Canalside dining

There’s something special about restaurants which overlook the water, be it the sea, a river or lake, or the Canal du Midi.  Many years ago, I spent an evening at a restaurant in Grau d’Agde called Les Ondines.  It’s terrace was on a pontoon in the river Herault, not far from where the river meets the sea.  I don’t quite recall the meal, but the sunset was absolutely wonderful!!

Sunset at Grau d’Agde

Along the Canal du Midi there are many beautiful spots for a variety of restaurants – some are very simple, others very fancy and then there are the ones in between.  Today I want to take you to three restaurants.  We’ll work our way from west to east, starting with the Auberge de la Croisade, at La Croisade, a tiny hamlet built at a crossroads.  I remember the building in the picture below when it was just a shell, before it was renovated and turned into a restaurant.  This was in the days before digital photography, but here is a picture of the restaurant as it is now:

Auberge de la Croisade by the Canal du Midi

Over the years I have eaten at this restaurant many times, and I have seen it evolve and grow.  One constant has been Bruno, the maitre d’hotel, who is unfailingly friendly and cheerful – a truly wonderful host!  I went to the restaurant with a group of friends not long ago, and we had a great time!  Here are some of the delicious starters we ate:

Main courses followed:

La Croisade has been serving a selection platter of desserts since the restaurant first opened:There was also delicious ice cream:Another great canal-side restaurant is located in Poilhes – La Tour Sarrasine.  It has a terrace from which you can watch the boats glide by as you sip a glass of perfectly chilled rose wine!  Another meal with friends, this one was to celebrate a birthday! 😉 The picture below was taken at the end of our meal – such a lovely spot!

The starters tasted as good as they looked!

Main courses followed – very nicely presented, expertly cooked and very tasty!

The cheese platter was very nice too:

And dessert was heavenly!

Farther east lies the village of Colombiers, where there’s an old favourite of mine: Restaurant Au Lavoir!  I’ve been there countless times, and I’m sure that I have mentioned the restaurant before.  There’s something old-fashioned about this restaurant, but in a very positive sense.  Here you can eat the kind of food that you don’t often find in restaurants anymore: cote de boeuf, soufflé, crepes Suzette etc.  The silverware is real silverware, and the glasses and tablecloths are beautiful.

Three of us went for dinner earlier this year, and what a feast it was!!  Here are three starters:

… and three delicious main courses:

We passed up on the cheese, although the cheese trolley looked very tempting!  Instead, we headed straight for some wonderful desserts:

If you fancy eating at any of these restaurants, do make a reservation to avoid disappointment.  And do tell them that you saw them on my blog! 🙂  Bon appetit!

SaveSave

Down by the bay

The Mediterranean coastline has changed a good deal over the past few thousand years. A place where this can be seen rather well is Gruissan.  In Roman times, the topography would have been very different.  The Massif de la Clape nature reserve, and the Ile Saint Martin were islands, not at all connected to the mainland, but surrounded by the estuary of the Aude River.  The limestone rock, on which today stands the ruin of Gruissan castle, was probably just a bare rocky outcrop then.  Narbonne had a harbour, and the Roman ships would have sailed into the bay behind modern-day Gruissan.

All that changed, when the harbour gradually silted up, and the lagoons formed between Gruissan and Narbonne.  The Etang de Gruissan is on average 55 cm deep – great for the flamingos, which were notably absent the day I took the picture above! 🙂

In the Middle Ages, a fortified castle was built on the limestone outcrop, to provide shelter from marauding pirates!  Houses were built at the foot of the castle, with the streets surrounding the rock in a circular pattern, which can still be seen today.

The sleepy fishing village turned into a major seaside resort during the course of the 20th century. Two marinas were constructed in the 1970’s, with space for 1650 boats!  All around the marinas, developments were built, to cater for the increasing number of visitors.

Unlike many seaside resorts, Gruissan is very much “open all year”.  Many people live there year round, and a good number of restaurants do NOT close down for the winter.  One such restaurant is called La Cranquette.  It is located in the old town, and specialises in seafood.   You can tell I went there before the trees started to leaf out!

