Finding the Herb in Chalabre

December 14, 2008 by · Leave a Comment 

It is not uncommon for vacationers, regardless of the destination, to find the change in diet does not agree with them. All the bread and meat began to wreak havoc on my Father’s digestive system.

At home, he has a herbal tea that he drinks to soothe his belly. With the help of our hostess we look up the translations of the herbs in his usual brew and get the address of a local herbologist in a nearby town.

We were soon off to Chalabre to find out if we can get a small town herbal hook-up. The drive from Calvayrac to Chalabre took us through some interesting scenery.

The vineyards and sunflowers of Languedoc have inspired many an artist, including Vincent Van Gogh. In August of 1888 he painted sunflowers when they were in bloom. As we drove past field upon field of dry, dead sunflower carcasses, the scene was more somber than Van Gogh’s bright depictions. However, the vineyards, with their plump black grapes just waiting for harvest, were a happy sight.

Upon our arrival in Chalabre, we found almost the entire town was closed. We’d arrived just after noon and our herbologist was closed until 1:30, as lunch is religion in France. This gave us a chance to wander around the charming little town and we found ourselves in a quaint restaurant for our own lunch.

Once lunch was finished, we returned to the Herboristerie and found it opened. The Herbologist had hair that could have inspired Van Gogh’s Starry Night. Apparently his natural remedies were working wonders on his dark glossy coiffe. In addition to being stunningly well-groomed, his store was immaculately organized. Each herb had its own bag, drawer or box and there were even more shelves in the back!

He was able to quickly throw together two weeks of herbs for my father’s “tummy tea” for a cost of about €6.50 (C$10-ish). It worked wonders and Chalabre was such a neat little place that we may never have visited if it hadn’t been for an upset stomach.




Afternoon Cocktails

December 14, 2008 by · Leave a Comment 

You can only do so much with those hours between lunch and dinner in France. Sure, there’s historic sites to visit and shops to meander through, but you sure work up a thirst being a tourist. Afternoon cocktails became more the norm than the exception while we were in France.

Muscat

Muscat is a grape known for it’s intensely floral and fruity aromas. It can be made into a dry table wine, but it is also fortified which makes it a great aperitif. It was served in a flute and chilled with two ice cubes. My mother likened the taste to white Dubonnet. The muscat was not syrupy at all. It was very smooth and refreshing. A sweet drink, it made a nice afternoon treat before leaving the town of Carcassonne.

The experience closer to home? Perhaps you can track down La Frenz NV Liqueur Muscat. La Frenz winery is on the Naramata bench and this wine scooped up a bunch of metals in various competitions. It’s fortified to 18.5% and a sweet treat. If you would prefer to try a drier, table version, Joie winery, also in Naramata, makes a slightly off-dry Muscat.

Pastis

Pastis, a is a cloudy, milky-looking, anise-flavoured aperitif. It’s one of France’s most popular beverages, with annual sales pouring out about 130 million litres of the stuff.

It was served in a skinny, tall glass with a couple cubes of ice and a small pitcher of water. It falls into the same category with Perinod, Sambuca, Ouzo and other licorice-tasting liquors. It reminded me of being in Greece, so was a suitable order for an afternoon in the Mediterranean. However, after too many late nights in Greece when shots of Ouzo would come out, I found it a bit too early to be drinking the familiar flavour.

My brother-in-law had the bright idea to mix it with his Fanta Orange pop, which made a surprisingly refreshing cocktail. Just don’t tell the French what we did to their favourite liquour.

Campari

If you’re more a lover of bitter than sweet, perhaps you’d enjoy a Campari. Although the exact recipe is a secret, it is known to be made from herbs, plants and fruit infused in water and alcohol. The Italian drink is a common aparatif, but a bit too medicinal for my tastes.




2007 Domaine La Fadèze

November 16, 2008 by · 2 Comments 

This dry white wine serves well as a table wine and is priced as such. It went for about €15 (C$23-ish) on a restaurant menu, but research shows that it retails at €5.90 from the winery in Montpellier.

This wine is classed as Vin de Pays d’Oc, which means that it’s a regional wine from Languedoc, the area that spans from the Mediterranean coast to the Spanish border to Provence. This classification might be familiar to many wine drinkers, as the region has 2,800 square kilometers of vineyards and is the world’s leader in regional wine production – pumping out more wine than all of the U.S.A.

