Guilty pleasures

A recent trip to the UK meant staying overnight in Tain l’Hermitage, a town that is about an hour south of Lyon.  Close by is Crozes Hermitage, well-known for its excellent wines, but for me, the main attraction of the area was the Valrhona chocolate factory!!

I had timed my visit to Tain l’Hermitage so that I would have the afternoon to indulge in visiting the Cite du Chocolat, the interactive chocolate “museum”.

The impressive building sports a huge version of the iconic black chocolate box, which was introduced by Valrhona in the 1970s.

The side of the building also looked as though it had been decorated with over-sized chocolate boxes!!

Inside, it is ALL about chocolate!  And here’s a tip – at the entrance, opposite the cash desk, you’ll find lockers, where you can put your coats and bags.  Use them! It’s a lot more fun to go around the exhibition without having to carry anything!

Various interactive displays allow you to sharpen your senses – and eat chocolate!  🙂
Dulcey is a white chocolate with a caramel flavour, and Jivara is a milk chocolate!  I’m not normally a fan of white chocolate, I find it too sweet and cloying, but I’ve become a fan of Dulcey!!  And Jivara was very delicious too!

One of the exhibits explained the processing of cocoa beans from the arrival at the factory to the finished product.  The videos showed the various stages of production, with comments by Valrhona employees.  At some of the stages there were little tastes of chocolate, including some 100% cocoa chocolate and pure cocoa butter.  The 100% chocolate tasted very bitter but there were all kinds of fruity notes and it was energising in a caffeine way!!  The cocoa butter had no taste at all!  The little oval pieces of chocolate are called feves and are made for the professional market.  Because of their shape they melt readily.  The big blocks are also aimed at the professionals, but there’s nothing stopping you from buying either of these products in the shop at the end of your tour.

At the bottom of the stairs to the first floor (2nd floor US) was the machine in the picture below – a chocolate enrobing machine!!  The machine covers passing bits of “candy” (squares of praline in this case) with melted chocolate.  The big tank below the conveyor belt holds melted chocolate at a temperature of 44.5 degrees centigrade. An ingenious pumping system cools the chocolate to 28 degrees centigrade, before warming it again to 31.5 degrees centigrade, at which point it is used to enrobe. Any excess chocolate runs back into the tank where it is heated once more and so on.  The process of heating, cooling and heating is called tempering, and it results in a finished chocolate that has a nice shine and cracks when bitten into it.

On the first floor were displays of how Valrhona chocolate could be used in various desserts, cakes and Belgian style chocolates.  AND of course there were more chocolates to be tasted.

Another display showed the development of the company, which was founded in 1922.  In the early days, Valrhona chocolate was only sold to professionals.

Old packaging, publicity items and tools were also on display.

At the start of my visit, when I bought the entrance ticket, the cashier asked if I wanted to participate in a half-hour workshop – the theme was praline.  I’m always interested in learning new things, so for an extra Euro I got my ticket for that workshop!

Praline is made from sugar and nuts, usually in equal proportions.  The sugar is either caramelised, with the nuts added when the caramel is a dark amber colour; or sugar and nuts are “cooked” together until the sugar starts to melt.  The two different types of preparation give very different results, but in both cases the sugar/nut mixture has to be ground for several hours, in order to obtain a smooth praline paste – not something that I would want to do at home!  The resulting praline has a 45% fat content (from the nuts).

Depending on the nuts used, even though no chocolate is added, its taste can be similar to that well-known brand of chocolate spread – you know the one I mean!!  I got to taste the different types of praline, but for me they were too rich, even though they were delicious.  I preferred the sugar-coated roasted nuts which I was allowed to taste at the beginning of the workshop.  In order to use praline as a chocolate centre, cocoa butter is added to make the praline firm at room temperature.  A taste of that kind of chocolate was included too, and it was delicious! 🙂

After all that chocolate tasting, my belly was starting to ache – I never thought I would be able to overdose on chocolate, and I blamed it on the praline!! 🙂

Finally it was time to visit the shop!!  I had visited Valrhona a long time ago, before the Cite du Chocolat had opened, so I knew that the shop was an Aladdin’s cave of chocolate and more chocolate!!

Best of all, all the plain chocolates on sale could also be tasted, in case one couldn’t remember what they were like in the first place!! The selection is vast, and I had some difficulties in making my choices!  I bought a 1 kilo bag of Guanaja feves, which contains 70% cocoa – it makes a wonderful chocolate mousse!  And I bought several smaller bags of feves of different types.  You can buy Valrhona chocolate on-line, but one of the nice things of visiting the shop – apart from being able to taste pretty much everything – is that the checkout staff always put some small presents in your bag!! 🙂

After my visit at Valrhona had ended, I went for a little walk along the Rhone – the name of the chocolate factory is an amalgam of Rhone Valley, and the river is close by!

