Happiness on a plate

Before my Christmas break I met up with friends at L’Auberge de Combes for a pre-holiday treat!  We were all in a festive mood, so we decided to splash on the Regalade du Chef menu, loosely translated as The Chef’s Feast.  It really was a feast as you’ll see from what follows!

If you’ve read my blog post about one of my previous visits to the restaurant, you may remember that Combes is located high up on the flanks of Mont Caroux.  We were lucky to be given a table by the picture windows of the restaurant.  The day we visited was a ‘moody’ day, with mists rising from the valleys below – it was magical!

The amuse bouche set the tone – three beautiful morsels:  chicken liver parfait with crispy onions, a perfectly cooked razor clam with crispy bacon, and a small pot of cauliflower and wild mushroom soup.

Our starter was a “cappuccino” of wild mushrooms and chestnuts, with little morsels of melsat, a kind of white pudding.

Next came the fish course: a lemongrass risotto with scallops and squid, served with a langoustine bouillon.  The flavours were wonderful and the seafood was perfectly cooked!

Earlier, when we ordered, we had to make a tough decision – foie gras or game?  The foie gras was pan-fried and served on a bed of truffled mashed potatoes, the whole topped with a large slice of black truffle!!  Heaven for lovers of foie gras!!

The game option was equally delicious – venison steak served with the most amazing beetroot puree, braised vegetables and a wonderful potato puree!

Next followed the cheese course, and for this course there were two options: either a plate of four perfectly sized pieces of perfectly ripened cheese!  No fuss, no frills, pure enjoyment!

     – Or toasted sourdough bread topped with roquefort cheese, sliced pears and mixed lettuce – also excellent!

Our meal ended with some ‘fireworks’ of desserts!!

Flambeed banana with vanilla ice cream and crispy wafers.

Chestnut shortbread topped with chestnut mousse and served with chestnut ice cream.

Crispy puff pastry, filled with caramel cream and served with caramel ice cream.

We finished the meal with coffee – it was served in a rather original fashion!!  A table leg had been adapted to hold the coffee cups, spoons and a small plate of oreillettes, crispy deep-fried pastry dusted with icing sugar.  What a way to end this meal!

If you fancy treating yourself to a meal at L’Auberge de Combes, be sure to reserve!  You can find all the contact details on their website.  I am pretty sure that you won’t be disappointed!

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Coming up – the festive season

Now that the days are getting shorter and the nights are getting colder, people everywhere are thinking about preparing for the festive season.  In our area, the marches aux truffes and the foires aux gras – truffle markets and foie gras fairs – are very much part of the run-up to Christmas.

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The truffle markets will be taking place all over the Occitanie region (formerly Languedoc-Roussillon and Pyrenees Orientales) from mid-December to mid-March.  The ones before Christmas will be especially popular with buyers who want a special touch of luxury for their celebration.  You can find a list for the truffle markets in the region via this link.  And if you want to know what it is like to visit a truffle market, have a look at the post I wrote about my visit to one such market a little while ago.

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The foie gras fairs start in mid-October and run until the end of March, and are for those who enjoy eating foie gras and ducks and geese.  At a typical fair you’ll find many different kinds of foie gras for sale, along with the meat of the birds who produced the fattened livers, either as whole birds (minus the livers) or pieces thereof.  The legs can be turned into confit de canard (or confit d’oie if it was a goose), the breasts are grilled and the rendered fat is a great replacement for butter or oil in cooking.  I’ve written about my quest for making confit de canard in a previous post.  If you are interested in any of this, you can find the dates for the foie gras fairs via this link.

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In this part of the world, to prepare for the festive season also means stocking up on good wines.  To make it easier for the buyers to do just that, the Saint-Chinian winemakers’ syndicate has come up with the idea of an open day, a Journee Portes Ouvertes. The idea is that you can go from winery to winery, meet the winemakers, taste what what they have on offer, and buy what you like.  The event will take place on December 10th, 2017 and you can find full details here.

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Once you have your truffles, foie gras and wine, you’ll need to shop for presents.  Where better but at one of the many Christmas markets which are taking place all over the region?  Some are one-day events, whilst in the larger towns they can run for the whole month of December!  Month-long markets can be found in Montpellier (1 to 28 December 2016), Carcassonne (3 – 31 December 2016) and Perpignan (3 to 31 December 2016); dates for the Christmas markets in Narbonne have not been announced at the time of writing this, and in Beziers there will be pop-up Christmas shops all over the town centre, rather than a classic Christmas market.

