Food and wine

Back in January, I attended a tutored wine tasting with food pairing at the Maison des Vins in Saint-Chinian (see post here).  Since then, I seem to have developed a bit of a fancy for this kind of event.  When the Maison des Vins announced a series of food and wine pairing dinners in collaboration with the restaurant Le Village in Saint-Chinian, I did not hesitate to make a reservation for the first one.  There are four more of these dinners – follow this link to see the list of dates!

The formula is simple – three courses and three wines, the whole for 25 Euros.

Menu soiree vigneronne – a food and wine pairing dinner.

The wines were presented by Elisabeth Poux from Domaine Pech Menel.  The meal started with steamed green asparagus and half a grilled artichoke heart, served with mountain ham and a mousseline sauce.   The mousseline sauce was made like a hollandaise sauce, using the Blanc de Pech Menel 2015 wine, which was served with this course.  Whipped cream was added to the hollandaise sauce just before serving it, to give it a mousse-like texture.  Mme Poux explained that the white wine was made with a blend of grenache, rolle (also called vermentino), roussanne and viognier grapes.  It was delightfully dry and crisp, with hints of honey and dried fruits.  This was the first time I had tasted the wines from Domaine Pech Menel, and I was impressed!

A starter of steamed asparagus, mountain ham and grilled artichoke heart, served with mousseline sauce and accompanied by Blanc de Pech Menel white wine.

After a little pause, to allow us to finish our wine, the main course arrived, accompanied by a different wine.  The wine was Chateau Vallouvieres-Pech Menel 2009, a full-bodied, deeply coloured red wine, made from 70% mourvedre grapes; carignan and grenache grapes made up the rest of the blend.  This wine was a wonderful accompaniment to the slow cooked lamb, which was served with home-made fries and a medley of vegetables.  The lamb was tender and succulent, the fries were lovely and crisp, and my only criticism could be the colour of the plate the dish was served on! 🙂  Perhaps I’m old-fashioned, but on the whole I prefer food to be served on white plates.

Slow-cooked lamb with home-made fries and a vegetable medley, accompanied by Chateau Vallouvieres-Pech Menel red wine.

The dessert was all chocolate – perfect for me!!  On the plate in front of me were three different kinds of chocolate desserts: in the picture below from left to right – moelleux au chocolat, a kind of moist chocolate cake; mousse au chocolat, chocolate mousse; and crumble a la banane au chocolat, banana and chocolate crumble.  All three were delicious, but my favourite was the banana and chocolate crumble!  To accompany this dessert, Mme Poux had chosen a red wine called No Name.  This was a fairly young red wine, a 2013 vintage, made from a blend of syrah, grenache, mourvedre and cinsault grapes.  It was a fresh tasting wine with a hint of smokiness, and it had a slight petillance, very different from the wine we drank with the main course, but a perfect foil to the richness of the chocolate.  No Name could be a wine for every day drinking, and could be perfect for an aperitif if served slightly chilled.

It was a great evening, spent with good food, good wine and good friends!!  Having discovered the wines of Domaine Pech Menel, I’m looking forward to visiting the winery and tasting their other wines.

Mediterranean delight

The village of Roquebrun is nestled against a steep hill, with the river Orb flowing at its feet.  The road twists and turns as you approach the village from the direction of Cessenon, passing the tiny village of Lugne, before crossing a range of hills.  Just past the top of the hill, as the road starts to descend again, the most beautiful panorama opens up.  There below is the Orb valley,  a lush and green expanse of fields and vineyards.  And in the distance you can see Roquebrun.  If you drive that way, think about making a stop at the little pull-in to take in that view!

The site where Roquebrun is today, has been occupied by humans for a long time.  Pre-historic and Roman vestiges have been found, and around AD 900 a castle was built, of which the tower is still standing, to protect against invasions from the south.

With the castle to protect them, people began to construct a village below and around it.  In turn this village got its own fortifications.  The medieval layout of that village can still be experienced as you walk up towards the tower, through narrow streets and passages.  The driver in the car was not from these parts.  He very nearly wrote off the car at the point  where it is in the picture below.

The passage of time can be seen in many charming ways on the streets of Roquebrun.

When early man settled in Roquebrun, one of the reasons was no doubt the microclimate that prevails.  Visit the village at the right moment – such as right now – and the air will be heavy with the fragrance of citrus blossoms.  It’s a beautiful fragrance, and there are citrus trees all over the village!

My destination was the Jardin Mediterraneen, which was created just over thirty years ago.   On the way to the garden I passed “La Rocheuse” – it’s a perfect house to rent if you want to stay in Roquebrun!

