A Christmas dip

No, this post is not about food!!  It’s about taking a dip in the sea at Christmas!  🙂

A tradition of winter swimming has grown along the Languedoc coast.  Several seaside towns mark the end of the year or the beginning of a new one with a swim.  Valras Plage, near Beziers, calls it the Bain de Noel, the Christmas swim.

In Valras, the tradition was started over 30 years ago by a few enthusiasts, who went swimming throughout the year.  On December 23, 2017, over 300 people came to take a dip in the sea.  The water temperature was 8 degrees Celsius, and as you’ll see from the photographs, the sun was shining!

People wore all kinds of fancy costumes to mark the occasion:

The life guards had come dressed up as Santa’s helpers:

Santa was waiting for the bathers on a barge:

After a brief warm up, the bathers made a dash for the water!!  I saw some people jump in head first, whilst others went in up to their knees.  I’m not sure that I would have been that brave!  The water must have felt freezing cold!!

The video below will give you a good idea of the fun everyone had!  After the dip, there was hot mulled wine for all the bathers!!  🙂

Would you go for a Christmas swim in the sea?  Or would you prefer a stroll along the beach?  Or….?

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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.

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!

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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!

Flying high

Last week, my nephew, Thomas, came to stay during his school holidays.  He had just turned 15, and this was his first holiday without his parents.  It was also his first time on an aeroplane, so you can imagine how excited he was!

His elder brother had come to visit two years ago, and we had had a week of outings and visits to keep him happy and amused.  I was wondering what would keep Thomas happy, and when I asked if there was anything he really wanted to do, his reply was: “I would like to go to the beach”.  He arrived on Wednesday, and as Thursday was a beautifully sunny day we went to Valras Plage in the afternoon.

Coming into Valras Plage from the eastern end, I noticed a little street, which seemed to lead right to the beach, the Chemin des Pecheurs.  There was space to park the car, so we stopped and decided to explore.  It was the perfect spot for us – the beach was beautifully sandy, and there was a boardwalk leading to a bar/restaurant right on the beach!  The restaurant had a covered dining area, as well as a bar area, and there were armchairs and coffee tables right on the sand.  Absolutely brilliant – I could watch my nephew in the water, whilst having an ice cream! 🙂

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The restaurant is called La Paillote Nomada.  Paillotte means a straw covered hut, and refers to the temporary nature of the beach restaurants, which are usually dismantled over the winter months – there are several such restaurants along the beach in Valras Plage.  Thomas quickly changed into his swimming things and after a cursory rubbing on of suntan lotion he was off into the water and the waves.

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There was a bit of a breeze, and I was glad to have brought a light jumper, sitting as I was in the shade.  The water was barely 15 degrees, but Thomas was having the time of his life, swimming, diving through the waves and paddling!  I had a job to persuade him to take a break, but he did come out of the water and I treated him to a nutella filled crepe.  No sooner had he finished it, than he was off into the water again.  The beach was fairly empty, so he had it pretty much all to himself.

On the Sunday we went to the beach again – this time to Narbonne Plage.  I had seen an advert for a kite festival there, and I wanted to see what it was all about.

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We could see the kites as we drove down the hill into Narbonne Plage.  It looked very exciting!  Where Valras Plage had been almost deserted on Thursday, Narbonne Plage was positively heaving with people on that Sunday .

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A huge area had been cordoned off on the beach, and within that area a large number of kites were anchored.

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A lot of the kites were carrying other inflatables – there were all kinds of fun shapes floating around.  Can you see the black witches in the picture above?

On the other side of this area, an arena had been set up.  This arena was used for demonstrations of kite flying, and they were doing some amazing stuff there!!  I tried to take a video, but could not catch the kites, they were just too fast!  A number of stalls had been set up next to the arena, selling all kinds of merchandise related to the festival.

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I was very taken with the windmills on sale at this stall!  At another stall, I overheard in passing that a competition kite can cost anything between 2,000 and 5,000 Euros!!  I was totally floored!

Back at our “base camp” on the beach, I watched someone flying one of these expensive kites close-up.  The precision and skill were totally impressive!

Somehow, the kites left Thomas pretty cold – he was far more interested in the water and the waves!  😀

We were back at Valras Plage Monday afternoon – Thomas wanted to take us out to a restaurant in the centre of Valras Plage, L’Auberge Provencale, where he had eaten some wonderful mussels on his last visit with his parents.  We went early enough, so that he could have another swim, and went to La Nomada again.  This time it was a little warmer, but the waves were not as big as during our previous visit – much to Thomas’s disappointment.  Once again, there were very few people on the beach, so it would appear that weekdays are best for going to the beach during the off-season!

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I promise that I’ll write about my restaurant visits with Thomas in a soon to be published blog!

 

 

On the beach again

During the late fall and winter there are often days when the sky is a bright blue colour, and when there isn’t a breeze stirring. Those days are perfect for a visit to the seaside!  In my case the closest seaside means Valras Plage, which is only 30 minutes by car from Saint Chinian, and that’s precisely where I went recently for a spot of lunch.

In the off-season, many restaurants and shops are closed in the towns along the coast.  But there are still enough cafes and restaurants open to choose from, and on my visit to Valras Plage I went to the aptly named Le Phare (the lighthouse), very close to the port, and to the beacon which marks the entrance to the harbour.

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Le Phare is under new ownership, but the restaurant and its menu haven’t changed very much since my last visit.

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The starter of the day was a tartar of salmon, which was very tasty: chopped raw salmon fillet, mixed with finely chopped cucumber and onion, and seasoned with olive oil and a little lemon and lime juice.

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There were mussels on the menu, with French fries, of course!!  And of course I chose that dish for my main course!  I can never resist eating moules frites by the seaside!!  There were some very large, yummy mussels in this pot.

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Dessert, anyone??  Of course — who could resist!! 🙂  Profiteroles or ice cream??  Ice cream for me, please!

After that lovely lunch, a walk around the town was de rigueur.  There were a fair few people on the beach; it was warm enough to lie in the sunshine after all!

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Valras used to be a small village mainly inhabited by fishermen.  All that changed with the arrival of a railway line in 1846.  People from and around Beziers could afford to travel to the seaside, and when the electric tram arrived in 1901, the village became ever more popular with seaside tourists.  Hotels and chalets, and bars and restaurants were built to accommodate the visitors, and the village started to expand along the beach and grew into a town.  The yacht harbour was constructed in the early seventies, and today there are moorings for 350 boats, in the harbour and along the Orb river, which flows into the sea at Valras.  A walk around the town will allow you to discover many buildings from some of the different epochs of the town.  The balcony railings look very art nouveau, and the bazaar could be from the 1930s.  Many of the older houses, especially along the seafront, have been replaced by bigger apartment buildings, but none of them are more than five stories tall.

The emblem of Valras Plage is the seahorse, and you can find it in many places around the town.  Here are just two:

So if the seaside is not for you in summer, maybe I can tempt you with a visit out of season??

 

Romans and restaurants

To walk off some of the excesses of the festive seasons I was invited by friends for a walk in Vendres.  I’d not really explored Vendres before, but it’s right next door to Valras, and that’s probably why – for a quick trip to the Med I always head for Valras.  Well, perhaps not next time.  As with so many villages in the area, Vendres has a long history.  The Romans liked the climate well enough to build there, and the remains of one villa can be seen just outside the village, We decided to explore…

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On the map this spot is marked as the Temple de Venus but it seems that may not have been the case!  So the walls we got to see were where the Romans took their baths.  Seems that even Cassini got that one wrong.  The map also marks a Source Sulfureuse, and whilst it was tempting to see whether the map would hold the promise of the sulphur spring, we decided to head south for the nature reserve and the marina.  If you want to have a look at the map it can be found on the Geoportail website – highly informative and useful.

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The boat was just by the remains of the baths, too picturesque to resist!  On the way to the marina we found some more Roman artifacts – and they seemed extensive:  the remains of an aqueduct.  Fascinating, because what is still intact is not visible, and what can be seen is thoroughly broken.  The first picture is of a collection or distribution point – unfortunately the panel explaining it all had disappeared.

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We had to scramble up the hillside to get to it, but were repaid with wonderful views of the Etang de Vendres.

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On the Geoportail website there is a possibility to overlay the current map with the map drawn up by Cassini in the 18th century, as well as a map from the 19th century, and it’s interesting to see how the size of the Etang has changed over the centuries, perhaps due to farming practices?  The Port Conchylicole is also a fairly recent development – a great place for getting fresh mussels and oysters, and eating them right by the water.  I’ll be back for that in the summer!  Across the road from the car park by the side of the port is where the path into the nature reserve starts.

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The Etang is a haven for migrating birds and other wildlife, so any of you keen on birdwatching should add this to your list of places to visit.

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The connection to the next part of this post is somewhat tenuous to say the least.  Right along the coast from Vendres, in Valras Plage, is a restaurant called Le Delphinium, and until a couple of years ago it was owned and run by Delphine and Louis Louro.  When Delphine and Louis sold up they were going to open another restaurant along the Canal du Midi – and so we waited and waited, until finally last summer their new restaurant opened its doors in Colombiers.  Their new venture, Au Lavoir, was well worth the wait!

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Au Lavoir is both a restaurant and a Maison d’Hote with four bedrooms, by the Canal du Midi.  The restaurant has a large courtyard for outdoor dining in the summer, and a spacious dining room for the rest of the year – all tastefully and comfortably furnished.  BUT we want to know about the food! Summed up in one word:  sublime.  The first time I went was with friends and their children.  The kids had a la carte and us adults had the blow out menu with a glass of wine with each course.

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Starter was the most tender tuna fish

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Then came a giant prawn with vegetable tagliatelle

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Followed by pan-fried foie gras on a slice of apple

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You can see that I’m not a very fast drinker

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For main course there was roast pigeon

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And then a cheese trolley to die for!

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What restraint!!

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And as it was getting dark dessert arrived.  Souffle au Grand Marnier

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Louis came out to serve the desserts, and he slipped the ice cream and grand marnier into the souffle –  no it does not collapse!  And the combination is divine!  AND so light at the end of the meal…

The children had the same starter, followed by roast rack of lamb, and then a chocolate dessert.  They really were spoilt, and so were we 🙂 !

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