 litres of milk are required.  The large cheese towards the right is called Rodal and it is made from 120 litres of milk!  On the very right of the picture you see part of a tomme – during the cheesemaking process, the curds are pressed with a weight, resulting in a firmer cheese, made from 40 litres of milk.

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Sebastien was happy to let me taste the various cheeses, and I came away with a lovely selection AND some fresh milk!

On the way back I caught a glimpse of the cows in one of the fields.

I must confess that the cheeses from Le Rodier were not a new discovery for me – Marie and Sebastien come to the little market in Agel (circuit court) every other Thursday.  But it was wonderful to visit their farm, and to meet Marie’s mother!  In case you are wondering, Marie’s father was there also, but he was busy with another group, so I did not get a chance to meet him.  If you want to experience this farm yourself, the farm shop is open every Saturday from 10am to 6pm, and you can of course buy the cheeses every other Thursday in Agel from 5pm to 7pm.

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A perfect match

Here’s to the start of another year – let’s hope that there will be more peace and less hate in the world!

What better way to start a new year, than with a post about wine-tasting!  Before Christmas, a friend asked if I would like to join her at a tutored wine tasting with food pairing – she had won two places for it in a prize draw!  “Of course, with pleasure”, I said without much hesitation.  The event was organised by the Herault Department in collaboration with the Maison des Vins de Saint-Chinian, the official showroom for Saint-Chinian wines.  The Herault Department organised a series of these events between September and January, in order to make the wines and foods of the region better known.

The tasting in Saint-Chinian was presided over by Thierry Boyer, a professional sommelier, who regularly hosts wine tastings in the area.  The food which was to go with the wine was prepared by Frederic Revilla of the restaurant Le Faitout in Berlou.  Here is the menu:

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The evening started in the shop on the ground floor of the Maison des Vins, with a glass of white wine, whilst everyone signed in.  The wine was called Schisteil and came from the Cave Cooperative in Berlou.  It was perfect as an aperitif, a nice fruity wine, without too much acidity.

Once everyone had arrived, we were invited to climb the stairs to the second floor, where we were to spend the next few hours.

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Once everyone had settled down, Thierry Boyer (below, far left) started the evening by introducing his co-hosts: Nellie Belot (far right), the director of the Maison des Vins, and Frederic Revilla (second from left), the chef of the Restaurant Le Faitout.  The lady with the red apron in the picture below was helping Thierry Boyer with pouring the wine.

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Once the introductions were made, Thierry started on the technical part of the evening, explaining the ‘art of tasting’ in some detail.  I’m no expert when it comes to wine tasting, and so this was all very interesting.  Each participant was given a tasting sheet, where notes could/should be made about various aspects of the wine, such as the visual aspect, the smell, taste and overall impression.  On the reverse of this sheet was an explanation of the words to be used in describing the wines.  All in French, of course, AND highly instructive!!

Once Thierry had finished his explanation, Nellie Belot took over to introduce the first wine, Domaine du Landeyran’s Saint-Chinian-Roquebrun 2013.  My notes tell me that the grapes for this wine are grown at Saint-Nazaire de Ladarez, on schist (slate) terroir, which produces relatively small yields of 30 hectolitres per hectare (1 hectolitre equals 100 litres, and a hectare is 10,000 square metres).  The wine is made with 70% Syrah grapes and 30% Grenache grapes, and spends one month in oak barrels.

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Next, Frederic Revilla introduced the food – blinis made with chestnut flour, topped with rillettes de volaille a la sauge, potted chicken with sage.  Somehow the French sounds more elegant, don’t you think? 🙂

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Finally, the wine was poured, and Thierry continued to teach us how to taste!  Take the glass by the base, so that your hand (which might be smelling of onion or garlic??) is as far away from the rim of the glass as possible!  Tilt the glass to the side and examine the colour and the clarity of the wine, as well as the colour of the “edge” of the wine, where the wine touches the glass as you look down into the glass.  Then we came to the “legs”, which are traces left by the wine on the inside of the glass.  Finally we were instructed to smell.  Once everyone had had a good sniff (the first nose), we had to swivel the wine in the glass and smell again – that’s called the second nose.  Agitating the wine causes some oxidation and brings out the smells more strongly.

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As you can see, everybody was doing this very seriously!!  After much sniffing and scribbling, we were allowed to taste the wine.  No, the idea was not to have a good gulp but to aerate the wine again, drawing air through it and making noises almost as if you were slurping noodles or some such.  The air causes still more oxidation, and brings out yet more flavours!  Once we’d had our first mouthful of wine, the blinis were passed around – one piece each.  I was so caught up in the tasting and note writing, that I missed taking a picture of it!  My note on the food says ‘super’!!  My memory of it is that it was very delicious, gone in a flash, and very good with the wine!  About the wine, my notes say very dark, almost black, a nose which was spicy, with red fruits and a hint of caramel.  The taste was a little tannic, and not too heavy.  Overall very nice, but I wasn’t blown away.

