Archive for month: February, 2012

Buying antiques in France

The south of France is awash with antique and second hand furniture and furnishings. The French often no longer favour the beautiful but huge armoires and buffets as they do not fit into the boxy, modern pavilions (small, detached houses) that are appearing throughout the French countryside (mmm, that’s another blog).

My aim has always been to create a French country home in my 18th century bed and breakfast and holiday cottage and with this in mind I have been a frequent visitor to the various outlets for old furniture. Primarily the brocante in Mirepoix that sells antiques (& junk) and the Troc in Carcassonne, likewise. Recently we discovered the Vente aux Encheres Publiques (public auction) in Pamiers which on our first visit had a stunning collection of furniture, linens and chandeliers, genuine antiques at rock bottom prices – mainly.

Bargain antiques

However, my French is dreadful and cent (100) sounds terribly like cinq (5) particularly in the sing-song, 100kms an hour voice of the Commissaire – Priseur. The dictionary defines priser as to value or, to take snuff.  Really. So for much of the auction which lasted for 3.5hrs, I sat in silence until towards the end when I could contain myself no longer and bid for these 4 solid oak chairs for the bargain price of 15 euros (+20% commission).

Coin de lit

The next antiques auction is on Saturday and with my newly honed bidding skills I intend to make a play for the lit de coin, (corner bed) above. I have made a mistake with these in the past – there isn’t a mattress in the south of France to fit my beautifully carved rosewood bed.

Not such a bargain

 

Cheap flights

Fly into Carcassonne Easter Saturday from Liverpool for around £229 return for 2 and from Stanstead for around £202. Astonishingly cheap fares for peak holiday times (Ryanair). Fly out on the 14th from Liverpool for £74 for 2 and from Stanstead for £60. A very affordable way to get to the south of France in less than 2 hours and less than an hour’s drive along quiet roads to Chez Maison Bleue (range of car hire from the airport). Ryanair also flies from Glasgow Prestwick, East Midlands, Brussels, Dublin, Cork & Bournemouth. We will be flexible with changeovers to accommodate your flights. So why wait?

Cassoulet in Castelnaudary

Sausage and Bean hot pot? Sacre bleue!!

My Collins French dictionary defines the French word Cassoulet as sausage and bean hot pot. Such a description is enough to restart the Hundred Years War that led to the creation of this iconic French dish.

There are many variants on the Cassoulet and each claim to be the authentic original. The three main contenders are Toulouse, Carcassonne and Castelnaudary. These towns are all within easy reach of Chez Maison Bleue. I tend to support Castelnaudary, not only is it closest but is undoubtedly the most devoted. Each year they have a Fete du Cassoulet, a festival in honour of this great dish and organised by Grande Confrerie du Cassoulet (the Brotherhood of the Cassoulet), this years is 21-26 August. According to legend the original Cassoulet was developed to give strength to the soldiers defending the town against the besieging English. After eating this new creation they were so invigorated they charged out of the town and the English fled in panic never to return, except of course, centuries later, as tourists!

The Easy Way

So what does it contain, as well as the white haricot beans and Toulouse sausage (everyone seems agreed on this being the sausage to use), there is duck and pork. The classic way of cooking takes 2 days, which is why most people buy it precooked and ready to reheat! The first evening is spent preparing the beans and stock. The main cooking is over several hours and what emerges is a truly gorgeous dish. There is a recipe on the Castelnaudary town website as well as details about the festival. I wonder what would happen if I suggested using Cumberland Sausage?

 

Restoration of our 18th century gite

The restoration of our holiday cottage in the south of France was undertaken by our team of artisans exceptionnels, headed up by our French architect Sophie Baby of Mirepoix. Much angst, zillions of euros, and a few tears* have resulted in a beautifully restored, very French holiday home. The same team is now working on our B&B next door to the gite on the village square, Sonnac sur l’Hers. Our maçon is missing from the photograph, now there’s a surprise, he’s been AWOL for weeks since taking all the tiles off the roof in fact. Hope he shows up soon, opening date for the B&B is fast approaching. *The towel radiator in the bathroom is not where I wanted it to be, a metre thick stone wall was in the way – seems so trivial now but last summer I wanted to kill someone.

