Melon mania

Each year, strawberries appear surprisingly early in this part of France, and they are delicious. But the strawberries’ arrival tends to get the taste buds tingling and the mind racing forward to summer.

In turn, that leads to a symptom known medically as premature melonitis — the desire to buy a field-grown melon at the first hint of summer,  even though you’re pretty sure the melon actually won’t be any good.

My wife Jan and I were struck by a case of premature melonitis a few weeks ago, when we saw melons arranged attractively just outside a store in the neighbouring village of Cénac. The store advertises itself as offering lots of local, organic and farm-grown produce, so we figured that the melon would be delicious.

It was — provided that you enjoy munching on a turnip with a slight hint of melon flavour. In other words, we had bought too early.

But the Greater Daglan Area has now erupted into full-blown summer, and melon mania is gripping the GDA, with melon stands popping up on many of the major roads. And it’s no wonder, because ripe melons here are simply delicious.

The star of the show is the Charentais melon, a French variety of cantaloupe. As one gardening website put it: “The bright orange flesh is super sweet and very fragrant.” Fragrant is right — the scent is so sweet and musky and strong that we are sometimes taken aback once we open one up; often I make a special trip to the déchetterie (garbage depot) just to get the rinds out of our kitchen waste bin.

Here’s one we bought recently, sitting in a fruit-and-vegetable bowl in our kitchen:

A melon awaits the knife.

A melon awaits the knife.

For a look at that “bright orange flesh,” here it is, after Jan cut it in two halves:

Half a melon, juicy and fragrant.

Half a melon, juicy and fragrant.

What to do with the melons? Obviously you can scoop out little balls to make a fruit salad, or you can cut wedges for breakfast. One melon dish we particularly enjoy is melon and some sort of ham as a light dinner (since we tend to eat our large meal of the day at lunch); here’s a serving of the melon with Bayonne ham, for a recent dinner:

A perfect light dinner for us -- or an entrée for you.

A perfect light dinner for us — or an entrée for you.

If you’re coming to the GDA any time soon, be sure to buy at least one. You can find them at virtually any weekly market these days, or in supermarkets, or at roadside stands. They really are a special treat of southern France.

Posted in Agriculture in the Dordogne, Food, French food, Life in southwest France, Markets in France, Weather in the Dordogne | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

A pretty perfect chicken (by memory)

A few days ago, I decided that it was time again to make one of my favourite recipes (Volaille Fermière au Vinaigre, or Farmhouse Chicken in Vinegar Sauce) from my favourite cookbook (Saveur Cooks Authentic French).

It was only after my wife Jan had bought a package of chicken thighs that I remembered I had loaned the cookbook to my friend Richard, who lives on the edge of our village of Daglan. Oops.

Since I didn’t really want to bother him for the book, just for this one recipe, I decided to try to create the dish from memory, and I’m pleased to say that it worked. In case you’d like to try a perfectly delicious (and pretty easy) way to cook chicken, I’ll recreate the steps here — and conclude with a photo of the final dish.

Starting with eight chicken thighs, I salted and peppered them, and then started browning the chicken in a large pan, in a mixture of melted butter and olive oil. When the thighs were about half-way to being nicely browned, I added in a thinly sliced shallot, and continued cooking until the chicken was well browned and the shallots had softened.

Then it was just a matter of adding: a cup or so of chicken stock; half a cup or so of cider vinegar; a cup or so of dry white wine; a large tablespoonful of honey; a couple of cloves of garlic, finely chopped; and a few good squeezes of tomato paste. Then I stirred the mixture well.

By this point, the chicken will have been cooking for at least 20 minutes. Now you can cover the pan, and keep cooking for another half hour. Next, remove the lid from the pan, and cook until the sauce is reduced to a nice sticky consistency. (As long as the sauce doesn’t evaporate, there’s no worry about over-cooking the chicken.)

