Feeding frenzy

I promised to share some of the food pictures I took during my nephew’s visit, and I like keeping my promises.

To start with, here is one picture which should really have made it into last week’s post:  the wonderful ice creams at La Nomada on the beach at Valras Plage.  Here’s their version of a banana split:

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During the week that my nephew, Thomas, stayed in Saint-Chinian, we went out for a few meals.  It really started on the way back from Toulouse airport.  Thomas arrived at just after 5pm – too early to have dinner in Toulouse.  We therefore decided to head in the direction of Saint-Chinian, and along the way had the idea to re-visit a restaurant in the centre of Carcassonne called L’Escalier.

When I last visited this restaurant it was specialising in Mexican food, and I was looking forward to that.  However, since that last visit the theme has changed, and now Bistro food is all the rage.  The ambience was still the same, somewhat ramshackle and haphazard, and at the same time very cozy.  We were quite early and had our pick of the tables.

We started with a Greek salad to share between the three of us.  A wise move, since that salad was huge!  At this point I have a confession to make:  I cannot find the photographs of the entire meal – they have somehow disappeared into the ether 😦

Luckily I can always remember a good meal!! 🙂  Thomas had chosen mussels for his main course, just plain moules mariniere – fresh mussels are very difficult to come by where he lives.  The mussels were absolutely wonderful!  They were served in a large salad bowl, with another bowl the same size for the empty shells, and they were piping hot and freshly cooked.  My partner had ordered a dish called pluma de porc, which is a cut not unlike the filet, but with more marbling.  It was deliciously tender and the portion was very large.  I had chosen the house speciality burger:  a submarine roll, filled with slices of grilled duck breast, foie gras and onion marmalade – total decadence!!  After all that food we skipped dessert – we had all eaten very well!

Our next outing was to Pizza Tillou in St Chinian, and once more there are no pictures of the food.  To me one pizza looks very much like the next, although the taste experience can be very different from one Pizzeria to another.  Tillou’s pizzas have a very thin crust and I always ask for mine bien cuit (well done) – then it comes with slightly charred edges, and is very crispy!

The food highlight of Thomas’s visit was dinner at Au Lavoir in Colombiers.  I had taken his brother two years ago, and Thomas deserved that treat too.  It was a perfect evening, warm enough to sit outside.  We were kindly given one of the two tables right at the end of the terrace, from which you have a view of the Canal du Midi below – such a great start to the evening!!

Canal du Midi as seen from the terrace at Au Lavoir in Colombiers

Canal du Midi as seen from the terrace at Au Lavoir in Colombiers

Here’s the food – at long last some pictures!!  For starters, Thomas had chosen Bellota ham, my partner had decided to try the carpaccio of octopus and I had plumped for foie gras as usual. 🙂

For the main course, Thomas had chosen rack of lamb and when it came he was somewhat disappointed – he felt the portion looked rather small.  He’s into eating big portions.  The lamb was cooked to perfection, pink and juicy, and ever so tender!

Rack of lamb

Rack of lamb

My partner had filet of sea bass with a celery cream – yummy!!

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I had chosen the tuna steak for my main course – beautifully juicy and oh so tasty!

Tuna steak

Tuna steak

Desserts at Au Lavoir are always delicious!!  Thomas wanted the moelleux au chocolat, a kind of half-baked chocolate cake with a melting centre.  It was served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream – Thomas was in seventh heaven!!   My partner opted for the crispy green banana fritters, with ice cream and a salted butter caramel sauce – I could have very happily eaten that instead of my dessert.  But then I really liked my dessert too – a raspberry tiramisu, served in a little kilner jar!

As it got darker the lights came on, and the terrace took on a completely different allure.

The terrace at Au Lavoir in Colombiers

The terrace at Au Lavoir in Colombiers

The sun set over the Canal du Midi, a wonderful end to a fantastic meal!!

Sunset vewed from  Au avoir in Colombiers, France

Sunset vewed from Au Lavoir in Colombiers, France

Our last meal out with Thomas was at Valras Plage.  He had set his heart on going to eat at a restaurant where we had spent an evening when he had last visited with his parents.  “This will be my treat, I am inviting you”, he announced.  He confided that he had brought enough money, so we could have anything on the menu – so sweet!! 🙂

L’Auberge Provencale is on Allee Charles de Gaulle, a square which opens right onto the seafront.  There are many restaurants surrounding this square – I don’t remember what made us choose this particular one the first time we went, but we’ve been back a good few times.  We all opted for the set menu which was priced at EUR 16.90 – it had a good choice and we all found something we liked.

Thomas started with a Caesar’s salad – almost a meal in itself, but then he likes big portions! 🙂  My partner enjoyed a goat’s cheese mousse, and I had a platter with a selection of starters, a bit like tapas – very delicious.

For his main course, Thomas had his longed for mussels.  He wanted moules mariniere just as he had on the day he arrived in France – so he could compare them!  He said that they were every bit as good as they had been in Carcassonne, and he did finish them all!

Moules mariniere

Moules mariniere

My partner ordered a plate of grilled gambas and cuttlefish, which came with a cute basked of fries.  We had previously seen these cute baskets at the Maison du Cassoulet in Castelnaudary, but weren’t allowed to have any, remember?  The gambas and cuttlefish were finished with a persillade, a mixture of chopped garlic and parsley.

Grilled gambas and cuttlefish

Grilled gambas and cuttlefish

I had a hunger for mussels too – I don’t often prepare them at home.  I decided to try the mussels with sauce campagnarde, which is bacon, onions and cream – a great combination, and one which went well with the mussels!  Both the mussel dishes came with a bowl of fries, and they were very good too!

Mussels with bacon and cream

Mussels with bacon and cream

The dessert menu was fairly standard, with the usual creme caramel, mousse au chocolat, etc…  We ended up ordering ice creams.  Thomas was tempted by the “Bounty” coupe, which was coconut and chocolate ice cream.  My partner fancied the “authentic Italian gelato” with caramel sauce, and I ordered a strawberry sundae, which came with an almost obscene amount of whipped cream!  All very good and not a spoonful left at the end of the meal.

What a wonderful finale to what we hope will have been a very exciting holiday for Thomas!

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.