Inside, the decor is somewhat eclectic!

Whilst the decor is somewhat important in a restaurant, the food is the star of the show!!  And the food in this restaurant was very good!!

All the food was very delicious and beautifully presented!  A feast for the eyes and the palate!

Afterwards, a walk along the beach was a must – out of season the beaches are often empty!

If you fancy a stay at Gruissan, have a look here and here! 🙂

Time to dine

To follow up last week’s post about customs in French restaurants, I thought it would be appropriate to whet your appetite with some food pictures!!  WARNING – if you are feeling hungry, do not read any further – have something to eat first!! 🙂

The first meal in this post was at Auberge de l’Ecole in Saint-Jean-de-Minervois.  The kitchen at Auberge de l’Ecole is run by Brigitte – her style of food is down-to-earth regional cooking, and her cassoulet is very good and highly recommended!  Here are three starters:

Salad with goats cheese, smoked duck breast and pears

Beef carpaccio

Marinated sardines

Main courses:

Brigitte’s famous cassoulet

Braised lamb shank – very tender!

Grilled squid with Persillade (parsley and garlic)

L’Ecailler Gourmet in Narbonne is a restaurant which serves fish – and only fish – there’s no meat on the menu!  What they serve depends on the catch, and so the fish is always very fresh, and always expertly cooked!  A nice touch in this restaurant is the fact that they bring the fish to the table before it is cooked, so you can drool over what you’ll get while you wait 🙂

Fresh fish for three!

Gratinated oysters

Salmon mousse duo – smoked and fresh salmon

The main courses were beautifully presented and the fish oh-so-good!!

Swordfish steaks

Mixed grill – salmon, cod and prawn

Grilled sea bream fillets

Desserts are always important to me – I adore them!  The desserts in the pictures below tasted every bit as good as they looked!!

Variation on banoffee pie

Peach and strawberry soup

Fresh strawberries with strawberry sauce

The Guinguette du Chichoulet restaurant is right by the water, on the marina at Port Chichoulet, near Vendres Plage.

The food was simple, and service was very friendly!

Marinated sardines

A selection of deep fried food – squid rings, prawns and potoatoes

The mussels were plump and juicy, and the prawns cooked just so.

Moules mariniere

Grilled prawns

The bar/restaurant Le Vernazobre in Saint-Chinian was taken over by Murielle and Jeremy in autumn last year.  For the moment, food is served only at lunchtime, but during the summer months they will be serving food in the evenings too.  I’ve been a number of times recently, and have enjoyed my meal each time.  The choice of dishes on the menu is small, and the food is simple and well prepared.

Pate

Salad with tuna fish and hard boiled eggs

Goat’s cheese parcel

I was assured that the steak was tender – and it was very good indeed!

Grilled steak

Pork chop with creamy sauce

Seafood pie

Have you tried any of these restaurants yourself or any others in this area that you especially liked??  Do you have any tips to share??

A feast of taste

It’s high time I wrote another food related post!  Luckily, I discovered a new restaurant last weekend, with the help of Charlotte and Phil from Languedoc Living!  I met Charlotte and Phil last fall, through mutual friends.  We immediately got to talking about food and restaurants, and agreed to go together to L’Ortensia in Saint-Gervais-sur-Marer!  Charlotte booked a table for last Saturday lunchtime, and so I drove to Saint-Gervais-sur-Mare on a grey and rainy day, along the beautiful Orb valley and over a mountain, to reach the village where L’Ortensia is located.

The restaurant is in a late 19th century mansion (set in a park), which had been bought by the local council some time ago.  The mansion sits high above the village, and it’s park was once a hydrangea nursery.  In 2013, after years of complete renovation, the property opened its doors to the public once more.  The kitchen is run by Eric Balan, who has worked with Alain Ducasse and Marc Veyrat.  His partner, Patricia Rochette, looks after the front of house.

The first impression was one of stark modernity.  A modern glass and metal conservatory extension to the main building serves as the entrance from the car park.  Stairs and a lift go down to the restaurant, which is two floors below.  However, Patricia’s warm welcome immediately broke the ice, and we were soon seated at a round table near the fireplace, where a lovely fire warmed us all.

img_7206

Once we’d had a chance to catch up with Charlotte and Phil, we turned to the menus and decided to go for the Menu Plaisir – and a pleasure it definitely was!

The meal started with a Prelude Gourmand, something to get us in the mood for what was to come!   First, we were served a tray of wonderful little morsels, to accompany our aperitif:  Roquefort macarons, crisp linseed “sails”, prunes wrapped in bacon, chorizo madeleines, and in the beaker four straws made with air-dried ham and filo pastry.  All incredibly delicious!!

img_7204

Then came an amuse bouche, a small bowl of mussel soup, very delicate, with tiny mussels and a sprinkling of pungent spring onions.

img_7208

The starter was pan-fried foie gras, served with quince puree and cranberries.  The foie gras was perfectly cooked and the flavour combination worked really well.  The red cabbage sprouts added an earthy note, which paired very well with the foie gras and the quince.

img_7212

After a little interlude, our fish course arrived.  Seared scallops were served on a bed of salsify puree, and garnished with pink grapefruit and bergamot lemon zest.  The citrus fruit in combination with the scallops was very delicious!  And the pretty looking baby leaves were of course edible too!

img_7216

Pigeon breast in a gingerbread crust was the main course, accompanied by different members of the brassica tribe: romanesco, kohlrabi, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, cress, and thin slices of radish.  Someone in the kitchen was having fun, and we enjoyed eating it!! 🙂

img_7217

Our dessert had a very sculpted look – two curved biscuits were holding a delicious “blond” chocolate cream, topped with pears poached in red wine, cubes of pear jelly, and citrus sorbet.  It was a sublime combination of flavours, and a dessert which had been very carefully constructed.  The “blond” chocolate used for the cream was Valrhona’s Orelys; the poached pear was a poire martin sec, an old (and mostly forgotten)  French variety of pear which is perfect cooked in red wine; the citrus sorbet was made with calamondines, a hybrid between a kumquat and a mandarin orange.  The sorbet was sharp with an incredible citrus flavour, a perfect foil for the sweetness of the chocolate cream.

img_7222

After dessert came coffee, and with it Les Mignardises – a beautiful selection of treats to round off this wonderful meal.  The beaker held a coffee foam;  the chocolate lollipop was flavoured with pear, and the madeleine with rhubarb.

img_7223

What a fantastic meal – wonderful food AND great company!

On the way back I stopped at Colombieres sur Orb to take a picture of the rather spectacular waterfall.

img_7235

Just by the waterfall is the starting point for a marked walk, up the Gorges de Colombieres – it looks like a really interesting hike, and I’ve earmarked it for the spring!

Discover Uzes

A couple of weeks ago, I told you about my trip to the Witches’ Market in Saint Chaptes. In order to be able to get to the market early in the morning, I stayed the previous night in Uzes. Getting to Uzes in good time gave me the chance to spend a few hours exploring the centre of town. Uzes is a town whose history dates back to Roman times. Most of you will have heard of the Pont du Gard, an aqueduct built by the Romans to bring water to Nimes. The Pont du Gard is not far from Uzes, and Uzes is where the Romans captured the water for Nimes. Here’s a picture of the Pont du Gard at sunset:

Pont du Gard

The old town centre of Uzes is full of amazing buildings.  Unfortunately most of the streets are very narrow, so it was impossible to capture much more than some architectural details.  The “dressed up” door was for Halloween – the tape says ‘Caution – Enter if you dare’!  🙂

In the centre of the old town lies a large and irregular shaped square, it kind of meanders around several corners.  This is where the market takes place every Saturday – I’ve not yet visited that, but it’s on my list!!

img_6511

Some of the houses along this open space have arcades on the ground floor – here’s a picture of a stone-vaulted arcade:

Not far from the square lies the ducal castle.  The Duke of Uzes still owns the castle, and apparently the title is the highest ranking among French nobility.  The castle can be visited, I just didn’t have enough time.

Right across the street from the ducal castle stands a splendid building, which houses the town hall.

One wing of the building was home to the post office and telephone exchange at one time.  I imagine that both moved out some time ago!

The cathedral was destroyed several times.  The current building dates from the 17th century.  The arcaded belfry dates from the 11th century.

I found a some lovely door knockers on my walks:

As the day drew to a close, my thoughts turned to dinner – wouldn’t you know?? 🙂  I’d noticed a few restaurants throughout the town and in the end I decided on a restaurant called Midi a l’Ombre, which was tucked away a little, not far from the tourist office and the cinema.  It turned out to have been a great choice!  The dining room was very stylish and warm, and the chairs oh so comfortable.  You’ll be able to see pictures of the dining room on the restaurant’s own website – I didn’t take any since there were a fair number if diners already seated.  But I did take pictures of the food!  Here is the amuse bouche, a delicate jerusalem artichoke soup!

img_6514a

Since I had a friend with me, here are two starters.  The first is a terrine of foie gras with figs, the second is a dish of scallop and prawn ravioli with crispy vegetables.

img_6518a img_6519a

Here is the main course – delicious and perfectly cooked john dory with polenta and ratatouille.

img_6523a

The cheese selection was amazing!  I overheard the waiter describing the cheese under the plastic cloche as ‘the devil’s suppository’ to the guests at the next table, warning them that it was very smelly! 😀  I decided to give that particular cheese a miss…

img_6526a img_6527a

img_6529a

The desserts were a fitting end to a wonderful meal!  The first was a Grand Marnier mousse with crispy orange biscuits.  The second was a chocolate mousse cake, which was as light as a feather!

img_6530a img_6531a

Highly recommended!!

A starry mollusc

Did you know that the octopus is part of the mollusc family??  I didn’t, but I am glad that I learn something each time I write a post!  Octopus is the name of  a restaurant in Beziers, and it’s located in the centre of town, on rue Boieldieu; as you can imagine it took me a little while to learn to pronounce the name of the street!

P1050167

L’Octopus took its present form in January 2005, with Fabien Lefebvre in charge of the kitchen, Rachel Lefebvre looking after the wine cellar, and Laurent Montillard the maitre d’hotel.  The three had all previously worked at the Hotel Bristol in Paris, and you can tell that they make a great team from the moment you walk into the restaurant.  I’d been to L’Octopus previously, but only ever for lunch, so dinner was a new experience.  The whole restaurant had been given a makeover in September, and it was a joy to see the stylish result.  There are three dining rooms, two at the back overlooking the large courtyard patio, and one at the front, next to the cozy bar/lounge. We were the first guests to be seated in the dining room at the front, and to begin with it felt a little awkward, but soon the tables around us started to fill up, and as the noise level rose the ambiance warmed up.

Dinner had been a present from friends and so the heavy task of choosing what to have did not have to be accomplished!  A glass of champagne arrived, followed shortly afterwards by a “mise en bouche”, a little something to get the gastric juices flowing.  I can feel myself salivating as I am writing this, and you may possibly be salivating too as you are reading.  Three delicious morsels to get us in the mood:  a marinated anchovy fillet seasoned with sansho pepper, a Japanese spice; acras made with salt cod and served with a delicately light sweet-and-sour sauce; and kromeskies (small croquettes) made from pigs head, crispy on the outside and juicy inside, served with a mustard and yoghurt dip.

After a brief pause the starter arrived – a beautiful picture to behold, with the most divine smell!  I’m sorry that this is not “scratch and sniff”!  Everything had been beautifully placed, down to the last delicate leaf.