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The smaller one-day events have already started, and here is just a small selection, to give you an idea of what is coming up!  The first market on my list is at the Chateau Abbaye de Cassan on November 26th and 27th, 2016.  This is a very popular event with many stalls.  On December 3rd, 2016 markets can be found at Agde, Quarante, Serignan and Servian.  The following day, on December 4th, 2016, Christmas markets take place in Saint-Chinian and at Terra Vinea near Portel-des-Corbieres.  On the following weekend, there is a market in Lezignan Corbieres on Saturday, December 10th, 2016, and on the Sunday, December 11, 2016 there are Capestang and Cruzy.  On December 17, 2016 there is a Christmas market in Valras Plage, and Chateau Coupe Roses in La Caunette is hosting a market on December 18, 2016.  The last market on my list takes place in Caunes Minervois on December 20, 2016 – for all those last minute presents!!

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Do you have a favourite Christmas market?  How do you prepare for the festive season?

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!!

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!

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

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

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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

Wisteria hysteria, flowers and restaurants

Last week I showed you a tantalizing picture of the wisteria buds, and felt a little bad that I included only the one photograph at the end of the post, so here are a few more, for all of you who enjoy the generous blooms of wisteria flowers.

Last sunday the weather was perfect for a wild flower walk, so off we set down Rue de la Digue (past La Digue) and the potagers along the road, and into the vineyards.  It’s a gentle walk, crossing the river over the ford, and past a grove of olive trees.  After a little while we decided to veer off the path and walk along the river, perhaps we’d find some wild asparagus?  No luck with the wild asparagus, but there was a discovery albeit not of the edible kind:  wild tulips!!  In all the years I’d never come across them perhaps I’d not been out at the right time, or maybe the weather had not been damp enough when it needed to be.  First there was just one lone tulip, the some still in bud, and finally there was a patch of them!  Utterly delightful!

There were other flowers too, and the Euphorbia in particular were looking very good.  The wild arum is the first one I’ve come across here too.  At the end of the walk there were a few interesting picture opportunities:

On Monday came the highlight of the week (so far): dinner at Restaurant Lo Cagarol in Aigne (we’re you can find Maison du Beaupre).  Stephanie and Christophe have been running the restaurant for the past eleven years (how time flies!) and Christophe’s touch with the food is very sure!  The four of us tried to have as many different dishes as possible, but there were firm favourites.  For starters there was Foie gras a l’ancienne, served with a jelly made from Muscat de St Jean de Minervois, Escalope de foie gras served with a creamy asparagus soup, and Gambas sauvage au curry rouge.  Both the foie gras dishes were perfectly cooked and seasoned, and the wild prawn was very tasty too!

Before the main dishes arrived, we had a Trou Occitan, a small glass of vodka with a scoop of sorbet made from Muscat de St Jean de Minervois – very much a palate cleanser and delicious!  For  main course we had Montgolfiere de St Jacques, a dish of scallops and prawns in a creamy sauce, topped with a puff pastry lid which sealed in all the flavours; Entrecote steak which was beautifully tender and cooked to perfection and Thon Albacore, which was the best tuna I’ve ever tasted, tender and succulent and in no way dry (!), the two served with mashed potatoes with olive oil and vegetable spaghetti.

Then came the cheese course, and with it something I’d not come across before:  A sorbet made with sheep’s milk (from a local farm), served with honey and crunchy nuts.  There was very little sweetness in it except for the honey, and just a hint of cheese.  Great idea!  The other   we tried was gorgonzola, served on a crouton over a puree of sun-dried tomatoes.

Dessert was obligatory, and when it’s as nice as at  Lo Cagarol one can always find room :-)!  I can’t quite remember the French names of the desserts, so here’s a description:  the first was a cigarre filled lime and cactus sorbet and fresh gariguette strawberries, topped with cream.  The second was a ganache made with Valrhona chocolate, served with fresh raspberries, and lastly there was Baba au rhum, which was served with the most divine banana ice cream – to my mind bananas and rum go really well together!
So there you have it – a fantastic meal!! If you want to try Lo Cagarol yourself be sure to book! You can find the restaurant on facebook here!  And here’s the picture gallery of all the photographs in this post.