At this point, taste the sauce, add some butter for extra richness and shine, and adjust the flavour as you wish — it should be a bit tart (from the vinegar) but also a bit sweet (from the honey). So if needed, you could add a bit more vinegar or a bit more honey; if it’s too dry, add some chicken stock. As you finish the cooking, turn the pieces occasionally, so that both sides of the chicken pieces are covered in the shiny sauce.

We served ours with mashed potatoes and some green beans, and it looked like this — and tasted great:

Two chicken thighs made for a perfect lunch.

Two chicken thighs made for a perfect lunch.

Posted in Food, French food, Life in southwest France, Recipes, Wine | Tagged , , , | 8 Comments

“Very good”: another starred restaurant in the GDA

For really special meals, my wife Jan and I head to one of the Michelin-starred restaurants in the Greater Daglan Area — places like Le Grand Bleu in Sarlat and Le Vieux Logis in Trémolat, each of which has a single étoile, or star. Both are superb.

Yesterday (Thursday), we ventured further afield and had an amazing lunch at Les Trois Soleils de Montal, a hotel and golf resort whose restaurant, we decided, definitely deserves its star. Not every aspect of our meal was perfect, but it came very close, and a number of the dishes (as you’ll see) were amazing.

The occasion this time was the visit of good friends from Toronto, Rob and Darlene, who are as least as “foodie” as we are. Getting to Les Trois Soleils de Montal took about an hour an a half from our village of Daglan, as the restaurant is located near the village of Saint Céré in the département of the Lot, next to our own Dordogne département. It’s a bit north and east of both Rocamadour (the popular tourist destination) and the village of Gramat. Here’s what the front entrance looks like:

The front entrance to the hotel, and its restaurant.

The front entrance to the hotel, and its restaurant.

Since the day was sunny and very hot, we opted to sit on the shaded terrace, where the awning protected us from the sun but didn’t do much to lower the heat. Still, it was a nice spot for lunch, with a pleasant (but not dramatic) view over a wide selection of plants and trees. Here’s a view from our table:

A server on the terrace at Les Trois Soleils de Montal.

A server on the terrace at Les Trois Soleils de Montal.

Before I get to our meal, I’ll provide a quick reminder about the Michelin system. First of all, only the very best restaurants receive a star at all. In Michelin’s understated prose, one star signifies “une très bonne table,” or “a very good restaurant.” Then, two stars are for places with “excellent cooking, worth a detour,” and three stars (the top rank) identify “exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey.” (We’re making one of those special journeys later this summer, to a restaurant in Paris, and of course will report back.)

The menu at Les Trois Soleils de Montal provides very little information, because the dishes change constantly. The menu simply refers to three déclinaisons, or tasting menus, at 32 euros, 48 euros, and then 78 euros. At the table, the hostess told us what each menu offered that day — and perhaps not surprisingly, all four of us chose the 78-euro déclinaison.

Once we were seated, we ordered a bottle of Champagne to begin. But even before it could be poured, a server whisked individual plates of amuse-bouches in front of us; that was a bit too rushed for our taste, and the goodies looked rather ordinary for a starred restaurant. The slices of sausage were certainly not worthy examples of the kitchen’s skills (other than using a knife) while the small tomato was a bit soggy. On the other hand, the frothy soup of carrots flavoured with galangal, a type of ginger, was delicious. Here’s my serving of amuse-bouches:

Three little treats to enjoy with our Champagne.

Three little treats to enjoy with our Champagne.

However, once we had settled back to finish our Champagne, the service slowed to a more enjoyable pace, and the first of our many courses began to show up — with white Sancerre wine for the earlier dishes, and a bottle of Chinon red wine for the heartier main course. (Chinon comes from the Loire, and is one of the few wines made with the Cabernet Franc grape that I really like.)

Our first entrée was foie gras that had been prepared with a thin, somewhat crisp coating of sweet miso, so that the effect was like the topping of a crème brûlée. Here’s my serving:

My serving of foie gras.

My serving of foie gras.

Next came a salad — a lovely mix of vegetables with a citrus dressing, on top of big chunks of perfectly cooked lobster meat. Here’s my plate:

Fresh tastes of citrus were all through this lobster salad.

