High five

It’s party time this week!!  I am celebrating the fifth anniversary of this blog – anyone fancy some bubbly??

I can’t quite  believe that I published my first post on March 7, 2012 – it seems such a long time ago!  That first post was titled “Do you enjoy walking?” and looking at it again, I can see that my style has changed a great deal since then!

It all started with John Bojanowski, of Clos de Gravillas, telling me that I should have a blog, that it would complement the midihideaways website.  Five years, and 253 posts later, I am still finding new things to write about!!  It’s been a highly enjoyable experience, at the same time broadening my horizons and my knowledge of the area.

Some statistics:  there have been 23,668 visitors to the blog, and the most read post of all time was “The secrets of Tarte Tatin – explained!“, which was published on November 30, 2012.

Tarte Tatin

The second most popular post was “The great big mimosa party …” from February 15, 2015.  The Fete du Mimosa is still an annual event in Roquebrun!

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Figgy Jam“, which was published on September 11, 2015 was the most commented on post!

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A gourmet walk“, about a delicious walk in Saint-Jean-de-Minervois, published on July 15, 2015 was also very highly commented on.  This post was number 2 as far as comments are concerned.

Walking along the vineyards

Walking along the vineyards

The busiest day for the blog was on August 7, 2015 when “Art everywhere” was published.

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Visitors to the blog come from all over the world and it is read by 713 regular subscribers/followers, plus a number of readers who access the blog via social media and by recommendation.

All this would not have been possible without the unwavering support from Anthony and Annie – a huge thank you to both of you – you deserve medals!!  And thank you to you for reading and commenting and liking the posts!

Do you have any favourite posts?  Is there anything you would like to read about?  Please complete the poll, and leave your comments in the section below – I always love hearing from you!  Here’s to the next five years!!

Walled in

Today I would like to take you on an outing to Villefranche-de-Conflent.  I hope you have the time to join me!  img_2225

Villefranche sits on the confluence of the Tet and Cady rivers, at the foot of the Pyrenees.  Because of its strategic location, the town was heavily fortified from the Middle Ages onwards.  In the 18th century, the fortifications were reinforced by Vauban, who was Louis XIV’s military engineer and advisor.

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Vauban added an extra layer to the fortifications, creating a vaulted gallery on top of the mediaeval ramparts, and topped this with another gallery which was covered with a slate roof!  So much more space for soldiers who could aim at the enemy from two different levels.

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The shape of the town was very much dictated by the rivers and the mountains – have a look at an aerial view on the internet here.  Its appearance has not much changed since Vauban’s major work in the 17th century …

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… except that there is now a new road to one side of the town, which takes traffic past the town and up into the mountains.  And there is now a railway line, which allows the famous ‘Canary’, the yellow train, to take travellers from Villefranche to the highest railway station in France, at Mont Louis, and beyond.

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The layout of the town has remained pretty much the same since mediaeval times – there are two main streets, Rue Saint Jacques and Rue Saint Jean.

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Because space was restricted, the houses were built tall.  On the ground floor, most houses would have large arched doors, which could be the entrances to shops or stables, or for storing carts.  The rooms on the first floor were usually reserved for workshops of artisans, and living accommodations were on the second floor.

img_2203 Many doors still sport beautiful door knockers – one of my particular passions!  Can you tell which of them are more recent than others?  Here’s a selection of them:

This side street leads to a gate in the fortifications, from where there is access to Fort Liberia, a citadel which was built by Vauban, high above the town!

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Statue of a saint above the gate to Fort Liberia – perhaps Saint Peter?

Here’s a picture of Fort Liberia, as seen from down below:

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Here is another statue – it sits in a niche high up on a facade.  It probably depicts another saint, but with the missing arm it’s difficult to figure out which saint.  I have a hunch that it could be Saint Barbara, but I’m not certain.

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No trip is complete without something to eat!  My travelling companions and I went to a restaurant called Le Patio on rue Saint Jean.  Some of the houses had internal patios – as did this restaurant – and that’s where we had lunch.

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None of us were overly hungry, so we decided to skip the starter and to have a main course, followed by dessert.  I don’t know about you, but for me dessert is a must!! 😀

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Tagliatelle with pesto

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Tagliatelle with smoked salmon sauce

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Octopus with potatoes

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Grilled sausages with country fries and garlic mayonnaise

The main courses were perfect for each of us – and the desserts were even better!  The Cafe Gourmand was a particular hit!!

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Tiramisu

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Chocolate pudding with a melting interior

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“Cafe Gourmand” – coffee with eight mini desserts!!

On the way back to the car, I noticed a few more details from Villefranche’s past:

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If you want to visit Villefranche-de-Conflent, and want to tie in your trip with a ride on the yellow train, be sure to visit the SNCF website for a timetable.

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!

Light up your heart

The city of Montpellier has a special sparkle in the run-up to Christmas, when night falls early and festive decorations light up the streets in the heart of the city.

