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.

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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!!

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

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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.

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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!

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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!! 🙂

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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Changing places

Earlier this year, I wrote about a visit to Restaurant O’Bontemps in Magalas, and reported the sad fact that the restaurant was to close its doors.  Since then I’ve been keeping an eye out for where and when Olivier and Emmanuelle Bontemps might be opening their new venue.  I recently found on social media that they had taken a lease on a space next to the main library in Beziers, the Mediatheque, and that they had just recently opened their new restaurant O Petits Bontemps for business!!  I was planning a visit to a number of places in Beziers for the European Heritage Weekend, which took place on September 17th and 18th this year.  Florence Nash, who was staying at Acanthus, wanted to treat us, so after a quick phone call I had a reservation for lunch on the Saturday, and a whole lot of interesting places to visit – a perfect day out in the making!  The write-ups of the restaurant had been very good, so I was very much looking forward to it!

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The mediatheque opened in 2008 as part of the new university campus in Beziers, on what was once the site of army barracks.  Today, modern buildings with a fair bit of glass surround a large and empty space.

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The restaurant is at one end of the library, and its terrace overlooks the square.  The weather was unfortunately  a little too windy on the day we went for lunch, so we sat inside.

The restaurant interior has been given a complete makeover by BOH Décoration et Lifestyle, an interior design company from Bordeaux.

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The dominant colours are pink and grey, with a little nod to Alice in Wonderland here and there! 🙂

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The lunch menu changes on a regular basis.  These were the choices on the day we went:

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Here is the starter:

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An egg, which has been poached at low temperature, so that it is barely cooked, sits atop an interpretation of tabouleh: grains, croutons and razor clams in a most wonderful broth, the whole sprinkled with flower petals and the egg crowned with deep-fried crispy noodles.  A great start to the meal!!

The three of us chose two of the main courses on offer – before you ask, we had one main course each, but two of us had the same, the neck of lamb, which was prepared like a tagine:

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The curried mackerel was the other main course that we chose.  The fish was cooked just perfectly and only very lightly spiced.

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For dessert, all three of us opted for the chocolate and caramel dome.  The presentation was fabulous, and it tasted every bit as good as it looked!!

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The three course lunch is priced at €22.00, and the restaurant is open from 10am to 6pm on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday.  On Friday the restaurant is open for lunch AND dinner.  Reservations are essential – telephone 04 67 36 20 82 to book.

Thank you for the treat, Florence!

Back again!

Once more I have the pleasure of hosting Florence Nash in my house.  Over the past twelve years, Florence has become a dear friend, and I greatly look forward to her visits each year! Florence enthusiastically agreed to write a guest post for the blog, to share her experiences of her visits to Saint-Chinian.

 

Before retiring in 2003, Florence worked as a writer and editor at Duke University Medical Center for 16 years. Her poems, book and music reviews, program notes, and feature articles have appeared in publications across the USA. She has two collections of poetry, Fish Music (Gravity Press, 2010) and Crossing Water (Gravity Press, 1996).  Florence is also a “reckless but enthusiastic” cook, and it’s thanks to her that I have been able to write about the wonderful dish that is tomato pie!!

My twelve annual September visits to St. Chinian have been a pretty even balance between time on my own and playing host to friends or family, with a pleasant tidal swing between these two states of being. By myself, I grow impatient for guests to arrive so I can share my favorite places and things, show off my French (however spotty), have someone to cook for or with . . . . but after a few days of company I look forward to their departure so I can get back to my own rhythms and ramblings. This year, for the first time, no visitors are scheduled, so I find myself more than usually attentive to my list of daily Projects, various errands devised to take me out of the house and onto the scenic, fragrant little roads that honeycomb these rolling miles of vineyards.

For instance: Yes, of course I can buy Luques olives, my favorites, right here at the market, but with all the day before me, why not drive over to l’Oulibo? Here at this big olive mill on the D5 near Bize-Minervois, you can happily and shamelessly sample your weight in olives and oils and tapenades before picking up a supply of fresh, unpasteurized Luques — more subtle and delicious than the market ones — AND snag a few appealing olive wood or olive-oil-based souvenirs for the folks back home while you’re at it.

