Fog to start the day

At this time of year, heavy morning fog isn’t an every-day occurrence in the Greater Daglan Area, but it is fairly common.

For example, I had to drive through thick fog on Saturday morning as well as today (Tuesday), as I headed from Daglan to the tiny hamlet of Costeraste (near Gourdon) to reach the spa where I exercise in its large pool three times a week.

Fortunately, it’s not the kind of fog that slows you down to a crawl, but it does demand that you pay particularly close attention to the road. It would take just a split second for a deer or wild boar to dart out of the brush at the side of the road, before you could see it coming. In any case, as the morning wears on, the sun starts to burn off the fog, and so by noon the driving is usually clear.

Although fog can make driving more treacherous, it does have a more attractive side. I was struck by the following view on Saturday as I left the spa and headed to my car — looking down the hill to a valley still shrouded in fog:

Fog settled in the valley.

It may not be the French equivalent of the Great Smoky Mountains (in the southeastern U.S.), but it was still nice to see.

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The tree and the truffles

Sure signs of the holiday season in Daglan: the village Christmas tree is installed in the main square, and our weekly market for black truffles begins. First, the tree.

I now quote from my posting of December 10, 2016: “There was a period when it seemed like our village council was desperately trying to win the Worst Public Christmas Tree in the Developed World contest.” That referred to the scrawny tree of December 2013.

But things have been improving significantly since then, and now we have the 2021 version, in all its glory. Jan and I saw the tree being installed on Monday, and then decorated on Tuesday. And here it is, as of late Wednesday morning:

A real beauty, we think.

Today Jan said she thinks it’s the village’s best tree ever. I can’t disagree, although I’m not sure how one keeps score. In any case, it’s certainly right up there.

And this week the Mayor announced that the market for winter truffles — the flavoursome black truffles of the Périgord — is starting on Sunday. As in the past, the market will be held in the courtyard of the village’s primary school (just behind the office of the Mayor), and will be run each Sunday until February 13. The hours are 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.

My advice is to shop early. These little goodies are quite the local delicacy, and they are sold quickly by the local producers who bring their truffles to market.

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Clamato cheer and bean bliss

Before my lunch today, I enjoyed a Bloody Caesar cocktail, made with Clamato. If you know what I mean, you’re almost certainly a Canadian reader; if not, you’re from another part of the world. In fact, I’m not sure that non-Canadians even know what Clamato juice is, so I shall explain.

Let me start with this quote from “In 1969, the owners of the Calgary Inn in Calgary, Alberta, asked Walter Chell, the Montenegrin who presided over their Owl’s Nest bar, to create a recipe to represent their new Italian restaurant in a contest. So Chell took some vodka, a bit of Worcestershire and a little Tabasco, added a mix of clam and tomato juices and dubbed it the “Bloody Caesar.” It sounds rather odd, but it’s the national drink of Canada…”

His mixing of the cocktail is doing it the hard way. The easy way is to buy cans of a concoction called Clamato, which itself is a spiced mix of tomato juice and clam juice, and then to pour a can into a glass with a good measure of vodka and several ice cubes. That’s how I made my drink today.

You may wonder why anyone would bother, since Bloody Marys are so common, and so good. The answer is that Bloody Caesars are better — less apt to be “gluggy,” and thus more easily quaffed. There is only the merest hint of seafood taste, so the resultant cocktail is refreshing and well, yummy.

But where can you buy Clamato in France — where people don’t even know what clam juice is? (It’s the juice inside clam shells, silly. In Toronto, Jan always used bottled clam juice to make bouillabaisse.)

Aha! That’s when we turned to an online shopping service called My American Market, which Jan discovered some time ago when searching for a Clamato source. Before I go more deeply into My American Market, I’ll show you what the Clamato Tomato Cocktail looks like:

An improvement on the Bloody Mary. Really.

As for My American Market, it bills itself as the No. 1 American épicerie (grocery shop) online, since 2009. It’s not exactly a place for bargains, as each small can of Clamato will set you back 1.69 euros. But for occasional treats, it’s worthwhile — and I did love my Bloody Caesar at lunch.

