Some after-the-holidays notes

Well, I certainly hope that you had a better time over the year-end holidays than Jan and I did. What happened is that we were laid low by illness just before Christmas, and have only recovered in the days following the start of 2023.

Jan had it worse — flu-like symptoms, loss of energy, loss of appetite. For three days, she ate virtually nothing; finally she filled a prescription for antibiotics and started to get relief; today she is pretty much back to normal. As for me, my problems started with a seriously sore throat, and developed into a persistent cough and a chest cold.

As for the beautiful lobster lunch we were to have on Christmas Day? Nope. We finally had lobster with mayonnaise and fries a few days later, and the day after that, Jan finished using up the lobster in a rich cheese sauce over penne.

Ah well. We’re fine now, and I realize that a lot of folks had things much worse than we did. Still, I thought I’d share that news, which in part explains why there has been no posting on Radio Free Daglan for a while.

Weather? It would be nice to see the sun. Compared with many parts of the world, winters in Daglan are pretty easy — no big snow storms, and in fact no little snow storms. We did have one period of exceptional cold, but that lasted just a few days. Now we are in a period of relatively cool, but still tolerable, temperatures. But seeing grey skies all the time does get a bit tiresome.

Food, glorious food. A few days before Christmas, we drove south for an hour or so and enjoyed lunch with friends Sarah and Karl, who live just outside Cahors. The lunch was in the ground-floor restaurant of a hotel in Cahors itself, and I thought it was worth sharing some highlights.

The hotel is called La Chartreuse, and actually it’s not the most attractive building. However, it’s perched right on the Lot River, and so the view from our table in the restaurant was a pleasant one. Here’s a look:

That’s the Lot River, just a few feet from our table.

Several things struck me about the meals we were served. First of all, the food was uniformly good. Second, the presentation showed that the kitchen understands the value of good-looking dishes. Third, the quantities were certainly generous. And finally, the price was a real bargain. I’ll show off just a few eye-catching dishes of our three-course lunches, starting with Jan’s potimarron soup:

Now this is how to make a bowl of soup look appealing.

Usually, when I provide a photograph of soup — no matter how delicious the soup may be — it simply looks boring. After all, soup is basically a liquid in a bowl of some sort. But look at what Jan received — a crispy slice of bacon on one edge, decorations around the edge of the bowl, and a spoonful of crème fraîche in the centre.

For my entrée. I chose the cocotte egg with black truffle, and received this plate — the soft-boiled egg was flavoured with generous slices of black truffle, and the plate was covered in a variety of breads, all of which were delicious. Here’s my plate:

A bread-dunker’s paradise.

For dessert, I ordered the omelette Quercynoise, which could best be described as a local version of a baked Alaska.

(Quercynoise refers to the region of Quercy, which, as the Encyclopaedia Britannica explains, is an “… historic and cultural region encompassing most of the southwestern French départements of Lot and Tarn-et-Garonne and coextensive with the former district of Quercy. The district was organized in Gallo-Roman times as a civitas of the Cadurci, a Celtic people whose name is reflected in that of Quercy.” Feel better?)

Now, since the region is famous for walnuts (among other delicacies, including truffles), my omelette came with a nice shot glass of walnut liqueur. Here it is:

The walnut liqueur was nice added touch.

Now, as to price: The four of us consumed a bottle of wine plus three kir (white wine with cassis), and of course the three-course meal for all four of us, followed by coffees for three of us. We split the bill, and each couple paid a grand total of 55 euros. Now that, to me, is a bargain for this kind of quality.

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A few pre-Christmas notes

After several years of living here, Jan and I seem to have quietly adopted the French approach to Christmas — which is to say, celebrate it, but don’t overdo it.

In the main village square, there is a large and rather nice Christmas tree (previously featured in Radio Free Daglan), but you won’t find any of the over-the-top house decorations that have become the norm in Canada. You know: Inflated Santas, sleds and plastic reindeer on front lawns, coloured lights all over the place.

Our own practice now is to put up a few modest Christmas decorations, while most of the home’s Christmas flavour comes from the holiday cards which we receive and hang up around our living room. This year, however, Jan did find a particularly attractive wreath to hang on the wall just outside our front door. And here it is:

The wreath at our front door.

Jan bought this at the flower shop in neighbouring Cénac where we regularly buy cut flowers, arrangements, and potted decorative plants.The shop is handy, the owner is a pleasant and helpful woman, and it’s close.

Call me hide-bound: But I personally like the idea of Christmas cards that are printed on actual paper. I know that electronic messages can be attractive and clever, but they arrive, are admired for 10 seconds, and then disappear.

