My latest hang-out

For several years, I drove to a spa near Gourdon a few times a week for exercise classes in the spa’s large pool. But as time went on, it became obvious that the place was being neglected — tiles were coming off the walls, broken equipment wasn’t replaced, and in general the whole building seemed run down. Not surprisingly, it eventually closed.

What to do? Exercising in a pool is fun as well as a healthful activity, and the spa near Gourdon seemed to be the only place that met my needs. I did try a pool on the northern edge of Sarlat, and while its facilities were quite good, I didn’t enjoy a number of the instructors. And then Jan read a newspaper article about a pool that had just opened, on the outskirts of the village (well, hamlet) of Vitrac. And that’s my new hang-out, typically for a couple of classes a week.

Here’s a look at the pool and the building that houses the change room and showers, and not incidentally, a look at one of our bright blue skies:

Welcome to Au cours d’eau.

The pool is a personal project of a young master swimmer, who not only gives a variety of exercise classes but teaches swimming to children. The pool is actually built on his personal property, which means he can walk to work from his house in less than a minute.

The pool itself isn’t large, but on the plus side he limits classes to six adults at a time, so there is a decent amount of room. When I’m able, I’m there late on Tuesday and Friday mornings, and I think it’s time well spent.

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When a fireplace goes ballistic

In our main living room, we have a poêle à bois, or log-burner, that provides a nice, quiet source of heat during the winter season. But once a year, it’s the source of an incredibly loud, piercing noise that is pretty awful for Jan and me, and absolutely terrifying for our cat Souci.

The reason for the noise is the annual cleaning, which is required to ensure that the log-burner is safe and that the chimney is free of excess deposits that could burst into flame. Obviously, it’s a good idea, and I’m certainly not complaining about the service man who does the job for us.

In fact, the service is immaculately clean, and efficient. The service man puts down protective carpets, and bring into the house a long flexible tube that winds its way out the front door to his truck — where there is a powerful vacuum. He then brushes out the fireplace, and starts to vacuum away any excess dirt or ash. Because the vacuum machinery is outside, the noise in our house isn’t too overwhelming.

But then comes the chimney cleaning. For this, the service man has to crouch next to the log-burner, remove the cap at the bottom of the metal chimney, and start feeding in a rapidly rotating cable with a round metal brush on the end. (You may be able to see the metal brush sitting on top of the large wheel on which the flexible metal cable is coiled.)

High-tech cleaning, super-high noise.

Now imagine the noise: A fast-spinning metal brush is being forced all the way up our metal chimney, scratching against its sides. Fortunately, the process doesn’t take too long — several minutes, I would say — but the noise is clearly enough to drive us out of the room. And as for our cat Souci, she hides under the bed, simply terrified.

Jan and I (and of course, Souci) are delighted this happens only once a year.

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Dish du jour — February 28, 2023

In my most recent posting, I included a photo of the elaborate decoration in the restaurant where Jan and I had lunch on February 24, Le Grand Véfour in Paris. But I didn’t show off any of our dishes.

In this posting, I’m going to highlight one lunchtime dish, which stood out for its originality. In fact, it was so original that it was actually startling to eat.

At the centre of the dish, which I had ordered as my entrée, is a simple poached egg. This is something I’ve ordered frequently, and I’ve always enjoyed the sauce surrounding the egg. For instance, in my posting of January 4, I showed off a cocotte egg that was served in a small glass dish and surrounded by a creamy sauce that was chock-full of pieces of black truffle. Delicious, quite savoury, and just the sort of sauce to dip bread into.

The egg dish at Le Grand Véfour was completely different. This is how the menu described it: Œuf mollet, patate douce en fine purée et en semoule, pointe de raz-el-hanout mangue acidulée.

In English, that’s a poached egg with a sauce of sweet potato as well as tiny pieces of sweet potato prepared like a semolina and served as a quenelle, with sweet-and-sour pieces of mango. In other words, this was a tropical take on a normally savoury dish, and it was quite remarkable. The small pieces of mango really were sweet-and-sour, since the sweet fruit had been “acidulated,” or made somewhat acidic. And then the dish was decorated with thin slices of fresh coconut. Have a look:

Flavour combinations I would never have imagined.
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Tidbits from Paris

We are just back from a three-day, two-night trip to Paris, and in this posting I will simply share a few observations about our favourite city.

What’s wrong with Paris? I’ve read articles in the British press that Paris is a disaster — dirty, full of garbage, run down, and locked in traffic chaos. Of course, such articles tend to be in the Telegraph, which is still trying to explain how terrible Europe is, in order to help its commentators justify Brexit.

In our view, Paris was as beautiful as ever. Of course there are lots of roadworks and lane restrictions, but we still found traffic flowing nicely. (Despite a bit of a shoddy reputation, we have found that Parisian drivers are actually pretty skillful and courteous. We’ve never seen the gridlock suffered in London, or the out-and-out road battles that take place in Rome.) So, what’s wrong? Nothing that we could see. And of course, the iconic landmarks continue to be special, like the structure below, as seen from our hotel window:

Look familiar?

Getting around, in style. Having spent much of our working life in Toronto, Jan and I still have vivid memories of that city’s beat-up, run-down and often smelly taxis. On our visit there last September, we moved around in Uber vehicles, which were generally pretty good and clean. But in Paris, taxis seem to be at yet another level — inevitably they are spotless, modern, and relatively high-end models. We could have taken advantage of Uber in Paris, but we’re used to the taxis, and how good they are.

A brush with history. For our lunch on Friday, we had elected to try Le Grand Véfour, the venerable restaurant located next to the gardens of the Palais Royal, and near the Louvre. It started life in 1784, originally as the Café de Chartres, but was changed when it was bought in 1820 by one Jean Véfour. It was closed from 1905 to 1947, but it’s been operating ever since. The restaurant is quite famous for its neoclassical decor, featuring large mirrors and elaborate painted decorations. Here’s the view from our table, looking into another room:

You could describe the decorations as “elaborate.”

Will Our Lady be ready? Since the devastating fire of April 2019, Notre Dame de Paris has been a massive construction site. President Macron has said that he would like all the restoration completed and the cathedral re-opened in time for the Olympic Games of 2024. Certainly we hope that this will come about. However, when we passed the cathedral on Thursday afternoon (we were in a taxi heading along the Seine, on the Left Bank), it looked like there is a long, long way to go. While the front of the cathedral is apparently fully restored, the side that was facing us was virtually gone. In other words, much of the building needs to be literally re-built, as opposed to repaired. Fingers crossed, everyone.

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Old school fine dining (literally, old school)

The following is taken from a post I wrote in 2010: “La Récréation is a marvellous little restaurant in the tiny village of Les Arques, about 40 minutes south of Daglan. Its fame has grown because of a book called From Here, You Can’t See Paris by the American writer Michael Sanders.”

I went on to say: “The restaurant’s name means ‘recess,’ referring to our favourite period in school, when we ran around the school yard like maniacs. The name was chosen because the restaurant itself is in a converted school house…”

This is my way of re-introducing the restaurant, which we visited for lunch again on Sunday with friends Sarah and Karl. First, here’s a look at the front of La Récré, looking through the tree branches and vines that are still awaiting the first leaves of spring:

The front of the old school that became a restaurant.

The tables in the restaurant are all set in a large, single room that previously held school children in classes. The decoration is simple, but attractive, and even retains some of the features of the old school days, like books and crayons. When Jan and I arrived, just a touch before 12:30, there was only one other person in the room; not long after that, every seat was taken. Here’s the view from our table:

The view from our table.

Jan and I have eaten at La Récré many times, but our last visit was way back in 2018 — before the pandemic hit. The food is really good, and in fact on this most recent visit it seems to have become a notch better.

One of the classics of the place — which has been on the menu literally for years — are lobster-filled ravioli in an incredibly rich sauce made with the lobster eggs, which the French call corail de homard. I didn’t hesitate for a second to order this as my entrée, since the dish may be in my list of top-10 all-time dishes of any kind. Here’s my colourful serving:

The sauce over the lobster ravioli is wonderfully rich — and delicious.

For my main course, I chose the wild cod, served up with a variety of vegetables. Little did I expect such a clever concoction: the cod cut into quite small rounds, and then surrounded with greens that were either young cabbage leaves or tender brussel sprout leaves; on the top were several pieces of samphire, a type of succulent plant that grows near bodies of water; and on either side of the fish rounds were swoops of cauliflower purée. Here’s my serving (which, by the way, was just the right size for me):

An incredibly clever way to serve fish.

Dessert was a classic — a chocolate fondant cake, made so that the melted chocolate runs out when you cut into the cake. No complaints from me:

Nothing original here — but a chocolate-lover’s delight.

Would we return? Yes, we would. All four of us agreed that the food and service were excellent. The only drawback was the noise — with a full house, the single room meant that all the chatter from all the tables became just a bit of a dull roar. On top of that, a table of women and young girls, with two small dogs, sat down just behind me — although several of them did take the trouble to knock into me, and the girls often had to chase down the dogs to keep them from bothering other diners. Ah well — these things happen.

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Dish du jour — February 12, 2023

Another day, another lunch at O Moulin in Carsac, and yes, another chance to show off an artful dessert. (Okay, I know I am being repetitive, but I promise this will be the last such posting for a while.)

My dessert for our lunch on Friday, with friends Fiona and Martin, was a take on the Paris-Brest. It turns out that this dessert has quite a history: Apparently the founder of the famous Paris-to-Brest bicycle race, one Pierre Giffard, asked a pasty chef to invent a cake that would somehow reflect the race. The original result was a round, doughnut-like cake made of choux pastry and filled with cream. The idea was that the round shape would represent a bicycle wheel.

Another beautifully decorated dessert at O Moulin. Yum.

Of course good chefs can’t always leave a good thing alone, and so there have been many variations over the years — different toppings, different cream fillings and so on. At O Moulin, this version included two small pastries, cream-filled and artfully decorated. I went away happy, as always.

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Dish du jour — February 3, 2023

This past Sunday (January 29) provided another occasion to lunch at O Moulin in Carsac, this time with good friends Suzanne and Mark. It also gave me a chance to show off, in today’s dish du jour post, the kind of artistry and creativity that the chef at O Moulin applies to a plate.

The dish du jour I’m highlighting today is a dessert, and it’s one that I normally avoid because I find it just a bit blah. In English it’s a rum baba; in French it’s a baba au rhum. It’s simple enough: a yeast-risen cake that is soaked in a sweet rum syrup. Often it’s topped with whipped cream, which I’ll admit elevates it at least a bit.

But here is what I had for my dessert at last Sunday’s lunch: the cake was soaked in walnut liqueur, topped with a ring of whipped cream, decorated with a fine pastry leaf and a candied walnut half; and then finished off with a quenelle of walnut ice cream. Voilà:

How to elevate a dessert I usually think of as boring.

My lunch had begun with the entrée of scallops that I featured in my post of January 18, and then went on to the plat principal of confit pork cheeks served on a bed of polenta. The baba was pretty much a perfect ending.

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Snow joke!

Snow joke? Well, actually, “it’s no joke” that Daglan received its first snowfall of the winter last night, although it was nowhere near the depth of the snowfall that covered much of New York State (and notably, the city of Buffalo) recently. Still, our snow is noteworthy because we get so little of it each winter — and even then it’s usually flurries.

Jan and I noticed the large, fluffy flakes falling late yesterday afternoon, and figured that not much of it would remain. Any flakes falling on the road melted almost immediately.

But this morning, there was evidence that a decent amount had fallen, and remained. As is typical in this sort of climate, any snow that falls is liable to stick to surfaces that are colder than the streets, which typically absorb the sun’s heat and thus melt the flakes. So today you could find at least some snow on trees, roofs, plants, and some cars.

Here, as an example, is a view from our front door this morning, looking past our doorbell to a neighbour’s vine, with traces of snow on the leaves:

Looking beyond our door bell.

The thickest collections of snow were on cars — the roofs, and any slanted windows. For instance, here’s the windshield of my car (in the foreground) with Jan’s car just next to mine:

Fortunately, the layers of snow were easy to push off the cars.

On the plus side, the snow — even though sparse — added to the attractiveness of the landscape around Daglan. Here’s a view from a large parking lot towards the Céou River:

A pretty mid-winters scene, on the banks of the Céou River.

The snow did bring a few problems. My aquagym class was cancelled, for instance, because the pool was just too cold. Friends of ours in Sarlat, whose house is down a slope at the end of a long driveway, couldn’t drive up to a main road, because their drive was so slippery. And the front page of Sud-Ouest featured a car in our area that had slid off the road into a ditch, because the road was covered in ice. Still, it was all pretty manageable — and I expect that by tomorrow, most of the snow will have melted.

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Dish du jour — January 18, 2023

While I’m calling this a dish du jour with today’s date, the photo below was actually taken this past weekend, while we were having lunch at our favourite nearby restaurant, O Moulin, in Carsac, about 25 minutes from Daglan.

This was the entrée chosen by my wife Jan to start her meal (although technically we had begun with an assortment of amuse-bouches, including an absolutely delicious serving of cream of chestnut soup). Here’s Jan’s pretty dish of scallops:

A pretty dish to begin a meal.

On the restaurant’s menu, the dish was described as Normandy scallops with Camembert ravioli in a mushroom sauce with cider gel. Because Jan is allergic to gluten, the ravioli were left off the dish. But no complaints from Jan — and I thought the dish was lovely.

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The Mayor’s Speech, 2023

Another step back to normality (after the restrictions caused by the Covid pandemic) was taken last night, as villagers gathered in our community hall to trade New Year’s good wishes; listen to the Mayor’s update on village life; and linger over a meal.

Much of the evening echoed previous events: a late start (convened for 6:30 p.m., the event actually started closer to 7 p.m. when the Mayor took his place at the microphone); a friendly, informal atmosphere; and a slide show to illustrate the Mayor’s comments (including the opening slide shown below):

The opening screen, as our evening began.

At the front of the hall was Mayor Pascal Dussol, with a number of the municipal counsellors. M. Dussol has been our Mayor since 2014, and is known for his local knowledge and his hands-on, no-nonsense approach to municipal governance. Here he is, addressing the crowd:

Daglan’s Mayor, with some of his team behind him.

This year’s review of municipal activities had a number of themes. One of the most prominent was the effort put into keeping Daglan an attractive place to live. So there were slides of volunteers cleaning out the Céou River and weeding flower beds and painting the memorials scattered through the village.

A significant part of the Mayor’s speech was devoted to the Villes et Villages Fleuris program, which is best described as France’s quality-of-life program for municipalities throughout the country. As I wrote in the March 22, 2022 posting, Daglan is the second smallest village in the Dordogne département with three flowers (out of a possible four) under the program. Signs highlighting this achievement are posted at the three main entrances to Daglan:

Highlighting Daglan’s success in this national program.

I won’t even attempt to cover all the programs and events of 2022 that were highlighted in the Mayor’s speech, because there were so many: From pruning road-side trees to prepare for the installation of fiber optics; to renovating the village’s primary school; to supporting the Octobre Rose campaign for breast cancer awareness. At the end of M. Dussol’s remarks, the applause of the villagers was enthusiastic.

And at the end of the program, there were some friendly, personal touches: New residents of Daglan were asked to stand and be welcomed; and awards for the best gardens in the village were presented. All this continues to make us feel happy we’re here.

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