The next wine was Vieilles Vignes 2014 from Chateau Cazal Viel, near Cessenon-sur-Orb, was accompanied by a mushroom pate made with soya oil, on a toast which had been lightly brushed with olive oil.

This wine was made with Syrah, Grenache and Mourvedre grapes, and looked very dark, with very long legs. On the nose, I discovered red fruit and farmyard smells (those of you who remember the Food & Drink Show on BBC TV in the 1990’s may recall presenter Jilly Goolden talking of “bags of manure” 🙂 ).  Thee are all kinds of funny ways of describing the smells of wine – and manure/farmyard don’t mean that it tastes of that!!  In the mouth, the tannins were still somewhat strong, but the wine was generously fruity.  This is a wine which would be good to keep for a few more years, but which was very nice to drink now.

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The mushroom pate was wonderful with this wine, and as you can see in the picture, the pate was topped with a little piece of mountain ham, as well as some celery and carrot, both lightly steamed.

The third wine on our list was Le Secret des Capitelles 2014, from the Cave Cooperative in Saint-Chinian, made with 65% Grenache and 35% Syrah.  The colour of this wine was lighter than the two previous ones had been, and the edge of the wine was pinky red, indicating that it is relatively young (older wines can have a brown-ish edge).  The nose was fruity, with some toasted aromas.  The taste was very round, very easy to drink!

img_1793This wine was accompanied by a tartar of hake, a white fish, similar to cod, which had been delicately seasoned with peppermint and licorice, and was topped with a leaf of pennywort (umbilicus rupestris).  The pennywort brought out a sweetness in the wine, whist the pairing with the fish worked perfectly!

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During a brief interlude in the tasting, Thierry explained a little about corks, and why it is important to keep a bottle horizontal:  corks have tiny air pockets in their structure, and if left exposed fungi could grow in these pockets and taint the taste of the wine.  I’m simplifying here, there is far more science to it than just that!

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On to our last wine, Domaine Cathala’s Absolue 2013.  With this wine it was a case of keeping the best ’til last!  The wine is made with a blend of Syrah, Grenache and Carignan grapes, which are grown on limestone terroir near Cessenon-sur-Orb.  The colour of this wine was very deep, almost black and the nose had hints of farmyard and something called ‘sweaty saddle’.  I have the ‘sweaty saddle’ on authority – the friend who had invited me to the tasting is an expert!  The wine tasted spicy and fruity, and it was very delicious!!

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To accompany this wine, we had some baby wild boar, cooked in a stew with Sichuan pepper, mandarin and a little chocolate to thicken the sauce.  It was a pairing made in heaven!!

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What a great way to spend an evening – good food and good wine, and I learnt a great deal at the same time!!

Here’s a picture of the happy team at the end of the evening – they all did a wonderful job transmitting their enthusiasm for the food and wines of the region!  From right to left: Gaylord Burguiere, who works at Maison des Vins and has wonderful Instagram feed; Frederic Revilla; Natalie Revilla; Thierry’s helper; Thierry Boyer; Nelly Belot, and two ladies from the Herault Department, who’d organised the evening.

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Thank you to Carole for allowing me to accompany you on this adventure!!

If you are in Saint-Chinian, do go and visit the Maison des Vins.  You’ll be able to taste (and buy!) a good cross-section of wines from the Saint-Chinan area!

Discover Uzes

A couple of weeks ago, I told you about my trip to the Witches’ Market in Saint Chaptes. In order to be able to get to the market early in the morning, I stayed the previous night in Uzes. Getting to Uzes in good time gave me the chance to spend a few hours exploring the centre of town. Uzes is a town whose history dates back to Roman times. Most of you will have heard of the Pont du Gard, an aqueduct built by the Romans to bring water to Nimes. The Pont du Gard is not far from Uzes, and Uzes is where the Romans captured the water for Nimes. Here’s a picture of the Pont du Gard at sunset:

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The old town centre of Uzes is full of amazing buildings.  Unfortunately most of the streets are very narrow, so it was impossible to capture much more than some architectural details.  The “dressed up” door was for Halloween – the tape says ‘Caution – Enter if you dare’!  🙂

In the centre of the old town lies a large and irregular shaped square, it kind of meanders around several corners.  This is where the market takes place every Saturday – I’ve not yet visited that, but it’s on my list!!