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I wrote about my visit to the Christmas market in Montpellier about this time last year.  This year I have a different treat in store for you:  for three days at the beginning of December, the city centre’s landmark buildings served as canvases for the most wonderful light shows!  There were nine locations in all, and I managed to see the shows at five of them.  I started with the Arc de Triomphe, which was lit up spectacularly before the show:

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I shot videos of all the sites I visited, so here are two of the Arc de Triomphe – if you receive this blog by e-mail, you may have to visit the blog page, in order to watch the videos.  The amazing light show turned the building into a futuristic spaceship, which took off for a flight through space!

Next, I stopped at the Prefecture, a very imposing building by day, and really funky looking that night:

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The theme for the show at this building was a magical circus, with strong men pushing pieces of a giant puzzle into place.  Have a look!

At the church of Notre Dame des Tables the students of the Montpellier School of Art and the Montpellier School of Computer Graphic Animation and Visual Effects had been given free hand.  Their work was varied and highly entertaining.

Here are two videos:

Not far away was the Musee Fabre, where the show drew inspiration from some of the great paintings which are on display in the museum.

The show made you believe at times that the building was really moving!

As it was getting later, it became time for something to eat!!  My companions found a Lebanese restaurant in one of the side streets near the railway station.  The place was buzzing and warm, and we had a wonderful meal!  Meze to start with, followed by a large grill platter – very tasty and plentiful!!  The restaurant is called Al Manara, and you can find their website here.

The meze dishes were tabbouleh, hummus, aubergine caviar, cucumber with yoghurt, and beans with tomatoes.

On the grill platter we had grilled chicken breast (marinated beforehand, tender and juicy!), lamb kafta (minced lamb with onion and parsley), chawarma (a kind of kebab, with a wonderful sauce), as well as tasty rice and some salad.  There wasn’t room for dessert!!

But there was time for one last light show, at the Eglise St-Roch!

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The facade of this church transformed into a kind of factory before our very eyes!

As this is the last post for this year, I’d like to take this opportunity to wish you all a very peaceful and happy festive season!!  See you next year, I hope!

No ordinary seaside lunch

Earlier this year, I was given a recommendation for a restaurant in Valras Plage, called O Fagot.  Seaside towns are not always known for their restaurants, so I looked up the restaurant on the net.  I found that the chef had just participated in a reality show on French TV called Top Chef – by the time of our visit he’d already been “knocked out”.  However, his food looked very promising, the reviews for the restaurant were encouraging, and friends were keen to come along, so off we went to Valras Plage!

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The restaurant is located a little way away from the centre, in a residential part of Valras Plage.  The outside is unprepossessing – I learnt that Franck Radiu, the chef, had taken over the premises not long ago.  In its previous incarnation, the restaurant had been a pizzeria, and the wood-fired pizza oven is still in place at one end of the dining room!

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A reminder of Franck’s stint on Top Chef hung on the wall – a chef’s jacket, signed by the other contestants and the judges.

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The interior was sober and modern, the chairs were comfortable and the tables set with nice glasses and silverware.  But all that was incidental, the food was the star here.  On the picture below is our amuse bouche – we certainly amused ourselves with it! 🙂

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This starter was interesting for the different textures, and very delicious:  an egg yolk on a slice of crispy bread, over an artichoke cream with toasted hazelnuts.

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The foie gras was pan-fried and perfectly cooked.  It was accompanied by apple slices and shavings of mushrooms and fennel, as well as a wafer thin piece of crispy bread.

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The starter in the picture below was a soft boiled egg, which had been coated with breadcrumbs and deep fried.  The egg was sitting on a salad made with quinoa and lots of fresh herbs, shaped into an incredibly neat circle.

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The main courses looked as spectacular as they tasted!  Franck Radiu is Corsican and uses this wonderful ham from Corsica to add flavour and seasoning to his meat dishes – he uses salt sparingly, preferring the ham to add the salt to the dish.

The lamb was braised for 24 hours at low temperature.  Even though the meat was incredibly tender, it still had a good texture.

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The steak was very succulent, and accompanied by potato croquettes.

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Braised and grilled belly pork on a bed of lentils with foie gras – yummy!img_4360

Franck Radiu started his career as a Chef Patissier (pastry chef), working in some high class hotels and restaurants in France, and his love of desserts shows!

The fraisier was a light as a feather!

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Ma Passion Chocolat was almost a chocolate orgy, combining crispy, crunchy, smooth and cold, and the passion fruit added a nice kick!

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Praline/Framboise was another lovely combination of textures and flavours – fresh raspberries, crispy biscuits and smooth praline mousse.

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A great finish to a lovely meal!!

And to round off this wonderful experience, we went for a walk along the seafront, which was just around the corner!

I would strongly recommend that you book before you head to O Fagot – you can find the contact details on the facebook page for the restaurant here.

Celebrating cultural heritage – Hotel Berge

I started to write about this year’s outing during the European Heritage weekend some time ago, with the post about the wonderful meal at O Petits Bontemps in Beziers.  My intentions were good – I was going to write about the other amazing places we had visited as quickly as possible, lest I would forget all the interesting details we had seen and heard.  Alas, I got sidetracked and wrote other weekly stories for my blog, no less interesting, I hope, or perhaps more so?