If you need to lay in a supply of jambon sec for your stay (as surely you do!), you may have heard Andreas claim that the very best Serrano ham comes from a vendor at the Narbonne central market — he’s the only one whose stall has a bright red slicing machine — so how about a day trip down to that fabulous foodie palace? This project, incidentally, also provides the minor drama of maneuvering a rental car through thickly trafficked city streets, a challenge quite different from that of winding country lanes.

Then there’s the matter of daily bread: St. Chinian boasts plenty of perfectly good boulangeries, but there’s solid consensus that — until recently — right down the road in Azillanet, Stéphane made the best bread in the region, in a boulangerie so small, with an oven so deep, that he had to open his bright blue door to make room for maneuvering the long wooden paddles that shift the loaves over the wood fire. And, since he only opened for retail sale a few hours at a time and you never quite remembered what those hours were, you might find yourself whiling away a half hour or so waiting on a sun-warmed stone wall, watching the efforts of a giant tour bus to turn down a road built a millennium ago for pedestrians and horse carts. Gazing back at the faces peering from the bus’s tinted windows while the bus lurched back and forth, grinding and huffing, you’d be permitted to muse on the difference between tourists and travelers, and to be filled with satisfaction to know you are among the latter. (This year, alas, the boulangerie behind the blue door is gone, and Stéphane is making his bread at a new location yet to be discovered by yours truly.)

My favorite Project so far took nearly all the free days I had available. Early in my wanderings through the Languedoc, I stopped for lunch in a village, took a photo of its strikingly picturesque central square and, once back home, installed it as my new desktop  background image. To this day I confront that idyllic scene every morning: the fountain, the medieval buildings, sunlight through a gigantic central tree dappling the happy diners at tables scattered below. The image has become emblematic to me of the seductions of southern France. Big problem, though: I couldn’t remember what village it was. So, Major Project! Guided only by memory fragments and vague directional instinct — tight climbing turns, mountains: it must be northward — I set out morning after morning with my trusty road atlas and unflagging determination. As someone said — Homer, maybe? — it’s not the destination, it’s the journey. These explorations were full of new scenery, exhilarating driving, and places I might never otherwise have encountered.  At last, after snagging a scarce parking place along the road, I walked down into a hamlet wedged in a steep, narrow canyon too small to admit cars: St. Guilhelm-le-Desert, refuge of Charlemagne’s general-turned-hermit. Bingo! My square at last! I’ve returned a couple of times with visiting friends, who were thrilled. We stayed overnight in an ancient tower turned hostel (which I believe is no longer open) to explore neighboring caverns and take rented kayaks on the river. Maybe I’ll get back there this year. Fingers crossed.

You may have detected in these ruminations a certain preoccupation with driving. You’re right. In contrast to the calm, cushioned passivity of my automatic-everything SUV on the well-groomed highways at home, my little rental car is lively as a jackrabbit, responding instantly — I almost want to say eagerly — as it slaloms along these skinny little roads that flow sensuously over the terrain’s varied contours. It demands unwavering vigilance and constant gear-shifting for blind curves, oncoming vehicles, precipitous dropoffs with no guardrails, cyclists, wandering livestock (a sheep, once, up near Roquefort), and grape-hauling tractors at harvest. It’s tiring, yes, but also as much fun as taking up a new sport. And it creates a sort of hypersensitivity, a connectedness, to all aspects of the surroundings, which can only be good, right? It’s all so beautiful!

So, whoever you are reading this, thanks for indulging these extemporaneous musings, and, if you don’t know the Languedoc yet, I sincerely hope you will some day. I wish you as much delight as it’s been my good fortune to have. Make sure you contact Andreas and Anthony at Midihideaways. You couldn’t be in more congenial, knowledgeable, and helpful hands. Tell them I sent you.

Summer events

Summer is here at last, so here is an update to the page of upcoming events in and around Saint-Chinian:

Festival MusiSc, Saint-Chinian – 5 to 10 July 2106

Come and listen to one (or more) of the eight concerts, which are given in Saint-Chinian’s Abbatiale and the parish church. The programme is varied and offers a selection of different musical styles.  The festival opens with the children’s choir of Beziers Cathedral.  Amongst the concerts, there is an organ recital in the parish church, a tribute to Charles Trenet, a saxophone quartet playing jazz and more.  The full programme can be found on http://www.festivalmusisc.wordpress.com

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Jazz a Sete, Sete – 13 to 19 July 2016

This internationally renowned Jazz Festival takes place in Sete every year, and is a must for lovers of Jazz!  This year’s festival is headlined by Diana Krall (already sold out!), but there are tickets available for many of the other performers.  The concerts take place in the Theatre de la Mer, an open-air theatre with the sea as a backdrop.  Details can be found here.

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6eme Academie Musicale, Saint-Chinian – 16 to 23 July 2016

For the sixth time in as many years, Herve Hotier and Lauranne Chastal, with the collaboration of Pierre Courthiade, are running a week of classes for flute students.  A masterclass will be given by Juliette Hurel, 1st flute of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra.  The week ends with a recital at 5pm on July 22, followed by a concert by the students at 7:30pm.

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Fete de l’Olivier, Bize-Minervois – 17 July 2016

This popular fete always coincides with the Fete du Cru in Saint-Chinian.  The theme is the olive and its cultivation, and there is usually a competition for the best tapenade, among other activities.  There will be lots of food to buy and eat there, and the atmosphere is always great!  You can read about my visit to this fete here.

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Marche des Potiers (pottery market), Saint-Pons-des-Thomieres – 23 and 24 July 2016

If you enjoy pottery then this event is for you – dozens of potters displaying their wares in the shade of plane trees!  I can always find something to buy at this kind of fair!! 😀

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Fete de St Louis, Sete – 18 to 23 August 2016

The Fete de St Louis celebrates Sete’s maritime heritage and its patron saint with six days of events.  There will be over 70 street performances, and there will be a big jousting tournamen.  The jousting is done on water and in boats!!

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Fete de la Chataigne, Saint-Pons-des-Thomieres – 29 and 30 October 2016

The chestnut festival in Saint-Pons-des-Thomieres is one of the biggest autumn festivals in the area.  It is well worth a visit, whether you like chestnuts or not!  I have visited this festival many times, and you can read my post about it here.

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If you want to attend any of these events and are in need of accommodation, just drop me a line or visit www.midihideaways.com 

Remembering Charles

I wonder how many of you have heard of the French singer Charles Trenet?  If you haven’t heard of him, you have probably heard one of his songs, perhaps La Mer (Beyond the Sea) or Que reste-t-il de nos amours? (I wish you love).  Both songs have been covered by many artists – have a look for them on the net, you’ll find many of them!  Charles Trenet was a big star in France, and most people know the lyrics to some of his songs.

What the Wikipedia page fails to mention under the heading ‘Early life’, is that Trenet’s father was the notary in Saint-Chinian at the time Charles was born.  Although he was born in Narbonne, little Charles spent his first years in Saint-Chinian, where he took piano lessons from a local music teacher.  The house where the Trenets used to live, is today the Maison des Vins and the veterinary practice – at some time it was divided into two.

Earlier this year year, the municipality of Saint-Chinian decided that it would be fitting to remember the fact that Charles Trenet was once a citizen of Saint-Chinian.  To that end, the Rue de la Promenade was recently re-named  Avenue Charles Trenet!

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The re-naming ceremony took place outside the Maison des Vins, one recent Sunday.  The sun shone, and the atmosphere was festive!  Part of the ceremony was the induction of three of Charles Trenet’s collaborators into the Confrerie des Chevaliers du Saint-Chinian, the Fellowship of the AOC Saint-Chinian.

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Of course there was an aperitif after the official business had been completed!

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The “festivities” continued in the abbatiale, the former abbey church.  Here a monumental picture of Charles Trenet was unveiled, hanging on the end wall.  It looks impressive, doesn’t it??

Jean-Pierre Tutin and Jean-Jaques Debout, both of whom knew Charles Trenet very well, were playing some of the Trenet repertoire, while the rest of us snacked on cheese and apple cake.

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Jean-Jacques Debout

You’ll be able to hear Jean-Pierre Tutin in Saint-Chinian later this year, on July 7, 2016, during the music festival.  He will be playing and singing music by Charles Trenet.  I’ll write more about the music festival in due course, once the programme is finalised.

The last event of this day of celebrating Charles Trenet was in the parish church in Saint-Chinian.  Here a recital of the music of Charles Trenet was played on the organ by William Henriet, another Trenet collaborator.  Hearing 20th century music played on an 18th century organ was interesting – let’s leave it at that! 😀

All in all, a great day, and I’m sure there will be more events in Saint-Chinian with a “Trenet” theme.

So much more to do…

Here are some more events, which I have recently added to the list of upcoming events

Soapbox race, Saint-Chinian – 4 June 2016

This event promises to be great fun, if last year’s edition of the race was anything to go by!  Again the participants will be hurtling down the hill from the windmill to the market square, in their home-made contraptions!!

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Festival de Carcassonne, Carcassonne – 4 July to 1 August 2016

The Carcassonne festival is one of the biggest in the area, attracting stars such as Elton John (a few years ago) and Pharell Williams (this year).

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Nocturn’Art, Saint-Chinian – 26 July 2016

An evening dedicated to artistic creations of all types.  Last year, the event had a great variety of artists displaying their skills and creating works of art right in front of the visitors’ eyes.  This year’s event promises to be even better!

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Fete du Cassoulet, Castelnaudary – 24 to 28 August 2016

This must be heaven if you enjoy cassoulet!!  Five days of music and cassoulet – I am hoping to make it there this year – will I meet you there?  The official website can be found via this link.

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Open day at the cooperative winery, Saint-Chinian – 5 August 2016

This is your chance, if you have always wanted to know what these enormous wineries look like inside!  In the evening there will a communal meal and live music – it’s usually a fantastic evening!!  I’ve been many times and have written about it here.

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Fete de l’Ail Rose de Lautrec, Lautrec – 5 August 2016

This wonderfully “fragrant” fete is heaven for all lovers of garlic – hundreds of litres of delicious garlic soup is prepared and distributed to the visitors at lunchtime.  I’ve been to this fete a couple of times, and of course I have written about it!!  More information can be found on the official website here.

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Feria de Beziers, Beziers – 12 to 15 August 2016

Four days of partying in the centre of Beziers, and bull fights in the arena.  I’m OK with the partying, but not so sure about the bull fights…

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Fete du Fil, Labastide Rouairoux – 14 and 15 August 2016

This is the fete for all of you who sew, embroider, knit, or are otherwise into craft projects.  And if you’re not that way inclined, you may enjoy the visit to the textile museum – this year’s special exhibition features Japanese kimonos.  You can find my blog about a previous fete du fil here, and for the official website, please follow this link.

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Pottery market in Salleles d’Aude – 14 and 15 August 2016

You can combine a visit to this well-established pottery market with a visit to the Roman pottery museum, Amphoralis, just as I did a few years ago.  It’s fascinating to see what was produced with fairly limited means in Roman times, and what today’s potters have to offer.  Read about my visit here.

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Saint-Chinian’s preface to Brescudos Bike Week, Cap d’Agde – 29 August to 4 September 2016

A must for all lovers of motorbikes out there.  Hundreds of motorbikes and their riders will descend on Saint-Chinian on August 28, 2016.  There’ll be a competition for the “best dressed bike & rider”, and there’ll be lots of motorbike related paraphernalia.  Have a look at what happened in 2015.

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European heritage days, all over France and Europe – 17 and 18 September 2016

I’m sure there will be plenty of interesting things to do over that weekend!  Details of participating venues will be on the French Ministry of Culture website in due course.  I have written about events on the heritage weekend several times – you’ll find the posts here.

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