Feeding frenzy

I promised to share some of the food pictures I took during my nephew’s visit, and I like keeping my promises.

To start with, here is one picture which should really have made it into last week’s post:  the wonderful ice creams at La Nomada on the beach at Valras Plage.  Here’s their version of a banana split:

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During the week that my nephew, Thomas, stayed in Saint-Chinian, we went out for a few meals.  It really started on the way back from Toulouse airport.  Thomas arrived at just after 5pm – too early to have dinner in Toulouse.  We therefore decided to head in the direction of Saint-Chinian, and along the way had the idea to re-visit a restaurant in the centre of Carcassonne called L’Escalier.

When I last visited this restaurant it was specialising in Mexican food, and I was looking forward to that.  However, since that last visit the theme has changed, and now Bistro food is all the rage.  The ambience was still the same, somewhat ramshackle and haphazard, and at the same time very cozy.  We were quite early and had our pick of the tables.

We started with a Greek salad to share between the three of us.  A wise move, since that salad was huge!  At this point I have a confession to make:  I cannot find the photographs of the entire meal – they have somehow disappeared into the ether 😦

Luckily I can always remember a good meal!! 🙂  Thomas had chosen mussels for his main course, just plain moules mariniere – fresh mussels are very difficult to come by where he lives.  The mussels were absolutely wonderful!  They were served in a large salad bowl, with another bowl the same size for the empty shells, and they were piping hot and freshly cooked.  My partner had ordered a dish called pluma de porc, which is a cut not unlike the filet, but with more marbling.  It was deliciously tender and the portion was very large.  I had chosen the house speciality burger:  a submarine roll, filled with slices of grilled duck breast, foie gras and onion marmalade – total decadence!!  After all that food we skipped dessert – we had all eaten very well!

Our next outing was to Pizza Tillou in St Chinian, and once more there are no pictures of the food.  To me one pizza looks very much like the next, although the taste experience can be very different from one Pizzeria to another.  Tillou’s pizzas have a very thin crust and I always ask for mine bien cuit (well done) – then it comes with slightly charred edges, and is very crispy!

The food highlight of Thomas’s visit was dinner at Au Lavoir in Colombiers.  I had taken his brother two years ago, and Thomas deserved that treat too.  It was a perfect evening, warm enough to sit outside.  We were kindly given one of the two tables right at the end of the terrace, from which you have a view of the Canal du Midi below – such a great start to the evening!!

Canal du Midi as seen from the terrace at Au Lavoir in Colombiers

Canal du Midi as seen from the terrace at Au Lavoir in Colombiers

Here’s the food – at long last some pictures!!  For starters, Thomas had chosen Bellota ham, my partner had decided to try the carpaccio of octopus and I had plumped for foie gras as usual. 🙂

For the main course, Thomas had chosen rack of lamb and when it came he was somewhat disappointed – he felt the portion looked rather small.  He’s into eating big portions.  The lamb was cooked to perfection, pink and juicy, and ever so tender!

Rack of lamb

Rack of lamb

My partner had filet of sea bass with a celery cream – yummy!!

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I had chosen the tuna steak for my main course – beautifully juicy and oh so tasty!

Tuna steak

Tuna steak

Desserts at Au Lavoir are always delicious!!  Thomas wanted the moelleux au chocolat, a kind of half-baked chocolate cake with a melting centre.  It was served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream – Thomas was in seventh heaven!!   My partner opted for the crispy green banana fritters, with ice cream and a salted butter caramel sauce – I could have very happily eaten that instead of my dessert.  But then I really liked my dessert too – a raspberry tiramisu, served in a little kilner jar!

As it got darker the lights came on, and the terrace took on a completely different allure.

The terrace at Au Lavoir in Colombiers

The terrace at Au Lavoir in Colombiers

The sun set over the Canal du Midi, a wonderful end to a fantastic meal!!

Sunset vewed from  Au avoir in Colombiers, France

Sunset vewed from Au Lavoir in Colombiers, France

Our last meal out with Thomas was at Valras Plage.  He had set his heart on going to eat at a restaurant where we had spent an evening when he had last visited with his parents.  “This will be my treat, I am inviting you”, he announced.  He confided that he had brought enough money, so we could have anything on the menu – so sweet!! 🙂

L’Auberge Provencale is on Allee Charles de Gaulle, a square which opens right onto the seafront.  There are many restaurants surrounding this square – I don’t remember what made us choose this particular one the first time we went, but we’ve been back a good few times.  We all opted for the set menu which was priced at EUR 16.90 – it had a good choice and we all found something we liked.

Thomas started with a Caesar’s salad – almost a meal in itself, but then he likes big portions! 🙂  My partner enjoyed a goat’s cheese mousse, and I had a platter with a selection of starters, a bit like tapas – very delicious.

For his main course, Thomas had his longed for mussels.  He wanted moules mariniere just as he had on the day he arrived in France – so he could compare them!  He said that they were every bit as good as they had been in Carcassonne, and he did finish them all!

Moules mariniere

Moules mariniere

My partner ordered a plate of grilled gambas and cuttlefish, which came with a cute basked of fries.  We had previously seen these cute baskets at the Maison du Cassoulet in Castelnaudary, but weren’t allowed to have any, remember?  The gambas and cuttlefish were finished with a persillade, a mixture of chopped garlic and parsley.

Grilled gambas and cuttlefish

Grilled gambas and cuttlefish

I had a hunger for mussels too – I don’t often prepare them at home.  I decided to try the mussels with sauce campagnarde, which is bacon, onions and cream – a great combination, and one which went well with the mussels!  Both the mussel dishes came with a bowl of fries, and they were very good too!

Mussels with bacon and cream

Mussels with bacon and cream

The dessert menu was fairly standard, with the usual creme caramel, mousse au chocolat, etc…  We ended up ordering ice creams.  Thomas was tempted by the “Bounty” coupe, which was coconut and chocolate ice cream.  My partner fancied the “authentic Italian gelato” with caramel sauce, and I ordered a strawberry sundae, which came with an almost obscene amount of whipped cream!  All very good and not a spoonful left at the end of the meal.

What a wonderful finale to what we hope will have been a very exciting holiday for Thomas!

Blues in the night

I seem to be on a roll about fetes at the moment, but my excuse is that a) it is still summer and b) that’s when the fetes are happening in Languedoc!!   This post is about an evening of music, wine and food at the cooperative winery in Saint-Chinian.  It takes place once a year, and it always coincides with the open day at the Cave Coop, as the cooperative winery is known locally.

I did not go to open day this year, since I’ve been several times before, but if you go to the next open day,  you will be able to visit the working side of the winery, which is normally closed to the public.  The inside looks not unlike a cathedral – incredibly tall, nave-like and with light streaming in through high windows at the end.  Instead of pews there are wine tanks everywhere!

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The reason I went inside the winery, before the fete started outside, was the unveiling of a picture.  Last year the cooperative winery started a project called L’Art en Cave. Under the project a contemporary artist is commissioned to paint a mural on one of the cement tanks in the winery, which is then used as the label on that year’s special cuvee. Here is a picture of the 2013 commission:

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This year Miss’Tic was commissioned to paint a mural on another tank, and there was a fair “buzz” before the unveiling, in the presence of the artist.  I’ve since learnt that Miss’Tic is an internationally recognised street art painter.

Miss’Tic has been creating her pictures with the help of stencils since 1985, and I found a few of her works on the walls around the cooperative winery, discreetly placed:

Before the unveiling there was a short speech, introducing the artist, and then a few words by the artist herself.  You can see they were having fun!

Then the moment came to pull on the string, to reveal the mural:

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And here it is:

The mural is also reproduced on this year’s Cuvee Miss’Tic

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A literal translation of the slogan on the picture would be “wine for a life without seed”, but the actual meaning is more along the lines of “wine for a life without problems”!! I’ve not tried that particular cuvee yet, so I can’t vouch for it:)!

After the unveiling there was of course a “verre d’amitie“, the all-important glass of wine. I joined my friends outside, who had found our allocated seats at one of the many tables, which had been set up in front of the winery.

The event is always well frequented by locals, and the wine grower members of the cooperative all work very hard each year, to make the event a success.  The band that evening was playing R&B music, and the food was all locally prepared.  Here’s a picture of the wine list:

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And here is the menu:

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The food on offer was as follows:

  • Mussels Languedoc style with a glass of white wine
  • Melon and mountain ham with a glass of rose
  • Grilled duck breast and sausage with vegetables, with a glass of red wine
  • Goat’s cheese with a glass of red wine
  • Pastries with a glass of muscat

With each course came a glass of wine, and you could buy a wine glass, with one filling included in the price of the glass.  You could of course bring your own glasses, which you had bought the year before…

The way it all worked is that tickets of a different colour for each course could be bought, either in advance at the winery, or on the night at a central till.  One part of the ticket would get you the wine, the other the food. For six wine tickets you would get a whole bottle.  And if you didn’t want to drink the regular wine, or weren’t hungry, you could just buy a regular bottle, pretty much at the shop price.

The mussels were cooked on great steel trays over an open fire, and they tasted absolutely delicious!

The sausages and duck breast were grilled over the same fire!

As the evening wore on, the atmosphere changed – the coloured lights started to twinkle magically 🙂 .

Cheese was followed by dessert, and by then the light was getting a little too low for pictures.  The band was playing great music, and the whole evening was just wonderful!

Don’t miss this evening if you are in St Chinian in early August!

Cooking with friends and All that Jazz

A few weeks ago a friend told me about a dinner & concert to take place at Chateau St Jacques d’Albas, near Laure Minervois.  The performance was to be by the James Pearson Trio, known for their appearances at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in London and the theme for the evening was the music of Oscar Peterson.  Chateau St Jacques d’Albas is a little outside the village of Laure Minervois, and has been beautifully restored by Graham and Beatrice Nutter, the current owners.  The evening started with aperitifs in the domaine’s tasting room, from where we filed into the next room, which was set up for the concert.  A beautiful Steinway concert grand took pride of place.  We selected seats on the gallery overlooking the room, to get a better look at the musicians.
The musicians were James Pearson on piano,
Sam Burgess on double bass,
and Pedro Segundo on drums.
We listened to one set before dinner, which was served in another beautiful room next door.
Large glass doors at both ends made this a wonderfully light and airy room.  Dinner was a tomato and mackerel terrine, followed by a very tasty main course, although I’m not sure what it was (could have been a saute de veau).  Pudding was delicious, a slice of brioche or bread topped with blueberries and some sort of syrup and caramel.  By then the light was not good enough for a picture, sorry, and in any case the dessert disappeared rather rapidly! 🙂

After dinner we returned to our seats for the second part of the evening, another set of fantastic music!  The guys really went all out and you really could tell why they are regularly playing at one of the most famous jazz clubs in the world.

Apologies for the poor video quality, but I think you’ll get an idea of what the music was like.  Two more pictures from the concert below, nice cufflinks, James!

And now for the latest in my series of “Cooking with Friends” posts.  I’m writing this a second time, as somehow wordpress managed to lose all my text and pictures :-(.  Our little group got together in Narbonne last week, to try our hand at Paella, and being that our hostess lives very close to Les Halles we had decided to go shopping together for some of the ingredients.  The Halles in Narbonne are an absolute must for any food lover, and I am amazed at the quality and choice each time we go there!  On our way in we passed a stall selling mainly hams, and they have an intriguing slicing machine, which cuts paper-thin slices from great big chunks of dried ham.

The little cups on each ham are for catching little drips of fat!  But we’d come for fish for the Paella, and some fruit and vegetables for the starter and main course.  We settled on squid, mussels and prawns, but not the tuna, tempting as it was.  We’ll leave that for another time!

For starter we’d decided on making Gazpacho, so we needed cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, garlic and onion.  For dessert a Gazpacho of a different kind was on the menu, made with fruit:  strawberries, red currants, peaches, water melon, charentais melon.

Once everything was unpacked back at the ranch, many hands set to to make short work of the preparations.  The most interesting dish was the Paella: first chicken thighs were fried in the large pan (and set aside), followed by the fish and chorizo (and set aside), followed by the vegetables (peppers, garlic, tomatoes).  Then the reserved ingredients were added to the pan and everything mixed & evenly distributed.

Special paella seasoning was added, along with the strained stock from the mussels, which had been steamed open in advance.  Finally in went the rice and then the dish was set to simmer on the stove.

