A terribly sad weekend

We were headed to bed fairly late on Friday, November 13, when my wife Jan decided to head upstairs to the computer and take a final look at the news online. And that’s when we learned about the horrors — the bombings and shootings — that were unfolding in Paris. It was not easy getting to sleep that night.

As it turned out, we still spent a pleasant and relaxing weekend. On Saturday I had an enjoyable  aquagym exercise session in the morning. On Sunday we had a nice Thai lunch  with friend Annie. And on Sunday afternoon, we Skyped with son Michael, daughter-in-law Vanessa, and grandson John. All good.

But over the whole weekend, we really did feel a pall of sadness, and we know that our family and friends both here and outside France were feeling much the same.

I don’t think that I have anything particularly profound to add to all the words that have been said and written about the vicious attacks in Paris, but I still feel compelled to put my feelings into words.

First of all, immense sadness for the victims of the Friday night attacks, and their families, and their friends. The violence was so random, so vicious, so pointless. I know that the families and friends of those who were gunned down will never fully get over their losses.

Secondly, sadness for the wonderful city of Paris, and for the tolerant, vibrant, beautiful country of France, which has been our home for more than five years now.

And finally, sadness for the future. I suspect it will take a very, very  long time for change to come to the society or societies that have spawned the terrorists. These are young men (and some women, apparently) with little or no respect for life and  little or no joy in actually living. These are people who are taught — actively taught — to hate other people and their views and beliefs.

What’s needed in those societies isn’t just “voices of reason,” as we sometimes hear. What’s needed over the long term are real leaders who can educate and inspire their people to accept others, to value the pleasures of life on this earth, and to take responsibility for their own well-being — that is, instead of putting the blame on everyone else. So far, I don’t see much evidence of that.

Posted in French government and politics, News about France | Tagged , , , | 7 Comments

Breaking the Beynac bottleneck

Beynac is one of the most historic and interesting villages in the Greater Daglan Area, or GDA. It’s home to the imposing Château de Beynac, a castle once occupied by none other than Richard Cœur de Lion, or Richard the 1st of England. It’s also home to one of our favourite restaurants, the dependable La Petite Tonnelle. And during the summer, it’s home to some of the worst traffic jams you can imagine.

It’s easy to see the source of the problem — a narrow road that runs along the base of the village, hard against the Dordogne River. Have a look:

That's the village up ahead and on the right. The castle is high above.

That’s the village up ahead and on the right. The castle is on a cliff above.

The trouble is that it’s not just a local road; it’s an important thoroughfare that heads west to centres like Lalinde and Bergerac, and it carries everything from normal cars to big tractors to large campers to huge trucks. Once all this traffic is joined by the GDA’s horde of tourists in the summer, you have a mess.

If you’re looking for a nerve-wracking experience, try passing a monstrous oil  truck on the Beynac road that’s coming in the opposite direction, edging its way around a huge rock outcropping.

The good news: Beynac is getting the same sort of treatment that has transformed the village of La Roque-Gageac — a significant widening of the road, made possible by building out into the river.

I have written several postings about the major roadworks in La Roque-Gageac, a construction project that lasted a couple of years.  The road was widened; a pedestrian walkway was added on the river’s edge; and the sidewalks along the base of the village were enhanced. To remind you, here’s the finished product, as it looked in May of last year, just as the work was completed:

A street runs through it: La Roque-Gageac, re-opened.

The road and pedestrian walkway in La Roque-Gageac.

And now in Beynac, the work is well under way, with rock and soil being dumped into the Dordogne, to build out the width of the road. Here’s a look:

You can see the earth and rocks being laid out into the Dordogne.

You can see the earth and rocks being laid out into the Dordogne.

This sign at the start of the construction site explains that the work will be done in two stages — from September of this year to April 2016, and then from October 2016 to May 2017. So this isn’t a quick fix.

The sign spells out the two stages of work to be done.

The sign spells out the two stages of work to be done.

The end result, I’m sure, will be worth the effort. But during the construction, driving along the base of Beynac is a bit tense. All heavy traffic has been detoured, as the road has been shrunk to one lane — and a very narrow one at that — in order to allow construction equipment to work along the river. Vehicles are controlled by lights that allow traffic to move in only one direction at a time.

I’ve driven it twice — once in my wife Jan’s smaller car, and once in my normal-sized Volkswagen. Let’s just say that the narrow passageway encourages concentration.


Posted in Life in southwest France, Tourist attractions | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

An oh-so-leisurely Sunday lunch

A leisurely Sunday lunch with good friends, enjoying fine food, is both a treat and a tradition for us here in the Greater Daglan Area. However, I do make a distinction between plain-old leisurely and so-much-time-between-courses-that-you-could-learn-how-to-play-contract-bridge leisurely.

Unfortunately, the latter sort of leisurely was what we experienced on a recent Sunday at Le Saint Martial, a restaurant at the main crossroads in Saint-Martial-de-Nabirat. That’s a village  just a short drive from Daglan over lovely country roads, through farm fields and woods.

I’ll return to the subject of slow service at the end of this posting, but for now let’s take a look at the restaurant and Chef’s generally excellent food.

Le Saint Martial is a handsome restaurant, set in an old limestone building that’s been polished up and refurbished inside. What was once a bar at street level and a tiny restaurant on the lower level is now a full-fledged restaurant devoted to fine dining at both levels.  The interior is modern, well furnished and comfortable. Here’s how it looks from the front:

The restaurant seen from the village's main street.

The restaurant as seen from the village’s main street.

And here’s the rear of the restaurant. For our recent Sunday lunch, we were seated in the lower level, at a table for six just behind that large picture window:

The large ground-floor window was where we were seated.

We were seated near that large ground-floor window.

There were six of us for lunch, celebrating the birthday of one of our friends, and we all began with a Kir Royale (Champagne flavoured with black currant liqueur). About the time that I’d finished my drink, the amuse-bouches were delivered. We each received two small tastings — a dish of foie gras crème brûlée, plus a glass with tartare of tuna covered in a rich sauce. Here’s my serving:

Our amuse-bouches -- foie gras and tuna tartare.

Our amuse-bouchesfoie gras with a sugary crust, and tuna tartare.

As my entrée, I chose foie gras mi-cuit, done in a sort of en croute style. This was a twist on the French classic of a meat terrine, which has foie gras in the centre; this version had a (delicious) meat filling down the centre, surrounded by layers of the foie gras. The sauce (with pieces of fruit) that accompanied the meat was fine, but the crust atop the meat was tough and difficult to cut, and not the least bit flaky. Still, the rich taste of the foie and the meaty filling made the dish a stand-out. Here’s my plate:

I especially loved the meaty filling between the layers of foie gras.

I especially loved the meaty filling between the layers of foie gras.

My main course, or plat principal, was the star of the meal. In a pastry crust sat pieces of the claw meat from an homard bleu — Brittany’s blue lobster — with the tail meat on top. Around it were seashore greens, mushrooms and a few not-very-successful gnocchi that incorporated seaweed. Save for the dense gnocchi, the dish was wonderful — and here it is:

This lobster dish was the star of the show.

This lobster dish was the star of the show.

For dessert, my wife Jan and I each ordered a peach dish that was supposed to be in the style of a tarte tatin. Both of us thought that the peaches lacked the caramel “punch” that’s typical of a tarte tatin, and actually did not have a lot of peach flavour. So the dessert was fine, but not exceptional. Here’s mine:

A good dessert, but not a great dessert.

A good dessert, but not a great dessert.

Now we come to our reaction to the service  we experienced not only at our recent Sunday lunch but at a dinner we had at Le Saint Martial with a group of friends earlier this year. At the dinner, there was one awkward period near the end of the meal where we were ignored for something like 20 minutes.

At our lunch, we never experienced a wait quite that long, but the delays between courses were both noticeable and sometimes uncomfortable. And this occurred despite the fact that we were the only people in the lower part of the restaurant, and only one or two tables were occupied in the upper level.

