Cats in Coventry

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A scene from the Jellicle Ball at the production of CATS at The Albany Theatre, Coventry (photo used with permission)

Jellicle Cats come out tonight,  Jellicle Cats come one and all,

The Jellicle Moon is shining bright,  Jellicles come to the Jellicle Ball.

(T.S. Eliot)

Last night I attended the Jellicle Ball! And what a Ball it was! You may have read a previous post of mine back in April, when I wrote a review for a performance of the musical Fame, which was produced by a local Youth Theatre Group here in Coventry called Wing-It Theatre. Over the past few years they have produced a number of musicals including Spring Awakening, Hair, 42nd Street, West Side Story, Hairspray, Rent, and The Little Mermaid. This week they have presented their summer production and it was Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats, a delightful show based on T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. To my mind this was their most ambitious and most successful show to date.

The musical tells the story of a tribe of cats called the Jellicles, and the night that they make what is known as the Jellicle choice, and decide which cat will ascend to the Heaviside Layer, and then come back to a new life. One by one the cats tell their stories, and poor old Grizabella, the Glamour Cat, tries to join in but is shunned by the other cats, she is, however, able to have her say as she sings her song, Memory. Eventually she is the one chosen to go to the Heaviside Layer by the leader of the tribe, Old Deuteronomy, to be reborn to a new Jellicle life.

It is strange that a series of poems about cats should be turned into a piece of musical theatre, but it works, and it gives the performers ample opportunity to showcase many different styles of song and dance. Last night’s performance was superb, there simply is no other word for it. The youngest performer was eight years old, and the oldest in their early twenties; add to that the fact that the production team are all twenty somethings themselves, and we are talking about a very young company, but the wealth of talent meant that this production was worthy of a professional company.

Photo on 18 Aug 2017, 22_15_05The actor who played Grizabella brought the house to its feet with her rendition of the song Memory. I saw Elaine Paige play this role in the original London production back in the 1980s, but last night, Grizabella’s clarity and pathos were equal to that of a West End performer. Indeed the musicality, the diction, the choreography, and the simple but important mimicking of the feline gestures were all first class, and in one sense it is unfair to single out one character, because there were no weak performers in this production at all.

It was great fun to hear the stories of Bustopher Jones, the cat about town, Gus, the theatre cat, Skimbleshanks, the railway cat, Macavity, the mystery cat, Mr. Mistoffelees, the conjuring cat, Rum Tum Tugger, Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer, and all the others as they told us their stories, with their dancing, their antics and their gymnastics.Of course, none of this happens without guidance and the very talented and inspiring young production team which provides that, all have a background in musical theatre or choreography. My friends Callum and Hannah the producers and directors of Wing-It Theatre are professional actors, Andy the choreographer is a member of Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures Dance Company, and Charlie has just finished a run in the West End. They can be justly proud this week that the nearly sixty strong cast pulled the proverbial cat out of the bag and gave us an experience that we will not forget!Photo on 19 Aug 2017, 15_06_40

 

The very versatile Fennel

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Fennel is not to everyone’s taste. Personally I like it very much, but then I love that wonderful aniseed taste. As a boy I used to love going to the sweet shop with my pocket money, and getting a bag of aniseed balls. I’m sure that they were not good for my teeth, but I loved the flavour. Recently in France I came across an aniseed sorbet which I think is delightful, whereas I know others who cannot stand it, and if you like the odd tipple or two of alcohol, then of course that same flavour is there in Pernod or Absinthe. That is also something that I enjoy from time to time!

I had never realised until recently that fennel with its aniseed flavour is a flowering plant species in the carrot family. It is also a herb, and with its bulb base is also a very versatile vegetable, which can be sautéed, stewed, roasted, grilled, or if you fancy it even eaten raw. I often cut a bulb into quarters and roast it along with potatoes, parsnips and carrots, because it gives a different texture as well as flavour to the roasted vegetables.

But recently I have taken to using this very versatile vegetable as an accompaniment to some desserts! Fennel is wonderful when caramelised or candied. I first had it in this way some months ago in a restaurant near Fitou in the south of France. The menu board quite clearly stated:IMG_0290

(Poached Peach and Candied Fennel with Vanilla Ice Cream)

No-one in our group had ever had this before, and it sounded just too good and too interesting not to try it. It worked so well, and I was determined that this would be added to my repertoire of desserts. It goes well with poached apricots and nectarines as well.

It isn’t a difficult process. Simply place one fennel bulb, quartered, into a pan with 100g of caster sugar and 100ml of water, and bring it to the boil. Reduce the heat and allow it to simmer for twenty to thirty minutes, until the fennel is softened and the liquid is reduced to a syrup. Then remove the pan from the heat and allow the fennel to cool. As an alternative to the poached fruit, and I have not yet tried this but understand it works well, you can serve the caramelised fennel with chocolate mousse.

So there you have it, a new dessert for all you aspiring cooks and fennel lovers! Why not give it a try?

Here’s a photo of the dessert taken at that restaurant in Fitou.

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(Pêche Pochée et Fenouil Confit, Glace Vanille)

Summer Lunch

imageWe have a number of friends here in the south of France that we only see once or twice a year. Of course, it’s always good to meet up with them and catch up on what’s been happening in their lives since the last time we saw them. A couple of our friends live up in the mountains about seventy five minutes drive from here. One year we will make the journey up to see them and the next year they will visit us down here on the coast. We always enjoy our trip up to see them especially when it’s very hot down here on the coast, because the temperature is usually a little lower up there and the air is much fresher. As the crow flies it is about fifty kilometres, or thirty miles, from their house to the Mediterranean, but on a clear day the view is quite stunning, as you can see the whole way down the River Tech valley right down to the seaside town of Argelès-sur-mer and the blue Mediterranean beyond! The picture that I have posted at the beginning of this piece was taken back in 2008 with a camera that was not as advanced as the one I have now, and doesn’t really give the best impression, but it will have to do for now, and I’m afraid you will have to wait another year for that spectacular view, because this year it was the turn of our friends to come here, and on Wednesday we enjoyed a very relaxed lunch with them and two other friends.

Being so close to the Mediterranean, and having the advantage of the many small fishing ports along this coast, we are able to enjoy  a huge variety of fresh fish and seafood, and so it was fish, or to be more precise, a duo of tuna and swordfish which was the main course of our summer lunch with our friends. Fortunately, just a few minutes away by car, in the neighbouring village of Sainte-Marie la Mer, a new fish restaurant has opened called L’Étrille, (the French word is the name of a swimming crab) and apart from being a very good fish restaurant, it is also a poissonnerie or fresh fish shop.

Swordfish and tuna having been bought on Tuesday, they were left to marinate overnight in an olive oil, lime, ginger, vermouth, and dill marinade. The fish was cooked à la plancha as they say down here, a few minutes on each side on the electric grill plate out in the garden, and it was beautifully tender without falling apart, and served with gratin dauphinois and roasted Mediterranean vegetables with a Parmesan crisp, it made a very tasty and presentable main course.

It was a fortnight ago, that I came across a recipe on the site of a fellow blogger that I follow, Taste of France, and this recipe for tarte à l’oignon, or Onion Tart took my fancy. You can find the recipe for this yourself on her site, under the heading Onion Tart to Start. It made an excellent starter for our summer lunch this week, although I did make two slight modifications to her recipe. Here is a picture of my tarte à l’oignon with the addition of some thyme in the onion and crème fraîche mixture before the cooking stage, and some local white anchovies or boquerones placed on the top, just before the end of cooking. Two slices you will notice are missing, but someone had to try it to make sure it was good enough to serve! It was!

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Obviously we served some cheese after the main course in the French style, and then came the dessert. This was a Summer Fruit Pavlova, which is not a difficult dessert to make. I always follow Delia Smith’s recipe for making meringue. It has never failed me yet, so long as the instructions are followed to the letter. You can find her recipe on line and in many of her cookery books. The secret to a perfect meringue is in the whisking and allowing it to dry out in the oven after cooking. I believe meringue should be crisp on the outside and chewy in the middle. Thankfully there were no blunders on Wednesday, and with the addition of lots of different fruits, strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, red currants, apricots, kiwi, figs, pomegranate and pineapple, and lashings of crème chantilly, it was the perfect ending to our summer lunch with friends.

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Café Gourmand

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Those who know me well, will be aware that I have rather a sweet tooth, and that I have a penchant for a nice dessert at the end of a meal. Be it anything with chocolate, and especially white chocolate, a tangy lemon meringue, a light fruit crumble, a good Crème Brûlée, and anything with raspberries, and I will be very happy! Put some of those dishes together and heavenly is a word that springs to mind!

That combination of desserts started to happen a few years ago in the bistros and restaurants of Paris under the title of Café Gourmand. A small cup of espresso with a selection of bite-sized desserts found its way on to the menus of the French capital. Gradually it spread throughout the country, and in most restaurants that I have been to down here in the south of France, you will find it along with the Tarte aux pommes, Café liégeois, Poire belle Hélène, Les Crumbles, Tarte au Citron Meringuée, and the ice creams and sorbets. One of my missions in life is to try the Café Gourmand in as many restaurants as I am able! So far, I think I’m doing quite well, but I still have a long way to go!

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From the early days of a chocolate or two, a macaron, and maybe a cookie, the Café Gourmand has developed and today you may well find a mini Fondant au chocolat, a thin slice of fruit tart, a small crumble, a mango mousse in a small glass, perhaps even a mini chocolate eclair. Often there will be a scoop of ice cream or sorbet, and a squirt of that very French Chantilly cream. All elegantly served, with a swirl of fruit coulis, maybe some flaked nuts, a sprinkling of icing sugar, and in one case a Haribo chewy sweet!

The great thing about the Café Gourmand is that you don’t have to make a choice from the various options on the menu, you’re going to be treated to four or five different desserts, and you have no idea what is going to be included because the restaurants never tell you what you can expect, but you will receive a plate, sometimes specially designed for this special dessert, sometimes a slate, but with different flavours and textures, a mixture of colours, shapes and sizes, and the cup of coffee is included. For me it’s the perfect way to end lunch or dinner.

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Every time it is different. Even if you go to the same restaurant within a short space of time, you will not find the same things put in front of you. Some are obviously better than others, but I cannot say that I have ever been disappointed.

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Photo Album from Canet #2

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Back in May, I posted some photos taken in and around Canet-en-Roussillon and promised that I would post a few more later in the summer. Here is another selection of views from the village that I am pleased to call my second home!

(Photo above: The brickwork of the west front of the ancient parish church of St. Jacques, highlighted with the early evening sunlight.)

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(The church Tower dominates the skyline above all the houses in the historic quarter of the village, as it proudly flies the French Tricolour)

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(Across the Place Saint Jacques from the Church is the Hôtel de Ville, the town hall, the administrative centre of the village)

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(Between the church and the Hôtel de Ville, on its north side are the essential shops in any French square; la boucherie – the butcher, la boulangerie – the baker, and le coiffeur – the hairdresser!

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(I love the brick facade of this small house in the rue Carré Llarg, standing between two much larger houses with their painted facades)

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(If you don’t speak French, let me translate Carrefour du Bec de Cygne for you; it means Swan’s beak Crossroads!)

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(This grand old house is where we buy our fresh peaches and apricots in the summer, its front is almost hidden by its equally old olive trees)

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(The Avenue du Corps de Garde is one of the roads leading to the historic centre of the village, and as you can see, it is very well cared for)

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(Town houses in the Avenue Joseph Sauvy, named after a local worthy, wine merchant, and one time owner of the nearby Château Esparrou, one of the vineyards in Canet)

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(Between the old village centre and the house I call home in France is this area of pine trees, La Pinède, which affords some welcome shade from the Mediterranean sun!)

I will try to post some more photos later in the summer, with other interesting views of the village and the more modern Canet-Plage, the beach area.

Wines from Domaine Lafage

One of life’s little pleasures of being down here in the Roussillon is the proximity of so many very good vineyards, and the availability of so many excellent wines. Here in Canet-en-Roussillon, we have the beautiful nineteenth century Château Esparrou situated on the edge of Canet-Plage, and the Domaine des Hospices where the Benassis family have been producing wine in the centre of the village for five generations. A little further away between Canet and Perpignan is the Mas Miraflors, where the Lafage family have been engaged in wine making since 1798. In my opinion some of the best wines in this region originate from the vineyards of the Domaine Lafage.

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The Domaine has three vineyards in the Roussillon, the one surrounding Mas Miraflors is just a few kilometres from the sea, being part of the ancient flood plain and has a strong clay and limestone soil. Along with the Mediterranean climate and the northwesterly wind, known here as the Tramontane, these factors make this vineyard ideal for producing the fruit for some of the fine white Grenache and Rosé wines, for which Domaine Lafage is renowned.

The northern part of the Roussillon plain, near the River Agly, provides the Domaine with some of its more opulent and elegant wines, as this vineyard is situated in an area of limestone and black slate, and is exposed to the strong north winds.

The third vineyard belonging to the Domaine is situated at an altitude of four hundred metres in the foothills of the Pyrenees in marbled slate soil, surrounded by scrubland. Here the vines are planted in terraces following the contour lines, and benefit from a warm climate which is occasionally swept by the Tramontane.

Different grape varieties benefit from different conditions, and you will see that it is not just the grapes which make a good wine, but the soil, the rocky sub-soil, the wind the altitude, and of course the sunshine all have their part to play.

I believe that wine tasting is a very individual thing. Personally I love red wine, and went for years not drinking white wine. Since I discovered the wines from Domaine Lafage, I have learnt to appreciate both white and rosé wines as well. In fact two of my favourite wines are the Lafage Côté Floral, a lovely white wine which has a beautiful intense flavour of exotic fruits, and a very delicate floral note. The recommendation of the Domaine is to drink it with Sushi, which we did, but believe me it is delightful with fish, chicken and asparagus too.

The other wine which is an absolute delight to drink, is the very pale rosé, the Lafage Miraflors. Some would say that this is a vin gris  or grey wine, not having that rich pink colour associated with many rosés. We enjoyed a bottle (or was it two?) last week with friends sitting on the beach at a local beach club over a Tapas lunch.

It goes without saying that the red wines from these winemakers are also superb, and a favourite of this household is the Lafage Nicolas, which is 100% Grenache Noir from vines whose average age is sixty five years. This Côtes Catalanes wine goes well with strong meaty dishes and cheese, although we often drink it with fish too. Maybe by now you are wanting to try these wines. Sadly they are very difficult to obtain in the U.K. You may be able to buy them online, but most wine stores do not stock Lafage. For me, that’s another good reason to continue visiting this area, but who knows, if we continue to remind the staff at the Domaine that people in the U.K. enjoy good wine too, they may decide to expand their market there. Then again Brexit may make that more difficult. We shall have to see!

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Photo Album from Collioure

Yesterday we spent the afternoon and evening in the town of Collioure, just down the coast from here in the south of France, and I want to share some of the images of that fascinating place made famous by its artists, and the sheer beauty of its setting.

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(The Church of Our Lady of the Angels dominates the bay at Collioure)

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(Collioure was a fishing village, where the main catch was anchovies, and people still come here to buy the local anchovies or enjoy them in the restaurants. The colourful boats are part of the fishing fleet)

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(The town is a pedestrian’s delight, it has many cobbled streets where it is impossible to drive or even cycle. This is the rue Militaire)

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(The rue Jean Bart on the southern side of the bay at Collioure has a number of lovely restaurants right on the edge of the bay. We ate in one of these last night)

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(Across the bay from our restaurant table, we were able to enjoy the view of the Château Royal, or Summer Palace of the Kings of Majorca)

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(Brightly coloured houses of all shapes and sizes in the rue de la Démocratie, which faces the main town beach or Plage de Port d’Avall)

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(Another view of the church with the Château in the background, and the beach packed with holidaymakers)

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(I thought you might like to see what I had for dinner last night. Clockwise from top left, the starter was a Millefeuille of Rouget and tapenade, and tartare of tomatoes with an olive tuile, followed by a Pavé of tuna, with a Thai marinade, herbs and peanuts, with sticky rice, and fresh vegetables. The wine was a local Collioure red, produced on the slopes of the bay, and the dessert was a Blancmange with toasted pistachio nuts and a passion fruit coulis)

I had to include the next picture which I saw last night in a restaurant window written in English. It could have been anywhere, but it just amused me, so thought I’d share it with you.

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