Amazed, surprised and delighted — once again

We have eaten at the Michelin-starred Le Grand Bleu in Sarlat so many times that it may seem surprising that we can still be amazed, surprised and delighted by Chef Maxime Lebrun’s creations. But we are, and never more so than at our lunch there on Thursday. (Just wait until you get a load of our desserts.)

For my wife Jan and me, Thursday happened to be our 27th (ahem) anniversary (thank you, thank you very much), and lunching at Le Grand Bleu seemed like a great way to celebrate. So off we went.

In case you’ve missed my previous raves, the restaurant is within easy walking distance of Sarlat’s train station, where there always seems to be ample parking. Here’s what the front of Le Grand Bleu looks like:

The entrance to Le Grand Bleu.

The entrance to Le Grand Bleu.

Our hostess Céline (Chef’s wife) settled us into our corner table. Then we ordered a kir royale (Champagne with a touch of cassis syrup), and let the show begin — starting with a small tray of amusebouches to nibble. Here it is:

Perfect for nibbling along with a kir royale.

Perfect for nibbling along with a kir royale.

Tasty as the amuse-bouches were, it was the dish that followed that really amazed us. This was a chilled, frothy soup of green peas, topped with a delicate foam of carrots, and garnished in the centre with an ice cream made of beets — light, elegant and delicious. Here it is:

A refreshing soup to begin the lunch.

A refreshing soup to begin the lunch.

By this point, both Jan and I had made our selections for the rest of the meal, and I had chosen a 25-year-old white Châteauneuf-du-Pape to drink. (The wine was almost golden in colour, and reminiscent of a light sherry. Interesting, but not the best choice I’ve ever made.)

For my entrée, I had a concoction built around the two main types of asparagus, white and green, with a host of garnishes, sauces and a barely poached egg. If I recall correctly, it took two fresh bread rolls (one white, one dark) to mop up all the delicious sauces and runny yolk. Here’s my plate:

Making the most of asparagus season.

Making the most of asparagus season.

Meanwhile, Jan’s entrée was this plate of lightly poached langoustines:

Jan's delicious entrée of langoustines.

Jan’s delicious entrée of langoustines.

As the plat principal, Jan (again) had the pigeon — one of her favourites at Le Grand Bleu — while I surprised both Jan and Céline by not ordering the sweetbreads for a change. Instead, I had this serving of John Dory, lighted coated with Indian spices.

Indian spices lifted the fish out of the ordinary.

Indian spices lifted the fish out of the ordinary.

Most amazing of all was the dessert that both of us chose. The restaurant’s menu describes it as Macaron olive noire, crème d’asperge verte et fraises gariguette, glace olive noire, which is to say in English: “Black olive macaron, green asparagus cream and gariguette strawberries, black olive ice cream.” Yes, that’s right — black olives in the macaron and the ice cream, and green asparagus cream (!!) within the macaron, surrounded by a row of fresh strawberries. We both thought it was brilliant.

Easily the most amazing part of our meal.

A black olive macaron? Easily the most amazing part of our meal.

By this point in our lunch, we were both feeling very well fed, bordering on being “full.” So we declined the usual offering of mignardises, and simply had coffees to end the meal.

In case you’re wondering what a meal costs at a restaurant with a Michelin star, our total bill was 196 euros, which includes the Champagne cocktails to begin and the relatively expensive bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

Seems reasonable enough — and in fact we are going back before the end of the month to celebrate a friend’s birthday.

The only unreasonable thing is the fact that Michelin has awarded Le Grand Bleu just one star. Were it up to me, and I was judging the restaurant solely on the basis of the food, I’d make that two stars, if not three.

Posted in Food, French food, Life in southwest France, Restaurants in France, Restaurants in the Dordogne, Wine | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Flower power (and more)

People in the Greater Daglan Area love their flowers, their shrubs, their trees, and their vegetable gardens, and of course spring is the time of year when flower power is in full swing. All around the GDA you can find nurseries packed with flowers, as well as some fairly extravagant festivals devoted to showing off (and selling) plants.

