Inn joy!!

It’s time I shared a few restaurant visits with you – be warned, don’t read this post if you are already feeling hungry!! 🙂  I’ll be taking you to Auberge de l’Ecole in Saint-Jean de Minervois and Auberge de la Tour in Montady.

Auberge is the French word for inn, designating a small hotel or bed and breakfast with a restaurant, often in a rural location.  These days, the word auberge is often used by restaurants that do not offer lodgings (as is the case with these two restaurants).  Perhaps it’s because the word might evoke certain nostalgic feelings in people?

I’ll start with Auberge de l’Ecole in Saint-Jean de Minervois, which is closest to Saint-Chinian.  Formerly the village school-house, the building was transformed into a restaurant a long time ago.  The Auberge de l’Ecole has been run by Brigitte and Patrick Grau since 2001.  Over the years I’ve been to the restaurant numerous times, and I feel that I’ve gotten to know Brigitte and Patrick quite well – they are both lovely people!

Brigitte is in charge of the kitchen, where she cooks down-to-earth country-style food.

She is famous for her cassoulet, the well-known bean stew of the region!  I decided that I would start with a light salad, knowing that the cassoulet would be substantial!

The cassoulet came to the table in an oval dish, straight from the oven and still bubbling! It was heavenly, and I finished every last bit of it! 🙂

I did manage to have a few spoonfuls of sorbet for dessert, but I did not need anything for dinner that evening!! 🙂

My dining companions enjoyed their food too!  For their starter they had little round parcels filled with prawns and spring vegetables.

Everyone, except me, chose the grilled squid as their main course – it was delicious and tender, and served with sautéed potatoes and a medley of peas and beans.

My dining companions managed somewhat more ice cream than I did!!  We had a very relaxed time – good food and a great meal with friends!!

The next auberge that I promised to tell you about is in Montady: Auberge de la Tour, so-called because of the tower at the top of the village.  This restaurant has the most wonderful views out over the Etang de Montady, a marshy lake which was drained in the Middle Ages.

There’s a very handsome terrace in front of the restaurant, and the dining room is lovely too!

The prix-fixe lunch menu is a great deal, and people come from far and wide to this restaurant.  The food is always delicious, and the restaurant is always busy.  Here is what we ate on a recent visit:

Salt cod puree, guacamole and crab layer (starter)

Crispy samosas filled with curried chicken (starter)

Tuna steak with tomato salsa (main course)

Guinea fowl breast with thyme ‘jus’ (main course)

Strawberry ice cream (dessert)

Creme brulee (dessert)

Reservations are essential for both restaurants.  You can find contact details for L’Auberge de l’Ecole here, and for Restaurant La Tour here.

Advertisements

Centennial Celebrations!

When I posted last week’s article about the Canal du Midi, WordPress told me – much to my amazement – that I had published my 99th post!  Which makes this the 100th post on this blog – and a centenary calls for a celebration!!

But first of all, my thanks to everyone who has been reading, liking and commenting, to my partner for his unwavering support, and to Annie for her dedicated proof-reading!!  It’s been highly enjoyable for me and I hope you’ve enjoyed it too!  I love reading your comments and if there’s anything you would like me to write about then please let me know!

Now, how about celebrating with some Cassoulet??  It’s a typical winter dish from the Languedoc, and it is very special!  According to some sources, making a “proper” Cassoulet takes three days, and I can well believe it.  We’ll have our Cassoulet at  L’Auberge de l’Ecole in Saint Jean de Minervois – Brigitte makes her Cassoulet the way her grandmother taught her, and it is delicious, I’m sure you’ll enjoy it!

L’Auberge de l’Ecole is in the former schoolhouse of St Jean de Minervois, and we’ll find the menu written on an old blackboard, which can be tilted in the direction of our table.  The fireplace at the other end of the room is great for cooking a steak or lamb chop on, and the fire is always a cheery sight on a cool day!

Before we start our meal, here is Brigitte’s recipe for Cassoulet:  she starts by soaking the beans in water overnight, with a pinch of baking soda.  The following day she rinses the beans well, brings a pot of water to a boil and adds the beans.  She then lets the water come to a boil again, drains the beans; brings fresh water to a boil and adds the beans again; she repeats this once more, then simmers the beans until tender.

Brigitte also makes her own confit de canard, pieces of duck simmered slowly in duck fat.  It is an interesting process, but unless you can buy fat ducks readily it’s best to buy your confit ready-made, in a tin.

Once the beans are cooked and the confit ready, Brigitte assembles the Cassoulet:  in a large casserole she slowly cooks chopped onions in duck fat until they are golden but not browned.  To the onion she adds some tomato paste, garlic, herbes de provence, lardons (diced streaky bacon) and the cooked beans.  Brigitte then seasons this and leaves it to simmer until the beans are impregnated with the flavours;  halfway through the cooking time she adds the pieces of confit – as the confit is already cooked she doesn’t want it to get cooked to the point of disintegrating. Before serving, she puts the Cassoulet in a nice gratin dish, sprinkles it with breadcrumbs and grills it until the top is crisp and golden.

So there you have it – this is Brigitte’s recipe!  One thing Brigitte seems to have left out is the sausage!! I know that whenever I have her Cassoulet, there is always a nice piece of Toulouse sausage in it, in addition to the confit.

But now you’ve been salivating long enough – it’s time to sit down and eat – à table!!  What shall we have as a starter before our Cassoulet?  How about some starters to share?  A platter of boudin noir (black pudding) with apples, and some foie gras (this one made with duck liver) – both very delicious!

P1050208

P1050209

And now for the Cassoulet – one dish per person!!

P1050215

Will you have room for dessert?  In case you do here is some home-made pear tart.

P1050219

If you had eaten all that food you would certainly not want anything for dinner tonight, but seeing that this has been a virtual lunch you might be more hungry than ever?!  All the same, I hope you’ve enjoyed our little celebration!!  Thanks for coming along and à bientôt, I hope.

If you’d like to spend more time in St Jean de Minervois have a look at www.midihideaways.com/anciencafe

Carcassonne and Cassoulet

It’s been some time since I’ve been to La Cité in Carcassonne, I probably got a bit “Carcassonned-out” during the first few years, visiting with most of family and friends who came to stay.  So when I took family back to the airport at Carcassonne I decided to give it another go.  It was as beautiful as ever, and as you can see from the pictures the skies had that bright blue quality which is almost unreal.

The car park at the top, nearest the Porte Narbonnaise, appeared to be closed for works, but I’d managed to park further down the road, just across from this gorgeous timber-framed building, and the stroll up the hill just makes the ramparts that more impressive.  It was about 10.30am and the crowds were thronging already – it was French half term.

A little history about Carcassonne: the current fortress was built over an earlier Roman building and was besieged by Simon de Montfort during the Cathar crusades, and eventually taken in 1209.  That was because the Viscount of Toulouse, Raymond de Trencavel, was sheltering Cathars and refused to hand them over – something had to be done about that!.  The “new town” below La Cité was re-built as a bastide on the orders of Saint Louis in 1247, and then burnt down again by the black prince in 1355.  The fortress was a stronghold along the Franco-Spanish border until the treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659, when it lost its importance.  Economically, the chief commerce of Carcassonne was for centuries the production of woollen cloth. That market collapsed around 1780, but economic life of the town got a boost during the 19th century with new industries and wine growing.

Back to present day Carcassonne though.  Once inside La Cité I took the street up to the Chateau Comtal and the inner ramparts.  I’d been told that the visit of the Chateau included access to the top of the walls now, but once inside the courtyard I quickly abandoned the idea – the queues were just too long.  I will go back some time when it’s not so busy to try that experience.

Instead I took the street to the left of the Chateau, and wandered down to the Porte d’Aude which gives access to the moat between the two rings of fortification.  Today the moat is all flat and dry 😉 and a great way to experience the sheer size of the fortifications.  There are also great views out over the Aude river and the Bastide St Louis.

Close to the Basilica Saint Nazaire there was another way into La Cité which might have been added later for the comfort of the more modern inhabitants – but I may be wrong.

Walking through the narrow streets I came to a square (Place Marcou) which was lined with restaurants pretty much all round, a bit like the food court you would find in a shopping mall, only outdoors and with a medieval feel to it.  I decided on La Bonne Demeure, mostly because it had tables in the sun and had an OK lunch.  I guess pretty much all the restaurants in Carcassonne will be serving average food, there’s just too much temptation to economise, too many customers and only so much in the way of competition.  Don’t be put off though, the food and service were prefectly OK, and I’m sure there are exceptions.  I’m going to look for those on my next visit.  And if you visit Carcassonne, don’t forget the “new” town below La Cité – it’s well worth a visit and almost as old!  What am I writing – if you visit Carcassonne?  No, it should be when you visit Carcassonne!!

Cassoulet is one of those dishes which has a long tradition in the area, and Castelnaudary claims the authentic recipe along with a host of other towns and villages.  When it comes to it though authenticity is not my yardstick – I rate a cassoulet by the way I enjoy it, and there’s one which I’ve enjoyed over and over:  Brigitte’s at the Auberge de l’Ecole in Saint Jean de Minervois.

I went with a group of people not long ago, and Brigitte had prepared a simple menu around the cassoulet for us all.  A simple salad of mixed leaves and goats cheese with pesto to start with, and Dame Blanche for dessert – ice cream with chocolate sauce.  For the couple of non-meat eaters in our group she’d prepared some salmon filet with a potato cake, but the cassoulet was just divine, brought to the table bubbling and fragrant!  Perhaps one of these days I may be able to persuade Brigitte to teach me how to make her version of Cassoulet…?

And here’s the gallery of all pictures in this post along with a lot which I’ve not inserted between the text – hope you enjoy this visit!