Fresh tastes of citrus were all through this lobster salad.

Then we had a frothy seafood soup, topped with enoki mushrooms, and with delicious parcels (like ravioli) of langoustines or large prawns floating in it. (I have to point out that this dish was one of a few during the meal where it took a last-minute intervention by the hostess to address the needs of Jan, who is allergic to gluten, and thus can’t eat the wrappers around the langoustines. The hostess quickly took away Jan’s bowl, and brought back another serving in a few minutes, with wrapper-less languoustines.) Here’s my bowl:

Delicious parcels of langoustines floated in this soup.

Delicious parcels of langoustines floated in this soup.

For the main fish course, we had perfectly cooked turbot, like this:

My serving of perfectly cooked turbot.

My serving of perfectly cooked turbot.

And then came the hearty main course, a plate of roast pigeon accompanied by roast onions, carrots and mushrooms. By this point, we were all feeling pretty full, but we soldiered on, as you’d expect. Here’s my pigeon:

My (rather large) serving of roast pigeon.

My (rather large) serving of roast pigeon.

Since this is France, we were not deterred from tackling the cheese course. Here’s one of our servers, plating a piece of Roquefort for one of us:

The cheese is being served.

The cheese is being served.

As we slowly began digesting our cheese, what should appear but two plates of desserts, side by side. The main dessert was this plate — a preserved lemon, hollowed out and filled with an intense lemon sorbet, and then surrounded by a variety of red fruits:

Lemon sorbet and red fruits were the stars of the main dessert.

Lemon sorbet and red fruits were the stars of the main dessert.

Next to it was this plate with a variety of chocolate treats:

It's all about the chocolates.

It’s all about the chocolates.

And when at last every scrap had been consumed, we relaxed with espressos, and eventually headed back to the car for the drive home to Daglan.

Not surprisingly, what we all wanted to eat for dinner that evening was precisely nothing. And that’s exactly what we had.

Posted in Food, French food, Life in southwest France, Restaurants in the Lot, Tourist attractions, Travels in and out of France, Wine | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

A Bastille Day breather

We are in the thick of Overload Season — that two-month period when tourists pour into the Greater Daglan Area, far-off friends come to visit, and people with holiday homes in the GDA arrive to spend a week or two or more. Over the past weekend, my wife Jan and I were in top-speed socializing mode, but today gave us a breather.

In case you’d forgotten, today is July 14, which is France’s national holiday, often called Bastille Day. Last year, we celebrated the occasion with a trip to Paris, which I described in “Bastille Day, Paris: morning, noon and night” (July 18, 2013).

One of the highlights of that trip was watching the Eiffel Tower being illuminated by a massive, and very long, fireworks exhibit. Here’s just one of the photos I posted at the time:

Fireworks surround the brightly lit Tower.

Fireworks surround the brightly lit Tower.

Today in Daglan, things were busy enough at the start. First we noticed that our main village square was clogged with fire trucks, and thought that they might have assembled for some sort of Bastille Day parade. Here are just some of the vehicles in the square, along with a group of firemen and a firewoman:

They've taken over the square.

They’ve taken over the square.

Later they all came down into our area, Place de la Fontaine, where we saw that they were all being photographed for next year’s calendar.

As for Bastille Day celebrations, our Mayor led a tasteful ceremony at the war memorial in front of the Le Petit Paris restaurant. It began with a slow march of the village’s council members from the Mairie to the war memorial, led by a veteran.

A veteran leads, followed by Daglan's Mayor.

A veteran leads, followed by Daglan’s Mayor.

Once everyone was in place, the flag of France was raised. Here it goes:

The flag of France is raised over Daglan.

The flag of France is raised over Daglan.

Then our Mayor read a fairly lengthy speech about the meaning of the day, and what France stands for. This was followed by La Marseillaise on a CD player, after which we all headed back to the main square (by then devoid of firepersons) for complimentary glasses of wine and some nibblies like peanuts, potato chips and small squares of pizza. Here’s the ceremony, with Monsieur le Maire reading:

A small crowd listens to Daglan's Mayor.

A small crowd listens to Daglan’s Mayor.

Now by this point, two of our good friends from Toronto, Rob and Darlene, had left our home to spend a couple of days with relatives near Bergerac. And so for the rest of today, Jan and I were happy to have quiet time — having spent the entire weekend socializing with Rob and Darlene, as well as many other friends who either have nearby holiday homes or live in the GDA. Among our activities:

  • Many fun-filled hours at Saint-Pompon’s night market on Saturday, where Jan finally got a chance to do some dancing. (I’m still recovering from my back surgery, and while I’m making good progress, I’m not quite at the “dancing wildly” stage.)
  • Lunch on Sunday at Sarlat’s wonderful, Michelin-starred restaurant Le Grand Bleu, again with Rob and Darlene but also with friends Tish and Bob, and one of their visiting friends. Once again, the food was inventive, attractive and delicious.
  • Drinks and snacks on Sunday evening at the home of friends Suzanne and Mark, who in turn were entertaining other friends.
  • Back to our house to watch the final half, and then  the extra period, of the World Cup final game. (You know: Germany and Argentina.)
  • And then  around midnight on Sunday, as we enjoyed a final digestif before turning in for the night, the fireworks began at the Bodega being held at the nearby community hall, or salle des fêtes. So the four of us ended the evening by watching fireworks right from our bedroom window. And here is just a taste of what we saw:
A burst of fireworks, seen over the house of a neighbour.

A burst of fireworks, seen over the house of a neighbour.

Here’s another:

Another burst of light -- and sound.

Another burst of light — and sound.

And finally, one more photo:

The rockets' red glare.

The rockets’ red glare.

Tonight our plan is to watch television: just the two of us. But then, tomorrow, the socializing begins again. As I wrote at the beginning of this posting, it’s Overload Season in the Greater Daglan Area. And ya’ gotta’ love it.


Posted in French food, French government and politics, Holidays in France, Life in southwest France | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Hearty fare in fair Toulouse

My wife Jan and I knew that we were in for a tiring morning yesterday (Tuesday), but we were buoyed by the fact that we could look forward to relaxing over a very long lunch. And that’s exactly what we enjoyed — with some delicious and seriously hearty fare in the centre of Toulouse, France’s fourth city (behind Lyon, ahead of Nice).

Before we get to the hearty fare, I’ll begin with our schedule and the reason for our trip to Toulouse in the first place — a follow-up meeting with the surgeon who performed back surgery on me in April. The schedule?

  • Up at 5 a.m.
  • Out of the house at 6 a.m. for the 30-minute drive to the Gourdon train station.
  • Pulled out of Gourdon, bound for Toulouse, precisely at 6:42 a.m., as scheduled. (French trains generally are right on time.)
  • Arrived at Toulouse just after 8:30, and climbed straight into a taxi for the ride to the clinic.

Here’s where it gets amazing, with full marks to the French medical system. At just about 9 a.m., we registered  in the clinic’s X-ray department. Then I was called for a series of X-rays. Then we waited for the X-rays to be developed. Then we took them to the surgeon, who gave me a thorough exam, reviewed the films, and said he was pleased with my progress. Then we finished up paperwork with his secretary, and received the order for new X-rays and another progress meeting in October. Total elapsed time? Exactly an hour! How often do you find that kind of efficiency at your medical appointments?

In any case, at 10 a.m. we were out in the street, waiting for a taxi to take us to Place du Capitole, a massive pedestrian area in the heart of the city, dominated by the huge Capitolium, seat of municipal government and also the home of  an opera company and symphony orchestra.  Then there’s the added attraction of lots of shops, cafés and restaurants around the square.

Here’s what the Capitolium looks like:

The Capitolium dominates Place du Capitole in Toulouse.

The Capitolium dominates Place du Capitole in Toulouse.

Taking advantage of the shops around the square, Jan bought several new pieces of clothing so quickly that we had time to relax with some classic French drinks, Champagne for her and Perrier for me. Here’s a close-up of our table at Les Tenors, a café right on the square:

A couple of quintessential French drinks.

