Kiwi magic in a lovely French village

We had been hoping that this past Sunday would be another beautiful summer’s day, because we knew that the restaurant we would be trying for the first time has lots of outdoor seating. Instead, we woke up to a cool and rainy morning, and proceeded to have a fairly miserable hour-long drive on narrow, twisting roads.

So when we showed up at Le Petit Léon, in the lovely village of  Saint-Léon-sur-Vézère, we were seated inside, away from the wet terrace, and joined friends Helen and Roy at our table for lunch.

As you might suspect, when we had finished our lengthy and truly enjoyable lunch, the weather had changed completely, with brilliant sunshine, as you’ll see in this photograph that I took as we left the restaurant for the long ride home:

The restaurant’s gated entrance.

We were visiting Le Petit Léon because a friend of my wife Jan had heard a glowing recommendation from a tourist, who had stumbled on the restaurant while driving around the Greater Daglan Area.

Things got even more interesting when I visited Le Petit Léon’s website, where the tagline for the restaurant is “Fine Dining with Rustic French Flair.”

In fact, it turns out to be a summer restaurant only, and the chef is a young New Zealander named Nick Honeyman, who trained at a number of restaurants in Australia and France, including the acclaimed L’Arpège in Paris (three Michelin stars).

We chatted with him after our lunch, and learned that he brings his entire brigade from New Zealand to Saint-Léon-sur-Vézère. So there really is Kiwi magic in the kitchen, although the serving staff all seemed to be French.  I’ll write a bit more about him later — but now to the food.

All four of us had the 30-euro, three-course lunch, which offered four choices for each course.

My entrée was a wonderful, rich soup — described on the menu as Potato & Truffel Velouté | courgettes | ricotta | salted melon | garlic. Okay, their spelling isn’t always perfect; that should be truffle. In any case, it was truly exceptional, with a heady aroma of truffle. Here’s my serving:

My incredibly rich entrée.

My plat principal was equally wonderful. The menu describes the dish as Veal Rump | beef cheek | cep sauce | smoked purée | brown onion. More commonly, in France that sauce made with cep would be cèpe, but what the heck. The pieces of veal were perfectly cooked, tender and succulent. The beef cheek was so soft that it was literally in shreds; in the photo below, the beef is in the little bowl on the left, under the smoked purée:

Beef or veal? It was a tie for deliciousness.

My dessert was a wonderful concoction, described on the restaurant menu as Chocolat | pear & parmesan | fig | spéculoos (so, some of the spellings are French, others English). In case you were wondering, the spéculoos refers to crumbs of a traditional Belgian cookie, cinnamon-flavoured, and surprisingly popular in France. Here’s my dessert:

Absolutely nothing wrong with this!

I’ll close this posting with a few additional bits of information on the locale, the chef, and the restaurant,

The locale. The village name indicates that it’s located on the Vézère River, a long and important tributary of the Dordogne River. The Vézère Valley is made up of limestone cliffs, which are riddled with caves. These provided homes for some of the earliest pre-historic settlers in Europe, and include such famous sites as the Lascaux caves. The whole area was named by UNESCO as a World Heritage site, and has been called The Valley of Mankind.

The chef.  When the four of us left the restaurant, Nick Honeyman was relaxing on the terrace with his infant daughter, and we asked him about his plans. It turns out that he loves France, and regards his time at Le Petit Léon as a virtual vacation. Despite running such a high-quality restaurant, he said his time in rural France is stress-free compared with his life back in New Zealand. There, he owns Paris Butter, a fine-dining restaurant in Auckland. Its website offers this tagline: “French Inspired. New Zealand Grown.” I hadn’t thought that New Zealand could be stressful, because I think of it as a green and pleasant land. But Auckland is a major city (population of more than 1.6 million) located near the north end of the North Island. So I guess it’s busy, busy for the chef and his crew.

The restaurant. We’d love to go back, but our visit might have to wait until next summer. We have a lot of social events ahead of us in August, so I figured we could go with our friend Joanne when she visits Daglan in September. But no dice — the restaurant opened June 20th, and is in business only until September 1. Boo hoo!

Posted in Food, French food, Life in southwest France, Restaurants in France, Restaurants in the Dordogne | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Fasten seat belts, insert ear plugs!