So this morning my wife Jan and I headed out with friends Rosemary and Richard to the Fête du Fleurs, du Cheval, et de la Nature in Cazals, a bit south of Daglan in the département of the Lot. And the festival certainly lived up to its name, with seemingly endless displays of flowers, horses (and other farm animals) and nature in general.

For a two-and-a-half euro entry fee, visitors can check out some 50 exhibitors of flowers, herbs, vegetables, shrubs, plants and trees, and buy them for what seemed to us like quite reasonable prices. Here’s a look at just one of the many rows of flowers:

Stands of flowers seemed to go on forever.

Stands of flowers seemed to go on forever.

We spent a few hours at the fête, and it seemed like it was teeming with visitors the whole time, with the pathways full of people:

The pathways were packed with shoppers.

The pathways were packed with shoppers.

Jan wanted to buy a hanging basket of flowers for our front steps, plus a selection of flowers for the beds at the side of the house. Here she is, checking out the offerings of the young lady who shows up each Sunday in Daglan for our weekly market:

Getting down to the details.

Getting down to the details.

In the end, we skipped the flower basket, because we couldn’t picture what size it should be. But we did buy quite a few purple dwarf dahlias, which you can see in the bottom right of this photo, next to the yellow variety:

We finally made our choice from the flats of flowers in the lower foreground of this photo.

We finally made our choice from the flats of flowers in the lower foreground of this photo.

As promised, the fête had lots more than flowers — including a large ring with horses prancing about; pony rides for the kids; several kinds of horse-drawn carriages; and this whopping big American Percheron draft horse, which we were told weighs more than a ton:

We were warned to stay away from his hooves. No kidding!

We were warned to stay away from his hooves. No kidding!

There were also rows and rows of other farm animals and birds, from beautiful roosters to a Chinese pig to ducks and geese and donkeys, and little goats like these:

Just a few of the little goats at the show.

Just a few of the little goats at the show.

And then there was this beauty — a white llama which seemed typically serene, despite all the people trying to pet it:

Haughty? Or just composed?

Haughty? Or just composed?

After a (very) light lunch of things like a sausage in a baguette, a tray of French fries, and some small quiches, we headed back to Daglan. So next on the agenda comes the planting of our flowers.

Posted in Festivals in France, Flora and fauna, Food, Life in southwest France, Markets in France | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments

V-E Day 2015: Damp but dignified

We’ve been having a bit of stormy weather. This morning, a rain-with-lightning storm woke us up before dawn, including a particularly vicious clap of thunder at almost exactly 6 a.m., seemingly right over our house. This did not bode well for our village’s 8 mai ceremony, set to begin at 10:30 a.m.

The May 8th holiday commemorates Victory in Europe Day, marking the end of the war with Germany in 1945, exactly 70 years ago.

Fortunately, by the time the ceremony began, the lightning was gone, and there was only intermittent drizzle. It may have discouraged some villagers from attending, but it didn’t ruin the ceremony at all.

As usual, my wife Jan and I were there. Those of us in the relatively small crowd stayed huddled under umbrellas and awnings, but the dignified ceremony took place without a hitch.

It began with the arrival of a small procession from the Mairie, led by the village’s Mayor. Here he is with his tricolour sash, followed by the flag bearer and some elected officials, arriving at the war memorial in front of the restaurant Le Petit Paris:

Led by our Mayor, a small procession arrives at the war memorial.

Led by our Mayor, a small procession arrives at the war memorial.

Early in the ceremony, two of our deputy mayors placed an arrangement of flowers in front of the memorial:

Two of our deputy mayors place an arrangement before the war memorial.

Two of our deputy mayors place an arrangement before the war memorial.