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Some of the houses along this open space have arcades on the ground floor – here’s a picture of a stone-vaulted arcade:

Not far from the square lies the ducal castle.  The Duke of Uzes still owns the castle, and apparently the title is the highest ranking among French nobility.  The castle can be visited, I just didn’t have enough time.

Right across the street from the ducal castle stands a splendid building, which houses the town hall.

One wing of the building was home to the post office and telephone exchange at one time.  I imagine that both moved out some time ago!

The cathedral was destroyed several times.  The current building dates from the 17th century.  The arcaded belfry dates from the 11th century.

I found a some lovely door knockers on my walks:

As the day drew to a close, my thoughts turned to dinner – wouldn’t you know?? 🙂  I’d noticed a few restaurants throughout the town and in the end I decided on a restaurant called Midi a l’Ombre, which was tucked away a little, not far from the tourist office and the cinema.  It turned out to have been a great choice!  The dining room was very stylish and warm, and the chairs oh so comfortable.  You’ll be able to see pictures of the dining room on the restaurant’s own website – I didn’t take any since there were a fair number if diners already seated.  But I did take pictures of the food!  Here is the amuse bouche, a delicate jerusalem artichoke soup!

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Since I had a friend with me, here are two starters.  The first is a terrine of foie gras with figs, the second is a dish of scallop and prawn ravioli with crispy vegetables.

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Here is the main course – delicious and perfectly cooked john dory with polenta and ratatouille.

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The cheese selection was amazing!  I overheard the waiter describing the cheese under the plastic cloche as ‘the devil’s suppository’ to the guests at the next table, warning them that it was very smelly! 😀  I decided to give that particular cheese a miss…

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The desserts were a fitting end to a wonderful meal!  The first was a Grand Marnier mousse with crispy orange biscuits.  The second was a chocolate mousse cake, which was as light as a feather!

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Highly recommended!!

No ordinary seaside lunch

Earlier this year, I was given a recommendation for a restaurant in Valras Plage, called O Fagot.  Seaside towns are not always known for their restaurants, so I looked up the restaurant on the net.  I found that the chef had just participated in a reality show on French TV called Top Chef – by the time of our visit he’d already been “knocked out”.  However, his food looked very promising, the reviews for the restaurant were encouraging, and friends were keen to come along, so off we went to Valras Plage!

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The restaurant is located a little way away from the centre, in a residential part of Valras Plage.  The outside is unprepossessing – I learnt that Franck Radiu, the chef, had taken over the premises not long ago.  In its previous incarnation, the restaurant had been a pizzeria, and the wood-fired pizza oven is still in place at one end of the dining room!

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A reminder of Franck’s stint on Top Chef hung on the wall – a chef’s jacket, signed by the other contestants and the judges.

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The interior was sober and modern, the chairs were comfortable and the tables set with nice glasses and silverware.  But all that was incidental, the food was the star here.  On the picture below is our amuse bouche – we certainly amused ourselves with it! 🙂

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This starter was interesting for the different textures, and very delicious:  an egg yolk on a slice of crispy bread, over an artichoke cream with toasted hazelnuts.

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The foie gras was pan-fried and perfectly cooked.  It was accompanied by apple slices and shavings of mushrooms and fennel, as well as a wafer thin piece of crispy bread.

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The starter in the picture below was a soft boiled egg, which had been coated with breadcrumbs and deep fried.  The egg was sitting on a salad made with quinoa and lots of fresh herbs, shaped into an incredibly neat circle.

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The main courses looked as spectacular as they tasted!  Franck Radiu is Corsican and uses this wonderful ham from Corsica to add flavour and seasoning to his meat dishes – he uses salt sparingly, preferring the ham to add the salt to the dish.

The lamb was braised for 24 hours at low temperature.  Even though the meat was incredibly tender, it still had a good texture.

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The steak was very succulent, and accompanied by potato croquettes.

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Braised and grilled belly pork on a bed of lentils with foie gras – yummy!img_4360

Franck Radiu started his career as a Chef Patissier (pastry chef), working in some high class hotels and restaurants in France, and his love of desserts shows!

The fraisier was a light as a feather!

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Ma Passion Chocolat was almost a chocolate orgy, combining crispy, crunchy, smooth and cold, and the passion fruit added a nice kick!

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Praline/Framboise was another lovely combination of textures and flavours – fresh raspberries, crispy biscuits and smooth praline mousse.

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A great finish to a lovely meal!!

And to round off this wonderful experience, we went for a walk along the seafront, which was just around the corner!

I would strongly recommend that you book before you head to O Fagot – you can find the contact details on the facebook page for the restaurant here.