Some words of wisdom from a table mat

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Eating in a restaurant is nearly always a pleasure. Sometimes it is better than others, because it is not just the quality and presentation of the food and wine that are important, but the ambiance and the service too. I like it when a restaurant gives you those extra little touches, and you come away feeling that the evening was really rather special. One of those special little touches is sometimes there right in front of you when you sit down at the table. For example, a year or so ago, we went to a restaurant in the neighbouring village of Sainte Marie La Mer, the restaurant was called Can Olivier, Can being a contraction of the Catalan word for the house of.  There were three of us eating that evening, and each of us had a different table mat, welcoming us to The house of Olivier. As you see above, one of us had a picture of the Castillet and the Railway Station in Perpignan, one a beach scene, and the third a picture of pleasure boats in the harbour. Immediately, we found ourselves talking about the mats and the views.

A similar thing happened on Sunday evening when we went with our friends from Ireland, to a restaurant called La Galiote in Canet Plage. Here the table mats did not have pictures, but sayings connected with food, appetite, gluttony and cooking! At the end of the evening, having expressed my delight with the table mat, the waitress very kindly gave me a clean one to bring away with me.

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The words are probably not too easy to read in the photograph, so let me type them out for you here.

L’appétit vient en mangeant, la soif disparait en buvant. – (François Rabelais)

Le Créateur, en obligeant l’homme à manger pour vivre, l’y invite par l’appétit et le récompense par le plaisir. – (Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin)

La gourmandise commence quand on n’a plus faim. – (Alphonse Daudet)

Si vous n’êtes pas capable d’un peu de sorcellerie, ce n’est pas la peine de vous mêler de cuisine. – (Colette)

Bien manger, c’est atteindre le ciel. – (Proverbe chinois)

“But…” I hear some of you say, “I am still no wiser!” Alright, I’ll translate for you!

Appetite comes with eating, and thirst departs with drinking.

The creator, in obliging man to eat in order to live, invited him there with appetite, and rewarded him with pleasure.

Gluttony begins when one is no longer hungry.

If you are not capable of a little magic, it’s not worth the trouble to interfere in the kitchen.

To eat well, is to reach the sky. – (Chinese proverb)

Words of wisdom indeed, especially as you look down at them staring up at you between courses. Thankfully they didn’t put me off my food!

Post script:

In a similar vein, I read some other sayings, this time not on a table mat, but believe it or not, painted on the toilet wall in another restaurant in Canet Plage a year or two back.

0624B117-A405-4A46-8D70-F543738752A8Unfortunately there is a letter “r” missing at the beginning of the last line here, but the translation of this saying is:

Do not seek the most beautiful woman in the world,

But seek the woman who will make your world more beautiful!

And the other saying on the same toilet wall was:

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To do what you love is happiness

To love what you do is freedom.

So there you have it, words of wisdom from two unexpected places in two different restaurants, a table mat, and a toilet wall!

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The Château de Jau

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(Part of the vast expanse of vineyards at Jau, can be seen beyond the hedge)

On the southern foothills of the Corbières Massif, the foothills of the Eastern Pyrenees, along the valley of the River Agly, is situated one of the better known and more highly regarded wine producing Châteaux of this region. Now known as the Château de Jau, this site was first inhabited by Cistercian monks in the twelfth century. All that remains of that monastic foundation is a superb square tower, but in 1789, the year of the French Revolution, a magnificent neo-classical mansion was constructed which in 1974 became the home of the Daurë family who have made the wines of the Château de Jau what they are today.

A variety of wines are produced here, Côtes du Roussillon, and Côtes du Roussillon Villages, various Muscats de Rivesaltes, and Vins doux naturels, or dessert wines. The vineyards surround the Château, indeed there is nothing else around here, the nearest village Cases de Pène, is a ten minute drive away. But it is here, almost in the middle of nowhere that one can experience the most unusual and individual of wine tastings.

