Restbite

Having been to see the old prison, the cellar beneath the cloisters, and the former archbishop’s palace on my visit to Beziers during the most recent European Heritage days, I had built up an appetite! My search for somewhere to eat took me to Les Halles, the covered market near Place de la Madeleine.  About half of the floor space inside the market hall is now given over to restaurants, with the other half still occupied by food stalls.  I liked the look of A la Maison, and that’s where I had lunch!

The restaurant claims that it serves old-fashioned home cooking prepared with the help of grandmother’s recipes.  I liked the sound of that! 🙂

The menu had a good selection of starters, main courses and desserts:

I chose the entrecote steak – it came accompanied by fried potatoes and some salad.  The steak was tender, tasty and perfectly cooked!  I cannot remember when I’ve had such a wonderful steak in France!  And the potatoes and salad were excellent too!!

My companion ordered the tuna fish, which was served with rice and salad, and a sauce vierge, a kind of salsa made with chopped fresh tomatoes, onions, and olive oil.  The tuna too was perfectly cooked and absolutely delicious!

If I need to choose whether to have a starter or a dessert I will always go for a dessert!  So, from the dessert section of the menu I chose the panna cotta.  It was topped with mango puree and whipped cream.  It was very different from the panna cottas I have eaten and made myself!  The cream was very dense and firm, yet it did not have the rubbery texture that can be attributed to too much gelatine.  It was very yummy and satisfying!

My companion chose the tiramisu with red fruit coulis, as with the panna cotta, this was also a very tasty dessert!!

After this wonderful meal I was ready to continue my quest to discover more hidden historical gems in Beziers!  I did visit three more amazing places, and I will write about those in due course!!

A la Maison is open for lunch from Tuesday to Sunday.  While looked for a website, I found their TripAdvisor listing here.  It’s one of the few restaurant listings that I have come across on that site which has scored five out of five!!  They also have a website here.

Almost springtime

Spring is very much on the way in Languedoc – the almond trees have been blooming for some time now, and I just had to share the wonderful flowers with you!

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And what better way of celebrating spring than to cook some wonderful food with good friends.  We got together once more in Narbonne, this time to try our hand at tapas, fish baked in salt, and key lime pie.  As before we started our food-fest with a trip to Narbonne market halls.  The selection there is just too wonderful, and great discipline is required not to come away with far more than one needs!

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The sepions are tiny squid and we got some for the tapas.  The fish came from the stall just around the corner.  We decided that we needed two and ended up with around 3kg of seabream for the seven of us – too much??

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One of my favourite stalls is to one side and stocks a selection of wonderful dried hams and other Spanish charcuterie.  The hand-cranked machine is used to cut beautifully fine slices of dried ham, and it’s fascinating to watch the ham falling like silk ribbons onto the waiting paper.  We got some for our tapas, and I bought some more to take home for later in the week.  After a few more stops for creme fraiche, bread and a few vegetables we headed back to the ranch again, weighed down with bags.

As so often I got too stuck into the cooking and as a consequence did not take nearly enough photographs.  I promise to try harder next time!! 🙂

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The recipe we used for the fish came from Jamie Oliver;  I’ve included a link to it here.  The salt mix contained lemon zest and fennel seeds, along with egg and a little water.  So here are the two seabream,  already stuffed with parsley and basil, on a bed of salt.  The fishmonger had gutted the fish for us, and explained that one of them had the roe inside, so he’d emptied them both via the gills instead of cutting the belly open.  Soon they were covered with the remaining salt mix and set aside while we prepared the rest of our feast.

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Our tapas selection included some stuffed cherry bomb peppers, bought at the market, tomato toasts (slices of toasted french bread, rubbed with a garlic clove and half a tomato and drizzled with a tiny bit of olive oil), serrano ham, and baby squid.  Have you ever prepared squid?  Well, I hadn’t either!!  There’s a kind of hard, bone like plate inside the soft body, which needs to be removed and the tentacles need to be pulled off the body, which needed to be emptied and cleaned.  Messy work!  the “beak”, the squids mouth, needs to be cut off the tentacles along with the eyes.  Eventually I got them all done, and after rinsing the larger bodies were cut into pieces.  The squid were cooked very briefly with some olive oil, garlic, lemon juice and parsley.  There must have been some ink left as they turned black-ish (no, not burnt!!), and they did taste delicious.

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For dessert there was key lime pie.  Well almost, as the limes came from Mexico instead of Florida, but that was good enough.  The recipe we used comes from this website.  We’d initially planned to make two different versions, one which was to be baked and the other which sets without baking.  In the end we made two different types of crust but only made one filling, which turned out to be more than enough.

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Making the filling is very simple, the lime peel is grated into a bowl, the limes are then juiced and the condensed milk and creme fraiche mixed with the remaining ingredients – it does thicken magically as the recipe says!  Poured into the prepared crust and chilled for a couple of hours, then decorated.  We decided that the creme fraiche to decorate/serve would have been overkill.