While we waited for the Paella to cook, it was time for a glass of wine, and the Gazpacho.  Doesn’t it look beautiful with that drizzle of basil oil?  There were crutons to go with the soup too!

After a little wait, and let me say this – it was worth every minute, came the Paella, beautifully decorated with the prawns and some mussels!

It looked pretty good on the plate too, and tasted every bit as good.  I’m sorry to torture you, but even as I write I am salivating, and it’s not been long since lunch!  In case you are wondering, the stand the pan is on is a special gas burner for Paella, but since it was a bit too windy we decided to cook it indoors – just to show that you can always improvise!

Once we’d had our fill of the main course we had barely room for dessert, but the fruit Gazpacho was wonderfully light and refreshing.

And on our shopping trip someone had spied a red fruit sorbet, which went perfectly with the cold soup!

Jousting anyone? and on water?

There’s been some more wonderful food this week, and some seriously gorgeous produce in the market.  I know, I get a little carried away on a Sunday morning from time to time, and when it happens I have to drag myself away from the stalls, loaded down with bags!  There’s just too much choice at times, and the smells can be intoxicating. Take the melons for instance, they were fragrant and juicy, and as these are the first of the local crop they’ll be here all summer!!

Valerie from Agel (one of my favourite growers) had a very attractive selection of produce, and I splashed out on a selection of heirloom tomatoes – the ones in my garden won’t be ripe for another couple of weeks or so.  Valerie’s tomatoes are delicious, either just with a little olive oil and pepper or with mozzarella and basil, and at lunchtime today I made a salad with cubed tomato, cucumber, yellow courgette and feta cheese, with basil and mint.  Sorry, there was no time for a picture, it got eaten very quickly!Apricots are also getting into their stride, and we’re now on the third variety.  Charles and Barbara Cathala have their orchards in Argeliers and they grow apricots, peaches, nectarines and apples.  During the height of the harvesting season they can pick anything up to a ton and a half a day. Last weekend the town of Valras Plage was celebrating the “Fete de St Pierre”.

I got there just as the boats were going out to sea, taking St Pierre for a run and dropping a wreath at sea.  All manner of craft were participating, including some guys on jetskis, who kept racing through the other boats.  The boat procession was great to watch, the main boat had a brass band on board, and the “Vieux Crabe” a choir.

One of my neighbour plays for a Fanfare, a traditional brass band and he had told me about the fete in Valras – here’s what they sound like.

With weather so good the beach was pretty busy, but my group had decided on watching the water jousting, so no lounging on the beach for me.  The water jousting has a long tradition in the region and there is a big championship in Sete in August.  Two boats are being rowed by ten oarsmen each and also on board is someone steering, two musicians and in this case 10 jousters.The weight of the two boats has to be equal so when a particularly heavy jouster got on the red boat some of the others got off into the dinghy.  The jousters stand on a platform at the back of the boat, carrying a shield and a lance.  The goal is to destabilize the opponent and ideally get him to fall into the water, or get disqualified on faults.  It was pretty interesting to watch the audience reaction, especially when they deemed the jury to have made a wrong decision.  At one point a particularly irate spectator stormed up to the jury desk and started shouting at them – I was waiting for fisticuffs to start, but it all got calmed down, until it happened again a little while later…
(The two jousting pictures are animated gif files, you might have to click on them to see the animation)After the excitement of the jousting we meandered round the streets and ended up in the square where all the restaurants are.  At the “Auberge Provencale” we sat down to some excellent Moules Frites followed by ice cream, and were entertained by two passing bands.  At the hotel across the road a group of bag pipers were getting ready to do the rounds, dressed in blue kilts.  The band was called the Bagdad d’Aix en Provence and I’ve since found out that the bags and music are Breton.

On the way back towards the car the beach was almost deserted, but by now the restaurants and bars were all humming. 

We came across another band called Skamanians, playing wonderful jazz with a Caribbean beat – I’d not come across that before, and was mesmerised.

We followed them around as they were going in the direction of the car, and when they took a short break a little chat revealed that the band leader is from Newcastle, the Sousaphonist from Germany and one of the other musicians from Belgium, and that their home is Perpignan.  They have a page on facebook where you can listen to their music!  What a great ending to a fantastic day out!