Then our Mayor read from the proscribed text, describing the horrors of World War II, and the eventual victory of the French (led by General de Gaulle, who seemingly accomplished the defeat of the Germans single-handedly). A moment of silence was then observed:

The Mayor reads the proscribed text.

The Mayor reads the proscribed text.

Through the ceremony, a trumpeter was on hand to play various pieces, including France’s national anthem, La Marseillaise. Here he is:

The trumpeter is now a fixture at our 8 mai ceremonies.

The trumpeter is now a fixture at our 8 mai ceremonies.

The small crowd at the ceremony did a pretty good job of singing along as he played. I confess that I still don’t know the anthem, although I have made a brave stab at singing it when I’m able to hold a sheet with the lyrics.

In fairness, I think it’s much easier to learn an anthem or any other song when you’re young, and I imagine that many in our village learned La Marseillaise in school. On the other hand, I know all the words to Little Deuce Coupe by the Beach Boys, and I’m probably the only Daglan resident who can make that claim.

 

Posted in Festivals in France, History in France, Holidays in France, Life in southwest France, Weather in the Dordogne | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Happy feet! (Or, one of the things we miss about Toronto)

I apologize in advance if you find this posting in Radio Free Daglan remarkably free of Daglan itself. But the topic of happy feet is too important to ignore.

To begin, you should know the most common question asked by people who learn that my wife Jan and I moved to rural France from the big city of Toronto, where we spent most of our adult lives. Inevitably, they ask us: “What do you miss most?” And our answer has been simple: “Well, first of all, we miss family and friends. And then, we miss Kim’s Nails on Bayview Avenue.”

Given everything that a big city like Toronto has to offer, it may seem peculiar to focus on a nail salon as one of its best features.  But that’s largely because, after several years of trying, we haven’t been able to find a place in the Greater Daglan Area that can offer a decent, proper pedicure.

Even at some fairly high-priced spas in the GDA, it’s clear that no one (in our experience) understands what is needed for a thorough, comfortable pedicure — a purpose-built chair, a long soaking in warm and soapy water, a careful and meticulous cutting and filing of nails, and so on.

Instead, the pedicures we’ve endured in the GDA tend to be fairly slap-dash affairs, followed by a long period of massaging with a lotion, as if that would make up for a second-rate pedicure.  (You might recall that last September, I wrote about French pharmacies, and included these comments:  “I suppose that what I find most amazing is this apparent French love of ‘magical’ lotions and creams — anti-wrinkle, anti-aging, anti-spots, anti-stretch marks, and so on. And not only does price seem no object, it often appears that prices are set at outrageously high levels as some sort of badge of quality and effectiveness.”)

In any case, as a public service, I’m offering a look inside Kim’s Nails on Bayview Avenue in Toronto, where Jan and I had excellent pedicures last month on our visit to the city. First is this photo of the long row of purpose-built chairs waiting for clients — chairs that offer not only a variety of positions but also built-in electrical massage systems, heating,  and water baths:

The row of proper chairs at Kim's Nails in Toronto.

The row of proper chairs at Kim’s Nails in Toronto.

In this close-up, it’s easier to see the controls built into the arm rests; clients use them to find the perfect angle for their chair and the right kind of back and shoulder massage:

A proper pedicure chair: What comfort should be.

A proper pedicure chair: What comfort should be.

And now we get to the real strength of the place — professional staff who actually know what they’re doing. In this photo, a client is having a manicure and a pedicure at the same time:

A client gets the full treatment -- manicure and pedicure.

A client gets the full treatment — manicure and pedicure.

Hope springs eternal, of course, and Jan recently heard from a friend that there’s a salon in Gourdon (less than 30 minutes away) where you can get proper pedicures. If it’s even half as good as Kim’s Nails, we’ll be happy, because it’s awfully expensive flying to Toronto for a pedicure.

Posted in Life in southwest France | Tagged , , , , , | 9 Comments

And so it begins (with a brunch)

May 1 is the traditional opening day for Le Thé Vert in Daglan, and that’s about as close as we get to an official start of The Season. From now until the first of October, our village will be packed with tourists, particularly in the months of July and August.

With the tea room-cum-restaurant opening yesterday, it was only natural that my wife Jan and I be among the first clients — and so we enjoyed coffees there with friends Richard, Rosemary and Tish. But for me, today was the main event.

First, a look at Le Thé Vert, as I approached it this morning. The day had started a bit cool and damp, and so the front patio was free of customers; but there are days in the summer when it’s packed to over-flowing, often with cyclists, because the Greater Daglan Area is prime cycling country. Here it is:

The front patio of Le Thé Vert in Daglan.

The front patio of Le Thé Vert in Daglan.

I had come with a mission, which was to order the brunch, or full English breakfast. In preparation, I had begun the day at home with just a small yoghurt, half an orange, and coffee. By 10 a.m., when the tea room opens for business, I was ready for the brunch. (I should point out that the brunch is available only on weekend mornings. I should also point out that while Le Thé Vert is open six days a week only from May 1 to October 1, it does offer special events through the year, such as curry nights.)

For nine and a half euros, Le Brunch Anglais (as it’s called on the menu) includes a large glass of orange juice, two slices of toast with jam, scrambled eggs, baked beans (yes!), two slices of bacon, two grilled tomato halves, and coffee.  Here’s my serving:

Now that's what  I call a breakfast.

Now that’s what I call a breakfast.

It was, in a word,  yummy. And while I’m a hot-breakfast kind of guy, there’s also a Continental version of Le Brunch: tea or coffee, orange juice, two kinds of ham, cheese, hard-boiled egg, cucumber and tomato slices, and a baguette.

So let The Season begin. We’re ready for it.

Back to the wisteria. In my last blog posting before I took a two-week break (which included a trip back to Canada for the wedding of No. 1 Son Michael and the lovely Vanessa), I introduced you to the flower-laden vines at the front of our house. That posting was “Our wisteria wall — Interim report,” on April 13; in it, I promised another look, “once the flowers hit full maturity.”

Unfortunately, I left the photography a little too long, and the flowers have already started to lose their petals. For what it’s worth, here they are, a couple of days ago:

The wisteria hanging over our cave door.

The wisteria hanging over our cave door.

Much of the flowery show is over. But as you can see, the leaves are fully out, and there are new shoots climbing everywhere. It’s about time to get out the clippers, before the vines start trying to break into the house.

Posted in Bicycling in the Dordogne, Cafés in France, Food, Life in southwest France, Restaurants in France, Restaurants in the Dordogne, Tourist attractions | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Our wisteria wall — Interim report

Previously on Radio Free Daglan, I reported with great glee on the development of a large number of blossoms on the two wisteria vines on the front wall of our house in Daglan. (Last year, we had exactly one flower.) I called my April 1st posting “Wisteria hysteria,” and offered this photographic evidence:

Those strange growths are the beginnings of our wisteria flowers.

Those strange growths are the beginnings of our wisteria flowers.

And now, almost two weeks later, with a bit of rain and some nice sunny days, we have progress. Here’s a photo, taken yesterday, of the array of still-developing flowers on the vine that’s on the right side of our front steps:

A host of blossoms are growing here.

A host of blossoms are growing here.

In the interest of fairness, here’s the vine on the left side of the front steps, above our garage:

Not as many blooms, but not bad either.

Not as many blooms, but not bad either.

Clearly these vines have more to offer, so this is only an interim report. I’ll post again once the flowers hit full maturity — in a week or two or three. In the meantime…

A break from blogging. I’ve just finished my busiest season of professional writing (for clients in Canada) and so I plan to take a bit of a break from Radio Free Daglan. I’ll be back in full swing, after an appropriate rest. Until then, all best wishes from the RFD team.