On the other hand, paper cards arrive in the mail, when very few other items do these days. And they last. And they can be used to decorate the house, by stringing them up. So each year I write out 50 or 60 addresses on envelopes, and Jan and I write something inside each card, and off they go to the Post Office. And we look forward to receiving the cards from family members and friends.

As a very small side note, my favourite address to write each Christmas is for a friend in Toronto who lives on — wait for it — Yule Avenue! Is that Christmassy, or what?

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Lunching at the foot of a château

If you’ve ever wondered what a traditional lunch in Southwest France would include, look no further. We enjoyed just such a lunch on Sunday, in a restaurant that lies at the base of the massive Château Biron, a few kilometres south of the historic bastide village of Monpazier.

Our lunch was actually a social outing, organized by the Daglan Friendship Club — le Club de l’Amitié Daglanaise. Most of the attendees travelled by bus, while Jan and I drove, and met up with two friends at the restaurant, L’Auberge de Biron. The four of us killed time for more than 30 minutes as we waited for the travel-by-bus group to arrive, but eventually everyone showed up.

Before I get to the lunch itself, here’s a look at Château Biron, as seen from the road leading up to the castle and its surrounding village. It’s an impressive place, which Jan and I have toured in years gone by. It’s worth a visit if you’re touring the area, as you might imagine from this photo:

Château Biron as seen at a distance, as we approached.

Our group had exclusive run of the restaurant, so service was quick and efficient, as well as friendly. Once we were settled at the long table provided for us, we began by toasting each other with sangria maison. Here’s a look down the table:

Toasting with sangria to begin the meal.

The next course was a rich butternut squash soup, flavoured with finely ground chestnuts (I wrote walnuts, in the original version of this posting), and quite delicious. Here’s my bowl:

The rich soup, flavoured with ground chestnuts.

As the entrée, we were served slices of terrine au pâté d’oie fumée, which is a paté made of smoked goose. Sometimes terrines like this are served with some sort of chutney, but our plate included a bit of green salad. The coarse paté could be spread onto slices of bread, or eaten in chunks. Here’s my plate:

Goose terrine and a small bit of salad.

For the plat principal, the menu said we would be served Croustillant de canard (crunchy duck), along with root vegetables and mashed potatoes. As you can see, the crunchiness was provided by phyllo pastry; what you can’t see is that the duck inside the pastry was a good-sized portion of shredded confit. The whole thing was quite good, although by this point, I was starting to feel a bit stretched, and didn’t finish all the duck. Anyway, here’s my serving:

Crispy duck was the main event, and the pastry bundle held shredded confit of duck.

In a traditional French meal, a cheese course is nearly imperative, and always served before dessert. (The English-speaking members of our club once prepared a British-themed lunch for our club, and the French members loved virtually all of the meal — but simply could not comprehend why we had offered cheese at the very end of the meal, after dessert.) At our lunch on Sunday, a few slices of a peppery cheese were served with another small salad. Here’s my plate:

Cheese always — and I mean always — precedes the dessert.

Finally, a dessert called Moelleux pommes et noix crème anglaise finished off our meal. As you can see, it was a moist cake filled with pieces of apple, which happens to be a favourite of mine. Here it is:

Moist and delicious apple cake to close out the meal, with coffees.

So this was certainly not the “fine dining” experience I’ve written about before, but the lunch was indeed a pleasure. Congratulations to the staff at L’Auberge de Biron. And in case you were wondering, the menu price was listed as 27 euros, but club members had to pay just 20 euros. Pretty good deal.

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Our tree gets an 8 out of 10

For some years now, it’s a tradition for Radio Free Daglan to show off the village Christmas tree. I believe this tradition dates back to 2013, for a special reason. As I wrote in a later posting, “…the scrawny tree in 2013 must have set some sort of worldwide all-time municipal record for being just plain awful.” You can find it for yourself in our archives.

Since that miserable example of decorating the village square, we’ve seen dramatic improvements. And this year’s tree seems once more to merit some positive reviews. Here it is:

Presenting Daglan’s 2022 Christmas tree.

For my part, I’ve given it a score of 8 out of a possible 10. Definitely positive points for being well-shaped and symmetrical; the deduction is simply for not being larger and fuller. What say you?

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Sourcing our sushi

Sushi isn’t my absolute favourite food, but Jan and I do enjoy it. A lot. The question is: where can you find good sushi relatively near to Daglan?