I have been visiting Château de Jau almost every year for the past twelve years. Hardly anything changes, but then, I wouldn’t want it to! The six course menu of Fougasse aux Olives, Pain à la Tomate et Jambon de Truie, Cotelletes d’Agneau, Saucisse Catalan, Roquefort, and finally Corsaire à l’orange, all excellent in their own way, are served as accompaniments to the wines of the Château.IMG_2311

(The food menu and wine list, above, and some of the food and wine, below)

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Each course helps one to appreciate the wines produced here and in their other vineyards near Collioure and overseas in Chile. It is a wine tasting, but with a difference; no little sips here, the bottles are left on the tables, and if you want to try more, then just ask. We have never been disappointed with the food, it is plentiful, rustic but of excellent quality, as are the wines too, some better than others, and each person will have their own favourite. All this is enjoyed in a beautiful setting as the open air restaurant is located on a terrace surrounded by a cluster of ancient buildings, next to a small lake, and within a stone’s throw of the very elegant Château. Every year an art exhibition is held in an adjoining building which adds a different dimension to the visit. A word of warning: should you ever be in the region and decide to enjoy this most enjoyable experience, take a taxi; then you will really be able to enjoy the wines!

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(On the left can be seen the barbecue where the meats are cooked, and to the right is the entrance porch to the public area of the Château, looking down the long drive)

The Little Yellow Train

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(Our train awaits)

Up in the mountains of the Eastern Pyrenees about forty kilometres from where our house is on the Mediterranean coast, is the start of one of the famous little railways of the world. From the station at Villefranche-Vernet-les-Bains-Fuilla to that at Latour-de-Carol-Enveitg the track of this pride and joy of the Catalan Pyrenees wends its way along sixty three kilometres serving twenty two stations, at fourteen of which the train only stops if a request has been made before the journey begins.

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(Two of the trains in the sidings at Villefranche)

This bright little train decorated in the Catalan yellow and red, or gold and blood as the locals describe it, looks like it has stepped straight out of the 1950s as it chugs its way slowly through mountain valleys, clinging precariously to its track through spectacular scenery, as it leaves behind houses built in the Mediterranean style, replacing them with Alpine chalets built for severe winters with heavy snow.

Last Friday I made another journey on the Little Yellow Train and saw again for myself the beautiful scenery of this part of the south of France. Our journey began from the SNCF Station in Perpignan, where we boarded the regional express train to Villefranche, a distance of thirty kilometres, for the princely sum of one euro! At Villefranche, where the main line train terminates, we crossed the track to the platform of the narrow gauge railway and boarded the train having previously bought our tickets online. We were only going to travel part of the way to the ski resort of Font-Romeu, and the fare was around twenty four euros for the return journey, or aller retour as the French say.

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(The very impressive rail bridge at Planès)

Soon the train set off following the course of the River Têt, which we were able to see, first to the left and then to the right, way below us, as it meandered over rocks in places and flowed very fast in others. The valley widened and, passing through the Parc Naturel Régional des Pyrénées Catalanes, we came to the first main station of Olette-Canaveilles. It was after this point on my first visit that, on a not too sunny day, we passed through the clouds and found ourselves in glorious sunshine. Our journey continued through Fontpédrouse, Mont-Louis and Bolquère-Eyne, which, at 1592.78 metres, is the highest station in the French railway network. IMG_0640

(The station at Bolquère-Eyne, the highest station in France)

Then as we rounded a bend, high above us to the right was the town of Font-Romeu with its large hotels for the skiers who flock here between November and March. To the left across the valley we could see the ski lifts and the clear runs between the trees, all green now in the hot summer sun.

Font-Romeu-Odeillo-Via is famous, not only as a winter sports’ resort, but also because it is home to the world’s largest solar furnace in Odeillo, which can reach temperatures up to 3,500°C (6,330°F).IMG_0639

(The solar furnace at Odeillo)

Our stay in Font Romeu was short, just time for a little wander, maybe a cup of coffee, before taking the train back down the valley to Villefranche. Up here it is almost like being in another world, so different from the Mediterranean lifestyle on the coast. The buildings have a totally different style, the air is fresher, and is filled with the sound of cowbells. Here you are just a few kilometres from the Spanish border, but you could imagine yourself in the Alps. IMG_0709

A special place in the Catalan hills

IMG_2007Over the years I have been to Collioure, that little gem of a town on the Côte Vermeille, many times, but on Monday of this week I was introduced to a wonderful place hidden in the hills above the town. A place of Catalan culture and local spirituality, it also has a hotel, bar and restaurant and a small church. This site is known as L’ Ermitage de Notre Dame de Consolation or the Hermitage of Our Lady of Consolation.

Friends who have an apartment in Collioure had invited us to a simple barbecue supper, but asked us to arrive in the late afternoon so that we could have a short walk in the hills and then they could take us to the Hermitage, and we would be able to enjoy the wonderful view down the valley to the town and the Mediterranean Sea beyond.

Our walk took us along the Douy valley up out of the town, and soon we were surrounded by vineyards, which in this area are planted in terraces along the contour lines. The walk to the Hermitage was not too far, only about two kilometres, but the climb was quite steep. IMG_2008We passed under the viaduct, which towered above us, carrying the road from Perpignan to the Spanish border between Cerbère and Portbou, and then all was quiet and our only company were the birds of prey circling above. IMG_2011

IMG_2009As this pathway was also a pilgrims’ path, we passed the little wayside shrines to St. James, St. Theresa and St. Anne, and then we rounded a corner in the path and there in front of us was the Hermitage, a cluster of ancient stone buildings housing the church, the cells and the hotel, with the more modern building of the bar-restaurant in between them.IMG_2017The origins of the place are shrouded in mystery. Originally on this site stood a temple dedicated to Neptune and then to Poseidon, the Roman and Greek gods of the sea, but the Christian church which now occupies the site is old, the original building constructed by Dominican and Cistercian monks back in the twelfth century, and the outer walls of the church contain a number of individual cells. Records show that in 1496 the place was known in Catalan as Maria de Consolacio, and in 1549 it was “a chapel of a hermit”. Since then it has had two restorations, the latest being in 1975.

The buildings themselves are interesting, but the view from the terrace of the hotel is stunning. Looking back down the Douy valley, one can now see the town of Collioure hundreds of feet below with the blue sea glistening in the distance.IMG_2024The hotel is used by walkers, pilgrims and those who want a little peace and quiet, but others are welcomed. Groups come to hold barbecues, parties, even marriages and baptisms, and three times a year there are pilgrimages, on May 1st, mid August and on September 8th, the birthday of Our Lady in the Christian Calendar. IMG_2021Catalan culture is also celebrated here with many opportunities for those who are skilled in the art, to dance the Sardana, the Catalan dance performed in a large circle with the Cobla, the band consisting of woodwind instruments and a little drum, providing the music and the beat. Sadly there were no dancers on the day we visited.IMG_2030Too soon we had to make our way down the hillside and back to Collioure. Our friends had prepared a very welcome supper of melon and Serrano ham, followed by Catalan sausages grilled on the barbecue and served with ratatouille. A good wedge of the flower shaped Saint Albray cheese, and a beautiful raspberry tart meant we felt replenished after our exertion in the heat of the late afternoon, and we were able to sit on their terrace as the sun went down and the moon rose and the stars began to shine. As we drank our wine and reflected on a part of Collioure we had not seen before, we were grateful that, for once, we were not down there in the town with the thousands of holidaymakers and tourists.

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.

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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Downpour to Heatwave!

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(This is the view of Canet that we normally see on our approach to the airport in Perpignan – but not on this occasion! Thick rain clouds meant we saw nothing at all)

To say it was raining is an understatement! As we came into land on our Ryanair flight from Birmingham, the skies over Perpignan were full of thick dark clouds. It wasn’t just raining, it was pelting down, you could hear it on the fuselage of the plane, you could see it pouring down the windows in rivulets. When the steward opened the front door of the plane to secure the steps he was absolutely soaked, despite wearing his raincoat, and the captain announced that no one was getting off in the next few minutes. Despite all that, thankfully the landing was pretty smooth, although there was one almighty flash of lightening as we touched down. What a welcome to the south of France!

We’ve been here a week now, and it has got a lot better, thankfully! In fact by the time we reached our house in Canet half an hour later, the sun was beginning to peep through the clouds, and the second downpour that we had experienced on the road from the airport had ceased. By the evening, when we went out to a local restaurant, everywhere was dry. Dinner on this first night was to be in a restaurant we have known well for the past twenty-four years. Back in 1993 when we first came to Canet, we stayed at a place called Malibu Village, a holiday resort made up of Timeshare apartments, rentals and owner-occupiers. The restaurant in those days was very good, but has gone through difficult times of late. We had heard that it is now very much on the up, and we were not disappointed. Carefully prepared and beautifully presented dishes were put in front of us by friendly and attentive staff. We both started with Escalivade, a Catalan dish of roasted vegetables, served here with asparagus and a Parmesan Crisp, which we followed with Gambas for my partner and Sea Bass for me.

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(Escalivade with a Parmesan Crisp served with Black Olive dressing on a glass plate)

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The dessert, one of my favourites, was Tartelette Citron Meringuée.  A good helping of really local red wine ensured that we passed a very pleasant evening.

