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)

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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

The Circle of the close friend

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Many times during the early 1950s, Pablo Picasso came to stay with friends in Perpignan. His hosts on those occasions were Jacques and Paule de Lazerme, whose beautifully spacious home is now the city’s delightful Musée d’art Hyacinthe Rigaud. He brought with him his close family, and many intellectuals, artists, writers and poets were attracted to stay there too. These friends became known as Le cercle de l’intime, or the circle of the close friend, a group of friends whose intellectual and artistic talents has shaped the cultural life of this Mediterranean city which lies close to the border with Spain.

To celebrate the reopening of the art museum, a special exhibition has been mounted to display pictures of Picasso’s intimate circle and to describe his frequent stays in the city, which appealed to him, not just as an ideal place to rest with friends, but also because of the Catalan nature of the city, Picasso having spent his formative years in Catalan Barcelona on the other side of the border between France and Spain.IMG_0064

(Picasso with some of his intellectual circle of friends at the Hôtel de Lazerme)

These friends were able to provide a protective environment for Picasso who was going through difficult times in the 1950s. His marriage was in crisis, and he was unable to return to his home country across the border since the implementation of Franco’s dictatorship in Spain. Being in Perpignan was the closest he could go.

The exhibition gives us a glimpse, through the many photographs taken between 1953 and 1955, of this group of friends sitting talking, visiting various sites around the city, spending time with his children, and painting some of this close circle of intimates. The whole thing is beautifully displayed and includes some of his sketches done here in those years. The permanent collection at the Musée Hyacinthe Rigaud also contains several original work by Picasso, including some ceramics. Our visit, which I described in my last post, was very enjoyable. The permanent collection alone is well worth a visit, but to have this temporary exhibition about Picasso in the city, was indeed the icing on the cake.IMG_0059

(Portrait of Paule de Lazerme in Catalan dress, painted in Perpignan in 1954)

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(Boy playing with a lorry, painted in 1953)

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(Peace Dance, painted in September 1953. The figures are dancing the Sardana, the local Catalan dance, performed in a circle)

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(Man with barretina and other sketches)

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(Pablo Picasso photographed by Raymond Fabre at his studio in Perpignan)

Perpignan’s Art Museum Hyacinthe Rigaud

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(Louis XlV in his Coronation Robes, painted by Hyacinthe Rigaud in 1701)

Every French schoolchild learning of the history of their nation will have come across the portrait of Louis XlV, the Sun King, in his coronation robes, and those of us who have been in the Louvre Museum in Paris will have seen this huge portrait, or have recognised the copy of it which hangs in the Palace of Versailles. What I had not realised until recently was that this painting was executed by Hyacinthe Rigaud who was born in Perpignan, and who gives his name to the Art Museum in the city, and who was the most famous portraitist in the royal court at the end of the seventeenth and the beginning of the eighteenth centuries.IMG_0047

(Self portrait of Hyacinthe Rigaud with a turban)

Last week I made my first visit to this museum which has recently reopened after massive renovation and extension work. Since 1979 the museum was housed in part of the Hôtel de Lazerme, one of the grand town houses in a city which had many such buildings. This had been the home of the Lazerme family, and home also to Perpignan intellectual life, and a refuge for writers, artists, musicians and poets, as well as a centre of resistance during the Second World War, and it was here that Pablo Picasso often stayed with the family when he visited the city during the 1950s. The massive building works were made possible by connecting this town house with another, the Hôtel de Mailly, thus creating a huge L shaped museum facing two different streets. The result is quite spectacular, and this relatively small city in the far south of France is now home to one of the most beautiful museums in the country. The space for its permanent collection has increased threefold, and it now provides six times more space for its visiting temporary exhibitions. The opening temporary exhibition is called Picasso in Perpignan, which I shall be writing about in a few days time, and which is proving to be a huge success.

Perpignan, and this region, was home to many famous artists, Georges-Daniel de Monfreid, Gustave Fayet and Pierre Daura, and the famous sculptor Aristide Maillol, many of whose works are exhibited here, along with works by Picasso, Henri Matisse, and Joan Miró. The permanent exhibition is divided into four sections displaying works from the Gothic, Baroque, and Modern periods in the life of the city, and work from today’s artists. Below are some of the works which interested me but there is so much more to see here, and if ever you find yourself in this region, the Musée d’Art Hyacinthe Rigaud is certainly well worth a visit.

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(A few of the two hundred and eleven small framed works by various artists bequeathed to the museum by a local lawyer. One is by the Catalan artist Joan Miró)

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(Cadix – an oil painting by Jean Lurçat painted in 1924)

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(A work in bronze by local sculptor Aristide Maillol from Banyuls-sur-Mer, created in 1907 entitled Le Désir – Desire)

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(Self portrait of Pierre Daura as a soldier, painted in 1938. He had joined the Republican militia in 1937 to fight against Franco’s forces in the Spanish Civil War)

And finally my favourite from the whole permanent collection was this altarpiece by an unknown artist, which was commissioned in 1489, by the five consuls who administered the trading port of Perpignan, and which was placed in the chapel of the Loge de Mer, or maritime consulate. Recently restored, the piece is quite stunning, and dominates the room in which it is displayed.

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(Retable de la Trinité 1489 by unknown artist)

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.

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)