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.

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Back again!!

It’s been a long time since my last post – my apologies to all of you who have been wondering what had happened to me!!  To answer that in detail would take a long time (and might not be all that interesting), so I’ll keep it brief! 🙂 What I had thought of as a short summer break turned into a more prolonged vacation!  The summer in Saint-Chinian was busy, filled with visitors, endless days of hot and sunny weather, and lots of work in helping to organise the music festival in July.  As soon as the July festival was over, work started on another series of concerts in September.  The good weather continued until fairly recently, and with it the flow of visitors.

Some of you will have read reports of the devastating floods which hit our area in Languedoc recently.  Saint-Chinian did get a huge amount of rain, but our river did not do any serious damage to the village.  Some of the gardens along the river were completely flattened, and the nursery downstream outside the village suffered some damage and loss to their plant stock, but that was pretty much it.

My heart went out to the people around Carcassonne who lost so much to this devastating flood, and I counted myself to have been very lucky.

Now that things have settled down, I am writing once more.  I thought I would start off with a food post.  I recently taught a couple of friends how to make chocolate mousse and i would like to share that with you.

Making chocolate mousse is not difficult and it requires very few ingredients: good chocolate, eggs, cream and water.  Depending on your taste, the chocolate can be dark, milk or white.  It needs to be of a good quality as the final result depends very much on the chocolate.  It goes without saying that the eggs should be very fresh.  (You’ll find a printable recipe at the end of this post.)

Ingredients for chocolate mousse

Ingredients for chocolate mousse

For my tutorial, I decided to use two different kinds of chocolate, white and dark.  The dark chocolate was 72% cocoa; white chocolate contains no cocoa solids at all.  This way, both of my friends could have some hands-on experience!  🙂

Preparing chcolate mousse - melting the chocolate

Preparing chocolate mousse – melting the chocolate

The chocolate pieces were melted in separate bowls set in bowls filled with hot water.  Melting chocolate takes very little effort – just give it a stir from time to time and wait until it is all melted.  The main thing is to not over-heat the chocolate, which can happen when it is melted in the microwave.  When melting the chocolate, be careful not to splash water into the melted chocolate, as this would cause the chocolate to “seize up” and become granular.

While the chocolate was melting, we separated the egg yolks from the whites.  Once the chocolate had melted, the egg yolks were stirred into the chocolate.  This was easier with white the chocolate than with the dark.  Don’t worry if the chocolate goes granular or gritty to begin with, just keep stirring/beating until it becomes a shiny mass or lump.

The water was added next.  In this recipe, the water is used to make the chocolate and egg yolk mixture a little less stiff, so that the whipped egg whites don’t deflate as you try to fold them in.  For the white chocolate only a very little water was required – about half a tablespoon was enough for 135g of white chocolate.  For the dark chocolate we added about 5 tablespoons to 135g of chocolate.  Every chocolate reacts differently, so you’ll need to use your own discretion with the water.  The finished mixture should have the consistency of softened butter.

All ready for folding in the egg whites

We first whipped the egg whites, taking care not to over-beat them, until they formed soft peaks when the (stationary) whisks were pulled out.  I added a tiny pinch of salt to the egg whites, which improved the flavour of the finished mousse.  Next, we whipped the cream to soft peaks – it remained somewhat “floppy”.

The egg whites being folded in

The whipped egg whites were divided between the two bowls, and folded in gently.  The reason that we added the egg whites first was that they would not have deflated if the chocolate mixture had still been a little warm.  The whipped cream would have gone runny had it been added to a warm mixture.

We added the whipped cream before the egg whites were completely blended in.  Further careful folding helped to keep the mixture as light as possible!

The finished mousse.

The white chocolate mousse turned out to be more runny than the dark, most likely due to the lack of cocoa solids in the white chocolate.  We filled eight bowls and ramekins with some of each colour mousse.

Ready to go in the fridge!

The filled bowls looked very pretty!!  Before they went into the fridge, each bowl was covered with cling film/plastic wrap.

Chocolate mousse needs a minimum of four hours in the fridge, so it is best made the day before you want to eat it, or in the morning if you want to serve it for dinner.

Delicious!!

We ate it the following evening – it was delicious!!

Chocolate Mousse

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

A light and airy chocolate mousse, the perfect ending to a meal.

Ingredients

  • 270g chocolate
  • 4 eggs
  • 200ml whipping cream
  • 100ml water

Directions

  1. Chop the chocolate or break it into small pieces.  Separate the egg yolks from the whites
  2. Melt the chocolate in a medium-sized bowl over hot water.
  3. Beat the egg yolks into the melted chocolate until the mixture is glossy and clears the sides of the bowl.
  4. Add water one tablespoon at a time, mixing it in until the chocolate mixture has the consistency of soft butter.  You may not need to add the full amount of water.
  5. Whip the egg whites with a tiny pinch of salt until soft peaks form.
  6. Whip the cream until soft peaks form.
  7. With a spatula or spoon, fold the whipped egg whites into the chocolate mixture, followed by the whipped cream.
  8. Divide the mixture between your individual serving bowls, or use one large serving bowl. Cover with film and refrigerate for a minimum of four hours before serving.

Melting moments

You may know that I adore chocolate in all its forms: on its own, in desserts, in cakes, Belgian chocolates – you name it, I’ll probably have eaten it!!  🙂

Many years ago, I ate the most wonderful fondant au chocolat in a restaurant.  A fondant au chocolat is a chocolate pudding with a melting interior!!  I’ve been intrigued ever since, and a few weeks ago I decided to make some at home, purely in the interest of research on your behalf, you understand!! 🙂

I searched the internet for recipes, and finally settled on this one from the BBC Good Food website.

The ingredients were very simple:  butter, eggs, sugar, flour, a little coffee, some cocoa powder and, of course, chocolate!!

The preparation was not difficult either.  To start with, I brushed the moulds with melted butter and dusted them with cocoa powder.  The recipe specified dariole moulds or individual pudding basins, but omitted to give an idea of the size.  I had some dariole moulds, so used two of them, and I replaced the individual pudding basins with ramekins.

Next, I put the butter to melt over a very low heat, then added the chocolate pieces to that.  While the chocolate was melting, I beat the eggs with the sugar until they were very fluffy and thick.

I added the melted butter/chocolate mixture to the beaten eggs, and mixed the two, then added the coffee and the flour, and folded everything together until well blended.

My mixing bowl had a pouring lip, so it was very easy to fill the moulds.  The recipe called for six moulds – I managed to fill the two dariole moulds and five ramekins.  The darioles are kind of small, so the ramekins might have been the right size.

I cooked the two darioles right away.  The ramekins all went in the fridge.

After exactly 12 minutes, the puddings were well risen!

I ran a knife around the inside of the mould to help ease them out,  and served them with a scoop of vanilla ice cream!

The fondants were very delicious – the interior was still squishy, although not as runny as on recipe photograph.  Next time, I would reduce the cooking time for the dariole moulds by a minute or two.  They would probably turn out to be100% perfect.

A couple of days later, I cooked three of the larger ones, the ramekins that I had put in the fridge.  After 12 minutes cooking, the fondants turned out almost exactly like on the picture in the recipe!!

I have two more in the freezer for another day!!

Have you tried making these delicious puddings or something along the same lines?  Do you have your own foolproof recipe?

A little brown bag…

…arrived on my doorstep last year, a present from my friend Carole.  In the bag were the makings of Chocolat Chaud a l’Ancienne or old-fashioned hot chocolate!  Carole shares my passion for all things chocolate, and she has discovered a cafe in Beziers (Le Mathi’s), not far from the Theatre Municipal on the Allees Paul Riquet, which serves old-fashioned hot chocolate amongst a myriad of treats.  The little brown bag contained a copy of the recipe Carole uses to make her own hot chocolate, along with dark chocolate, cocoa powder, cinnamon and vanilla!  Just add milk… 🙂

Ingredients for old-fashioned hot chocolate

Ingredients for old-fashioned hot chocolate

Before I made my own hot chocolate, I had to go on an expedition in Beziers, to taste the chocolat chaud a l’ancienne at Le Mathi’s.  The things I do for the sake of writing this blog!! 😀

Cafe Le Mathis in Beziers

Cafe Le Mathi’s in Beziers

Le Mathi’s is one of a number of cafes which front onto Beziers’ main square – in the summer there is a large terrace outside, but as it was still a little too cold for the terrace, I was cozy inside.  Somehow I cannot imagine myself having hot chocolate in the summer.

Inside Le Mathis in Beziers

Inside Le Mathi’s in Beziers

The patrons of Le Mathi’s seem to be an eclectic bunch:  groups of older ladies, office workers, students, perhaps the odd travelling salesman?  The menu board lists the old-fashioned hot chocolate right at the top!  There is also traditional hot chocolate and Viennese hot chocolate, along with eight different kinds of cafe and 20 different kinds of tea!!  And there are cakes!!

The menu at Le Mathis

The menu at Le Mathi’s

I’d come to try the old-fashioned hot chocolate, but the Viennese hot chocolate intrigued me.  I decided to try the Viennese hot chocolate, and my companion ordered the old-fashioned hot chocolate  Here’s what they looked like:

Now I know – Viennese hot chocolate has a whole lot of whipped cream on top!! I guess I should have thought of that!! 🙂  The old-fashioned hot chocolate was thick and rich – perfectly delicious!  We didn’t really need any cakes to go with the chocolate, but what the h*** –  you only live once!

And then the hot chocolates were finished, and it was time to go for a walk!

empty cup

 

Here are some of the beautiful buildings I saw on my walk:

Some time later, at home, I tried out Carole’s Recipe for old-fashioned hot chocolate.  To the ingredients Carole had already presented me with, I added milk, cream, and brown sugar.  Here is the picture again:

Ingredients for old-fashioned hot chocolate

Ingredients for old-fashioned hot chocolate

The milk and cream were put into a saucepan along with the vanilla and cinnamon and some water.  I deviated from the recipe somewhat, in that I mixed the sugar and cocoa powder to a paste, with some of the milk.  That paste dissolved beautifully in the milk.

A stage during the making old-fashioned hot chocolate

A stage during the making of old-fashioned hot chocolate

After the paste of cocoa and sugar was added to the milk mixture, the whole was brought to the boil, and then the chopped chocolate was added.  The preparation was then kept at a simmer for 15 minutes, before being strained to remove any lumps and spices.  The recipe says that the hot chocolate will taste better if prepared in advance and re-heated.  I couldn’t wait that long though!! 🙂  It was delicious, rich and thick – a chocoholic’s dream!!

Chocolat chaud epice a l’ancienne

Chocolat chaud epice a l’ancienne

The recipe makes a fair amount of hot chocolate, so you will have some left over.  I’ll let you be the judge if it is better the day after.

The next time I prepare the recipe I might reduce the amount of chocolate a little, and perhaps add some more sugar, but I’ll definitely be making it again!!  Thank you so much, Carole!!

 

Food, glorious food

The past few weeks have been incredible where food is concerned.  With friends who were staying in St Chinian I cooked and ate in, barbecued in my garden and on their terrace, picnicked, went to fetes and to restaurants….  With all that food you’d think that I would have put on quite some weight, but luckily for me that was not the case.  I put it down to my reduced intake of bread and other wheat based foods, but perhaps I just managed to balance calories and exercise?

Most of the meat we cooked on the BBQ was lamb, but there were some delicious pork sausages too, from Boucherie Peyras, one of the local butchers in St Chinian.

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These wonderful lamb chops were accompanied by vegetable millefeuilles, stacks of grilled aubergine, courgette and tomato slices, interspersed with goats’ cheese and basil, and drizzled with some olive oil just before serving.

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On another occasion we grilled a leg of lamb – M. Peyras had expertly boned and trimmed it, and I marinated it following a recipe from the Moro Cookbook (Spanish marinade), which uses garlic, thyme, smoked paprika and red wine vinegar.  The result was absolutely divine!

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Our friends also introduced me to Yaki Onigiri:  cooked Japanese rice is formed into triangles or balls and grilled until crispy.  They can be finished in a variety of ways: spread with sweet miso paste and dipped in sesame seeds, or glazed with soy sauce, and I am sure there are other ways too!  They were very delicious and somehow they disappeared so fast each time we made them, that I have no pictures!

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But here are some tomatoes instead – the first of the season and very sweet and tasty.  As always I’m growing many different varieties and this year I have just over 20 different kinds of tomatoes in my garden.   I haven’t  quite decided which I like best – yet.  I’m sure Tomato Pie will figure on the menu again very soon.

For dessert I had made a raspberry and chocolate tart, and my friend Janet had prepared flan.  The flan had the most beautiful silky texture and there was only one little piece left over at the end of the meal.  The raspberry and chocolate tart was not bad either, but might be better suited for when the weather is a little cooler (spring or autumn).   I froze a lot of raspberries this year, so I’ll be able to make it again, and the texture and calories will be lovely as the days get shorter :-)!

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All of the restaurants we went to as a group were great! We went to the Salin in Gruissan again, for another visit, and this time had dinner at Cambuse du Saunier afterwards.  The food was very fresh and tasty.   Service started off very good but deteriorated somewhat as the restaurant got very busy.  When night fell we were attacked by swarms of mosquitoes, despite the repellent we had all put on.  So it’s a great place to eat at, but go for lunch!

Our starters were prawns and oysters, a pate of john dory, fresh crab, and mussels.  For main course there were different kinds of fish and chicken, both baked in salt crust, and a seafood cassoulet.  Desserts were pretty good too, but by then I’d put the camera away.

A total change from the rustic simplicity at Gruissan was Restaurant Le Parc in Carcassonne.   Franck Putelat, the chef, has been awarded two stars in the Michelin Guide, and the food and surroundings are just what you would expect.

The meal started with an Amuse Bouche of Gazpacho, accompanied by a platter of various nibbles:  thin cheese straws (one lot dipped in squid ink, the other in parmesan butter), radishes (buttered again) with summer truffle,  a macaroon filled with foie gras, and a biscuit topped with half a cherry tomato and a chorizo crisp.  Fantastic flavours and gorgeous presentation!

A second Mise en Bouche was served in a double walled glass – very simple and yet refined – a salad of fresh peas and seafood, topped with crispy garlic and onion slivers.

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The “real” starter came up next.  A most gorgeous looking confection made from potatoes for the crispy rings and the cannelloni wrap.  The cannelloni were filled with fresh sheep’s cheese, and the plate generously decorated with shavings of summer truffle – oh what a feast!!

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The next course was a soufflee of haddock, served with aioli and a selection of perfectly cooked vegetables, along with some crab claw meat and a langoustine sauce.

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Just when you think it can’t get much better along comes the next course:  breast of duckling, cooked at low temperature and accompanied by a stuffed courgette flower, and a condiment made with kumquat – Heaven!

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The cheese course was beautifully presented: Cabretou de Bethmale cheese, served with the thinnest slices of melba toast imaginable, and a melon chutney made with Banyuls vinegar.

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Dessert was quite simply spectacular, even on looks alone!  But the taste was pretty spectacular too:  cherries cooked in red currant juice, accompanied by elderflower sorbet; the biscuit tube was filled with a yoghurt emulsion and the whole topped by a cherry meringue disc.  And all the flavours complemented each other beautifully.

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Of course there was coffee at the end, and some more small sweets, and we were probably the last table to leave the restaurant.  The terrace is great to sit out on, and the dining room is very stylish and air-conditioned, for when it’s too hot outside.  The whole meal was accompanied by beautiful wines, all local to the area, and expertly chosen by the wine waiter.

The children had their own menu, less elaborate and with fewer courses, but none the less expertly prepared and beautifully presented.  And of course we went for a walk around the castle at Carcassonne afterwards to get rid of some of the calories :-)!

The last meal I’ll tempt you with in this post was at La Cave Saint Martin in Roquebrun.  This is a wine bar/restaurant with a terrace overlooking the river, and it specialises in tapas.  Since there was a crowd of us we ordered a number of different dishes and just passed them round to share.  All of the food was delicious and the service very friendly and relaxed, but efficient all the same.  The peach and tomato salad with basil was outstanding, and a fantastic idea for a summer salad; the pesto ravioli were bursting with basil flavour.  And then the peach crumble…  If you’re in the area and enjoy desserts then that is an absolute must!

If you’ve gotten this far without the slightest hunger pang then you deserve a medal!  And if you want to visit any of the restaurants, please be sure to reserve your table to avoid disappointment.  You can always tell them you saw it on the midihideaways blog 🙂

Oranges and Lemons

You wouldn’t really know from looking at these photographs, but the weather last Saturday was particularly cold and windy.  I braved it to go to La Caunette for the Fete de la Bigarade, an annual event which always happens towards the end of February.P1010375

The Fete de la Bigarade takes place over two days, and for me there are always plenty of reasons to go:  Pepinieres Baches from Eus have a huge stand selling all kinds of wonderful citrus trees AND Seville oranges for making marmalade.

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This year I treated myself to a Kaffir Lime tree, whose wonderfully fragrant fruit and leaves are a “must have” ingredient for a Thai green curry.  Try it if you can get some fresh leaves!  There are so many different citrus trees and it’s all very tempting, especially when they have all the various citrus fruits laid out for inspection.

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There certainly is variety, and if I had more space in the garden and perhaps a greenhouse I would try some of the more tender varieties.  As it is I will have to make sure that I bring the Kaffir Lime tree inside before the first frost.  Another reason to go to this fete is that there are lots of other interesting plants, many of them from specialist nurseries, which come from far and wide.

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A lot of these plants are hardier than we imagine, and tolerate frost pretty well.

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I was very intrigued by the aloes, but could not think where I would put them without giving up something else in my garden.  Several of the exhibitors had their stands outdoors, among them my friend Gill from La Petite Pepiniere de Caunes, where I can always find something interesting – another reason for the visit.  Other exhibitors are located in one of the tents – Valerie Tubau from Le Jardin de Valerie in Agel was one of the lucky ones.  She was selling her new range of marmalade along with her regular preserves and jellies.  Her lemon marmalade is sensational and you can find her at St Chinian market every Sunday!

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This Clivia was found in another tent – I love the flowers but have not been very lucky growing this plant. Close by was a stand selling nothing but mimosas, and at another stand I found the beautiful Equisetum.  In the tent next door was a stand by Boulangerie Patisserie Claude Coussy from St Marcel sur Aude – they had some delicious crunchy cookies, which were orange flavoured.

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The fete takes place in and around the village hall in La Caunette, and in the hall there were several more stands, including a wonderfully colourful display of orchids,

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a stand selling all things saffron (Daniel Cazanave from Soual in the Tarn), among them this wonderful looking saffron syrup,

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and then there was chocolate!!  Emmanuel Servant of Douceurs d’Oc had brought along some great things.  Emmanuel is based in Marseillan (home of Noilly Prat – that’ll be in another post some time!) and produces wonderful hand-made chocolates.  He had some gorgeous looking (and tasting) chocolates involving oranges!

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And the pistachio cakes were great too!  Of course I also  came away with a bag of Seville oranges, which I’ll use to make a Seville orange tart, and my take on key lime pie, using Seville oranges instead of the limes.  No marmalade this year!  Oh, and somewhere I have a recipe for a Seville orange rice brulee, which is divine!  I can just see that this could be devastating to the waistline 🙂

This year I gave the lunchtime meal in the village hall a miss – it’s usually good fun and the menu looked great, but I’d arranged to see friends in La Caunette for lunch, so perhaps another year?