Sunday was spent working in the garden, which during our absence over the previous two and a half weeks back in the U.K. had burst into colour. There was lots to do, cutting back the creepers, and thinning out the vine, to ensure a good crop of black Muscat eating-grapes in late August and early September. That done we made our way to Perpignan where we were going to attend the evening Mass of Pentecost at the Cathedral.

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(The Sanctuary of the Cathedral in Perpignan prepared for the Pentecost Sung Mass)

As the weather gradually got better during the week, much of our time was spent organising the outdoor furniture and getting the swimming pool (la piscine) back into operation. Our regular pisciniste arrived on Monday and did the major cleaning work after removing the winter cover, cleaned the filter, checked the ph levels, and reset the timers and the heater. All done within an hour, and all we had to do was wait until the temperature was at the level we like it. Within two days the water was crystal clear again, without the use of chemicals. In the pool house there is a UV lamp over which the water constantly passes, removing any impurities and thereby doing away with that awful smell of chlorine! Thanks to the summer cover, which is like thick bubble wrap, and the efficient heater, the water temperature is now 28° Celsius, or for those who work in Fahrenheit, a very pleasant 82°. With the aid of the sun, (and this weekend we are experiencing a bit of a heatwave down here) it will soon be over 30° or a mere 86°. A bit like a luke warm bath!

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Yesterday we marked a personal event, and took ourselves off to Saint-Cyprien, the next town south along the coast, to celebrate in style at a restaurant that had been recommended to us by friends. Saint-Cyprien is one of the largest pleasure boat ports along this coast and also has a fishing harbour, so the fish is always very fresh in the restaurants there. Before our meal we enjoyed a Mojito in a bar on the edge of the port called Le Bateau Ivre, (The Drunken Boat), and since I was driving, mine was non-alcoholic, I hasten to add. It’s known in French as a Mojito Virgin!

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At the restaurant, L’Hidalgo, once again we were not disappointed. Our starter was a rather large platter of Tapas. Being so close to the Spanish border, tapas is very common in these parts and is often found on menus. Ours consisted of a selection of cold meats, Manchego cheese, white anchovies, razor shells, squid, crispy chicken and a fried fishy doughnut, called acras de Morue. We were able to take our time over all this with a good bottle of red wine from Collioure, a beautiful fishing port and wine producing area two more town further south along the coast towards Spain.

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(Platter of tapas, with the inevitable, but delicious bowl of Aioli in the foreground)

Then came our main courses: my partner had chosen to have Parillade de Poissons, a mixed grill of fish and seafood which he very gallantly made his way through!  Mine was a  Cocotte d’Agneau façon tajine, a slow cooked North African Lamb Tagine, which was not too spicy, but very flavoursome. I did leave room for another of my favourite desserts which I have mentioned in a previous blog, Un Café Gourmand, a selection of four tiny desserts, including a Crème Catalan, and another tiny Tarte au Citron Meringuée, with an espresso coffee. Sitting facing the harbour, watching the moon rise, with not a breath of wind, was a lovely end to the evening.

We have really kind neighbours here. Four days ago, the neighbour on one side brought us a huge bag of cherries, which her cousin had picked up near Vinça, about twenty-five miles away. They were beautiful and we have enjoyed some every day since. Then two days ago, the neighbour on the other side brought us a bowl of apricots which she had just picked from the tree in her garden. They were delicious. Not many food miles involved there! Thank you Nicole and Suzanne!

And so our first week here in Canet-en-Roussillon has come to an end, but not without a little sadness. Just above the covered terrace outside the kitchen there is a decorative water spout, which serves no purpose, it’s just there to add symmetry to the look of the terrace,  but over the past few years it has become home to nesting birds who have successfully reared their chicks there, and we’ve watched them coming and going to bring food, and eventually see the young fly the nest. This year, sadly things have been different; first on Wednesday, then yesterday, and now this morning, we have found three chicks on the floor below. Did they fall, or were they pushed? We shall never know, and we cannot interfere, nature has to take its course. But it is still very sad to witness, and we are wondering if there are any chicks still in the nest?

What started with a downpour has ended with a heatwave, but better that way round as today the French are voting again. Just over a month ago they held Les Présidentielles when Emmanuel Macron was elected President, and today is the first round of Les Législatives, when members of parliament are elected. Personally, I’ve had enough of elections, but that is another story, and not one that I intend to get into here!