A couple of quintessential French drinks.

Even after dawdling over the drinks, we had time to wander through a market that was set up in Place du Capitole before finding a restaurant for lunch. Jan was excited to see one stall with a sign offering several types of gluten-free bread, only to learn that the vendor had sold out of the gluten-free loaves. But the vendor’s supply of other breads looked good enough to eat:

Breads on offer at a stall in the Toulouse market.

Breads on offer at a stall in the Toulouse market.

And here’s the bread lady, bagging some rolls and other breads for her line-up of customers:

A vendor picks out breads for a customer in Toulouse.

A vendor picks out breads for a customer in Toulouse.

Here’s another look at the market, with a fruit stand in the foreground:

Fruits and vegetables on offer in the market.

Fruits on offer in the market.

At this point, the time was creeping around towards noon, and so Jan and I headed across the square to the Grand Hotel de l’Opéra, where we had seen a promising restaurant at street level (at the far left side of the building in this photograph).

Our restaurant is at the far left of the large hotel.

Our restaurant is at the far left of the large hotel.

It turned out to be a traditional brasserie, Le Grand Café l’Opéra, and it looked inviting. So in we went, precisely at noon. Since we figured we wouldn’t have to depart for the train station until 2 p.m., we settled into our table, ordered a coupe de Champagne each, and took our time considering the menu.

I decided to focus on some hearty and traditional French dishes, beginning with snails, moving on to cassoulet, and closing with a cheese plate.

Jan also chose les escargots de Bourgogne as her entrée, but selected a risotto special (with large shrimp) as her plat principal, with no cheese or dessert.

Considering how different our choices for the main courses were, we opted for a half bottle of white wine for Jan, and half a bottle of a 2010 Madiran (Laffitte-Teston) for me. (Wine note: Madiran wines, from Gascony in southwest France, are not awfully well known. We first heard of them almost 16 years ago at Juveniles, one of the original wine bars of Paris. The place is run by a true original — Tim Johnston, who was born in Scotland but knows Paris like the back of his hand. We first met Tim in 1998, when we were headed down to the Greater Daglan Area on our life-changing bicycle trip, and among other things he recommended that we try Madiran wines. The wine is made primarily from Tannat grapes, and I’ve often found it much too tannic. But this 2010 was truly wonderful with my meal — rich and deep and flavourful.)

Now to the food. Here’s my serving of snails, deliciously buttery with a nice (not excessive) amount of garlic:

Six large snails for each of us, to begin.

Six large snails for each of us, to begin.

Naturally, I soaked up very bit of buttery sauce with one of the rolls I was served. Next came my huge portion of cassoulet, that southwestern French concoction of white beans, tomatoes, garlic, carrots, and chunks of meat — typically confit de canard (duck legs slow-cooked in duck fat) and Toulouse sausage. Here’s my serving, of which I ate almost all:

My huge and hearty serving of cassoulet.

My huge and hearty serving of cassoulet.

At the end of the meal, I had this plate of five French cheeses, of which my favourites were the blue, the chevre in the centre, and the old Cantal at the top right of the plate:

My serving of five different French cheeses.

My serving of five different French cheeses.

After an espresso, Jan and I headed back into Place du Capitole to get a taxi for the ride back to the train station, and then the train trip back to Gourdon.

If you’re wondering, the total for the lunch came to 151 euros, which is not exactly a cheap date, but seemed like good value (unlike the 95-euro lunch  at Les Prés Gaillardou that I described in my posting of July 1).

And after all that food at lunch, what did we have for dinner last evening? Not very much.

Posted in Cafés in France, Food, French food, Life in southwest France, Markets in France, Restaurants in France, Restaurants in the Dordogne, Wine | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Local flavour, one more time

I’m happy to report that last night’s Marché Gourmand Nocturne in the nearby village of Saint-Pompon took place without a hitch, and it seems safe to say that a good time was had by all.

Certainly my wife Jan and I had a good time, sitting with a group of friends and enjoying the music and chatter, while eating fresh oysters and crispy frites, accompanied by a drinkable local rosé wine. The weekly event has become a summer mainstay, and it’s loaded with local flavour.

The week before, Saint-Pompon’s night market had been cancelled, because of the official weather forecast calling for storms (which turned out to be a bit of rain, with no lightning). I described our disappointment in “Washed out,” posted on June 29.

Last night, the festivities actually began at our community’s salle des fêtes, where two of Daglan’s social clubs, plus the Mairie, treated all villagers to a meet-and-greet event, with free drinks and nibblies. Then around 7 p.m. we headed for Saint-Pompon and its night market.

Here are just a couple of photos from the event, starting with the view from our makeshift table (the smoke you see hovering over the street is from the food stands, where everything from duck sausages to mussels are being cooked):

Inside  our tent, looking out toward the street.

Inside our tent, looking out toward the street.

And here’s a look at the wooden dance platform, which is always occupied by children jumping and spinning, until dark falls and the adults finally get the nerve to start dancing:

The kids always start the action on the dance platform.

The kids always start the action on the dance platform.

Last night, our table included friends from Scotland, Dubai, Australia and Egypt — and Jan and I talked with many more, from other parts of the world as well as from France.

Already we’re looking forward to next Saturday, when good friends Darlene and Rob arrive from Toronto — via Finland and Estonia — and we can introduce them to the fun. Saint-Pompon’s night market may be a quintessentially French event, but it sure has an international cast of characters.

Posted in Food, French food, Life in southwest France, Markets in France, Weather in the Dordogne, Wine | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Canada Day encore in Daglan

Since early this morning, Canadian flags have been fluttering outside our home in Daglan. Why? Because today, July 1, is Canada Day — the national holiday that celebrates the 1867 enactment of the British North America Act, which established Canada as an independent country within the British Empire.

Because my wife Jan and I are both Canadian citizens (and proud of it, folks), we’ve continued to celebrate the holiday every year since moving to France. And this was our fourth Canada Day  since we moved.

Our traditions have remained fairly constant. There are the flags outside the house, like this one:

Canadian flag

A Canadian flag flutters in the breeze above our “Les Erables” mailbox.

Among other things, the flags get the attention of passers-by. This morning I enjoyed  explaining to one of our neighbours why we call our house Les Erables (The Maples) and why the red maple leaf is on Canada’s flag; and late this afternoon Jan spent some time with a tourist from the Isle of Wight who noticed the flags, figured that we were Canadian,  and had a good chat with Jan.

Another tradition is having something quite Canadian for breakfast — like the maple syrup that I poured over this morning’s French toast, served  with bacon of course:

It takes a lot of maple syrup to say "Happy Canada Day!"

It takes a lot of maple syrup to say “Happy Canada Day!”

And then it’s out for a celebratory lunch. This year, we headed to Les Prés Gaillardou, on the outskirts of La Roque-Gageac on the main road running from Cénac north towards Sarlat. There we began with a kir each, and went on to order a two-course meal: an entrée and a plat principal, plus a bottle of rosé wine.

It was all pleasant and enjoyable, sitting outside on the terrace, although the meal itself wasn’t the finest — and seemed expensive for what we received. For example, my foie gras entrée (see below) was delicious, and was served with a large pour of sweet wine (traditional with foie gras). But it came with exactly one-half of a single fig (!) in a tiny pool of fig syrup, and there was a pretty steep 6-euro surcharge to order the dish.

My entrée of foie gras.

My entrée of foie gras.

For my main course, I had medallions of roast pork loin, served with a somewhat thin apple sauce and several prunes and chestnuts, plus some admittedly delicious potatoes. Here’s my dish:

My plat principal of pork loin.

My plat principal of pork loin.

It was the extras that drove up the total price of our lunch to 95 euros — 5 euros for a kir, for example, and a whopping 4 euros per cup of espresso.

But hey, that’s enough complaining. All in all, it was a good day. And here’s hoping that family and friends in Canada had a very good day too.


Posted in Food, Holidays in France, Life in southwest France | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments