Call of the wild

Last Sunday I went for a trip down memory lane.  About 20 years ago, whilst going for a walk along the canal from the pretty village of Le Somail, I came across a little restaurant on the banks of the Canal du Midi.  It must have been at about the same time of year as now. The restaurant was called La Cascade, after the water which cascaded through an overflow sluice in the canal right next to the terrace of the restaurant.  The terrace looked very inviting, and so I stopped for a drink or an ice cream, or maybe both.  The owners were very friendly and chatty, and I returned there many times for meals and celebrations.  Sadly the restaurant closed down a good many years ago, but the memories remain!

When I arrived at Le Somail I was surprised to see many cars parked everywhere.  Yes, it was wonderful weather, and it was Sunday, but why would there be so many people visiting?  The answer appeared soon enough – the village was hosting a gigantic vide grenier (flea market)!!  There were stalls on both sides of the canal, and lots of people browsing.  The pictures below are taken from the bridge across the canal – you can probably see just how far the stalls stretch into the distance.

Vide Grenier in Le Somail

Vide Grenier in Le Somail

 

View from the bridge in Le Somail

View from the bridge in Le Somail

I was headed in the direction of the big barge in the picture above.  Once I had made my way through the milling crowds and reached the towpath, the peace and quiet of the canal descended.  The plane trees here had not escaped the fungal disease, and for the first several hundred meters of my walk there was no shade.  Boats were moored along the opposite bank to where I was walking – the little cruiser has definitely seen better days!!

Submerged boat on the Canal du Midi near Les Somail

Submerged boat on the Canal du Midi

Yellow irises were flowering along the banks for most of the length of my walk:

Yellow Irises along the banks of the Canal du Midi

Yellow Irises along the banks of the Canal du Midi

I’m not sure what the flower below is called – any suggestions?

Unknown flower on the banks of the Canal du Midi

Unknown flower on the banks of the Canal du Midi

This beautiful butterfly sat still just long enough for me to get a picture:

Butterfly on a thistle flower

Butterfly on a thistle flower

The nightingales were singing away, and in the distance there was a cuckoo calling.  I took a brief video for you – make sure you turn on the speakers!  E-mail subscribers, please go to the website to view the video.

Along the way I came across this mother with her children – what a wonderful sight!  I counted a total of nine chicks!!

Mother duck and her chicks

Mother duck and her chicks

When I eventually reached what had been “La Cascade”, I was not surprised to see that it had changed – not beyond recognition, but it had lost the rustic charm it had once had.  It appears that the building is now used as a private house.  I hope that whoever lives in it now, is enjoying it as much as I enjoyed it when I visited all those many years ago.

On my way back to Le Somail I took this picture – any ideas of what it could be?

Mystery picture - answers  in the comments section please

Mystery picture – answers in the comments section please

There are many wonderful walks along the Canal du Midi, and this was definitely one of them!

Walk along the Canal du Midi

Walk along the Canal du Midi

 

Cassoulet in Castelnaudary

A recent visit by friends prompted an outing to Castelnaudary, a market town between Carcassonne and Toulouse.  You might have come across the name of the town in connection with cassoulet, which is undoubtedly the region’s most famous dish.  Castelnaudary is the capital of the Lauragais region, an area which has been called the granary of the Languedoc, because of its large output of wheat, maize and other cereals.

History was made in Castelnaudary when the Canal du Midi was inaugurated here in 1681.  The town elders had the good sense to pay to have the canal come right to the town.  Pierre Paul Riquet built the Grand Bassin below the town walls, an expanse of water 7 hectares large – that’s 70,000 square metres or 17 acres!!  It is the only man-made lake of its kind on the whole Canal du Midi, and it was important for the economic development of Castelnaudary in the 17th century. Today the Grand Bassin is a pleasure port.

Before I get carried away with the history of the town, I’ll just state that we had come to Castelnaudary to eat cassoulet.  We found a space to park the car on Place de la Republique, and went straight to the tourist office, which is located in one corner of that same square.  The staff there were very friendly and helpful, supplying us with maps and brochures.  They also encouraged us to take the historical walk through the town.  I had looked up a number of restaurants before we set off for Castelnaudary, and asked for their advice as to where we could eat the best cassoulet.  Very diplomatically they confirmed that the two restaurants I had short-listed served very good cassoulet 🙂

It was still early enough, so we went on the walk to discover the town.  Our first stop was on Place de Verdun.  We couldn’t miss the market halls, which occupied centre stage on the square.

To one side of the market halls was a tall building, with an incredibly ornate facade.  The brochure explained that this used to be the Grand Bazar, an offshoot of one of the first large department stores in Paris, the Bazar de l’Hotel de Ville.  The Castelnaudary store was built in 1874, and whoever designed the facade certainly had fun!!

Our walk took us past many splendid buildings, witnesses of the riches which Castelnaudary had in a bygone age.  Of course there were also door knockers – wouldn’t you know that I just couldn’t resist them? 🙂

The mansion below is called the Hotel Latapie, and it is one of the most beautiful 17th century houses in town.  Today it is a listed building, and it belongs to the municipality.  The postman obligingly shifted his van so I could get a better picture of the amazing door. 🙂

More beautiful buildings followed:

We reached a spot where we had a good view towards the Grand Bassin:

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Once we had wended our way down the hill and around a few corners, we finally stood at the water’s edge:

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We walked along the water to the Pont Vieux, the old bridge, passing a charming cottage, and the remains of an old mill.  When we got to the bridge we got a good view of the Petit Bassin on the other side of the bridge.

A lot more architectural detail on the way to one of the restaurants on my list.  I hope I am not boring you, I just love all those wonderful buildings!

The restaurant, La Belle Epoque, looked nice enough, with tablecloths and napkins – almost too classy for a cassoulet restaurant.  What made us decide against it?  There were hardly any guests inside, and from the outside it looked a little too starchy.  Perhaps we were totally wrong.  I will give it a try on my next visit, and I’ll let you know what it was like, I promise!

So we headed back towards the Place de la Republique.  La Maison du Cassoulet, the other restaurant on my short-list is just to one side of it, right next door to the town hall.

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The restaurant was busy, the decor pretty modern and the seats comfortable.

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The place mats had a recipe for cassoulet printed on them – perhaps the one they use in the restaurant?  The waiter was kind of intimidating, so I didn’t bother to ask.

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We all opted for the cassoulet menu, which was simple:  cassoulet plus a light salad for main course, and a choice of desserts;  no starter!  Just after we had ordered we saw that the people at the table next door had some delicious looking French fries served to them.  We asked our waiter if we could have a portion.  What a faux pas!! There was no way he was going to let us have fries!  Did we know that there were beans in the cassoulet?  Did we not know that cassoulet certainly did not need fries as an accompaniment?  Head shaking in disbelief, eyes rolling – I told you he was kind of intimidating…  Maybe it was too early in the season, and he wasn’t yet used to tourists asking for strange things. 🙂

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However, the cassoulet more than made up for our disappointment over the fries.  The beans were beautifully flavoured and perfectly tender, without falling to pieces.  I recently read an article where the writer could taste “a bouquet of forests, meadows and succulent meats” in her very first bite of cassoulet.  The meats in my cassoulet were certainly succulent, but forests and meadows?  Seriously?

The serving was a perfect size. It contained a piece of preserved duck, two kinds of sausage, and a piece of pork, along with the beans.  We all managed to finish our portion, and have a little, although it was very little, room for dessert.  Mine was a “de-constructed” banoffee pie.  Wickedly delicious!!

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La Maison du Cassoulet does have its own website here, as well as branches in Carcassonne, Toulouse and Saint-Lary Soulan.  I Imagine that it can be busy in the summer months, so a reservation is probably a good idea.

Oh, I almost forgot – on the way out I spotted this:

If you want to have your cassoulet AND eat it (at home), you can buy the tins and a dish to cook it in!

Spoilt for choice

Of late I have been “rationing” the restaurant write-ups somewhat – there has been so much else to write about. But the time has come for another restaurant round-up – I just wouldn’t want the foodies amongst you to feel neglected!! 🙂

The Cafe de Plaisance started out as a post relay in the old days of the Canal du Midi, located as it is right by the harbour in Beziers. Today the Cafe is run by Muriel and Laurence, whose grandparents once ran it – and the atmosphere has changed little since then, even though the kitchen and conveniences have been updated. It has a lovely old-fashioned feel to it, and sitting out under the massive plane trees is a joy.  The food is simple and delicious, and served only at midday.  The two course menu (starter & main course or main course & dessert) is priced at €14.50 and the full-works three course menu is €16.50.  There is also a choice from the a-la-carte menu.

In case you are wondering, the hydrangea was on the way to the restaurant and so spectacular that I just couldn’t resist sharing the picture!

My starter was a gazpacho, nice and tangy and a great opener.  For main course I had roasted guinea fowl, which was one of the day’s specials, while my dining companion had gambas with a lovely garlicky parsley butter.  The dessert, a home-made apple tart, was almost half eaten by the time I remembered to take a picture :)!

 

Le Terminus is a re-visit of sorts.  A restaurant has been in existence in the old railway station in Cruzy for as long as I know.  At one point it was rather rustic, but in its latest incarnation Le Terminus is definitely worth a visit!  Unfortunately it was somewhat cold and windy on the night of our visit so we sat inside.  No real hardship, the dining room looked nice and the chairs were comfortable.  Service was very good and the food, which soon appeared, was delicious!

All of us had the Terrine de Foie Gras to start our meal with. Very delicious it was, and we all liked the fun touch of presenting the salad in a Bonne Maman jam jar!  The warm bread on the plate was almost too good to be true, and in the little glass there was some Muscat de Saint Jean de Minervois – always a good accompaniment to Foie Gras.

Main courses were varied – my dining companions opted for slowly cooked lamb shoulder (12 hours) and the red mullet fillets.  My Aberdeen Angus steak was cooked to perfection and the best piece of beef I have had in a very long time!!  AND the fries were home-made!

The cheese plate was perfect in size and selection:  Bethmale, Saint Nectaire, Combebelle goat’s cheese, and a sheep’s cheese with nettles.

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Ready for dessert??   Here they come:

What a great finish to a meal!

La Tour Sarrasine is yet another restaurant overlooking the Canal du Midi.  Its location is very picturesque – on a bend in the canal, in the village of Poilhes. The terrace, at the front of the restaurant, affords great views, especially if you sit by the railing as we did. Service was efficient if a tad heavy on “sales”.

An amuse-bouche of apple and celery smoothie was a good way to get the gastric juices flowing. It had a lovely punch and great flavour.

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For our starters there was, as so often, foie gras: just by itself with a fig chutney and toast, and as part of a salade gourmande with gizzards and air cured duck breast.  My starter was a crispy parcel filled with scallops and melted leeks.  I’m not sure about the white butter sauce, which seems blobbed over it all, but the overall taste was good.

During the little pause between starter and main course we watched the boats passing by, and who should come along but the Bonpas II.  Paule and Rene spotted us sitting there, and waved as though we were long-lost friends.   We had been out cruising with them only two weeks earlier, and that was a lovely touch!

P1100902Our main courses arrived soon after. Somehow everyone had opted for fish:  Cuttlefish with garlic and parsley butter, sea bream with gambas, monkfish and scallops on skewers, and a Montgolfiere, a small, puff pastry topped tureen, filled with scallops and cream.  Divine, according to my fellow diner who had eaten it!

We all decided to skip the cheese course and went straight for dessert.  The profiterole was enormous, and the choux pastry shell was lovely and crisp.  The nougat parfait with its red berry compote was delicious, and the strawberry smoothie a light and tasty ending to the meal.

And watching the wonderful sunset from the terrace was a bonus! 🙂

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Since I already hinted at my last cruise with the Bonpas, I might as well tell you about it.  A friend was visiting with her brother, who has mobility problems, and we hit on the idea of the cruise.  That way he’d be able to experience the canal, and we could all enjoy dinner together!  Paule and Rene were ever so helpful, and the whole evening was highly enjoyable.  I’ve previously written about a cruise on the Bonpas and you can find the article here.  We cruised on Bonpas I, but for the summer months Paule and Rene now have Bonpas II, a slightly larger and open sided boat.  Dinner cruises are still available, but the menu is somewhat different.

We started with drinks in the bow of the boat, as Rene set off.  The landscape along the canal had changed since the last time, with swathes of plane trees disappearing (because of a fungal disease), but the canal is still beautiful. Rene kept us entertained with information about the canal, and when Paule was ready she called everyone to their respective tables.

Starter consisted of a vegetable mousse, accompanied by a salad with thin slivers of foie gras.

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Our group had two different main courses:  Roasted salmon filet and roasted breast of duckling – both delicious.

The cheese course was simple, but perfect in size and delicious!  The honey went with the fresh goat’s cheese, not the Camembert!!

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For our dessert, Paule had prepared a pear charlotte – light and wonderful!

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So there you have it – a variety of dining experiences to be had in Languedoc – all of them enjoyable and delicious!!

Don’t let the sun go down on me…

After all the excesses of the holidays it’s time for a walk to get rid of some of those extra calories!  How about a walk along the Canal du Midi?  I promise you it’ll not be too strenuous, and there won’t be any steep inclines!

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A walk along the Canal du Midi puts you in the footsteps of Pierre-Paul Riquet, a native of Beziers, who had the vision and the tenacity to get the canal built.  As you walk, think about the people who built the canal – 12,000 “head”, men and women – with three women counted as one head – working away with only the most basic tools.  And yet they got the canal built from Toulouse to Agde in just 14 years, from 1667 to 1681.  240 km of canal, 20 to 24 m wide and about 2.5 m deep, with 64 locks (single, double, triple or quadruple), numerous bridges. a few viaducts and an enormous dam – all built entirely by hand!  A colossal undertaking, and even more impressive when you consider the times during which it was built!

Nowadays the Canal du Midi is mostly frequented by pleasure traffic, and its chief glory lies in the fact that its banks are lined by tens of thousands of mature trees.  Initially Riquet only planted trees to stabilise some of the raised banks overlooking the plains, using mostly willows because of their rapid growth.  Later, mulberry trees were planted along the canal, the leaves being used to feed silkworms.  When silk production came to an end, Italian poplar trees replaced the mulberry trees as a productive crop, and it was only during the First Empire that the plane trees took over as the dominant tree along the canal.

Today the plane trees are becoming the victims of globalization:  towards the end of the second world war a fungus was imported from North America, brought to France on wood used to make ammunition crates.  The canker stain of the plane tree is a microscopic fungus which develops inside the tree and blocks its sap channels, thus eventually killing the host plant.  So far no cure has been found, and the spores of the fungus can be distributed by air and water.  Over the years the fungus has slowly spread across southern France, and it is estimated that more than 40,000 plane trees along the Canal du Midi will have to be felled and re-planted over the coming years.  They will be replaced by plane trees resistant to the fungus, as well as a host of other species such as ash and lime.  So the landscape along the canal will change, but think of it as an evolution – in some places the canal may look “naked” for a little while, but the new trees will soon grow!

If you want to know more about the replanting campaign along the banks of the Canal du Midi have a look here – your donations will help to ensure that the canal will look beautiful again!

I hope you’ve enjoyed our little walk – time for a cup of tea??

P.S.  Apologies to all e-mail subcribers to the blog – I accidentally hit the “publish” button while preparing this post, so you had a semi-finished version of this piece in your inbox on Monday.

Romans and restaurants

To walk off some of the excesses of the festive seasons I was invited by friends for a walk in Vendres.  I’d not really explored Vendres before, but it’s right next door to Valras, and that’s probably why – for a quick trip to the Med I always head for Valras.  Well, perhaps not next time.  As with so many villages in the area, Vendres has a long history.  The Romans liked the climate well enough to build there, and the remains of one villa can be seen just outside the village, We decided to explore…

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On the map this spot is marked as the Temple de Venus but it seems that may not have been the case!  So the walls we got to see were where the Romans took their baths.  Seems that even Cassini got that one wrong.  The map also marks a Source Sulfureuse, and whilst it was tempting to see whether the map would hold the promise of the sulphur spring, we decided to head south for the nature reserve and the marina.  If you want to have a look at the map it can be found on the Geoportail website – highly informative and useful.

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The boat was just by the remains of the baths, too picturesque to resist!  On the way to the marina we found some more Roman artifacts – and they seemed extensive:  the remains of an aqueduct.  Fascinating, because what is still intact is not visible, and what can be seen is thoroughly broken.  The first picture is of a collection or distribution point – unfortunately the panel explaining it all had disappeared.

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We had to scramble up the hillside to get to it, but were repaid with wonderful views of the Etang de Vendres.

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On the Geoportail website there is a possibility to overlay the current map with the map drawn up by Cassini in the 18th century, as well as a map from the 19th century, and it’s interesting to see how the size of the Etang has changed over the centuries, perhaps due to farming practices?  The Port Conchylicole is also a fairly recent development – a great place for getting fresh mussels and oysters, and eating them right by the water.  I’ll be back for that in the summer!  Across the road from the car park by the side of the port is where the path into the nature reserve starts.

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The Etang is a haven for migrating birds and other wildlife, so any of you keen on birdwatching should add this to your list of places to visit.

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The connection to the next part of this post is somewhat tenuous to say the least.  Right along the coast from Vendres, in Valras Plage, is a restaurant called Le Delphinium, and until a couple of years ago it was owned and run by Delphine and Louis Louro.  When Delphine and Louis sold up they were going to open another restaurant along the Canal du Midi – and so we waited and waited, until finally last summer their new restaurant opened its doors in Colombiers.  Their new venture, Au Lavoir, was well worth the wait!

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Au Lavoir is both a restaurant and a Maison d’Hote with four bedrooms, by the Canal du Midi.  The restaurant has a large courtyard for outdoor dining in the summer, and a spacious dining room for the rest of the year – all tastefully and comfortably furnished.  BUT we want to know about the food! Summed up in one word:  sublime.  The first time I went was with friends and their children.  The kids had a la carte and us adults had the blow out menu with a glass of wine with each course.

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Starter was the most tender tuna fish

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Then came a giant prawn with vegetable tagliatelle

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Followed by pan-fried foie gras on a slice of apple

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You can see that I’m not a very fast drinker

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For main course there was roast pigeon

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And then a cheese trolley to die for!

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What restraint!!

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And as it was getting dark dessert arrived.  Souffle au Grand Marnier

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Louis came out to serve the desserts, and he slipped the ice cream and grand marnier into the souffle –  no it does not collapse!  And the combination is divine!  AND so light at the end of the meal…

The children had the same starter, followed by roast rack of lamb, and then a chocolate dessert.  They really were spoilt, and so were we 🙂 !

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Merrily we float along

This week’s post combines water and food – while friends and family were visiting we took a boat cruise on the Canal du Midi from Colombiers.  “Le Bonpas” is a former hire boat, which has been converted into a beautiful open plan barge for short cruises.  We had decided on a dinner cruise, and met Paule and Rene at 6.45pm one evening in the port of Colombiers.  After the requisite handshakes and introductions we raised anchor and set off, all of us seated in the open area at the bow, watching the trees glide by.  Rene was telling us about the canal, and I’m (almost) ashamed to say that I’ve forgotten most of the figures.  Some of the facts stick in my mind, such as that a large contingent of the workforce who built the canal were women.  The men were digging and shovelling, but the women carried the excavated earth away in baskets – no wheelbarrows in the 17th century!  Rene also told us about mosquitoes in the canal – there are none!  The leaves from the plane trees drop into the water, where they sit and decompose over the space of about three years.  During that process they release gases which stop mosquito larvae from hatching, so no mosquito population in the canal, and since I did not get any stings it must be true :-).  As we were sipping our aperitifs and Rene was entertaining us, Paule was busy at the back of the boat getting dinner ready. But before that we went through the Tunnel de Malpas, one of the many engineering feats along the canal.  The tunnel was dug through the Enserune hill without the help of any machines or dynamite!  Today three tunnels pass through the hill: the oldest one, constructed in medieval times, to drain the Etang de Montady; the most recent tunnel runs just below the canal and carries the high-speed train line!Soon enough we were called to table.  Paule had prepared a vegetable mousse for us, which was served in little individual porcelain dishes, accompanied by a salad.  For the children she’d prepared a tomato and mozzarella salad.  For main course we had chosen in advance from:  Gardiane de Taureau (a tender beef casserole),  Supreme de Canette (roast duckling quarter) or Pave de Saumon (salmon fillet).  All the main courses were accompanied by gratinated potatoes, which I adored.  After that we had a selection of cheeses, and finally there was dessert once we had turned around to head back to port.  Baba au Rhum is a typically French dessert – a brioche like cake which is soaked in a sirup laced with rum and topped with some whipped cream.  For the children the alcohol was of course omitted!The sun was setting as we were nearing Colombiers, and the reflections on the water were beautiful.  Floating along on the water at that time of day was just magical, and we were all sad when our little cruise came to an end.

You may have heard that the plane trees along the Canal du Midi will not be there all that much longer.  Unfortunately there is a fungus which attacks the plane tree, and in the space of about five years the tree dies.  The fungus is transmitted by water and air and there is no cure.  In time all the old trees will have to be cut down and replaced by young saplings, which are resistant to the fungus.  So, do come and visit the Canal du Midi soon, while most of its glory is still alive and intact, be it for a walk or bike ride in the shade, or a little boat trip.