The area is better known for reds than whites, but this white is simple, slightly acidic and citrusy which makes it great to pair with fish. Keep an eye out for great value from this area when looking for a wine to pair with your fish dinner at home. For more ideas, read over the France by the Glass wine list.



All Sète for dinner

November 16, 2008 by · 1 Comment 

We cruised along a narrow, straight road beside the Mediterranean to the seaside resort town of Sète, population 40,000. As we blew by at 80 kilometres per hour the salt water crept up the white sandy beach to our right. There were fluffy white clouds scattered around the blue sky.

There were a few camper vans parked on the roadside with people in collapsible chairs enjoying the view with a glass of wine. One group even had their BBQ going. Every now and then we could see fishermen, often with their rods planted into the sand casting out to sea.

We were hoping that some of the fishermen had already returned to Sète with their catch. We were headed there for dinner and hoping for some fresh seafood.

We walked around the seaside town for a while to check it out and work up an appetite. As we walked along the canal we could see some rowers out for their evening practice. The ‘canal royal’ has been there since 1666, same year the port was built. Sète is also the point at which the Canal du Midi meets the Mediterranean Sea.

The sun was getting low in the sky and set the town aglow. We decided it was time to head back to a strip of seafood restaurants by the pier to decide which one we’d try for dinner.

We chose Restaurant L’Amiral by chance and ordered some dishes to share between us. We started with a dozen baked oysters finished with cheese. They were tasty morsels and the simple sauvignon we chose washed them down well. We also ordered some moules frites done the traditional way – nothing fancy, but fresh mussels don’t need much help to be delicious. The mixed salad added some veggies and a nice crunch to our meal.

I was interested to try the signature dish from Sète, Bourride de Baudroie, which is monkfish with a garlic mayonnaise served with pasta. Unfortunately, I could barely swallow the fish. It had a tough, kind of rubbery texture that made it difficult to swallow, in addition to its overly fishy flavour. The pasta and the sauce weren’t too bad, though. I wouldn’t write this dish off before trying it at another restaurant.

The total for five people came to €66.50 (C$103-ish) with wine, tax and tip.

Details

Restaurant L’Amiral
Tel: 04 67 74 51 05
11, Quai Général Durand
Sète



Sylvaner from Alsace

November 7, 2008 by · 3 Comments 

2007 Vin de Alsace, Sylvaner, France, 12%, €15.90 (in a Paris corner shop). (That’s about C$24.)

My Mom is a white wine lover and I picked up this bottle to share with her on our last night in Paris. It was just the very thing for the occasion. Refreshing with just a hint of sweet that allowed it to be enjoyed without any food.

In case you’ve never heard of Sylvaner, it’s a cool climate grape known best in Alsace (an important French wine-producing region, but not one we visited on this trip) and in Germany. It does best in cool climates, but is not as well known as other cool-climate white grapes such as Riesling, Pinot Gris, Muscat, or Gewurztraminer.

A Sylvaner fact for you: in 2006 a vineyard called Zotzenberg stepped up and was recognized by the French appellation authority (a very stern bunch of bureaucrats) as a grand cru (meaning first growth: a snobby French way of designating top vineyards). Before 2006 only the other four aforementioned cool-climate white grapes were authorized to be called grand crus.

If you want to try out the grape a little closer to home, pick up a bottle of 2007 Domaine de Chaberton, Madeleine Sylvaner. It’s a crisp, dry and on the acidic side which would make it a great dinner pairing with creamy pastas or lemony fish. It’s from the Fraser Valley, 100-mile diet approved for Vancouverites and will only run you $12.99 at Village Wines.

For more ideas about French wines, read over the France by the Glass wine list.



Les Premières Grives

November 7, 2008 by · 2 Comments 

2007 Domaine du Tariquet, Famille Grasse, Les Premières Grives. (Gers) France. 11%  €16.85 (menu price, not shop)

According to the label’s directions, you should “serve cold and consume as an aperitif. Good with foies gras, fromages à pâte, desserts, fruit salads. Round, structured, rich, a big fresh taste that is dynamic all together.”

It was full-flavoured, juicy and sweet and did make a good aperitif when we had this wine at Brasserie Le France in Narbonne. My father had it pegged as a late harvest. Upon further research, I found out that this wine is made with Gros Manseng and other late-harvest regional grape varieties.

Tracking down where this wine came from was a bit confusing, but I think I have it sorted out. Domaine du Tariquet grows, produces and bottles the wine.  This all takes places in the Bas-Armagnac appellation, or growing area. That area is located in the Gers, which is one of 83 departments created during the French Revolution in 1790.

The Gers was created from what used to be Guyenne and Gascony, and the area is often still referred to as “Gascony.” It is one of the most rural areas of France. It’s in the southwest, about half way between Bordeaux and Toulouse. The department belongs to the Midi-Pyrénées region.

The wine is called “Premières Grives,” which translates to first thrushes. It’s a reference to the birds that arrive late in the fall and eat the mature grapes. Since these grapes have had more time to ripen they have become very sweet, making them irresistible to thrushes and the wine irresistible to all at our table.

For more ideas, read over the France by the Glass wine list.



France by the Glass

November 7, 2008 by · 1 Comment 

One of the main themes of our trip to France was wine. Bubbly, fortified, rosé, red, white, young and old, cheap and expensive, we tipped many a glass in our quest to find the best wine for the occasion. Some days we chose better than others and our chances paid off. Here’s how our vacation’s wine list poured out:

White Wines

2007 Domaine du Tariquet, Famille Grasse, Les Premières Grives. (Gers) France. 11%

A full-flavoured and juicy, sweet white wine that makes a good aparatif.

2007 Vin de Alsace, Sylvaner. (Alsace) France. 12%

A crisp and refreshing white with a hint of fruity sweetness that allows it to be enjoyed with or without food.

2007 Domaine La Fadèze, Sauvignon. (Vin de Pays d’Oc) France. 12%

A simple, citrusy, dry white to enjoy with fish.

2007 Chateau Les Graves, Sauvignon. (Premières Cotes de Blaye) France. 12.5%

A deliciously crisp and elegant Sauvignon from Bordeaux that will shine with seafood or alone.

2006 Chateau Coucheroy, Graves. (Pessac-Léognan) France. 12.5%

This dry sauvignon is fresh, smooth and medium-bodied so it can be enjoyed alone or as an ideal pairing to seafood and fish.

Rosé Wines

2007 Les Pierrons de Sobransac, Domaine la Lause, Rosé. (Vin de Pays de l’Aude) France. 13%

This fruity pink will go well as an aparatif or with your first course. It’s a great lunchtime wine.

2007 Château Bujan, Le Rosé de Bujan. (Cotes-de-Bourg) France.

A refreshing afternoon sipper with plenty of fruit and acidity.

2007 Domaine du Sabarthès, Rosé d’Ariège. (Vin de Pays l’Ariège) France. 13%

A simple, tart wine that, like a simple tart, you might invite to lunch once for the first and last time.

Red Wines

2004 Oc Cellus, VdP de la Haute-Vallée de l’Aude. (Limoux) France. 15%

This full-bodied blend of six grapes makes a spicy, complex wine that we were told to age for at least three to four more years (until 2011 or 2012).

2004 Vicomte Edmond H. De Coussergue, Pinot Noir. (Vin de Pays d’Oc) France. 13%

We did a tasting at a large wine merchant Sieur d’Arques in the town of

Limoux and at the end of the tasting selection, I asked the hostess what her favourite wines were. This Pinot was her top pic, so I bought a bottle and brought it home. More details once I taste it!

2003 Clocher Des Bénédictins, Merlot Grenache. (Vin de Pays d’Oc) France. 13.5%

This peppery, blackcurrent-scented wine is a tasty number to sip alone or with fromage au poivre.

Domaine la Croix Sainte Eulalie. (Saint Chinian) France. 13%

A good choice to pair with a heavy or fatty meal. A bit sharp for a solo-sipper.

2007 Domaine de Montesuieu. (Coteaux du Languedoc) France. 13.5%

A drinkable wine for €2.50 that is great to wash down strong cheeses with your casual picnic.

2001 Château Bujan. (Cotes-de-Bourg) France. 13%

We tasted a few bottles from Château Bujan, as we rented a house on the winery’s property. Read more soon…

2007 Echantillon de Mouton Rothschild. (Pauillac) France.

We were allowed to preview this wine while visiting the glorious chateau. It is not yet for sale, but when it does go up for sale expect prices to be upwards of €300 per bottle. Yikes! It’s what you have to shell out for a Médoc Premiers Cru (wines classified to be the best in France by Bordeaux trade brokers in 1855).

2004 Château Beychevelle and 2004 Amiral de Beychevelle. (Saint-Julien) France.

The premier and second labels from a famous Château classified as a fourth growth in 1855. That means the ’04 premier label goes for €39 while the second label is closer to €20. If you buy at the winery.

2001 Chateau Lynch-Bages. (Pauillac) France. 13%

We were told during our visit to this fifth growth classified Bordeaux winery that a lot of attention was given to the wines of 2000 because it was the millennium. However, our hostess at the winery said that 2001 was a perfect year for grapes, but nothing extraordinary. That has made it a “forgotten” vintage, although it still sells for €84 in their shop.

1982 Chateau Grand Mayne. (Saint-Émilion) France.

This winery is in the top 50 best wines of the Saint-Émilion region, and you’ll notice the 1982 vintage. 1982 is a “vintage year” or a year that’s known in wine snob circles as being above the rest. So we considered ourselves lucky that a friendly wine merchant happen to have a bottle open and offered us a taste.  It was very lightly-coloured and brownish in the glass and the main flavours were leather and Tobasco, in my opinion. Although the merchant claimed caramel and asked for over €150 a bottle. I was not sold.

2004 Roc de Cambes. (Cotes-de-Bourg) France.

This was one of the favourite and recommended wines of the friendly wine merchant in Saint-Émilion. It was an enjoyable, juicy number.

Bubbles

Blanquette de Limoux

We tasted many different Blanquette de Limoux from a large wine merchant Sieur d’Arques in the town of Limoux and enjoyed all of them. Read more soon…

2004 Emile Stagé, Blanquette de Limoux. (Limoux) France. 12%

When a rugby player’s mug is grinning at you from the label, you know you’re found yourself a quality bubble. Read more soon…

Fortified Wines

Pineau is a wonderful discovery that I wish I’d known about earlier! Read more soon…

Apple Cider

So soft (2 to 4 % alcohol) it’s a great drink for the driver. Or for breakfast. And it’s easy to find in French shops.



Hurray for Cassoulet

October 24, 2008 by · 1 Comment 

Once inside the old city of Carcassonne we were hungry for more than medieval history. Like invaders of times long past, we wanted to take the city for all its bounty.

After a quick scouting mission of the many restaurants, cafés and brasseries we decided on a quiet spot with a promising upper outdoor terrace. Restaurant La Tour Davejean had an extensive menu, but we wanted to try the regional specialty: cassoulet.

We started with a local bubble, a brut Blanquette de Limoux from Salasar (€22) to celebrate our first day in the South of France.

“Le menu,” is always a great way to order in France. You pay a set fee and get to choose a first course, a main and a dessert. Sometimes coffee is even included. Our €16 menu started with a choice of salads. There was a mixed garden salad, a salad topped with smoked herring and a salad with baked brie. They were all fresh and lightly dressed.

Cassoulet is an edible medieval experience. I have been reading The Valley of Horses by Jean M. Auel, a story of people who lived in caves after the ice age. They rendered fat from large animals, including mammoths, to use in cooking to make it through the winter. I was reminded of this story as I ate the cassoulet. It was full of fat and protein and was a meal of mammoth proportion that would definitely stick to your ribs in cold weather.

The dish is mainly large pale beans. They are cooked with sausage, a duck leg, and a generous amount of duck fat. The French version of baked pork and beans — it’s tasty, but very heavy. It is almost necessary to wash this down with some red wine, which we did.

My father, who can’t eat pork, decided instead to order the breast of duck served with orange sauce and accompanied with zucchini and roasted potatoes.

There was quite a list of desserts to choose from, the only problem was finding a place to fit the dessert after stuffing ourselves full of cassoulet. There was a chocolate cake, like a rich brownie served with whipped cream and crème anglais. There was also an apple tart. Or for those who have difficulty with decisions, there was a mixed dessert plate with a taste of everything and a café espresso to wash it all down.

The total for five to have a full lunch, including two bottles of wine, dessert, coffee, gratuity and tax was €124 (C$200-ish or about $40 each).

Details

Restaurant La Tour Davejean
Tel: 04-68-71-60-63
32 Rue du Plo.
La Cite, Carcassonne



Going Medieval in Carcassonne

October 24, 2008 by · 2 Comments 

I awake in the morning nestled into my comfy, flowered bedding and pull the curtains open to enjoy the view of the yellow hills with their patchwork of green trees. A waft of lavender enters the room from the patch below that is drying.

Soon there’s a tap on my door and it’s time to go down for petit dejeuner. Our hostess Jacqueline has laid the table with bread, croissants, yoghurt, fruit and preserves. She greets us with a sunny ‘bonjour.’

Jacqueline told us that it’s been really dry this year, which explains the yellowed hills and the dry lavender. The temperature is around 12 or 14°C today, but Jacqueline says it has only recently dropped so low. Apparently last week is was warm, sunny and beautiful.

Soon she brings coffee with hot milk and we sip our café crème while browsing through brochures of the area’s many attractions. La Cité, the medieval city of Carcassonne is the first order of business for us today.

On our approach to the 2,500-year-old, walled city we had to pull over and appreciate the grandeur of the site. It’s Europe’s largest fortress and inspired Walt Disney as the model for the castle in Sleeping Beauty.

It’s a clear day and we are able to look south to the Pyrenees mountains. Today the Spanish border is about 120 kilometres south, but before the Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659 it was just outside Carcassonne, which might explain the care they took to fortify the city. Carcassonne protected the French border.

In the Roman Era (give-or-take a few decades 100 BC to the mid-400s AD) Carcassonne made some good bank thanks to a handy location on the Toulouse-Narbonne trade route. It had pretty good defenses back then, but they were beefed up in 1226 when the king of France took over.

For an invader in 1226, the specs of Carcassonne must have seemed like Danny Ocean going over the plan to rob the casinos in Ocean’s 11. Carcassonne has a great lookout from its location high above the Aude valley — sneaking up undetected would have been a challenge.

Visigoth, Saracen, Frankish or other assailants first faced curved walls that were fitted with defensive battlements. If they found a way to pass the outer walls, there was an open space to cross. Not so bad, right? Wrong. The castle’s crossbowmen had an easy shot to pick off footmen.

Next there was a moat with a drawbridge that could be lifted as another line of defense. If invaders braved the waters they faced a narrow entrance flanked by twin towers that housed numerous holes for firing. There were more “murder holes” that allowed defenders to shoot down from a wooden gallery at the top. Also, there was an iron grid that would drop down to close off the passage and keep the castle safe.

Like Ocean’s 11, 12, and 13, invaders still managed to break through the defenses every now and then. Over the years the city has been a Moorish conquest, a feudal stronghold, a Cathar citadel and a frontier fort. These days, the site is a tourist attraction. Entry through the outer walls and over the moat is free. Visitors today are welcomed with shops and restaurants. It’s a great place to get a taste of cassoulet or to buy some local artisan handiwork.

There is a museum to visit. It’s located in the heart of the old castle and it’s worth the €7.50 (C$12-ish) entry fee. Many of the castle’s foundations date back to the Roman era, most of the walls and towers are original but the upper sections are courtesy of architect Eugene Viollet-le-Duc’s 19th century rebuilding project.

The old city fell into ruin after the Roussillon region became part of France in 1659. In 1844 Viollet-le-Duc came to the rescue. The restorations of the city and its medieval look went on for about 50 years, with architect Paul Boeswillwald completing the work after Viollet-le-Duc’s death in 1879. It has been a UNESCO world heritage site since 1997.



Sundown at Calvayrac

October 17, 2008 by · 1 Comment 

(Sunday Oct. 5, 2008)

Shortly after 7:00 I look out the window of my bedroom at Calvayrac and notice that the hillside is ablaze. The sun is setting and casting a beautiful glow. I decide to take a walk to the west to get the full effect. The wind of the last few days is gone and it’s still a very comfortable temperature of nearly 20°C.

As I set out, Belle, the golden retriever of the house gives me a bark to let me know she’ll accompany me down the dirt road. Like moths to the light, Belle and I are drawn towards the ball of fire dropping behind the rolling hills in the distance.

The first line of hills blocks the full view to the left, so I climb up through the field to the top of a small mount. From this vantage point there is a panorama of all the many different ranges. The sharper hills to the south are so far off in the distance that the jagged line they leave on the horizon looks like a pattern a child might cut into a paper snowflake with a dull pair of scissors in a primary art class, although they are black instead of white.

The thin, swirling cloud cover is just enough to bring out a different palate of colours each minute the sun sinks lower in the sky. At first, the sky is still quite blue and the clouds near the sun turn buttery yellow and warm peach, while the clouds further away are a cooler pink and periwinkle.

As it lowers, the sky heats up to blazing shades of hot yellow gold, orange, and a fleshy salmon. Jade, the granddaughter of our hostess calls out to Belle from the house in the distance.

Belle obediently heads home and I take her cue. The insects serenade me as I stop to take a few last photos from the dirt path of the cool, dark sky now beautiful shades of purple and blue.



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