Le Saint Martial is a family affair, as it happens, with Jean-Marc Réal as the chef and his wife Valérie as hostess — and the one and only server.

Before writing this, I checked TripAdvisor, to see what others thought. Overwhelmingly, the results were positive — out of 103 reviews, 76 gave an Excellent rating, while 23 said their experience was Très bon, or very good. That’s a total of 99 positive reviews. There was just one Mediocre rating, and three ratings of Moyen, or average.

As it happened, the one Moyen review that obviously struck a nerve — because it received a long reply from Mme Réal — was called “Cuisine oui! Service non!” In her reply, Madame recognized that lack of staff was an issue, and said she regretted that the restaurant cannot afford another server.

In the restaurant’s defence, she wrote, tables are brought whole baskets of bread (instead of individual pieces), so customers can munch on bread while waiting for the next course. And guests can pour wine for themselves between courses, once she has opened the bottle and let them have a taste.

Sympathetic as I am to small operations and their tight budgets, it seems to me that adding a not-terribly-costly young man or woman to the team during lunch and dinner services would be a good investment.

He or she could learn the restaurant business while delivering water, bread, and plates of food to the table. And I’m pretty sure that more of the tables would be full of customers if the level of service came a bit closer to matching the standard of the food.


Posted in Food, French food, Life in southwest France, Restaurants in France, Restaurants in the Dordogne, Wine | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

France’s special flower

Yesterday (Sunday, November 1) was the holiday known as La Toussaint, or All Saints’ Day, and so chrysanthemums were everywhere.

Okay, not everywhere — but certainly evident in cemeteries throughout the Greater Daglan Area.

Why, you might ask? To explain, this is what I wrote in a Radio Free Daglan posting three years ago, on October 29, 2012:

This is the time of year when the French people pay their respects to the memories of family members and friends who have passed away. They visit cemeteries and lay flowers on the graves of their loved ones. And almost without exception, the flowers they use are chrysanthemums. As a result, chrysanthemum plants are now everywhere. (I was amused by a scrawled sign that I saw a week or so ago, taped to the window of the front door at the supermarket in nearby Cénac, which said “Clients! The chrysanthemums have arrived!” You could tell from the way the sign was scrawled that the clerk had been very, very excited about this development.)

Does this mean that the chrysanthemum is France’s national flower? No, that’s the iris. The role of the chrysanthemum in honouring the deceased apparently dates back to just after World War I, when the nation’s President decreed that flowers should be used to decorate war memorials. Since the chrysanthemum is one of the few flowers available in autumn — remember that Armistice Day takes place on November 11 —  it became the nation’s floral choice.

To give you an idea of how all this looks, here’s a view of Daglan’s cemetery late yesterday afternoon:

Pots and pots of the flowers decorate the tombs.

Pots and pots of the flowers decorate the tombs.

A final word on the subject: Don’t ever take a chrysanthemum plant as a gift if you’re invited to a French home for drinks or a meal. The flower has simply become too associated with death.

Posted in Flora and fauna, Holidays in France, Life in southwest France | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

The Flaming Tower of Beef

Just in time, before you completely forget about Radio Free Daglan since my posting of October 8, I am back from my surgical interlude (carpal tunnel release operation; right wrist; went very well; thank you, thank you very much).

And what better way to kick off the return of RFD than with a look at the Greater Daglan Area’s Flaming Tower of Beef?

Admittedly, that’s just my name for it. Actually, it’s listed on the menu at Le Tournepique, the Basque restaurant in Castelnaud, as Potence de Boeuf — or Gallows of Beef. You’ll see why in a moment.

But first, to refresh your memory, have a look at the restaurant, as seen from the parking lot of the plaza across the street. Le Tournepique lies at the end of the bridge that crosses the Dordogne River in Castelnaud, which is about 10 kilometres north of Daglan. Here it is:

Looking up and across the street, towards Le Tournepique.

Looking up and across the street, towards Le Tournepique.

My wife Jan and I were there on Friday of last week, with friends Richard and Rosemary and Gerhard and Elisabeth, and four of the six of us decided to order the Potence de Boeuf, which costs 20 euros per serving, and which can be ordered only for two or more.

All six of us began our lunch by sharing two orders of traditional Basque tapas, along with a kir each, and then it was time for the main event, which was ordered by Gerhard, Elisabeth, Jan and me.

So what is a Potence de Boeuf? It’s cubes of steak that have been grilled, and then hung on special contraption (which looks a bit like a gallows, hence the name) that keeps the meat hot and even cooks it further. At the table, it’s covered in a flaming liqueur, and served with four different sauces and a good helping of delicious, thick-cut frites. Here’s the serving for the four of us, shown with our server pouring on the flaming liqueur:

The flaming liqueur is poured over the "gallows" of steak.

The flaming liqueur is poured over the “gallows” of steak.

At the end of our table, you can see the moules that Rosemary ordered — always a good choice at Le Tournepique — as well as the edge of Richard’s plate, which included slices of pork and a green salad. Meanwhile, our beef shimmers in heat, and it’s brought on to our table along with bowls of frites:

3 - To tableAnd now it all comes to the table — steak and frites and all.

Finally, here’s a close-up, showing all the cubes of steak ready to be plucked off and enjoyed:

Even for four people, that's a lot of steak.

Even for four people, that’s a lot of steak.

And did we enjoy it? We did! It was quite a spectacle, to begin with. And then the meat itself was tender (unlike most French beef, which is known for being chewy) and very tasty. The sauces were good, and the frites were great.

We shall return.

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

Seasonal update, surgical interlude

Having nearly exhausted myself (blog-wise) by writing about our recent trip to Spain — including a four-part series on the world’s No. 1 restaurant — I will now calm down, update you on how things are going in the Greater Daglan Area, and bow out of blogging for a while. Here we go:

The surgical interlude: Tomorrow (Friday) morning  I’m due for carpal tunnel surgery on my right wrist. During the recovery period, I won’t feel much like typing with my left hand only, so Radio Free Daglan will have to be “off the air,” so to speak, for a while. However — I shall return!

Seasonal overview: The tourist season in the GDA begins in May, starts to hit its stride in June, and goes insane in July and August. Tourists often have to stand on each others’ shoulders to make their way through our village; a few are lost for weeks at a time. Then, on September 1st, we slip down from Overdrive to second gear, and on October 1st, we drop into first gear. It’s in first gear that we lumber along until the following spring (maybe April), when places like restaurants start to open up again.

Weather report: If you’re planning a trip here soon, things are looking pretty good. The trees are just starting to change colour, the nights are cool but not really cold, and the days are pleasant.

Shutdowns: In September and October, places begin to close. So, as of now, Le Thé Vert (Daglan’s tea room/café) is closed until next spring. So is the pizza place L’Eole in St. Cybranet. So is La Plage, the café in Castelnaud (10 kilometres north) that my wife Jan and I like to visit on summer afternoons, for a casual lunch or a late-afternoon coffee.

Shutting and re-opening in a new guise: October 23rd is the scheduled last day for the Fabrice le Chef shop — which sells meats, cheeses, other local products, and Chef’s own prepared foods. However, the shop is due to re-open in the spring in a new guise: as a restaurant. Radio Free Daglan will keep you posted.

Camping: Camp grounds are big attractions in the GDA, especially (it seems) with  Dutch and French tourists, who can drive into the area with all their gear in their cars and vans. In early September, the packed camp grounds are nearly empty; by early October, you can almost hear the sagebrush blowing through them.

Cycling: The Greater Daglan Area is a brilliant place for cycling, and during the key summer months the GDA is pretty much packed full of cyclists. In fact it was a bicycle trip to the GDA in 1998 that first brought my wife Jan and me here. But on Tuesday, just a couple of days ago, I counted a grand total of four (4) British cyclists having coffees at the shop of Fabrice le Chef. In other words, the cycling crowds have left.

