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! 🙂

The Bistrot Saveur is close to the centre of Castres.  Actually, most things are close to the town centre – Castres 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 🙂

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 – the restaurant gets very busy.  You can find the website here.

Truffle time again!!

I’m sure you have eaten truffles – but did you eat chocolate truffles or black truffles? 🙂

The black truffle, also called Perigord truffle, French black truffle, or, to give the Latin name, tuber melanosporum, is a native European truffle, and it ranks very high on the list of the most expensive foods!

It’s been prized for its flavour since antiquity, and it was regularly served on the tables of princes, kings and emperors.  Towards the end of the 19th century, France produced up to 1000 tonnes of black truffles per year.  Prices were much lower then than they are now, and black truffles were used in great quantities in classic French cooking at that time.

Since the end of the 19th century, France’s truffle output has fallen dramatically – at times it has been as low as 20 tonnes a year!  A variety of causes have contributed to this fall in production: destruction during the 1st and 2nd world wars, deforestation, acid rain, general pollution, changes in farming methods, changes in climate…

For a very long time, the way truffles grew was not very well understood, but by the early 1970s a technique had been developed which allowed hazelnut and oak saplings to be inoculated with truffle spores.  The resulting trees could produce truffles four to eight years after planting, but the success still depends on many factors such as soil type, amount of rainfall, temperatures, etc.

Lucky for us, a good many of the truffle orchards which were planted in Southern France are now producing truffles.  If you visit Languedoc at this time of year, you are in for a treat, as truffle markets in the area take place throughout the winter months.  I’ve visited several of these markets over the years, and I have written about one of these visits here.

Below, I give you a list of the forthcoming markets in the area.  Even if you don’t buy any truffles, these markets are well worth visiting, I promise you!

January 26, 2020 : 21es “Ampélofolies du Cabardès” à Moussoulens
January 26, 2020 : 4e Fête de la Truffe” à Béziers (pourtour des halles)
January 31 to February 2, 2020 : 14e “Fête de la truffe et des produits du terroir” à Nîmes, Place du Marché
February 1, 2020 : “Truffes en fête” à Talairan
February 8, 2020 : Marché aux Truffes” et 15e “Nuit de la Truffe” à Villeneuve-Minervois
February 9, 2020 : 25e Journée Paysanne” à Saint-Jean de Buèges
February 14, 2020 : “Marché aux Truffes de la Saint Valentin” à Narbonne, place de l’Hôtel de Ville de 9h à 13h.
February 16, 2020 : Marché aux truffes” à Castelnaudary
February 16, 2020 : 12e Fête de la Truffe et du terroir” à Claret
February 23, 2020 : 4e Carnaval des saveurs et de la truffe” à La Digne d’Aval
March 8, 2020 : “Truffe et patrimoine” à Trassanel

 

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 – the 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 – all 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 – perhaps 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!!

Restbite

Having been to see the old prison, the cellar beneath the cloisters, and the former archbishop’s palace on my visit to Beziers during the most recent European Heritage days, I had built up an appetite! My search for somewhere to eat took me to Les Halles, the covered market near Place de la Madeleine.  About half of the floor space inside the market hall is now given over to restaurants, with the other half still occupied by food stalls.  I liked the look of A la Maison, and that’s where I had lunch!

The restaurant claims that it serves old-fashioned home cooking prepared with the help of grandmother’s recipes.  I liked the sound of that! 🙂

The menu had a good selection of starters, main courses and desserts:

I chose the entrecote steak – it came accompanied by fried potatoes and some salad.  The steak was tender, tasty and perfectly cooked!  I cannot remember when I’ve had such a wonderful steak in France!  And the potatoes and salad were excellent too!!

My companion ordered the tuna fish, which was served with rice and salad, and a sauce vierge, a kind of salsa made with chopped fresh tomatoes, onions, and olive oil.  The tuna too was perfectly cooked and absolutely delicious!

If I need to choose whether to have a starter or a dessert I will always go for a dessert!  So, from the dessert section of the menu I chose the panna cotta.  It was topped with mango puree and whipped cream.  It was very different from the panna cottas I have eaten and made myself!  The cream was very dense and firm, yet it did not have the rubbery texture that can be attributed to too much gelatine.  It was very yummy and satisfying!

My companion chose the tiramisu with red fruit coulis, as with the panna cotta, this was also a very tasty dessert!!

After this wonderful meal I was ready to continue my quest to discover more hidden historical gems in Beziers!  I did visit three more amazing places, and I will write about those in due course!!

A la Maison is open for lunch from Tuesday to Sunday.  While looked for a website, I found their TripAdvisor listing here.  It’s one of the few restaurant listings that I have come across on that site which has scored five out of five!!  They also have a website here.

Coming up

I know I promised you last week that I would continue the story of my visit to Beziers, but I realised that you might miss a lot of the events in this present post if I waited another week.  I’ll continue with Beziers as soon as possible –  I promise!!

You could be forgiven for thinking that this area falls into some Sleeping Beauty like slumber after the busy summer months.  Far from it!!  Fall has a lot to offer with festivals and activities all over!

The whole area is busy with the grape harvest during the month of September, and sometimes into early October.  You’ll see small tractors pulling trailers that are heavily laden with grapes.  People are out in the vineyards, picking grapes by hand.  In other vineyards the grapes are harvested with enormous machines.  Stop by any cooperative winery at this time of year, and you’ll see the grapes being delivered and tipped at the ‘quai’, where the transformation from grape to grape juice to wine starts.  I wrote about the process some years ago – you can find my article here.