Getting to Tain l’Hermitage is easy – the town is just by the A7 motorway, about an hour’s drive south of Lyon.  From Saint-Chinian the drive takes just three hours.  Tain also has a railway station, and the chocolate factory is only 800m from the station!!

The Cite du Chocolat is open seven days a week, and it is better to visit in the early morning than in the afternoon (fewer people).

I stayed overnight at the hotel Pavillon de l’Ermitage – a very comfortable hotel with spacious rooms, halfway between the railway station and Valrhona.

Advertisements

Happiness on a plate

Before my Christmas break I met up with friends at L’Auberge de Combes for a pre-holiday treat!  We were all in a festive mood, so we decided to splash on the Regalade du Chef menu, loosely translated as The Chef’s Feast.  It really was a feast as you’ll see from what follows!

If you’ve read my blog post about one of my previous visits to the restaurant, you may remember that Combes is located high up on the flanks of Mont Caroux.  We were lucky to be given a table by the picture windows of the restaurant.  The day we visited was a ‘moody’ day, with mists rising from the valleys below – it was magical!

The amuse bouche set the tone – three beautiful morsels:  chicken liver parfait with crispy onions, a perfectly cooked razor clam with crispy bacon, and a small pot of cauliflower and wild mushroom soup.

Our starter was a “cappuccino” of wild mushrooms and chestnuts, with little morsels of melsat, a kind of white pudding.

Next came the fish course: a lemongrass risotto with scallops and squid, served with a langoustine bouillon.  The flavours were wonderful and the seafood was perfectly cooked!

Earlier, when we ordered, we had to make a tough decision – foie gras or game?  The foie gras was pan-fried and served on a bed of truffled mashed potatoes, the whole topped with a large slice of black truffle!!  Heaven for lovers of foie gras!!

The game option was equally delicious – venison steak served with the most amazing beetroot puree, braised vegetables and a wonderful potato puree!

Next followed the cheese course, and for this course there were two options: either a plate of four perfectly sized pieces of perfectly ripened cheese!  No fuss, no frills, pure enjoyment!

     – Or toasted sourdough bread topped with roquefort cheese, sliced pears and mixed lettuce – also excellent!

Our meal ended with some ‘fireworks’ of desserts!!

Flambeed banana with vanilla ice cream and crispy wafers.

Chestnut shortbread topped with chestnut mousse and served with chestnut ice cream.

Crispy puff pastry, filled with caramel cream and served with caramel ice cream.

We finished the meal with coffee – it was served in a rather original fashion!!  A table leg had been adapted to hold the coffee cups, spoons and a small plate of oreillettes, crispy deep-fried pastry dusted with icing sugar.  What a way to end this meal!

If you fancy treating yourself to a meal at L’Auberge de Combes, be sure to reserve!  You can find all the contact details on their website.  I am pretty sure that you won’t be disappointed!

Happy New Year!

May the new year bring us all peace, health and prosperity!!

I hope you had a wonderful holiday season!!  Mine was spent in Germany, with family and friends, and the break was relaxing and restful!  It was great to re-connect with cousins that I hadn’t seen in years – there was plenty of catching-up to do!

There are many different traditions in the world to welcome the new year.  In Germany, chimney sweeps, four-leaf clovers and little piggies are some of the things that symbolise good luck – you can buy little gifts with those themes all over the place.

I decided to make little piggies from marzipan, to give as presents to friends and family at the start of the new year.  They are not difficult to make, I promise!!

Here’s what you need:

  • Plain marzipan
  • Red food colouring or beetroot juice
  • A little icing sugar
  • Cloves or nigella seeds for the eyes
  • Slivered almonds for the ears
  • New pennies or one cent pieces

As you can see, I didn’t have new one cent pieces – the bank didn’t have any new ones.  So here’s a trick to make them shine like new:  I mixed a couple of tablespoons of clear (spirit) vinegar with a few pinches of salt.  All I had to do was to add the coins to the vinegar and watch the patina disappear.  Then I removed the coins from the vinegar, and rinsed and dried them. In no time at all I ended up with a nice pile of shiny coins!!

To make the pigs, I broke the marzipan into pieces, added the food colouring (I used beetroot juice) and kneaded the marzipan until it was evenly coloured.  A little icing sugar helped to offset the added liquid, so that the marzipan did not get too soft.

Here’s what it looked like when it was all finished:

For each pig, I rolled one ball the size of a small walnut and five small balls that were a little smaller than a pea.  The larger ball was elongated a little for the body and four of the little balls formed the feet.  The fifth little ball was used to make the snout, flattened somewhat.  I also rolled a tiny little sausage shape for the tail.

With the help of a toothpick I made two holes in the snout, and then I added the cloves and almond slivers for the eyes and ears.  The piggies were finished off with the lucky pennies in their backs.

I used up all the marzipan – it made quite a few piggies and no two were the same!  My little four-year-old nephews helped me count them, and they even gave names to some of them! 🙂

I left the tray with the piggies out to dry overnight.  The following day I wrapped them.  First I cut cardboard discs, which I covered with silver (aluminium) foil.

 I wrapped each little piggie up in some cellophane, decorated the parcel with some ribbons – et voila!

Of course my little nephews each got a piggie on New Year’s Day!  No prizes for guessing – they had eaten theirs before January 2nd!! 🙂

 

First Class

Question: When does a restaurant automatically become first class?  Answer: When it’s in a former post office!  This pun will be more obvious to British readers – in Britain letters can be sent 1st or 2nd class, which translates to priority and regular mail in most other countries! 🙂

La Carte Timbree in Thezan-les-Beziers is in the former village post office AND it really is a first class restaurant!  I discovered this restaurant with friends, after I had heard about it on the grapevine.  Mathieu (the chef) and Chloe (front of house) transformed the old village post office into a modern and welcoming restaurant – if you have a look at their Facebook post here, you can see that the transformation was pretty radical and far-reaching!  But the end result is a great space, a modern dining room that manages to feel warm and welcoming.  Here’s my attempt at photographing the dining room:The lunchtime menu changes every day, and the a-la-carte menu changes once a month – to make the most of seasonal produce, according to the chef.  It’s also more fun to regularly have new dishes to cook!

This was the lunchtime menu the day I visited:

The starter was a creamy carrot soup spiced with curry and coconut milk, and accompanied by slices of toasted baguette topped with lemon flavoured goats’ cheese!  A great combination and very tasty!!

The main course was a stir fry or “wok” as it’s called in France, naming the dish after the pan it is cooked in.  Rice noodles had been sauteed with chicken and vegetables and seasoned in the style of Thai dishes.  Very yummy and just the right size portion!

The dessert of the day was a tarte tatin which had been made with quinces instead of apples.  I will have to experiment with that at home – the flavour was exquisite and it made a perfect ending to our meal!

The lunchtime menu is priced at 18 Euros for three courses, including either a glass of wine or coffee!  The evening menu (choose from the dishes on the a-la-carte menu) is priced at 28 Euros for three courses and 32 Euros for four courses.  They have vegetarian options available.  You’ll be able to find full details on the website for the restaurant.  La Carte Timbree is open for lunch every day except Monday and for dinner from Wednesday to Saturday inclusive.

I’ll definitely be going back to La Carte Timbree – it’s been added to my list of go-to restaurants!  And next time I might even explore the village a little more!

Seasonal blend

The third Thursday of November marks the release of Beaujolais nouveau, a newly made wine which has just finished fermenting.  There is quite a bit of tradition surrounding this event, which has been going on since the 1950’s – the Wikipedia article about it can be found here.

The wine producers in our area thought that the idea of vin nouveau would be too good an opportunity to miss, so several producers offer a vin nouveau or a vin primeur, two names for the essentially the same product: newly made wines which are bottled and sold shortly after the wine has finished fermenting.  These wines are usually characterised as being light, fruity and easy to drink, preferably slightly chilled.  It’s a real treat if paired with roasted chestnuts!

This year, I found that the cooperative winery in Saint-Jean de Minervois was doing their version of the vin nouveau, offering a Muscat de Noel, a Christmas muscat!

I had to make a trip to Saint-Jean and try the muscat for myself, purely in the interest of research, you understand! 😉

The day I visited the winery, the space out front was stacked with pallets of empty bottles! All of these would be filled up in due course!

The Muscat de Noel is the first muscat to be drawn off and bottled from this year’s vintage.  I tasted it in tandem with another muscat from the winery in Saint-Jean, Eclat Blanc, which the lady behind the counter told me was the closest equivalent.  The comparison was very interesting, with some marked differences between the two wines.  The Muscat de Noel had a much fruitier taste and a lovely smell (nose) of pineapple.  It tasted as though there was not much alcohol in it, even though it packs a punch with 15.5% alcohol, and it was far too easy to drink! 🙂  The Eclat Blanc muscat was a very elegant wine, with a very good balance between fruitiness and acidity.  The alcohol content was the same, but somewhat more in evidence!

A sweet Muscat de Saint-Jean de Minervois wine is ideal as an aperitif before the start of a meal, with foie gras (duck or goose liver pate), or with some nice blue cheese such as Roquefort.  It can also be used in cooking – I made a very delicious flan, which was flavoured with muscat!

Do you enjoy muscat wine?  What is your favourite food to pair with muscat wine?

A firm favourite

In our area, autumn is chestnut time, and there are several festivals to celebrate the chestnut harvest.  I’ve written about the festivals before.  You can find the posts here, here, and here.  This year, I went to the Chestnut Festivals in both Saint-Pons and Olargues – over the years they have become firm favourites of mine!

The weekend the festival took place in Saint-Pons, the area was experiencing a cold-snap:  temperatures plummeted to 6 Celsius, well below the seasonal average!!  The stall-holders were well wrapped up against the cold!  Below is a picture of a very warmly dressed Lex Page from Love la Foret!  Lex and her husband Andy specialise in dried mushrooms – I bought some delicious cep (porcini) mushroom powder from them a little while back, and I needed a top-up!

The festival in Saint-Pons always has a large number of exhibitors and I found many familiar stands!

I adore roasted chestnuts, so I made a beeline to the square where the chestnuts were being roasted over open fires!

The hot chestnuts were delicious AND they warmed my hands!!

Bands of roving musicians provided entertainment, and there was lots to see and taste.  Despite the cold weather this was a very enjoyable festival!

The Fete du Marron et du Vin Nouveau (the festival of chestnuts and new wine) took place in Olargues a week later.  The weather couldn’t have been more different – it was beautiful!  The sun was out and there was a marked difference in temperature – absolutely no need for thermal underwear!!

I had of course come for the roasted chestnuts!!  The set-up in Olargues is much smaller than it is in Saint-Pons, but the chestnuts were every bit as delicious!

On a recent visit to L’Auberge de l’Ecole in Saint-Jean de Minervois, I tasted a tiramisu which had been made with creme de marron, a sweet chestnut puree made from broken pieces of marrons glacés.  This was a very delicious dessert and I have attempted to recreate the recipe for you below.  When you next visit L’Auberge de l’Ecole, you’ll be able to taste Brigitte’s authentic version!

Tiramisu with creme de marron

  • Servings: 6-8
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

A delicious tiramisu, with a special flavour of autumn. You can make this in individual serving dishes, or use one large dish.

Ingredients

  • 250g mascarpone (1 tub)
  • 3 eggs
  • 125g creme de marron (chestnut puree)
  • 2 Tbsp sugar
  • 12 sponge fingers (also called ladyfingers or boudoir biscuits)
  • 200ml strong coffee
  • 2 Tbsp Rum

You will also need six to eight individual serving dishes (I used glass preserving jars), or a single serving dish, large enough to hold 6 sponge fingers in a single layer.

ingredients for chestnut tiramisu

Ingredients for chestnut tiramisu

Directions


1. Separate the egg yolks from the whites.
2. In a medium-sized bowl beat the egg yolks with 1 Tbsp sugar until white and thick. Add the mascarpone and the creme de marron and mix until lump-free.
3. Beat the egg whites with a pinch of salt until soft peaks form.  Add the remaining 1 Tbsp sugar and continue beating until stiff peaks form.
4. Fold one third of the beaten egg whites into the mascarpone mixture to ‘loosen’ it.  Then add the remaining beaten egg whites and fold in until the mixture is smooth.
5. Pour the cold coffee into a shallow bowl and add the rum.
6. To assemble the tiramisu, put some of the mascarpone mixture in the bottom of your dish (one third of the mixture if using one large dish).  Dip each sponge finger briefly into the coffee and arrange in a neat layer in your dish.  Top with another third of the mascarpone mixture and repeat with the sponge fingers.  Finish with the last third of the mascarpone mixture and level with a spatula. If you are using individual serving dishes, break/cut the sponge fingers to make them fit.
7. Cover with cling film and leave in the fridge to chill for four to six hours.

Before serving you may wish to dust the tiramisu with cocoa powder but try it without the cocoa powder first. I find that it can overpower the delicate flavour of the chestnut puree.

Note:  In her version, Brigitte uses chestnut brandy, which is pretty impossible to find.  I found rum to be reasonable substitute, but if you can find chestnut liqueur it would be even better.  Brigitte also omits the coffee and uses only alcohol to soak the biscuits in.