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!

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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!

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 🙂

Feasting at Toussaint

I know I am a little late writing about the 1st of November – but here I am all the same.  November 1st is Toussaint better known to us as All Saint’s Day, and as in many catholic countries All Saint’s Day is a public holiday in France.  Tradition has it that the families visit the graves of their ancestors and decorate them with flowers, and the flowers most used today are chrysanthemums.  They are grown in all kinds of colours, shapes and sizes, and if you manage to pass by the field of a grower at just the right time (sorry, I didn’t this year!!) it is as pretty as a picture or a patchwork quilt.

The two pictures above were taken at Capestang and it’s interesting to see the mailbox outside the cemetery (?).  These wonderful flowers brighten the sometimes austere graveyards throughout the country until the first frost cuts them down.  I took a walk around the cemetery in St Chinian too and found some interesting tombs – they are not dated but I’m intrigued by the lettering and sculpted ornaments – Art Deco?The flowers were everywhere too and brightened up this somewhat sombre day.

Toussaint is also the re-opening (after vendanges and a brief rest) for a restaurant tucked away in the hills above Minerve.  The manor house of Le Bouys has belonged to the Poumeyrac family for many generations, and for some time now the family has run a restaurant on the property.  It’s a real experience, and a very pleasurable one at that!

On the business card it says Ferme Auberge and there is still a farm;  geese, ducks and chickens run around the courtyard, and there’s a stable for the goats.

There’s even a chapel, always immaculately decorated and kept.

The dining room is on the ground floor, in a room with massive vaulting – cozy and warm in the winter and cool in the summer!

On the way in we passed the kitchen door (always good) and next to it is the Rotisserie where the roast of the day was being cooked. Leg of lamb anyone?

There were a few of us, and the friend who had organised the meal had ordered Bouillabaisse for us all.  So we had the usual starters of pate and ham followed by salad (with home-made vinegar used for the dressing – always a delight) .

And then came the Bouillabaisse – an enormous dish of fish in a delicious broth.

Of course accompanied by croutons and rouillie the garlic/saffron mayonnaise.  We did try valiantly to do the dish justice, but there was only so much we could eat…  Then came cheese, and finally dessert, and that was really special:  Omelette Norvegienne better known as Baked Alaska.  Light egg whites encasing a block of ice cream covered in rum soaked sponge.  Need I write any more?  Except to say that you only get the Omelette Norvegienne  when you order the Bouillabaisse!  And of course if you want to go, be sure to book!

And here are a few more pictures.

And they’re off

Earlier this week I was driving along and noticed the car suddenly making a very strange noise, a kind of loud hum, as if the cooling fan was going flat-out.  It disappeared again after a few seconds, but not long after I heard it again.  I started to worry a little.  Then I opened the window and the reason for the noise became clear: sticky grape juice all over the road!  I’d completely blocked out of my mind that the grape harvest had started on Monday in a lot of villages, and of course with the harvest come lots of small tractors all over the countryside, taking the grapes to the wineries.  The machine-harvested grapes get a little more squashed than the manually picked ones, and inevitably some of the juice leaks out on to the road, dribbling as the trailers bounce their way along.  And then the tyres stick to the sugary road and make a very strange noise indeed 🙂

At the cooperative winery in Saint Chinian things are well under way and incredibly well organised.  Weeks before the harvest each vineyard is visited and analyzed, and later on grape samples are taken to check for ripeness and sugar content.  Then the different parcels of land are picked in succession, generally the same kind of grape variety at the same time.  Once the tractors bring the grapes to the cooperative they queue up for the weighbridge, where the grapes are also tested for sugar content.

Then they are sent to the various dropping points.  I am sure that it takes lots of skill to reverse the trailers to exactly where they are supposed to be.

In a great big whoosh the grapes are tipped into the stainless steel container and start their way to becoming wine.

An Archimedes screw takes the grapes up to the de-stemmer, the machine which removes all the stems from the bunches of grapes (and any leaves too).

The grapes then go on to be either pressed or go directly into tanks for fermentation.  It really is a wonderful time to be on holiday in the area; the weather is generally very good, the smell of ripe grapes lingers in the air, and it’s fun to watch all the activity in the villages!  And of course soon the wine fetes will be under way…

This post would (of course) not be complete without a mention of food!!  Last Sunday I was invited to a mechoui at the house of friends near St Chinian.  According to Wikipedia,  “In the cuisine of Northern Africa, Méchoui is a whole sheep or a lamb spit roasted on a barbecue. The word comes from the Arabic word šawa, which means “grilled, roasted”. This dish is very popular in North Africa.”  And it was just that.  A whole lamb (15 kg) which was spit roasted over an open fire for about four hours.  I didn’t know what to expect but the meat was just amazing, tender, juicy and oh so tasty!!  I leave you with a few pictures of the process.  Needless to say I ate far too much; there were aperitifs while we enjoyed the beautiful evening, and then everyone was invited to pick at bits as the roast was carved.  Finally we all sat down and accompanied the choice cuts with couscous, vegetables, roast potatoes (also cooked in the fire) and harissa sauce.  Cheese followed, and then came three desserts, and the whole meal was accompanied by wines from Domaine la Madura.  Life really can’t get much better than an evening spent with good friends sharing great food and wine!