The key to sushi success, of course, is freshness. Not only the fish and other seafood must be fresh, but the rice must be moist and fresh as well. In the past, we did try sushi as sold in supermarkets (like the Carrefour in Gourdon), but clearly it had been packed somewhere offsite, and might have sat in the store’s refrigerated shelves for days. Clearly not worth buying.

But check this out: It’s my plate for lunch as arranged by Jan yesterday, and I am glad to report it was fresh and tasty:

A nice assortment for lunch.

So, I can hear you asking, what is our source? Well, it happens that the large Leclerc supermarket in Sarlat (some 25 minutes away) has a special stand that serves up a large assortment of sushi dishes, and related Japanese delights. And the best news is that the sushi is made fresh on the spot. Here’s the stand, located in the supermarket near the large seafood counter and several counters of fresh veggies:

The sign says “Asian Street Food,” and that’s what is on offer.

There really is quite a range of items on offer, at both ends of the stand. Here’s a look at the assortment at one end:

The food items all lined up at one end of the stand.

And here’s the offerings at the other end of the stand; you can see one of the staff members putting some newly made dishes on the shelves:

Row upon row of Asian delicacies, including trays of sushi.

For us, an assortment of sushi makes for a nice, light lunch. The key is for us to do our shopping in the morning, so that when we arrive back at home, we can enjoy the fresh items right away. If we do our shopping at Leclerc in the afternoon, Jan will buy a smaller selection for a light dinner.

There’s another advantage of meals like this: much less clean-up. As the clean-up person in our kitchen, I appreciate being freed of having to wash out pots and pans and all that. By contrast, today’s lunch will be a clean-up nightmare. We’re having oven-baked shrimp risotto, cold lobster and grilled beef filets, tossed green salad, and a lemon-and-ricotta (gluten-free) cake. On the other hand, it should be delicious.

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A bit of a Halloween wash-out

Well, we gave Halloween a pretty good try. First, our friend Jens had given us a pumpkin that he grew in his garden, and on Sunday I carved it into a fairly decent jack-o-lantern. Jan put a small candle inside, and we set the jack-o-lantern at the top of our front steps so passing trick-or-treaters would know there were goodies inside. Here’s our carved pumpkin:

Next, we planned carefully for the goodies we wanted to hand out. Jan bought a good supply of candies that kids would really like — namely, variations on the theme of chocolate. They were also the kinds of candies that parents would like — because they were individually wrapped by the candy-maker, so parents would know they were safe. Here’s our bowl, ready to be served up:

So, what could possibly go wrong? Well, as it turned out, the weather yesterday evening was awful. The temperature had dropped a bit, but more seriously, it was raining. So Jan and I sat and sat and waited and waited.

Finally, two young girls showed up at our front door, dressed for protection from the rain so that we couldn’t see their Halloween costumes. Here they are (and I apologize in advance for the photo quality, but the lighting was terrible):

Then we went through another long period of waiting, until finally three trick-or-treaters showed up at our door. Here they are (the boy behind the front two is pretty well hidden):

After another long wait, when I was engrossed in a program in our TV room, three more trick-or-treaters showed up, and Jan reported that they were in good costumes. However, I was beyond the picture-taking stage at the point, so there is nothing more to show. The bottom line: a total eight trick-or-treaters for the evening.

By contrast — and I do mean contrast — our good friends Donna and Dave in Toronto posted a short video of their Halloween experience, in their lovely residential neighbourhood. There was Dave on the sidewalk in front of their home, handing out candies as fast as he could, as a long line of parents and kids marched past, not even bothering to go to the front door to yell “Trick or treat.” What a difference!

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Health care on the home front — literally

Like just about every country I’ve read about, France is suffering from a severely strained health care system. I’m sure you know what’s wrong: including too few doctors, too few nurses, too many long hours, and too much stress for too many health care workers. The list of problems goes on.

Near us, for instance, the excellent cardiologue (cardiologist) who runs a busy clinic near the hospital in Gourdon is retiring — and he reports that he can’t find anyone to take over the practice. Among the underlying problems: apparently, too few young people want to take the time to get the extensive education needed to become a specialist.

But there are some bright spots. On the plus side, Jan and I are quite impressed with a system of health care I hadn’t encountered before: a group of nurses who are available for home visits. The group of nurses, based in Daglan, comprise three women and one man, and all of them are efficient, knowledgeable, and always on time for appointments. You can call for their help (assuming you have a prescription from a doctor) to give vaccinations, take blood for tests, change bandages after an operation, and so on.