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Look at those beauties!!  They did taste every bit as good as they looked and we did eat them both!

Now back to the fish:  Jamie’s recipe says “Pre-heat the oven to full whack” and to cook the fish for 15 minutes.  I do like his ideas but I intensely dislike sloppy instructions like that – every oven is different and “full whack” just doesn’t do it for me.  The fish monger in the market hall had told us to cook the fish at 180 degrees for 40 – 45 minutes and that’s what we did.  It turned out absolutely perfect, juicy and tender.  I found that the fennel seeds and lemon zest in the salt mixture added no flavour whatsoever, so I would skip that next time.  Interestingly enough, the fact that we had left the fish to stand for about 45 minutes meant that the salt had had a chance to penetrate the flesh of the fish.

We did attempt Jamie’s recipe for aioli, which promptly split, despite following instructions.  So we started again using an egg yolk as the base and added the split mixture slowly, resulting in a very delicious aioli, which went very well with the fish.

We also opted to make a different salad to go with the fish, with endives and citrus fruit, to counterbalance the richness of fish and aioli.  All in all a wonderful meal, and everyone agreed that they would be happy to cook the fish in a salt crust again. Do give it a try, and let me know what you think!

And here is one last picture of the almond blossom for you…

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A walk through the woods (and the market halls of Narbonne)

My father has always been an avid mushroom gatherer, and I’ve inherited his love for wild mushrooms, despite the fact that he’s able to spot a cep a mile off and I usually see one when I almost tread on it…  This hasn’t stopped me going out mushrooming with my parents while they were staying these past two weeks, though.  The weather had been wonderful, sunny/warm days interspersed with some rain, just perfect for growing mushrooms.  The last time we set off for a walk we found plenty of mushrooms, but none of them the kind that we would want to eat.  There are many comestible mushrooms, but a lot of them don’t taste fantastic, so in the main we’ve been sticking to ceps.

A few years ago I organized a guided mushroom walk for a group of us, which turned out to be a fantastic experience.  Benoit, our guide met us in Ferrals-les-Montagnes, and from there we drove a little way into the forest, where he gave us our orders:  pick every mushroom you find, regardless of what it is!  After an hour and a half of searching we pooled our loot and our guide explained the different types of mushroom and how to recognize them. He also sorted the safe ones from the poisonous ones, and we ended up with a nice pile of ceps, which were then turned into an omelette.

Whilst we’d been searching the forest, Benoit had been busy preparing for lunch:  He’d brought along pate and ham for starters, eggs already beaten in bottles for the omelette, and he had thought of everything, to the point where he had brought real glasses for our wine!

Soon we were munching away, thoroughly enjoying the fruits of our labour!!  Here are some pictures of the mushrooms we DID NOT eat, magnificent thought they were :

Back to now:  since we did not find any ceps ourselves on our last outing we made do with the mushrooms for sale in the market in St Chinian – and that was no great hardship!

Once cleaned my mother cooked the ceps with a cream sauce, and we had them with home-made bread dumplings, a Bavarian speciality – yummy!

Later in the week we all went to Narbonne – I’d heard about a great place for lunch in Les Halles of Narbonne, and decided we’d give it a go.  We arrived at the halls around 11.30, in plenty of time to have a good look around and do some shopping.  First though, we stopped off Chez Bebelle and asked to reserve for lunch.

The olives looked every bit as good as they tasted, and there was lots more – I just couldn’t keep up with pictures.   After a good look at everything we headed back for lunch.

The main attraction at Chez Bebelle is the fact that you all sit around the bar and watch as your food is prepared – well almost, there are some tables next door, but I think it’s much more fun to sit up close to the action.  Giles, the proprietor is a well known rugby player from Narbonne, and he has built up a great place to have lunch at.  His sister did the cooking when we were there, and she was a model of calm.  Giles had written our name on the place mats to reserve our seats, and when he came to take the order that name went on the docket.  Then he got his megaphone and called our order across the aisle to the butcher stall.

The meat came neatly wrapped sailing across the aisle (yes, I kid you not – that man knows how to catch!), and then our name got written on it, and it queued up with the rest of the orders.

Right in front of us was the plate with tomato bread – did that look tempting!!  By now there were people waiting for seats all over the place and the atmosphere was buzzing!

Soon enough our order was ready – yummy entrecote steaks and hamburgers (one topped with a fried egg) with home made fries!  And the tomato bread tasted fantastic!

There was a good choice of desserts, and even though I should not have I did all the same!

There was quite a choice but we plumped for apple and pear crumble and moelleux aux chocolat.  And the coffee was one of the best in a long time!  I don’t think we’ve ever had this much fun at lunch anywhere.  And I know I risk Chez Bebelle getting ever more busy by writing about it, but I think it’s a piece of “real” France that is too good not to share.

After all this food a walk around Narbonne was called for, and I’ll leave you with a few impressions of centre ville.