Music is something I enjoy a lot, so I’m very glad that the pianist Conrad Wilkinson will continue his successful series of concerts here at the abbatiale in Saint-Chinian on October 6, 2019 with a concert showcasing very gifted young musicians – watch out for tomorrow’s stars!

The final concert in the series takes place on November 3, 2019.

For lovers of Jazz, the line-up has just been announced for the Jazz festival in Conilhac Corbieres which takes place from November 2 to 30, 2019.

Fall is also the time for the harvest festivals near and far.  The following list is in no particular order!

In Cessenon-sur-Orb, the Fete des Vendenges d’Antan takes place on the first weekend of October.  There will be stalls with local produce, music and the traditional pressing of grapes!

In Azillanet, the Fete Paysanne d’Automne takes place over two days, October 4 and 5, 2019.  It’s going to be an interesting event, with a producers market on Saturday, and lectures about different topics such as how to collect wild herbs, sustainable farming, producing your own seeds, etc.  There’ll be food and music too!

The Fete de La Lucques Nouvelle at the Oulibo Cooperative in Cabezac is on October 20, 2019.

I’ve written about the Foire de la Pomme, du Riz et du Vin a couple of years ago.  This fete takes place in Marseillette on October 13, 2019 and you can find details of this year’s programme here.

I will try to visit the Fete des Vendanges in Banyuls this year – it takes place over several days from October 9 to 13, 2019.  The full programme is available from this website.

The Fete de la Chataigne in Saint-Pons de Thomieres is one of the biggest festivals in the area – this year it takes place on October 26 and 27, 2019.  I’ve visited this fete many times, and have written about it here, here and here.

While I’m on the chestnut theme, the Fete du Marron et du Vin Nouveau in Olargues takes place on November 2 and 3, 2019.  Although it’s a smaller fete than the one in Saint-Pons, it’s nonetheless well worthwhile a visit – the combination of roasted chestnuts and new wine is very delicious!!  The program will be listed on this site shortly.

The flea markets continue in the fall, they are fewer in number than in the summer, but there are still great bargains to be had!!  In Murviel les Beziers on October 20, 2019 there’ll be a big flea market, along with a market for regional produce, food stalls, and there’ll even be a concert at 11.30am!

Pezenas hosts the mega antiques market on October 13, 2019 – a great event for anyone who loves to find a special piece or keepsake!  I’ve been to this event several times, and there is a post on the blog about this event here.

This is just a small selection of events which are taking place in the area – great for a visit at any time of the year!

 

It’s time!

This post is long overdue!!  I had wanted to start writing again at the end of August, but with one thing and another it didn’t happen quite as planned.  🙂

It’s been a long and busy summer, and with the weather still balmy it feels as though summer is not over yet!  All kinds of things have happened in Saint-Chinian since I wrote my last blog post: night markets, flea markets, concerts, open air cinema, the music festival, guided visits and …

The garden has also kept me busy — the warm summer weather meant that things did grow very well indeed! But in order for the plants to grow that well, the garden needed to be watered – very regularly!  It was all worth it though – the produce was wonderful: tomatoes, courgettes, aubergines, beans, cucumbers, melons, onions, okra, raspberries, strawberries, chilli peppers, potatoes and pears!!  I’m sure there’s stuff I’ve forgotten to list! Apples, kiwis and winter squash are yet to be picked.  Part of that bountiful harvest was canned and put in my store cupboard for the winter months, but most of it was eaten right away or given to friends and neighbours.  The orangeglow watermelon in the picture below weighed a whopping 7.2 kg!!  I felt immensely proud for having grown that from seed! 🙂

The orangeglow melon formed the base for the salad in the picture below: watermelon, tomato, red onion and feta – apart from the feta cheese, all the ingredients came from my garden!

Another favourite dish this summer was a salad made with thinly sliced raw courgettes, dressed with olive oil and lemon juice and sprinkled with freshly grated parmesan.  The recipe came from the telegraph website – give it a try if you can find small courgettes!

A friend introduced me to the Glory Bowl salad from Whitewater Cooks – it’s a layered salad that starts with cooked rice, topped with grated carrot, grated beetroot, fresh spinach, fried tofu cubes and toasted almonds.  The dressing that goes with this salad is fantastic!  I’ve made it a good many times since, with some variations in the ingredients:

Another favourite this summer was Thomasina Miers’ Roast Aubergine Salad with chickpeas, tomatoes and summer herbs.  Roasting the aubergines with pomegranate molasses turns them into a delicious vegetable in their own right!

Combined with the other ingredients, the aubergines make a most wonderful salad – unlike any I’ve eaten before!  My dressing looked a little grey as I used black sesame paste, but it was delicious all the same!

The fig harvest was not as abundant as last year, but there were still enough to make a delicious compote of figs with lemon and ginger!

The pear trees were heavily laden this year – a lot of them are slowly ripening in my fridge, the remainder are still on the trees!  There’s nothing nicer than a perfectly ripe and juicy pear!!

Late summer plums made an appearance in one of the farm shops I went to recently – they were perfect for a plum tart!!

I leave it at that for now – just one more thing:  If you are in France (or in Europe for that matter), don’t forget that this weekend is European Heritage Weekend – there will be many places to visit!!  I’ll be exploring some of Beziers’ lesser known places and will report back soon!!