Posted in Flora and fauna, Life in southwest France, Weather in the Dordogne | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Easter dining — in a bistro

An argument can be made that one shouldn’t bother driving nearly an hour to eat Easter lunch in a bistro, when the identical drive will take you to a Michelin-starred restaurant that’s literally across the street from the bistro. Makes sense, up to a point.

But when the bistro in question is Le Bistrot de la Place in Trémolat, west of our village of Daglan, we think the food is worthy of the trip. Yesterday for Easter lunch, we confirmed that with friends Joanne and Chris, and their children James and Eleanor.

My wife Jan and I have eaten at the bistro many times over the years, and have always had a good experience — especially with the big, fat, crispy-on-the-outside-but-soft-inside frites, which are cooked in duck fat. Yum.

But the immediate idea to have lunch there yesterday came from Joanne, who had read an article in a U.K. newspaper about where famous chefs in London like to go to “chill.” It turns out that Hélène Darroze, who has a Michelin-starred restaurant in Paris (where we have, of course, eaten) and another starred restaurant at London’s Connaught Hotel, visits  the bistro in Trémolat, when she’s back in southwest France. That settled it.

Let’s start with a look at the front of the restaurant. Whenever we can, Jan and I like to get a table in the front room, so we can look out these windows and watch life in the village drift past. Here’s the front window:

Here's the front of the bistro in Trémolat.

Here’s the front of the bistro in Trémolat.

To orient you a bit more, the bistro is kitty-corner from the Mairie of Trémolat. In warmer weather, there are tables set on the small terrace you can see here, with shade provided by that rolled-up awning:

Looking from the bistro towards the Mairie of Trémolat.

Looking from the bistro towards the Mairie of Trémolat.

Once we were inside, the four adults ordered apéritifs, and we all settled into making our choices for lunch (including that trusty goes-with-most-things wine, a rosé from the nearby Bergerac area).

To begin, three of us cleverly chose the daily special entrée of a salad made with the season’s first white asparagus (hurrah!) and a soft-boiled egg. This earned rave reviews from Jan, Joanne and me; here it is:

The yolk pours out to act as a sauce for the beautiful asparagus.

The yolk pours out to act as a sauce for the beautiful, tender asparagus.

Reactions to our main courses ranged from happy to delirious. Eleanor loved her duck breast (bien cuit, as requested) with a rich sauce and roast potatoes. Here’s her plate:

A rich plate of duck breast and sauce.

A rich plate of duck breast and sauce.

Meanwhile, Jan, Joanne and I were in ecstasy  over our navarin d’agneau, the classic spring dish. This one featured incredibly tender and tasty pieces of slow-cooked lamb in a lovely sauce with perfect spring vegetables. Not shown with my navarin are the frites that I piled on my plate from the huge bowl of frites that was set on our table. (I have omitted the photo of the potatoes as a public service, because seeing them might cause some readers to have a fit of frites raptures.)

Three rave reviews for this lamb dish.

Three rave reviews for this lamb dish.

And then it was on to dessert (a freshly baked individual apple tart for Chris, James and me, made with incredibly thinly sliced apples and served with a scoop of ice cream). And then a glass of Armagnac for James and me. And then coffees.

But the afternoon wasn’t over. Part-way through our lunch, the owner of Le Vieux Logis — which has the Michelin-starred restaurant across the street, and which also owns the bistro — had stopped at our table to chat. (The elderly gentleman was pretty puzzled about my taking photos of the food, and the answer that I write a “blog” didn’t seem to explain much.)

Then the charming maitre d’ from the restaurant at Le Vieux Logis’s wandered into the bistro, recognized Jan and me, and stopped at our table to say hello and welcome us for complimentary coffees.

So of course we accepted the invitation, and wound up in the cozy lobby of the inn for more coffees (and delicious chocolates) before our drive back to Daglan. All in all, a pretty good Easter lunch.

Posted in Food, French food, Life in southwest France, Restaurants in France, Restaurants in the Dordogne, Wine | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments