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!

Wing-It Theatre

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Does anyone else remember the television series Fame which aired during the 1980s? I used to watch it, and remember following the lives of the students and faculty at the fictional New York City High School for the Performing Arts. The series was based on the film of the same name released in 1980, and after the television series ended the whole thing was turned into a stage musical, and the show has been produced around the world in almost every major language.

An amateur production of the show was produced here in Coventry last week, and although it is not my favourite musical by any means, I do think it worthy of a mention here. It is worthy of a mention, not just because it was an excellent production, (more of that in a minute) but also because of the way it was produced. Coventry seems to be blessed with a great deal of talent in the sphere of musical theatre; there are a number of amateur companies which regularly put on great shows. One is the Coventry Youth Operetta Group, known as YOG, which has a very good reputation, and a number of West End and television actors and dancers started their acting careers in that company. The other is the theatre group that I want to focus on here, the Wing-It Theatre. Founded back in 2009 when a group of drama students wanted to put on a final show together before beginning their professional careers, it has developed into a theatre project for youngsters who come together, after auditions, for ten days of intensive rehearsals, after which the show is produced in a local theatre. Obviously a lot of hard work and preparation goes on in readiness for that fortnight’s activity, but the fact that a musical production of such high standards can be achieved in that short time, says a lot for the commitment, dedication and talent not just of the creative team, but of all the youngsters who are aged  between about eight and twenty two. Over the past few years the company has produced Spring Awakening, Hair, 42nd Street, Hairspray, West Side Story, The Little Mermaid and Rent.

I saw this year’s production Fame, on its second night, the theatre was full and the cast, as well as the audience, were obviously enjoying every minute of the performance. The principals were a very strong team, with some powerful singers and superb dancers, in fact the whole youthful cast brought a wonderful vitality to a plot which (let’s face it) doesn’t have much depth. The staging was inventive, and the technical side of the production, sound and lighting, was slick, where every word could be heard and every movement picked out by a clever use of the vast array of lighting equipment. The choreographer and musical director brought out the best in the youngsters, but it is my friends Callum and Hannah, Executive Producer and Artistic Director respectively, who deserve high praise for helping about eighty youngsters discover and develop their talent, and in a short space of time produce something as good as they did last week. Some young people are criticised for their behaviour, their indifference, and their lack of purpose. This group, not only put on a show which entertained their audiences, but they also did their generation proud. Their enthusiasm, their confidence, their ability to work together as a team and their talent, are all things of which they can be very proud. As someone whose youthful days are over, and who ceased to tread the boards many years ago, I am delighted that theatre groups like these exist, and I look forward to the next production of Coventry’s Wing-It Theatre Company.

Julien

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You can almost feel the history of the place when you enter through the front door of 16 rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis. This is the home of the beautiful Brasserie Julien. The original tavern, or café, as we would know it today was opened on this site before even the French Revolution began, and has seen many a famous face through the centuries. The present building dates from the beginning of the twentieth century, and its beautiful Art Nouveau interior is quite stunning.

Friends had recommended that we ought to put Julien on our list of places to eat during our stay in Paris. We were meeting with French friends that we hadn’t seen for a few years, and wanted somewhere special. Julien came up to the mark, in its decor, service and cuisine.

We all chose from the Menu Julien, and two of us enjoyed Egg Florentine with fresh spinach in a Parmesan Sauce, whilst the others sampled the Sea Bass and Salmon Tartar in lime and ginger with a fresh herb salad. Our main courses included a Grilled Chateaubriand with a Béarnaise Sauce, Honey-lacquered pork spare ribs and pebble potatoes with rosemary, Filet of Sea Bass with oyster mushroom risotto and shellfish sauce, Whole roasted Sea Bream, sautéed potatoes with a soy and lime vinaigrette, and for the vegetarian with us, Wok stir-fried vegetables also with a soy and lime vinaigrette.

The desserts looked sumptuous, especially the Profiteroles with warm chocolate sauce, poured from a huge jug at a great height at the table, Crêpes Suzette flambéed with Grand Marnier, and for me – well I always opt for the Café Gourmand if I see it on a menu – a small espresso coffee with four little desserts, Crème Brûlée, Fondant au Chocolat, a tiny Muffin, and a small Fruit Crumble – absolutely delicious!

The price of the Menu Julien is 31€ for two courses and 37€ for three courses, which for the quality and service is quite reasonable. However, the wine is quite pricey, but needs must, and we needed two bottles of Château Tour Prignac from the Medoc between the five of us. But a very pleasant evening in beautiful surroundings, so well worth the price of the final bill. If you are ever in Paris, and want somewhere typically Parisian, then look no further than Julien just down the street from the Porte Saint-Denis in the tenth arrondissement. We were not disappointed, I hope you won’t be either!

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Les Cocottes

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Close by the Eiffel Tower, in the rue Saint-Dominique, in the seventh arrondissement of Paris, are three restaurants owned by the chef Christian Constant. Le Violin d’Ingres, Les Cocottes de Christian Constant, and Café Constant offer slightly different menus and differ too in style and ambiance. The locals know the street as rue Constant! How fortunate those locals are to have these three establishments on their doorsteps!

During our stay in Paris, we were treated to dinner at Les Cocottes by our godson, who wanted to give us a memorable dining experience. Not one of us was disappointed. From the moment we stepped through the open door to the moment we left, the staff were super friendly, efficient, unhurried, but totally natural. Nothing was too much trouble. Language was not a problem, we used our French, but they were happy too to explain the dishes carefully in English. Our table had been booked for seven o’clock, and already by that hour the restaurant was almost full. It remained so until we left, just after ten.
The menu was quite extensive and with the specials of the day, we had difficulty choosing our dishes. But eventually two of us decided on the special starter of Poached Egg with asparagus, peas and parmesan in a delicious sauce, whilst my partner enjoyed six oysters.

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I was then delighted by my main course of Steamed Cod fillet, with seasonal vegetables with olive oil and lemon honey vinaigrette – Dos de cabillaud cuit vapeur, quelques légumes à l’huile d’olive, citron et miel – whilst my friends chose the Magret de Canard.

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Everything from starter to dessert was served in little cocottes, cast iron pans which are perched on wooden boards, which keep the food wonderfully hot. Rice pudding doesn’t sound too exciting as a dessert but the Riz au lait à la vanille de Madagascar was delightful, absolutely full of flavour. Our godson, a chocoholic, could not resist La Fabuleuse tarte au chocolat de Christian Constant.
The other essentials of an excellent dinner, a bottle of Bordeaux, delicious bread and good coffee, all played their part in what was a wonderful evening with friends. The food was excellent, the produce seasonal, and the price very correct for both the quality of service and the dishes themselves. I shall look forward to my next visit to Paris; this is a restaurant to which I very much hope to return.

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