For a small village, Daglan certainly seems to punch above its weight — at least when it comes to summer festivals. So the Greater Daglan Area is now waiting anxiously for our four-day Fête de la Saint- Louis, which starts on Friday.

(I know it’s weird, being la Saint Louis, when Saint Louis was, after all, male. You’d think it would be Fête du Saint-Louis. But no. It seems that the la refers, somehow, back to Fête, which is a feminine word. Go figure.)

In any case, a sure sign that the festival is imminent is the installation of yellow banners on poles around the village, which took place last week. Each banner signals the festival for a particular year, and indicates the theme of that year’s grand parade on Sunday afternoon. Here’s a typical view:

Yellow banners hang throughout our streets.

Now, what about the event itself? Actually, we are not huge fans. To be honest,  I refer to the fête as the Festival of Heat and Noise, first because it occurs during the hottest month of the year, and second because the bumper-car ride that takes up half of the village’s main square plays loud music until very late in the evening. And it happens to be quite near our home.

During the days, the festival consists primarily of a wide variety of stalls located throughout Daglan, selling souvenirs, candies, cotton candy, games for children, and so on. But in the evenings, there are special events like meals, concerts, dancing, and fireworks.

Despite my lack of enthusiasm, I believe the Sunday parade is worth seeing, if you can. Here’s some of what I wrote in August 2016, in which I highlighted the parade:

It’s not as exciting as running with the bulls in Pamplona, Spain. It doesn’t have the high seriousness of a religious procession (or a funeral march) in Italy. And it certainly doesn’t have the polished professionalism of a North American event like the Rose Bowl parade in California.

But the Sunday parade in Daglan is unique, wacky, involving and fun — certainly the highlight of our annual four-day Fête de la Saint-Louis.  Much of the community is involved behind the scenes, and the parade attracts not only the locals but tourists from all over. A Belgian couple we met this past weekend said they had never seen anything like it, anywhere in Europe.

I’ve been reliably informed that the theme for this Sunday’s parade is great inventions — presumably things like the telephone, the automobile, the MRI machine, and this blog. We shall see what the locals come up with.

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Another way to learn patience

There are several proven ways to learn how to be patient, and I’ve tried a few. For example: Fly-fishing for salmon in a Scottish river (salmon caught? zero). Putting up wallpaper (aaargghh). Taking part in a 24-hour police stake-out (okay, I’ve never actually done that).

But I’m learning another method: Growing orchids. Now when I say “growing” orchids, I am talking about “growing” on a very modest scale. Namely, on a window sill in our main bathroom in the house in Daglan.

I know there are orchid lovers who have entire glassed-in greenhouses devoted to the plants. These are the kind of people who know not only the Latin names of each variety, but the common English names: Little Brown Betty, Mandarin Butterfly, Georgia Peach Jam. (Yes, I made those up.)

If you’re like us, from time to time you buy a flowering orchid plant on a whim, or someone gives you one as a gift. It’s beautiful; you put it in a window sill; and eventually the flowers die and fall off. Then the whole thing looks barren, with just a twig or two in the air, and then you throw the plant away. Well, I decided a while ago, those days are over.

For my new regime, I went online and found a YouTube video on caring for orchids, and we’ve been following the advice ever since. And now we have two orchid plants in our bathroom that happen to be flowering (sort of) at the same time. And here they are:

They are lovely, aren’t they?

The one with the darker flower, on the right, had many such flowers, but they have been slowly withering and falling off. The plant on the left has (finally) started blooming again.

The entire process really does take time. What I’ve learned is that when a branch has lost all its flowers, you cut it off. Eventually — and this could take weeks — a new branch starts to emerge from the base of the plant. Eventually — and again, this could take weeks — buds will appear and then blossom. Magic!

What else have I learned? Water the orchids just once a week, and even then don’t water too much. Fertilize lightly along the way (yes, you can buy specific orchid fertilizer in a nursery). And don’t expose the plants to too much sunlight.

I think that’s it for the basics. But if any real orchid experts have anything to add, please use the Comments feature at the bottom of this posting. Thank you, thank you very much. (Elvis accent.)


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Where to work out (and I do mean out)

What I appreciate most about Daglan’s Mayor and his council members is that they seem to focus on what residents and holiday makers in our area actually need or want.

To the best of my knowledge, they spend no time discussing matters outside their control. So, there are no debates about a possible trade deal with China. No discussion of France’s foreign policy towards Zambia. No time spent chewing over whether France should impose new tariffs on goods from Chile, or make the Périgord goose the national bird.

Nope. Instead, they devote some thought and effort — and taxpayers’ money — to programs that will improve the environment around here (more flowers, more plants, ongoing street-cleaning), and increase tourism (various local festivals, the winter and summer truffle markets), and even improve health and fitness.

(And by the way, doesn’t this seem like it would be a sensible approach for a large number of so-called national “leaders” around the world? Seems to me much better than building walls, fighting against their own citizens of different religions, and so on.)

In any case, a great example of providing facilities to improve Daglan life is the new installation of exercise equipment next to our village tennis court, which is behind the Salle des Fêtes, or community hall.

Here’s a look at it, being put to good use by my wife Jan (on the right) and her regular exercise pal, Rosemary:

Work it … work it … work it!

In total, there are 10 pieces of the UrbaGym equipment, rugged enough for outdoor conditions, and seemingly well designed and constructed. Here’s another view, looking away from the hall and towards the Céou River:

Equipment like this isn’t cheap

I checked with the manufacturer’s website, and the individual pieces range in price from 390 euros to 490 euros. So this seems like a reasonable price for such high quality.

The whole area is enclosed, with what seems like a sturdy fence, and is reasonably well marked. The area is carpeted in AstroTurf, so it should be quite durable. Here’s the main sign:

The welcoming sign

Each piece of equipment carries a metal sign that shows the key purpose of the piece, which muscle groups it targets, and how to use it properly. And all of this is in four languages — Spanish, English, Portuguese, and of course French. Here’s an example:

Four languages, but tiny type

I’ve already tried a few pieces of the equipment, and found them quite easy to use and well designed. And Jan plans to use the equipment whenever her exercise partner isn’t available, like this morning.

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Food galore (and a bit of fun)

Our guilty pleasure during today’s Salon de la Gastronomie had nothing to do with the food and goodies on offer. It was all about seeing drivers getting stuck in our little street, and then watching them try to solve their dilemma. Here’s what happens:

A car full of tourists is driving through Daglan. The driver sees a seething mass of pedestrians up ahead, wandering along the cobbled streets, looking at food stalls. It’s our village’s special, annual market extravaganza. The driver wants to avoid threading through the shoppers. What to do?

Suddenly, just past the Mayor’s office (the Mairie), the driver comes across a narrow street on his right, and turns down it, thinking that he will cleverly avoid the mess of traffic by driving around the village centre. All is well until he drives just past our house, turns left, and sees this up the slight rise in the road:

Oops — the road is a bit blocked.

Yes, the road is totally blocked by the very market that he is trying to avoid. That’s because our street is a crescent, which descends from Daglan’s main street and then loops around, back up into the village’s main square.

In my mind, I’ve often written the dialogue that takes place in the car. We’ll assume the driver is Husband, and the front-seat passenger is Wife. Husband: “Oh look, Grace, a street that can get us out of this mess!” Wife: “Are you sure, Harold? Looks pretty narrow to me.” Husband: “Just relax, Grace. I’m in charge.” Two minutes later: Wife: “Harold, we’re stuck! You’re a moron!” And so on.

Today’s prize for being stuck was won by a car full of family and friends (as my wife Jan and I watched from our kitchen window), driving a full-size car that was pulling a large trailer loaded with bikes and lots of other stuff. The car was several metres up the street, towards the blockage, when people began piling out. Turning around (with the trailer) in the narrow street (lined with solid stone houses) would be pretty impossible. What do do?

Well, everyone got out, and managed (with a lot of effort) to un-hitch the trailer, and pull it into a corner, after which the driver managed to turn around the car. Then Jan and I watched as six people stood around, trying to lift the heavy (loaded) trailer and hitch it back to the car. Eventually, it managed to drive away.

So much for our guilty pleasure. As for the Salon de la Gastronomie, I’d say it was a success, as usual. Here’s a look at the crowd around noon today:

Quite a good turn-out.

There was a nice selection of goodies on offer, like this stall offering olives and various spreads:

Olives and a wide assortment of nibblies.

And of course there were several stalls offering one of the specialities of the Greater Daglan Area, namely sausages:

A host of sausages.

