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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Miss Saigon in Leicester

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(Leicester’s very modern theatre, The Curve, is currently playing host to Miss Saigon)

The very first time that I saw Miss Saigon, the musical by Boubil and Schönberg, (who are also the writers of Les Misérables), I was absolutely bowled over. It was back in 1989, and we went to London to see it just a week or two after it opened. My memories of that day were of the helicopter – everyone who has seen it cannot fail to remember the helicopter – but perhaps more importantly the wonderful music and very emotive story were imprinted on my mind. I remember also a group of Americans who were in the theatre for the first act, but did not reappear for the second act. Apparently, the memories of the Vietnam War, in which this musical is set, were too raw, understandably they were not yet able to face a re-enactment of such horrifying events from their recent past. America found it difficult to put the war behind it, it worried for its veterans, the peace movement and the draft dodgers were subjects still on their minds fourteen years after the war ended. Twenty eight years on from its opening in London, and the events portrayed on the stage still send a shudder down the spine, and bring more than tear to the eye, but it is a story that needs to be told.

Since that first time that I saw the show until last Saturday when I saw it again, I think I have seen the show about eight times, and I have never failed to be moved. It tells the story of the complicated relationship between an American Marine, Chris, and a Vietnamese girl, Kim, who fall in love in the last days before the fall of Saigon to the Communists. Chris, along with all Americans, has to leave, but is unable to take Kim with him. Some years later through a charity set up to look after Vietnamese orphans, Chris and his new wife discover that Chris is the father of Kim’s child. The ending is tragic, and if you know the story of Madame Butterfly, then I need not explain the ending, indeed I don’t want to spoil it if you have never seen the show.

Saturday evening’s performance was the opening night of the U.K. tour in Leicester, and the show has lost none of its power, its emotion or its raunchiness. The central character of The Engineer was brilliantly portrayed by Red Conception, and Ashley Gilmour and Sooha Kim, were superb as the lovers Chris and Kim. The staging is very cleverly done, it is slick, fast moving, colourful and very realistic. That helicopter that everyone talks about, you actually feel it passing above you through the auditorium, and then you see it landing on stage as the last of the Americans and the Ambassador board it, leaving behind those who were hopeful of escape to freedom, escape from the Viet Cong.

There are some lovely ballads in the musical score, as well as some rousing military music, but my favourite song has to the song about the orphaned Vietnamese children, Bui Doi, which translates as The Dust of Life, those ever present red haired, blond and freckled children of Vietnamese mothers, usually prostitutes, and American fathers. These children are a source of shame and guilt for Americans, but a central theme of Miss Saigon.

After its run in Leicester, the shows moves around the U.K. and Ireland, playing in Birmingham,  Dublin, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Southampton, Manchester, Bristol and Plymouth. It really is unmissable.

Photo on 5 Jul 2017, 16_21_58

Kilworth House Hotel and Open Air Theatre

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I have just celebrated a rather special birthday, and one of my treats was a overnight theatre package at the Kilworth House Hotel and Open Air Theatre near Lutterworth in Leicestershire. The number which appeared on many of my birthday cards is not important, let’s just say that under British law, I have reached that age where you have to renew your driving licence! It was a lovely experience and I feel sure that many of my readers would love to hear what it was like.

From the moment we arrived to the moment we left, everything was superb. The package included an overnight stay in this glorious Grade ll listed Italianate country house, which was built as a family home towards the end of the nineteenth century for John Entwistle, the High Sheriff of Leicestershire. The present owners bought it and converted it into the beautiful hotel it is today in 1999. The original Orangery has been converted into a restaurant, where we had dinner last night, and breakfast this morning. But the main reason for going was to visit the wonderful Open Air Theatre which has been built in the grounds, and which for the last ten years has hosted top class musicals, with West End actors and musicians. The show currently playing is Kiss Me Kate, a musical I first saw back in 1991 in Birmingham, and then in the West End in 2002.

Let me tell you about the hotel and restaurant first. Everything had been carefully thought about, nothing was forgotten. The garden room which we were allocated was spacious, beautifully furnished and extremely comfortable; and the restaurant in the huge, light and airy south facing Orangery which overlooked the rolling countryside of South Leicestershire was well staffed and very efficiently run. It had to be, dinner for those going to the theatre was served from five o’clock, and the eighty odd people in the restaurant were all served unhurriedly with plenty of time to spare before being transported through the grounds to the “theatre in the woods”.

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For dinner, I chose Butternut Squash Soup as my starter, and my friend had Mackerel pâté, rye bread, pickled fennel and horseradish cream. Our main courses were Pork schnitzel, with parsley potatoes, cranberry sauce and lemon for my friend, while I had Escalope of salmon, crushed potatoes, green beans and sauce vierge. Both were accompanied with seasonal vegetables. We both decided on the same dessert which was a Lemon Delice, toasted meringue and raspberries. A good sized glass of Spanish Tempranillo, and a coffee to finish, and we were all set for what turned out to be quite a chilly night in the theatre!

Remember that this is June! Last week, the United Kingdom was sweltering in a heatwave with temperatures in the low 30s. Last night, most of the audience had thick coats, wooly hats, some even had gloves, and the staff were handing out blankets! It was quite ironic when the second half of the show, as it does, opened with the number Too Darn Hot! that the laughter that greeted that song showed quite clearly that the audience did not agree! At least it wasn’t raining!

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Kiss Me Kate is a musical by Cole Porter, based on Shakespeare’s play The Taming of the Shrew. It is highly amusing and contains many well known songs, Another Op’nin’, Another Show, Wunderbar, So in Love, I Hate Men, Too Darn Hot, Always True to You in my Fashion, and the hilarious number sung by the two gangsters, Brush Up Your Shakespeare. The leading actors, Caroline Sheen who played Katherine, and Matthew McKenna who played Petruchio, have both starred in West End musicals, and were superb in carrying the show with such pace. The whole company was truly magnificent, the energy, enthusiasm and talent worthy of any London production. This is the first of the two major productions at Kilworth this summer. Kiss Me Kate closes on 16th July after a six week run, and then the Irving Berlin dance musical Top Hat opens in August for a four week run.

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A theatre in the woods in rural Leicestershire is not where you expect to see top class musicals, but if you get the chance to see one of the productions, take it, you will not be disappointed. Kilworth presents two musicals and other one night shows throughout the summer. If you are too late to book for this year, bear it in mind for next.

The hotel, the restaurant, and the theatre are all little gems here in the Midlands. For me it was a lovely birthday treat, and I shall look forward with eager anticipation to my next visit.