The microclimate of Roquebrun means that the plants which flourish here would have a hard time elsewhere in this area.

As you walk up towards the garden, there are signs in several places!

The garden was created on abandoned land above the village, and like most gardens it is a work in progress!  To date about 1000 tonnes of materials have been moved (stones and building materials) by donkeys and humans.  Since it’s almost at the top of the hill, your climb is rewarded with spectacular views!

Over 4000 plants from 400 odd species are being grown here!  I’ve been to the garden many times over the years, and have watched it evolve, and I feel that right now it is looking the best it ever has!

I would love to be a specialist on plants, but I still have a lot to learn.  The garden specialises in Mediterranean plants, plus cacti and succulents.  Here are some flowers:

And some plants which I would class as cacti (feel free to correct me if I’m wrong):

The microclimate at the garden is helped by the range of dolomite rocks, which store and refract the heat.

In this type of environment water is scarce, so only plants that have successfully adapted to the drought-like conditions will be able to survive.  After the spring rains, the garden is looking very lush, but even at the height of summer there will be something of interest!

Right at the top of the garden an enclosure has been built, to house two goats.  Their job is most likely to keep the undergrowth down!

From the goat enclosure I got a good view down towards the tower and the village – this was very high up!!

Several years ago, the ancient tower was restored, to stop it from falling apart.  In the picture below you can see quite clearly the square holes in the walls near the top of the tower.  These holes would have held beams which supported a wooden walkway.  The crenelations were added later.

From the viewing platform below the tower, stone stairs led down to the level of the entrance to the garden, past some lovely cistus bushes.  The bees were having a feast on the beautiful pink flowers!

The visit to the Mediterranean Garden was coming to an end, but the visit to Roquebrun was far from over.  On the way down the hillside, I snapped some more pictures!

A beautiful rosa banksia in full flower:

Another ancient door, with a marble door surround:

A well established wisteria, covering a little terrace:On Rue des Orangers, which runs along the river, is a restaurant called Le Petit Nice.  Its dining room has lovely views of the river, and this is where my friends and I had a bite to eat after all that walking!

Snails with garlic and parsley butter

Salad with smoked trout

Pan fried trout with almonds

Rabbit casserole

Pears poached in red wine

I’m not sure that we had walked off as many calories as we consumed, but I have no regrets – the meal was absolutely delicious, and the service so very friendly and efficient!

On the way back to the car there was one more remarkable sight – the esplanade which overlooks the river was renovated a few years ago, and planted with various climbing plants.  I was there just at the right time to see the beautiful wisteria flowers!  Two different kinds of wisteria, one a deep purple with double flowers, and the other with almost pink single flowers – stunning!

If you are in the area, be sure to visit Roquebrun.  It’s a beautiful and historic village with many attractions!

Time to dine

To follow up last week’s post about customs in French restaurants, I thought it would be appropriate to whet your appetite with some food pictures!!  WARNING – if you are feeling hungry, do not read any further – have something to eat first!! 🙂

The first meal in this post was at Auberge de l’Ecole in Saint-Jean-de-Minervois.  The kitchen at Auberge de l’Ecole is run by Brigitte – her style of food is down-to-earth regional cooking, and her cassoulet is very good and highly recommended!  Here are three starters:

Salad with goats cheese, smoked duck breast and pears

Beef carpaccio

Marinated sardines

Main courses:

Brigitte’s famous cassoulet

Braised lamb shank – very tender!

Grilled squid with Persillade (parsley and garlic)

L’Ecailler Gourmet in Narbonne is a restaurant which serves fish – and only fish – there’s no meat on the menu!  What they serve depends on the catch, and so the fish is always very fresh, and always expertly cooked!  A nice touch in this restaurant is the fact that they bring the fish to the table before it is cooked, so you can drool over what you’ll get while you wait 🙂

Fresh fish for three!

Gratinated oysters

Salmon mousse duo – smoked and fresh salmon

The main courses were beautifully presented and the fish oh-so-good!!

Swordfish steaks

Mixed grill – salmon, cod and prawn

Grilled sea bream fillets

Desserts are always important to me – I adore them!  The desserts in the pictures below tasted every bit as good as they looked!!

Variation on banoffee pie

Peach and strawberry soup

Fresh strawberries with strawberry sauce

The Guinguette du Chichoulet restaurant is right by the water, on the marina at Port Chichoulet, near Vendres Plage.

The food was simple, and service was very friendly!

Marinated sardines

A selection of deep fried food – squid rings, prawns and potoatoes

The mussels were plump and juicy, and the prawns cooked just so.

Moules mariniere

Grilled prawns

The bar/restaurant Le Vernazobre in Saint-Chinian was taken over by Murielle and Jeremy in autumn last year.  For the moment, food is served only at lunchtime, but during the summer months they will be serving food in the evenings too.  I’ve been a number of times recently, and have enjoyed my meal each time.  The choice of dishes on the menu is small, and the food is simple and well prepared.

Pate

Salad with tuna fish and hard boiled eggs

Goat’s cheese parcel

I was assured that the steak was tender – and it was very good indeed!

Grilled steak

Pork chop with creamy sauce

Seafood pie

Have you tried any of these restaurants yourself or any others in this area that you especially liked??  Do you have any tips to share??

Restaurants in France

I came across this post on francetaste, and I hope that you find it as interesting as I did!

Taste of France

place carnotFrom what I’ve read, for some people even an IRS audit would be less stressful than ordering a meal from a French waiter.

Yet one of the Top Things to Do While Traveling in France is eating. It doesn’t have to be stressful. Here’s how.

menu chinese russian 2First of all, get the restaurant right. If you go to the big place right on the waterfront or whatever the main tourist draw of your destination is, then you can almost be sure that it isn’t going to be good, and the waiters aren’t going to care. This is true worldwide.

trilingualBut if you’re in France, it’s doubly a crime, because France is a place where you can have absolutely heavenly food, from the finest of haute cuisine to humble yet delicious dives. Bad food is practically criminal here.

The French diner uses the power of the purse to punish restaurants for bad cooking…

View original post 1,629 more words

Walled in

Today I would like to take you on an outing to Villefranche-de-Conflent.  I hope you have the time to join me!  img_2225

Villefranche sits on the confluence of the Tet and Cady rivers, at the foot of the Pyrenees.  Because of its strategic location, the town was heavily fortified from the Middle Ages onwards.  In the 18th century, the fortifications were reinforced by Vauban, who was Louis XIV’s military engineer and advisor.

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Vauban added an extra layer to the fortifications, creating a vaulted gallery on top of the mediaeval ramparts, and topped this with another gallery which was covered with a slate roof!  So much more space for soldiers who could aim at the enemy from two different levels.

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The shape of the town was very much dictated by the rivers and the mountains – have a look at an aerial view on the internet here.  Its appearance has not much changed since Vauban’s major work in the 17th century …

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… except that there is now a new road to one side of the town, which takes traffic past the town and up into the mountains.  And there is now a railway line, which allows the famous ‘Canary’, the yellow train, to take travellers from Villefranche to the highest railway station in France, at Mont Louis, and beyond.

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The layout of the town has remained pretty much the same since mediaeval times – there are two main streets, Rue Saint Jacques and Rue Saint Jean.

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Because space was restricted, the houses were built tall.  On the ground floor, most houses would have large arched doors, which could be the entrances to shops or stables, or for storing carts.  The rooms on the first floor were usually reserved for workshops of artisans, and living accommodations were on the second floor.

img_2203 Many doors still sport beautiful door knockers – one of my particular passions!  Can you tell which of them are more recent than others?  Here’s a selection of them:

This side street leads to a gate in the fortifications, from where there is access to Fort Liberia, a citadel which was built by Vauban, high above the town!

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Statue of a saint above the gate to Fort Liberia – perhaps Saint Peter?

Here’s a picture of Fort Liberia, as seen from down below:

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Here is another statue – it sits in a niche high up on a facade.  It probably depicts another saint, but with the missing arm it’s difficult to figure out which saint.  I have a hunch that it could be Saint Barbara, but I’m not certain.

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No trip is complete without something to eat!  My travelling companions and I went to a restaurant called Le Patio on rue Saint Jean.  Some of the houses had internal patios – as did this restaurant – and that’s where we had lunch.

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None of us were overly hungry, so we decided to skip the starter and to have a main course, followed by dessert.  I don’t know about you, but for me dessert is a must!! 😀

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Tagliatelle with pesto

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Tagliatelle with smoked salmon sauce

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Octopus with potatoes

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Grilled sausages with country fries and garlic mayonnaise

The main courses were perfect for each of us – and the desserts were even better!  The Cafe Gourmand was a particular hit!!

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Tiramisu

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Chocolate pudding with a melting interior

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“Cafe Gourmand” – coffee with eight mini desserts!!

On the way back to the car, I noticed a few more details from Villefranche’s past:

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If you want to visit Villefranche-de-Conflent, and want to tie in your trip with a ride on the yellow train, be sure to visit the SNCF website for a timetable.

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!