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)

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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)

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.