But that’s not all. When Jan was buying the Clamato juice, she asked if there was anything else that I’d like her to search, and I replied “Baked beans.” That happens to be a favourite canned food of mine, and I wanted to see if we could get an American version — which tends to be sweeter and a bit spicier than the British-made Heinz beans we can buy in many French groceries. And the answer was yes!

The beans we bought were these B & M Original Baked Beans, made in Maine. The price is a rather silly 4.09 euros per can (Yikes!) so we bought just four cans, to give them a try. And here’s what the can looks like:

This was a new one on me.

I had never seen this brand when we lived in Canada, so I was anxious to try them. And so I heated them up as an accompaniment to a Mexican-style dish I made one day for breakfast, involving tortilla chips, creme fraiche, and a fried egg. And here’s my breakfast:

My version of a Mexican breakfast, with a New England touch.

As you can see, the beans are particularly dark (I presume that’s the molasses showing). What you can’t know is that they are a lot sweeter than “normal” Heinz beans, and so I like them a lot. Given the atrocious price, I doubt that they’ll become a staple in our house, but they are indeed delicious.

In fact, I’m planning to have them with a Toulouse sausage for lunch on Saturday. Bliss! Jan will miss the excitement, because she’ll be out at a craft class, making a Christmas wreath, and having lunch there. But she doesn’t care for baked beans very much anyway.

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A hint of winter (2021)

Since Jan and I moved to France, we have had only one “bad” snowfall in a Daglan winter. By “bad,” I don’t mean “bad” as we would use the term in Toronto, where it refers to conditions like high winds and drifting, deep snow.

But in February 2012, enough snow fell on Daglan that the white stuff eventually stayed on our roads without melting immediately. Then it did melt — and immediately turned to ice. Roads were so slick that we simply could not drive anywhere, and were house-bound. If you’re interested, you can read “On the road again,” posted February 11, 2012, in which I described how the roads finally became passable once the ice had melted away. (It probably goes without saying that our village has absolutely no equipment to plow snow or scrape the roads of ice.)

Then this morning we got just a hint of the winter to come — as gentle flakes fell from the sky at around 9 a.m. As time went on, the snow stayed in place on rooftops through the village. But then, as the morning wore on, the snow began to melt away.

When I left the house for an appointment just after 11 a.m., the only “accumulation” of snow that I could see was the light collection on the windshield of my car. As you can see, a shovel was not required:

No scraper needed — this just melted away.

And now, in the late afternoon, there is virtually no sign of snow. But it sure starts getting dark fairly early these nights.

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A different sort of Remembrance Day

For some years, Jan and I have been pretty consistent in paying our respects on Remembrance Day, which is called Onze novembre (November 11th) in France, by attending the special service at our village’s war memorial. But for a variety of scheduling reasons, on Thursday we wound up on the road for a short trip to Arcachon with good friends Elisabeth and Gerhard.

We had liked Arcachon so much on a trip with friends Kathy and Keith just a few weeks earlier that we thought another visit to the seaside would be fun. As it turned out, it was not only fun but a bit surprising.

No surprises at our hotel (we again stayed at Hotel Le B d’Arcachon), or in the seaside restaurants (we again ate at Café de la Plage and Chez Pierre, which are sister restaurants that are side-by-side and that share the same menu) or in the quality of the seafood (excellent).

What was surprising was the town itself, and how it was buzzing with tourists, despite November’s reputation as a pretty quiet month for travel — to the point that many restaurants close for the winter season in November.

Our first clue to the vibrancy of Arcachon in mid-November was when we tried to book the hotel for Friday night (that is, the day after Onze novembre): Not only was our hotel fully booked, but so was every other hotel in town. That’s why we switched to a Thursday-night stay, when Jan was able to book two rooms in our hotel. Then, on the drive into Arcachon late on Thursday morning, we encountered a massive traffic jam caused simply by the volume of vehicles entering the town.

When we arrived at our hotel, we saw that the carousel on the beach was still in place, and still accepting riders. What was new — and surprising — was a huge Ferris wheel that had been constructed since our visit in late September. Obviously some people must know that Arcachon is a popular destination for vacationers.

Given all this, it was not completely surprising to see how crowded the bars, cafés and restaurants were. For all our meals, it seemed that every table was occupied. And at the outdoor cafés, servers were virtually running from table to table to keep up with demand. (Another positive surprise: Despite the rush, the restaurant and café service was uniformly excellent — friendly and professional.)

Of course this wouldn’t be Radio Free Daglan without a look at the food on offer, so here are two items we enjoyed on our trip. First is the dish that was probably the favourite of our group — a piece of roast cod, topped with a strip of grilled bread and flakes of haddock, surrounded by a pool of vichyssoise and wedges of roasted onions. Here’s my serving:

A delicious variety of tastes and textures.

And here’s my plate of grilled sole, served simply with roast potatoes and a right-sized portion of salad:

Just the right amount, with all the right tastes.

Jan and I are already thinking ahead to our next trip to Arcachon. Clearly, it’s won us over.

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On the plate in Bergerac

Last week Jan and I left the Atlantic Coast town of Arcachon with good friends Keith and Kathy, and headed east toward Daglan. But did we rush to our village right away? Of course not, since we had a chance for a lunch reservation at La Table du Marché in Bergerac, which is more or less between Daglan and Arcachon. And so it was.

I have written about La Table du Marché many times, so loyal readers will know how much Jan and I like the place. Chef Stéphane Cuzin, a Paris native who started his early career at starred restaurants in Paris and Brussels, is one of the most creative chefs around, at least in my view. He always amazes me in his choice of ingredients, his ability to introduce different textures and styles of cooking, and even his creative names for dishes.

Consider my entrée, called Naturellement Libre. It means Naturally Free, and I have no idea how that defines the dish. In any case, it featured a thick slice of roast potimarron, a popular winter squash in France; its name combines the French words for pumpkin and chestnut (since its taste is similar to the flavour of chestnut).

Now a slice of roast squash might sound a bit boring, but Chef served it with pesto vegetal, a condiment Tourin Périgourdin, pickles and young shiso sprouts, and it was wonderful. Have a look:

How boring is baked squasèh? Not at all, at this restaurant.

My main course had an equally odd name: Ephe-Mer. It consisted of a thick slice of cod which was prepared “sel à froid,” and I would love it if a reader could explain what that means. [Afterwards, my good friend Keith did some digging, and wrote: “It looks like a method much like gravlax.”] In any case, it was topped with a slice of sautéed foie gras covered with chopped walnuts, and surrounded by an artichoke cream and jus de vin jaune, a dry wine of the Jura region. The cod and foie gras made a delicious pairing, and again, I loved the dish. Here’s my serving:

An amazing mix of flavours that really worked.

Finally came my dessert, cleverly named No Name. It consisted of a light coffee cream atop a centre of cassis sorbet, with poached pear, toasted cereals and — wait for it — slices of mushroom. I’m sure it was the first dessert I’ve ever had that used mushrooms, and the whole dish was really well balanced. Here it is:

Mushrooms in a dessert? Well, why not?

The total bill for the four of us, which covered the three-course menus, kirs, two bottles of rosé wine, and coffees, came to a shade under 300 euros. So La Table du Marché is by no means a cheap date, but it’s certainly an excellent place to enjoy interesting and delicious meals.

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My kind of town (and art)

Before we headed west to Arcachon last Monday (September 27), I had very little idea of what to expect.

I figured that the Atlantic Ocean and the Bay of Arcachon would play starring roles in the area, and that there might be a lot of fishing boats in evidence. After all, Arcachon is well known as a place for harvesting delicious oysters. As for the town itself, I’m afraid I wasn’t expecting much. Well, what a surprise.

It turns out that Arcachon is definitely an impressive place, and my kind of town: clean, well-ordered and well-designed, with wide streets and a host of good shops (including prestige brands) and of course, restaurants and cafés. Sidewalks have low curbs, making it easy for people with walking disabilities to move along, and the promenade around the town’s beach is wide, well-paved, and attractive.

Here’s a view looking back towards our hotel, with restaurant after restaurant facing the promenade and the beach:

Along the shore, restaurants galore.

One of the many surprises was the weight given to public art, including some impressive (and impressively tall) statues, by a sculptor named Bruno Catalano. I did a bit of research on him, and discovered that he was born in Morocco, but moved to Marseilles as a child. He’s currently 61 years old. Here’s one of his pieces, called “Van Gogh,” on the waterfront of Arcachon:

Catalano’s statue of Van Gogh.

Catalano includes in his works a series called Travellers, and this one in Arcachon is known simply as Benoit:

The statue’s title is simply Benoit.

Finally, here’s an even larger display, with three separate but related pieces:

A triptych, by the same sculptor.

On the Arcachon beach itself, we found this incredible array of animals — all formed from sand, and then sealed with an acrylic paint. The artist was sitting near his works when we passed, and we learned that he comes from Benin in West Africa [Correction: In an earlier version of this posting, I wrote that he was from North Africa]. We chatted briefly, and then made a donation to help support his work. Have a look — most of the creatures seemed absolutely life-like, to the point that we thought a black dog in the centre of the display must be a real dog:

A gallery of creatures, all made of sand.

So when we left Arcachon, we made a promise to return. Possibly next May. It’s quite a place.

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Seafood by the seaside

This past Monday, Jan and I headed out to a place in France we had never visited — the Bay of Arcachon, or le Bassin d’Arcachon, as it’s known in French. We were travelling with good friends Keith and Kathy, from Toronto, and had a great time — wining and dining ourselves, and nosing around the wonderful town of Arcachon itself. In this post, I’ll focus on the dining.

If you’re not familiar with it, the Bay of Arcachon is a part of the Atlantic Ocean, located on the southwest coast of France. It’s known for being a great source of oysters — but there is a plethora of fish and other seafood as well. And the four of us were intent on sampling as much as possible.

Our first restaurant was Café de la Plage, which turned out to be around the corner from our hotel, the cleverly named Hotel B d’Arcachon. (It doesn’t seem like much of a name in English, but the letter “B” in French is pronounced “Bay,” so to a French guest the hotel would be known as the Hotel of the Bay of Arcachon, which is pretty clever.) Here’s a view from our table, looking out towards the bay:

Looking out toward the Bay of Arcachon.

Naturally enough, the four of us began our lunch by sharing an iced tray of oysters. Here are the shells, upside down because we’ve already devoured the briny, cold oysters:

Oysters to begin, of course.

As an entrée, Jan and I both chose the tataki of tuna, which was surprisingly delicious. The thin tuna slices had been nicely marinated, but the dish was made even better by the mousse on top (lightly flavoured with horseradish, as I recall) and especially the cold salad of quinoa as a base, sweetened and full of various herbs, including mint. Here’s my dish:

For my main course, I chose the seared scallops served on a bed of sepia rice, with a rich sauce made from the scallops’ coral. It was every bit as good as it looks in the photo below:

Sepia rice below the seared scallops.

Since I couldn’t think of a seafood dessert, I thought I should go for a traditional ice cream dish, and indeed I did. Here it is:

Admittedly, not a seafood dish.

For lunch the next day, we walked a few metres further to the sister restaurant of Café de la Plage, known as Restaurant Chez Pierre. Again, seafood was the star of the day. The four of us began by sharing a platter of sashimi and sushi, which was (as you would expect) wonderfully fresh. Then it was onwards — with Keith ordering a dorade, which needed to be filleted at the table. Here is our server, hard at work on the fish (and she did a very good job of it):

A fish is going under the knife.

For Jan and me, the main course simply had to be the lobster. We each had a plate-full, and loved every bit of it, along with (too many) crisp and salty french fries. Here’s my serving:

Jan and I each had a plate like this.

That evening, Jan, Keith, Kathy and I returned to Café de la Plage for drinks — and, because it was so good at lunch, we ordered a larger platter of sashimi and sushi to share. So Arcachon is definitely on our list for a return trip. Maybe next May, before the hordes of summer descend on the town.

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Fine dining: Start me up!

Not long ago, I posted a fairly unfavourable review of a Paris restaurant where we lunched in September to celebrate Jan’s birthday. It was called “Disappointment at a starred restaurant” (September 13). And one of the reasons for our disappointment was the amuse-bouche we were served before the entrées arrived.

An amuse-bouche is so-called because it’s meant to tickle the palate (“amuse the mouth”), and it’s supposed to showcase the chef’s creativity. What each of us received was a single small bowl with a piece of grilled octopus tentacle, sitting on a pool of not-very-tasty bean paste. So, to show what can be done — and what I’d expect to be served in a Michelin-starred restaurant — I’m now going to show the amuse-bouches we receive yesterday at Le Petit Léon, a wonderful restaurant in Saint-Léon-sur-Vézère. (Funnily enough, the amuse-bouches are described on the restaurant menu simply as “Snacks.”)

You may remember that I posted a fairly full review of the restaurant on September 1. In it, I wrote: “We began with a generous selection of amuse-bouches, including minced fresh oysters served on the half-shell with a tart sauce. The variety and number of the little taste treats were so stunning that I forgot to take any photos of the dishes!”) This time, I took photos, although I didn’t take notes on what we were actually receiving, since there was such a flurry of information. Anyway, here’s a look at some of the selections, which include oysters on the half shell and a variety of tasty creams or mousses on pastry bases:

Just three of our selections.

This next tray shows the dark, crunchy wafers that were gluten-free, and fairly sweet. On top were little dabs of delicious mousse and jelly:

The crisp wafers were surprisingly sweet.

In this selection of egg shells, we received velouté of potato, quite foamy on top, and rich and delicious lower down. This was, in a word, yummy:

The eggshells were filled with a rich, foamy broth.

The next and final photo actually shows the second of the main courses, the fish course. But I include it because it was so delicate. It’s described on the menu as a confit of trout, which I assume means that it was either (barely) cooked sous vide, or else lightly poached in warm olive oil. With the fish came a beurre blanc sauce, pieces of fresh peach, and something Japanese (seaweed?) sprinkled on top. Here’s my delicious serving, which was refreshingly sweet because of the peach:

Not actually an amuse-bouche, but rather the fish course.

So, in my mind, this is how you start up a fine-dining meal. There were actually five of us at lunch (Jan and I were with friends Joanne, Kathy and Keith) and all of us oohed-and-aahed as we munched away happily.

A final note: While the restaurant is described as a New Zealand place — because Chef Nick Honeyman and his lovely wife have a top-flight restaurant in Auckland, New Zealand, called Paris Butter — we discovered during a table-side chat after lunch that he was born in South Africa. Very friendly young man — and obviously, amazingly creative.

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As good as it gets

It’s taken me quite a while to get around to writing this, but we’ve been busy. In any case, last Sunday we had another marvellous lunch at O Moulin in Carsac with our good friend Joanne, and the dishes were as close to perfect as I could wish. Here’s a quick review of them all.

First, we began with a nice assortment of amuse-bouches, with Jan’s treats made gluten-free. Here’s our tray:

A delicious selection of goodies, to begin.

Then another amuse-bouche (our chef always includes a rich soup at this point in the meal), and this version was pretty darn close to the “Is-It-Okay-To-Lick-The-Bowl?” level. This thick, creamy, savoury concoction was made from finely puréed foie gras and a sweet red port wine. Sweet and delicious, which you can almost sense from this photo:

Rich and sweet and delicious.

My entrée was foie gras mi-cuit, accompanied by a roll of fig jelly that had been flavoured with orange flower. Beautiful to behold, and delicious:

Foie with a jellied accompaniment.

All three of us had the veal as our plat principal, and loved it. On the menu, the dish was described as picattas of veal, which to me means thin slices of veal that are lightly floured, then sautéed, then served with a lemon and butter sauce. At O Moulin, the veal was thicker (but still very tender) with a sweetened veal sauce and pine nuts, fondant potatoes, Swiss chard and spinach. Here’s my plate:

Yet more great flavours, on one plate.

After all that, the real star of the show (for me, anyway) was the dessert. Our friend Joanne says she is definitely not a “dessert person” — someone who (unlike me) can easily finish a meal without dessert. But even she thought this was an amazing creation, and possibly the best dessert she’d ever had. (And the same goes for me.) It included a variety of chocolates, including some very dark chocolate, crunchy little praline puffs, crisp wafers, and a rich chocolate sorbet. Have a look:

Possibly the best dessert of all time.

And the price for all this clever, beautifully prepared food? Just 47 euros for the O Plaisir menu. Now compare that with what we’ve paid for meals at Michelin-starred restaurants, and you’ll see why the title of this post is “As good as it gets.”

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