I’ll try to pick up where we left off: after that wonderful meal at O Petits Bontemps we headed to the Rue des Docteurs Bourguet (don’t ask who and why, I’ve not been able to find out! 🙂 ), where the Hotel Berge was awaiting our visit.  The Hotel Berge is a typical example of why I love the European Heritage weekend – it is only open this one day each year to the general public!!

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In France, the word hotel can mean both a conventional hotel and a mansion – the Hotel Berge falls in the latter category.  The building was given to the town of Beziers in 1986 by Dr Lucien Berge, an eminent local citizen and dentist, on the understanding that it would provide a home for the Societe Archeologique, Scientifique et Litteraire and the Antico Confrarie de Sant Andiu de la Galineiro.  The first is a learned society, established in 1834, and behind the creation of several of the municipal museums in Beziers.  The latter is a brotherhood devoted to the promotion of wine and local products; its members organise the Fete de Saint Aphrodise and the Caritats.  Dr Berge also wanted his former home to house a museum for decorative arts, but that hasn’t happened yet.

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Apart from a monumental door, the outside of the building is rather unprepossessing.  Behind that door lies a courtyard, which is at the heart of the building.  Straight ahead is the main part of the house, where Dr Berge lived; the wing on the left housed his dental surgery on the first floor, and there were also stables on the ground floor of that wing. I never found out what happened in the other wings around the courtyard.

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The main facade had been given a makeover in the neo-renaissance style in the late 19th century.  The ornate door on the very left led into the kitchen!  The detail on the facade is quite amazing, and appears to be very much untouched, apart from the spikes to deter the pigeons.

We were welcomed by the president of the archaeological society, Mr Barthes, who started our guided visit of the ground floor.  Incidentally, Mr Barthes is also the church organist in Saint-Chinian!

Our first stop was in the former kitchen, to the left of the front door and the staircase.  This room is large and airy.  The old red terracotta tile floor and the original fireplace and potager are still in place.  A potager is a cooking range where charcoal was burnt and where dishes could be cooked more ‘daintily’ than in the big fireplace.  Above the potager hangs Dr Berge’s diploma from the Chicago School of Dentistry!  Leaving the kitchen we passed through a very small pantry with a sink made of the same red marble as the fireplace and the potager.

From the pantry we stepped out into the garden, where we could admire the elegant 18th century facade of the main building, as well as the view over the lower part of Beziers.

Mr Barthes led us back into the house, past this marble bust.  I don’t know whose likeness that is, does anyone know?

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We were now in the main salon on the ground floor, where the meetings of the archaeological society are held.

The decorative scheme of the room hasn’t changed since the good doctor moved out of the house.  The wallpaper is not pasted to the wall, but stretched onto wooden frames.  Not great if someone pokes a hole in it! 😦

The original cast-iron central heating radiators are still in place, but no longer used.

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From this salon we passed through a small room with green painted panelling, and out into the entrance hallway, which was guarded by the statue of an angel, and which was also painted green.

The staircase with neo-renaissance ceiling and marble mosaic floor led up to the first floor (note to my north American readers: in France the first floor is actually your second floor).

At the top of the stairs, a door on the right led into the dining room, which was a typical example of the kind of dining room any fashionable late 19th century mansion in Beziers would have had.  The whole room was panelled in dark wood and the windows were made of stained glass.  Very little daylight penetrated into the room and my camera struggled to get any decent pictures.  At least it did pretty well with the stained glass! 🙂

There were five more rooms to be visited on the this floor.  The first was a salon which overlooked the central courtyard.  The panelling was painted a putty colour, and the parquet floor was in a kind of checkerboard pattern, which looked almost three dimensional from some perspectives.

The next room was the start of a long enfilade of rooms, with one room opening onto the next, along the garden side of the main building.  It had a bit of a gloomy feel to it, but our guide cheered us up by pointing out a somewhat risqué painting near the fireplace!  Well, it was rather risque at the time it was painted!

The next room was a library, with some of the bookcases protected with pink-ish fabric.

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The following room was a monumental bedroom – almost as large as the main salon on the ground floor!  The room was also slightly creepy because of the wax dummy to one side.  Was that a likeness of Mme Berge, keeping an eye on her bedroom??

At the end of the enfilade was another, much smaller bedroom, with a distinctive masculine flair.  Had that been Dr Berge’s bedroom?

All the rooms had more or less hidden doors, which would have allowed the servants (and sometimes the occupants of the rooms?) to come and go unseen.  I’d love to explore those corridors some time.  One of the guides said that they were just very dusty and not very interesting, but I’m not so sure!?  We retraced our steps through the various rooms and down the stairs, to visit one last room.  This was the Hotel Berge’s answer to the souvenir shops which can always be found in museums and galleries.  A very large table in the centre of the room held the various booklets which had been published by the society, and which could be purchased.  Because of the stained glass, this room was also fairly dark, but at least I managed to get a good look at the valve of the antique radiator!! 🙂

I felt very privileged that I’d been able to visit this amazing building. If you want to see it for yourself, keep an eye on this website for dates of the 2017 edition of the European Heritage weekend.

Our next step that afternoon was the Hotel Fayet, but you’re probably exhausted from reading all this, so I’ll save that for a future post!