Artisans exceptionnels

 

Chef in Languedoc

As a chef I do not subscribe to Henry Ford’s view that “history is bunk”, the great chefs of years gone by have a lot to teach us, from Escoffier to Elizabeth David to the chefs of today, all have their own ingredient to add. My intention in all that I cook for our B&B in the south of France is to learn from the masters but be prepared to adapt and experiment. The key is, of course, the ingredients. Fresh produce that has been cultivated with respect is essential to any good dish. In the Languedoc we are spoiled for fruit and vegetables, raised in the sunshine but watered by refreshing rain from the Pyrenees. Equally we have easy access to the abundant seafood of the Mediterranean. When I cook for my mother she tells me not to “mess with it” and that is a big influence. Whilst I do have my own variations, my aim is to let the natural flavours show through, the twist is the combination of those flavours! My blog from Chez Masion Bleue, our holiday cottage and bed and breakfast, is a mix of foodie talk, historical context and some rough guides to the dishes I cook.

Produce of the terroir

A load of tripe

Narbonne Market

The butchers in the market in Narbonne displayed together cows feet and tripe, a clear invitation towards “tripes a la mode de Caen”. Somewhat surprising considering we are in the South of France and that is a classic Normandy dish. It is cooked for about 12 hours, usually in large quantities and is a combination of tripe, ox feet, carrots, onions, leeks seasoned with herbs and quite a lot of pepper, in cider and Calvados. Traditionally in Normandy it would be cooked in a special dish, a tripiere, which is rather like a tea pot that has been squashed, with the small opening ensuring as little evaporation as possible. The tripiere would be taken to the boulangerie to be cooked in the oven after the bread. One of the most famous recipes for this is in Escoffier’s Guide to Modern Cooking, but the quantities are a bit daunting almost 2 kilos of onions 1.5 kilos of carrots 2.4 litres of cider and 0.75 litres of Calvados. Certainly after eating this you would need a trou Normand, a glass of Calvados, as a digestive. Bear in mind also that in a traditional Norman feast this would have been course 2 of 6! Thank goodness I don’t cater on such a scale at our B&B in the South of France. The fresh caught fish and interesting varieties of vegetables were what really caught my eye. At this time of year I sometimes find it difficult to be enthusiastic. The winter veg are becoming tired and limited but the spring has yet to arrive. Thinking up different variants on the excellent cabbage and leeks for supper at the B&B is fun but after a while it begins to pall. Roll on the spring and the tender young produce and then the profusion of the true tastes of the Languedoc, aubergines, courgettes, peppers and of course lots of different varieties of tomatoes. Bring on the summer at Chez Maison Bleue!

Trip to Narbonne from Sonnac sur l’Hers

A birthday treat, 2 days away from the restoration of our B&B to the beautiful, Romanesque city of Narbonne and the Mediterranean beaches, only 1.5 hours from Sonnac sur l’Hers. The Archbishop’s Palace and Cathedral St Just dominate the landscape for miles around, the recently discovered Roman road, the Via Domitia visible in the square, built 117BC – bet they wish they could get the M6 to last as long. We found an exquisite French restaurant for dinner, I really liked the mismatched furniture; so much so that I might steal this idea for our dining room at Chez Maison Bleue. We had Narbonne Plage to ourselves, this is our nearest Mediterranean beach and means you can be swimming in the sea by mid morning, though no doubt will be a bit busier in August.

Narbonne Plage, only 1.5hrs from Sonnac sur l’Hers

New delivery for the holiday cottage, Sonnac sur l’Hers

Lovely new matresses arrived this week for our holiday cottage and B&B. Excellent service from our French store, only 3 weeks longer than promised, though free delivery so I will forgive anything. Combined with feather and down duvets and pillows and 800 thread count linens (though I admit I brought these from England, not sure where you would source these in rural France). A gorgeous night’s sleep assured at our lovely, historic French house.

Superior quality "mousse" mattress

Cyclist friendly B&B

Cycle Languedoc and the Midi Pyrenees from our cyclist friendly bed and breakfast in the south of France. Quiet roads and tracks lead from the door, although this is Tour de France country so go as high as you like up twisty cols. Safe storage, workshop, washing and drying rooms, maps and 2 mountain bikes to lend – further bike hire locally. We collaborate with Cycling Languedoc, a useful resource with some detailed, long distance routes. Springtime avoids the baking heat and crowds of the summer…so what are you waiting for?

Cycle Languedoc from our holiday home through vineyards and ancient towns and villages

Road through the Pyrenees

On the road to Quillan this morning, there is only the matter of a mountain pass between us and it. A large, lively town offering a pleasant distraction for lunch. Despite the mountain road it’s only about half an hour away from our B&B in Sonnac sur l’Hers. Passing through some glorious, winter landscapes, the mighty Pyrenees providing a suitably dramatic backdrop, though perhaps we’ll wait on the snowplough next week.