Earlier this week, Jan and I secured our supplies of vaccine against seasonal flu, which we picked up at no charge from a nearby pharmacy. On Wednesday evening, I phoned Daglan’s nurse service and left a message, requesting a visit on Friday morning for the actual vaccinations (we had stored the vials of vaccine in our refrigerator). On Thursday evening, the male nurse phoned us and said he would be at our house between 8:30 and 9 on Friday morning. (He actually arrived at 9:05. Still, pretty darn good.)

And here he is, at our table, administering the vaccine to Jan. Total cost for his visit (for the two of us) was just over 15 euros. It was all done quickly, with no muss or fuss. Impressive, eh?

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Two October events

Preparing for Halloween may strike you as an important chore in the month of October, but here in Daglan, well — not so much. The Halloween bug hasn’t bitten our villagers as it has in other parts of the world, including our former city of Toronto. There, decorating the fronts of houses for Halloween with ghosts, witches, coffins, spider webs and more has become virtually a competition.

Still, there are a few villagers here who have been making an effort to get ready by adding some scary bits of decoration to their homes. Here, for instance, is the front gate of a small group of apartments on Daglan’s main street:

Are you feeling sufficiently scared?

Here at our house, we’re not planning any decorations for the trick-or-treating evening, other than a carved pumpkin for the front steps. We already have the pumpkin (a gift from a neighbour, who grew it in his garden) and I’ll carve it on Sunday. (If you carve them too early, I’ve found, they have a tendency to get soft.) Jan has also bought three bags of good — and I mean good — candies: Miniature chocolate bars, rather than those awful hard candies. I figure if kids are going to brave the elements on Halloween, and spend some effort putting on costumes, they deserve the best.

Another event this month is actually a month-long campaign, intended to raise awareness of breast cancer. In France, it’s known as Octobre Rose, or Pink October.

To get behind the event, our Mayor oversees the addition of special pink decorations throughout the village. Some of them are pink ribbons; others are pink butterflies. Here’s a look at a couple:

A pink butterfly on a drainpipe at the Mayor’s office.

And here’s a ribbon, attached to the side of a house on the main street of our village:

Pink ribbons like this are mixed in with the pink butterflies for Octobre Rose.

I see this as another case of Daglan going that little bit further to support good causes (including, of course, the good cause of having a clean, attractive and well-managed village).

Unfortunately, when the Mayor called for volunteers to put up the decorations, a few weeks ago, there were only five people who showed up. Two of them were the Mayor and his wife, and one of them was a village councillor. The other two were both ex-patriates — my wife, Jan, and a friend of ours, who lives in Germany but has a holiday home here. A bit of a disappointment, I’d say, that no French residents stepped up. (And to answer the obvious question: Of course I would have been happy to volunteer along with Jan, but my mobility problems mean I can’t be scooting around and climbing up ladders.)

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A pretty perfect lunch in Paris: the meal

Our lunch last month at L’Oiseau Blanc at the top of The Peninsula, Paris, was not, as our friend Keith would say, “a cheap date.” Jan and I began with a Kir Royale (Champagne and cassis) at a hefty 32 euros a glass, and the tasting menus we enjoyed were an eye-watering 285 euros each.

However, we were in a mood to splurge. For one thing, this was a delayed celebration of Jan’s birthday, earlier in the month. For another, we were making up for the fact that a big trip to Canada in 2020 had to be cancelled because of the pandemic. After our two-night stay in Paris, we were setting out on our first international trip in four years.

In my last post, I described the restaurant, its views over Paris, the service, and a bit of history. In this post, I’m simply going to show off the food. The dishes are creations of Chef David Bizet — a veteran of top Parisian restaurants Le V, L’Orangerie and Le Taillevent — and they demonstrate pretty clearly why L’Oiseau Blanc was awarded two Michelin stars. As I recall the meal, his dishes were highly decorated, creative, surprisingly subtle, and often surprising.

I’ll skip over the large selection of amuse-bouches we were given with our Kir Royale, and go right to the first course: an array of blue lobster with, among other things, “salted praline tarama” and a shell gel. Here’s my plate:

Blue lobster gets some beautiful accompaniments.

Next came what the menu described as “leek in salt crust, iodized kiwi, braised squid and burned oyster.” (Phew!) Here it is:

An unusual dish: Leek in a salt crust.

Of the two “main” courses — fish and duck — my favourite was this serving of red mullet in a rich, concentrated sauce with endive and bottarga:

This serving of red mullet was my favourite dish.

Then came this serving of “lacquered colvert duck,” accompanied by (among other things) flamed corn:

My serving of lacquered duck.