The lamb that never was

Imagine Easter Sunday without lamb!  Well, it can happen and it did to me this year!!  Apparently this is the second year running that our butcher did not order enough lamb, and by Easter Sunday morning there was not a scrap of it left.  What to do?  Settle for mutton, that’s what!  Next thing was to find a recipe for the mutton chops I’d bought.  I was tempted to prepare a north African dish, like a tagine or couscous.  Then I logged onto my bookshelf on www.eatyourbooks.com (more about that site below) and did a recipe search for mutton.  In amongst the recipes on the list was Ballymaloe House Irish Stew;  I knew exactly where the book was, looked at the ingredients and decided that it was the perfect dish – it was somewhat chilly outside and a nice stew would be just the thing!   The stew was a doddle to prepare and wonderfully tasty; my misgivings about the potentially strong mutton flavour were totally unfounded!  The herbed goats cheese had sufficiently drained and matured and provided the cheese course, and for dessert I made a peach flan.  Brought back memories of my time in the pastry kitchen at the Meridien Piccadilly!   The flan is very delicious and very easy to make and proved to be the perfect dessert after the stew, not at all heavy (write if you want the recipe).

Now, about http://www.eatyourbooks.com :  I came across the site on a blog called www.larecettedujour.org and was intrigued by the idea, so read through it and decided to sign up.  The unlimited bookshelf is $25 for a year, with a free option of up to five books.  The idea is that you add all the cookbooks you own to your bookshelf, either by author/title search or by ISBN numbers.  Once the books are on your bookshelf you can search for recipes in the books which are indexed.  I found that I had a lot more cookery books than I thought, and by no means all of them are on the site’s bookshelf.  A lot of the older books and the French and German books are not in the library (despite 98,210 titles), and currently about 23% of my books are indexed (49 out of 214).  Considering that some of the titles are only on my bookshelf and others a bit “special interest” it’s perhaps not surprising, but it still gives me access to over 13,000 recipes.   Books are constantly being indexed, so that eventually be more of “my” books will become searchable.  A search for mutton on Easter Sunday brought up 63 results with a good selection of recipes from different books.  Fast, simple and easy, and a great way of using books which would otherwise languish unused, mainly because we all tend to use the same books and recipes over and over again.

Hot cross buns have been an Easter tradition for some years in my kitchen and this year I’ve subverted that tradition.  Not drastically though, but time available meant that baking the buns on Saturday night was not possible, and I didn’t want to get up super early to have them ready for breakfast on Easter Sunday.  A cunning plan had to be devised and here’s how!  Saturday lunchtime I mixed up my dough, using the spice mixture given by Elizabeth David in “English Bread and Yeast Cookery” (highly recommended), and loosely following a recipe by Jamie Oliver for the dough. 

I mixed flour, sugar, spice, instant yeast and raisins in a mixing bowl.  Warmed the milk/water mixture very slightly and mixed with the egg and melted butter.  Made a well in the flour mix and added all liquid, then stirred with a wooden spoon until the dough was formed.  It was soft but not overly sticky.  I put a lid on the bowl and left it in the kitchen (unheated at the time).  This was at lunchtime.  When I got back home, about 11pm, I turned the dough out on to the work surface, kneaded it for a very short time, shaped it into a loaf and placed it in a loaf tin (lined with a bit of baking parchment).  I put the pan in the oven, set to 200 Celsius, and programmed it to switch on at 6.10 am on Sunday morning, and to end at 7am.  When the alarm clock rang so did the timer on the oven, and there was a lovely smell coming up to the bedroom!  I went downstairs to check on the bread and it was just perfect.  Once cooled enough I sliced the loaf and spread it with clotted cream from Cornwall and some home made strawberry and apricot jam – yummy!!  And of course what wasn’t eaten on Sunday made lovely toast!

Starting bread in a cold oven can turn out very good results, and in this case it worked very well as the kitchen was fairly cool and the dough did not over-proof.  You could probably bake the dough straight from the fridge and still get what’s called good “oven spring”.

And since it’s spring, here’s a picture of coronilla, flowering everywhere right now, scenting the air and feeding bees.  Anyone looking for a spring break?  Le Figuier in Bize Minervois is currently available for April 21 to May 19, 2012 at 10% off.  See other special offers here