A capital project: I’m pretty sure that the largest capital project in Daglan this year has been a dramatic extension of (wait for it…) our cemetery. Total cost: Nearly 70,000 euros. Here’s a photo of the driveway and entrance to the new section of the cemetery:

The driveway leading up to the new section.

The driveway leading up to the new section.

A very nice limestone wall was built around the front of the area, setting it off nicely from the rest of the burial grounds. Here it is:

Nothing like a well-constructed stone wall.

Nothing like a well-constructed stone wall.

Finally, here’s a view over the stone wall, showing the area that’s been set out for new arrivals, so to speak:

The newly finished area.

The newly finished area.

A cheery, seasonal note: Just to leave you with a cheerful image, here’s the cover of a brochure (for a children’s store in nearby Gourdon) that we received earlier this week. Yes, I know — it’s not even mid-October, but it’s high time we should start thinking about Noel 2015! (Please scroll down a bit, because the image is floating in a lot of white space.)

Yes, it's for that all-important Christmas shopping season.

Yes, it’s for that all-important Christmas shopping season.

So with that: Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!


Posted in Bicycling in the Dordogne, Cafés in France, Camping in the Dordogne, Holidays in France, Life in southwest France, Restaurants in the Dordogne, Restaurants in the Lot, Tourist attractions, Travels in and out of France, Weather in the Dordogne | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

The World’s Best Restaurant — the finale

This posting concludes a mini-series on our recent trip from our French village of Daglan to the northeast of Spain. Our vacation centred on Barcelona and the Costa Brava area, with the highlight being our September 23rd lunch at Girona’s El Celler de Can Roca, reputedly 2015’s No. 1 restaurant in the world.

So far, in three postings,  I’ve provided some overview comments on El Celler de Can Roca, plus descriptions and photographs of the starters and the “main” courses we enjoyed at our September 23rd lunch. Today I’ll conclude the series on a sweet note — a look at our desserts.

First up was a light dish called “Suspiro limeno,” shown below. Although it looked something like a slice of white cheese,  our menu explained that it was constructed of “Milk, lime, coriander, milk caramel, pisco.” Quite refreshing.

Our first break from the fish and meat dishes.

Our first break from the fish and meat dishes.

Then came this beautiful blue bowl, filled with “Turkish perfume” — meaning that it offered the scents and tastes of “Rose, peach, saffron, cumin, cinnamon and pistachio.” It was also delicious (and light), but the best was yet to come.

A beautiful mix of fllavours in a beautiful bowl.

A beautiful mix of flavours in a beautiful bowl.

And here’s your first view of what we thought was perhaps the most perfect — or at least perfectly amazing — dish of the meal. Our menu describes it simply as “Orange colourology,” and provides no clue as to the ingredients. As you’ll see, it looks like a very large pearl.

At first blush, it's a perfect sphere. What's inside?

At first blush, it’s a perfect sphere. What’s inside?

As you get closer, however, you can see through the outer shell. And there you find a variety of flower petals , arranged inside. Have a look:

A close-up shows that there's lots going on inside the sphere.

A close-up shows that there’s lots going on inside the sphere.

Finally, we each broke open our desserts to find not only flower petals but a delicious cream, plus little tasty spheres. It’s hard to describe the mix of textures and flavours, but the overall effect was truly outstanding.

Broken open, the delicious goodies are revealed.

Broken open, the delicious goodies are revealed.

Of course, once the dessert plates were cleared away and our coffees ordered, we were served the obligatory collection of mignardises — a rich variety of fruits and candies and cookies. Here’s one of the trays on our table:

The final act -- a tray of goodies to enjoy with the coffees.

The final act — a tray of goodies to enjoy with the coffees.

And then it was all over, and time to get back on the mini-bus we had hired to take the 10 of us back to the house we were renting, overlooking the Mediterranean. As the centrepiece of our vacation in Spain, lunch at El Celler de Can Roca had more than met our expectations.

Finally, three cheers for the three Roca brothers and the roles they play– Joan Roca as head chef, Jordi as pastry chef and Josep as sommelier. Thanks for the memories.

Posted in Food, Travels in and out of France | Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Comments