Before the final course, we were served what the menu simply described as “pre-dessert.” I couldn’t really describe it as I spooned it up, other than to say that it was delightfully light and refreshing. Here it is:

A light and refreshing foamy dish, before dessert.

Finally came this amazing dessert — amazing because it doesn’t look like much, but tasted wonderful. The menu described it as “iodized raspberry” with meringue, condensed milk and samphire; what looks like a hard outer shell was actually incredibly delicate, light as a feather. Here’s my plate:

Delicious dessert, in an amazingly light shell.

Through the meal, we consumed two half bottles of wine — a white Sancerre and a Syrah from the banks of the Rhone — at 45 euros each.

After our espressos, we made our way out of The Peninsula, which is on Avenue Kléber in the 16th, and sank into a taxi for the ride over the Seine and back to our hotel in the 7th. I recall that not a lot of food was consumed that evening.

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A pretty perfect lunch in Paris: the place

On our trip to see family and friends in Canada last month, Jan and I flew out of Paris directly to Toronto. But we don’t just dash from the Austerlitz train station to the airport. Instead, we take advantage of the wonderful city of Paris to enjoy café life and fine-dining restaurants, by spending one or two nights in the 7th.

And this time, we had what Jan believes is the best lunch we’ve ever had, anywhere. I still rate our lunch at Belcanto in Lisbon a tiny bit higher, but I agree that our experience at L’Oiseau Blanc (the White Bird) was pretty perfect, and the best we’ve ever had in Paris.

I will show off the food in another post to follow this one, but now I’m simply going to describe the place. Along the way, we’ll explore the amazing history of the original L’Oiseau Blanc — and I don’t mean a restaurant.

The restaurant itself is on the top floor of The Peninsula, Paris, which may be the most opulent hotel I’ve ever been in. We’ve stayed at the Savoy in London, and either eaten or relaxed in the cocktail bars of the George V, the Bristol, and the Crillon in Paris, to name a few luxury hotels. But for me, The Peninsula tops them all.

First of all, The Peninsula is huge. Second, the extensive street-level network of aisles and seating areas includes a number of restaurants and high-end shops, and features a lot of gold and crystal and marble and mirrors. It’s truly impressive.

Now, what about the restaurant, and its somewhat unusual name? Well, it’s actually named for a relatively famous airplane from the 1920s — yes, L’Oiseau Blanc. Before I get into the details, here’s a look at a replica of the plane, which is suspended outside the hotel (directly in line with our restaurant table):

The plane was suspended just outside the window nearest us.

The original plane was a Levasseur PL.8 biplane, which was trying to win the Great Atlantic Air Derby, a contest created by Raymond Orteig (with a $25,000 prize). The derby’s challenge was to cross the Atlantic non-stop from Paris to New York (or vice-versa).

L’Oiseau Blanc left Paris on May 8, 1927, piloted by two World War I air heroes, Charles Nungesser and François Coli. People cheered wildly as the plane lumbered into the air, and headed west. It was last seen over Ireland — and neither the plane nor the pilots were ever found. Less than two weeks later, a young American you may have heard of — a guy named Charles Lindbergh — succeeded in crossing the Atlantic solo, from the U.S. to France.

(This story is one of countless tales told brilliantly by Bill Bryson in his amazing book One Summer, America 1927. I’ll add some more detail about the book — which I highly recommend — a bit later, but for now, back to the restaurant.)

As I’ve shown, one of the views from the restaurant is the replica of the airplane; the other windows provide a panorama of Paris, including the city’s symbol. Here’s a photo taken from our table, across the room and looking out:

That’s a pretty well known structure in the distance.

L’Oiseau Blanc has earned two Michelin stars, and they seem very well deserved. In addition to the excellence of the food, the restaurant offers just the right level of service — that is, efficient and professional and attentive, but not cloying and overdone (like the service at the three-starred Epicure in the Le Bristol Paris, which I described in “Royalty? Rock star? Or just rich?,” posted August 31, 2014).

And now for the Bryson book: As I wrote above, I highly recommend One Summer, America 1927 for several reasons. For one, it’s written in Bryson’s easy-going style, so reading it is never a struggle, despite the book being full of dates, names, and details.

More importantly, it does a brilliant job of bringing to life the world of the Roaring Twenties, not just in the U.S., but around much of the world. It covers a period that included — in addition to countless other interesting developments — how aviation developed around the world; the pioneering flights of Lindbergh and many others; the peak of Al Capone’s reign in Chicago; the carving of Mount Rushmore; the birth of talking pictures; the fascist policies then developing in Italy; the early days of Henry Ford’s company and many of his wackier ideas. If you can locate the book, buy it.

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