And then, in the centre of the square, was this ring of timbers filled with soil and plants, where the owner of a truffle-sniffing dog would show the crowd how he uses the pooch to find truffles:

Ready for the truffle-sniffing dog and its master.

Having seen the spectacle in previous years (and described it in painstaking detail in Radio Free Daglan), we didn’t stick around for the show. Instead, we went back to our house for lunch.

Meanwhile, the traffic problems in our little street continued. At one point, Jan called up to me (at my computer), “We could sell tickets to this!” And maybe next year, we will.

Posted in Food, French food, Life in southwest France, Markets in France, Travels in and out of France | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Our annual Sunday super-market

Sundays are when Daglan’s open-air markets take place, right in the heart of the village. The markets are pretty meagre in winter, with just a couple of stalls, but they are downright bustling in summer — with vendors offering everything from fruit and vegetables to roast chickens and wine to clothing and more.

And then, this coming Sunday (July 28), the weekly market gets super-sized into a super-market, called the Promenade en Gastronomie (also known as the Salon de la Gastronomie, for some reason). Here’s one of the banners that have been hanging around the village:

If you’re in the area, and you enjoy shopping for a wide variety of goods, this is the place to be. And according to the weather forecasters, our oppressive heat wave will have ended by then. (Actually, the cooling trend started right after noon today — that is, Friday — with a truly impressive thunderstorm.)

Here’s a somewhat more detailed look at what will be on offer:

What you can expect.

It’s not really the most exciting event you’ll ever attend, although your heart rate may soar by one or two BPM during the demonstration of a truffle-hunting dog. And if that doesn’t do it for you, there’s always the 11:45 a.m. demonstration of how to carve up ducks.

Posted in Food, French food, Life in southwest France, Markets in France, Tourist attractions | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Dish (and fish) of the day

The rascasse is certainly not very well known, I’ve learned, at least among English-speaking friends and particularly among those who don’t live in France. But it’s one of my favourite fish. (To eat, that is; not as a pet.)

Through the services of the vast research bureau employed by Radio Free Daglan (okay, it’s Google), I’ve learned that the rascasse is often known in English as the scorpion fish — apparently because of the stinging barbs on its back. Evidently it should not be handled with bare hands, but only by fishermen and fish cleaners wearing rubber gloves.

However, once the rascasse has been dispatched, and its scales and bones and so on are removed, it’s a delicious firm-fleshed fish, which is considered an essential part of the fabulous soup from the south of France, bouillabaisse.

Now be prepared for a bit of a shock, because I am about to show you an unadulterated photo of the fish (cleverly removed from someplace on the Internet that I can’t remember), and you’ll see that it’s not the most attractive of creatures:

Image result for what is the rascasse fish?

Remember that I warned you: it’s pretty bizarre-looking, sort of like a red mullet trying out for a role in a horror movie.

In any case, it’s not often found in the fish department of the supermarket where we shop, but when we’re lucky, my wife Jan can buy rascasse fillets from the travelling fish van that visits the Daglan area each Wednesday. Then she simply pan fries the fillets, as the centrepiece of a lovely lunch.

I wrote about rascasse as long ago as April 25, 2013, including this:

 I had always thought that rascasse was “a bony rockfish,” as one source put it, because I knew that red rascasse was a traditional ingredient in bouillabaisse. But the rascasse fillets we buy are bone-free, reasonably large (one per person is fine), and absolutely delicious. Typically, Jan just coats them lightly in gluten-free cracker crumbs and then sautés them in butter.

And now  a regular source of rascasse can be found in one of our favourite go-to restaurants, Sawadee, in nearby Cénac.

I believe this happy development occurred because a curry de rascasse was one of the dishes served as part of the season-ending special menu late last year. (I wrote about the whole meal in a posting of November 25, 2018.) And now the dish has been added to Sawadee’s regular menu.

At the Thai restaurant, fillets of rascasse are served with a wide variety of fresh vegetables in a mild coconut-milk-laced curry, and it’s quite a wonderful dish. Here’s a sample:

A particularly delicious curry.

Each time I’ve had the dish at Sawadee, it’s served a little bit differently (in the photo above, those are thin slices of raw cabbage at either end of the plate). But always, it’s excellent. So if you get the chance to try it, don’t pass on rascasse.


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