P1050178

At the centre of the dish is a piece of lobster, and in the two corners are slices of tuna.  The slices had been cut from a slab which had only just been seared on the outside. Behind the yellow carrot slice is a maki roll, raw tuna wrapped in a sheet of nori (algue) with a stick of raw cucumber at its centre.  The sauces were made with miso and the whole seasoned with gomasio, a mixture of sesame seeds and salt.  So by now you might be able to imagine the smell, and I can assure you that it tasted every bit as good as it looked.  To accompany there was a generous glass of white wine, Domaine Les Hautes Terres from Limoux, a 100% chardonnay which was a perfect match!!

The first of the main courses was fish, a fillet of red mullet.  The fillet was perched on a ring of puree made from potatoes and coco beans (a white haricot bean, Coco de Paimpol), and the ring contained a most delicious stock made from red mullet bones and saffron.  Also perched on the ring were pieces of grilled squid, and the decoration was made from squid ink.

P1050184

The “pearls” on the ring were made from potato and the tiny sprigs of fennel were wonderfully refreshing.  Outside the ring, and just under the fillet was a little bit of pureed red mullet liver, which provided a good kick of iodine.

By now I was wondering how this could be followed.  Our waiter laid the table with a fork, a spoon and a sharp knife, and replenished the bread (excellent bread rolls, nice and crispy with very good flavour).  The whole menu was decided by the chef, so when the second main course came to the table it was a very nice surprise!

P1050190

The most beautifully pink lamb chop arrived in a deep plate, surrounded by lamb stock and vegetables, and tucked under the leaf on the left was a delicate ravioli filled with goat’s cheese.  The rose shaped item was a bit of lamb kidney, and the pale yellow strip in the top right corner is a piece of candied citrus peel, from a fruit called Buddah’s hand (see the fourth picture of “oranges-and-lemons” for what that looks like), by way of a condiment.  I can’t ever remember eating lamb this tender or tasty – my guess is that the meat was cooked by the low temperature method, and it was 100% successful in this case.  The knife just slipped through the meat like butter, but not cold butter out the fridge!  The chop was nice and thick, the vegetables just perfect and the stock a delight.  I’m no fan of kidneys, so I gave that a miss – and perhaps I missed something, but I was worried about spoiling the rest of the dish by trying it.  With the lamb came a glass of Corbieres red wine from Domaine Ledogar, another great match.

By this time we had struck up a conversation with the couple at the next table, who were staying overnight in Beziers on their way to Spain. They had been to the restaurant in its previous incarnation 20 years earlier and were very pleasantly surprised by the wonderful food.  Their meal continued with cheese, and a magnificent cheese trolley was brought round, carrying a beautiful selection of cheeses.

P1050194

P1050193

For us it was time for dessert – another gorgeous creation on a plate!

P1050192

P1050191

The black figs had somehow been cooked without getting mushy, and sprinkled with pieces of home-made speculoos, a spiced shortbread biscuit.  In between the figs sat a scoop of yoghurt ice cream, on a bed of blackberry compote, and right at the end sat a wisp of meringue.  Cooked figs can be cloying and uninteresting, but this dessert was perfection in every sense, with contrasting flavours and textures and just enough sugar.

A meal like that is a little like climbing a mountain and coming back down again, the art is to come back gently and slowly.  You reach the peak and on your way down you want to keep the feeling of exhilaration for as long as possible.  Continuing with coffee, or in my case a lavender infusion, is a good way to go.  Eau de vie or a brandy would be good if home can be reached on foot.

P1050196

The petit fours which accompanied the coffee and herbal tea were lovely too, and part of the gentle winding down.  The beautiful lacquer box held a marshmallow knot, a tiny cake made with red berries, and a lemon tart with a hint of mango for each of us.

P1050197

Service throughout the meal was absolutely impeccable – attentive without being intrusive and friendly without being familiar.  All the staff were happy to try their English for the benefit of our fellow diners on the table next to ours, and had a sense of humour when they got stuck with their translations.  If you are in Beziers and are looking for somewhere to have lunch, don’t think twice.  And if you’re looking for a somewhere for a special night out, L’Octopus is the place to go!!

Thank you P&S for a fantastic evening!