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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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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Thursday Thanks #6

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At the end of this week I shall be going back to France, a country whose language, culture, food, wine and climate I love. As a welcoming liberal modern democracy, it is a far cry from the country it was when my father made that journey seventy-seven years ago. He went along with hundreds of thousands of others as part of the British Expeditionary Force to help defend France. At that time Nazi Germany had invaded Belgium and the Netherlands, and Panzer divisions were attacking France through the Ardennes, driving the British troops back towards the northern coast around Dunkirk. There they were trapped with no means of escape until Churchill and his war cabinet drew up a plan, which was codenamed Operation Dynamo, to evacuate all the allied soldiers  from the beaches and harbour of Dunkirk at the end of May 1940. Churchill, in a speech to the British Parliament had described the events in France as “a colossal military disaster” and that “the whole root and core and brain of the British army had been stranded in Dunkirk” and were about to perish there. What happened there seventy-seven years ago, he also later described as “a miracle of deliverance”.

Because between 26th May and 4th June 1940, thousands of soldiers were rescued by a hastily assembled  flotilla of over eight hundred boats of varying shapes and sizes, fishing boats, pleasure craft, lifeboats, and merchant marine sent from the south coast of England. On the first day of the evacuation only seven and a half thousand were rescued; but by the end of the evacuation three hundred and thirty-eight thousand, two hundred and twenty-six soldiers had been saved from certain death or capture. As it was, over sixty-eight thousand soldiers lost their lives, and almost all of the tanks, vehicles and other equipment were abandoned  in northern France.

I am proud to say my father was there and certainly saved in that evacuation. He never spoke to me of those events in Dunkirk or of eventually being rescued; I am sure that something like that left deep scars on the psyche of a twenty-two year old. And so in this Thursday Thanks, I want to thank my father (who died sixteen years ago in 2001) and pay tribute to all those others who have allowed my generation to have the freedom that we enjoy today, and in particular for me, being able to make those regular journeys to France which I so enjoy.

Photo on 28 May 2017, 16_16_18

My father is pictured just to the left of the striped post in the centre of the photograph, on his return to England after the evacuation of Dunkirk.

Thursday Thanks #5

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There are a few more days left of this holiday, staying at our house in Canet-en-Roussillon. Just a few hundred metres away, the town’s new Medical Centre is nearing completion. Health-wise we are well served in this area, with a world renowned clinic just a few miles away, a large brand new hospital in Perpignan and two private clinics in the city. The new centre, due to open later this summer will be an important addition to the town’s health facilities for both locals and tourists.

I often pass the building site (photo above) where the centre is taking shape, and that has led me to think about healthcare this week, and for it to be the subject of my Thursday Thanks blog post. It’s not just the new building  which has prompted this, but also a number of friends who have recently undergone medical treatment. Healthcare here in France is supposedly amongst the best in the world, and one of my friends, an eighty six year old ex-pat is recovering well from recent major surgery, and what she describes as excellent treatment, to replace a ball and socket joint in the shoulder.

The National Health Service in the United Kingdom comes in for a lot of criticism, but it is also something that the British are usually very proud of. I certainly am, and with respect to any American friends reading this, I don’t really understand your country’s opposition to a National Health Care system like ours in the U.K. As I get older, like most people, I find I’m needing healthcare more and more, and I know it will always be there when I need it, and it will be free of charge. Another friend has recently had day surgery, and if she is reading this we wish her well.

Most doctors, nurses, and others in the healthcare system do a wonderful job, and we can all be grateful for their expertise and care, but many of them on the front line suffer abuse, and of course, we know that there is severe understaffing in the British system. Today, in my Thursday Thanks, I am expressing my gratitude for healthcare in general and for the healthcare that I have received over the years, and those dedicated people who have cared for me and enabled me to be as healthy as I am today! I look forward to the new Medical Centre here, Medi-Canet, being opened and improving the health of the people of this town for many years to come.