30 April — Collioure

We need to show the Baileys and the Franks the incredible beauty of Collioure! Unfortunately it’s market day. Our usual parking lot is full so we park at our “old” condo and take the wonderful walk down the ravine into town. What a great remembrance!

The market is crowded but has both great food items and nonfood items. We buy North African spice blends for tagines and we find an apron for the kitchen. Mark has left his wallet back at the car so he and Howard walk back up the ravine. I say we’ll meet them at our old haunt, “Cafe Sola.” The man that serves us is nothing like our “old guy” (although he was not old). He has a difficult time understanding how many Sangrias I want and how many tapas I want. That can’t be my French! It must be his problem! When I go to the bathroom I see our old guy at the bar! Although he would not recognize me without the dogs. I arrive at the bathroom and open the door and there is a man nonchalantly urinating without the door closed let alone locked. The group recently had a conversation about people who do not lock the bathroom doors. It must be a French thing.

Our sangrias are not as good as we remembered but we realize that now you have to order (and pay extra) for the secret ingredient: Banyuls, a fortified wine from this region of France. Since Howard and Mark arrive a little later they get to learn from our mistake and enjoy a REAL sangria at Cafe Sola.

We use our “formula” to walk the Collioure virgins through the village and of course they are dazzled when we walk them out to the harbor area. As we walk around the water’s edge along the Chateau, I remember a restaurant that we have been to many times, Can Pla. The menu looks great and we’re in!

I’m pretty sure the man who serves was here the last time. The restaurant had just changed hands the last night we came. He asks me if we’ve been here before and I say several times but it was a long time ago. He says he remembers me! It must be my fine French that left an impression on him so many years ago.

The first courses are fish soup, a tasty plate of shrimp or a Catalan salad with anchovies, hard boiled eggs, olives and tomatoes. I think we all order fresh fish for our main course. The plate is filled with a perfectly cooked whole fish, great pan-fried potatoes and very tasty vegetables. The dessert choices include a colonel, apple tart and creme caramel. We really enjoy our lunch and I hope Howard and I can come back before we leave.

We do a little walking and shopping and before we leave we visit the wine shop.

On our way home we stop at a 15th century fortress, Chateau Salses. I am surprised that we can walk right up to it from the freeway rest stop. We spend a good bit of time walking around and taking photographs. We could take a tour but it’s getting late and we need to get back home to relieve Marie.

While we are gone Marie gives the dog food delivery people a piece of her mind and they get the food to us right away.

29 April — Minervois

Marie arrives and we head off to Minervois, one of the “certified” prettiest villages of France–and it is! We visited this beautiful village for the first time with the Donovans.

Fortunately the car we leased, a 7 seat “Scenic” diesel, manual transmission Renault (it is a GREAT vehicle), is the perfect car for us and our guests. Some of our friends must deal with the dogs in their laps but so far it has been a great vehicle.

Marie has the dogs and the 6 of us head out to Minervois. We take the same tour that we did with the Donovans to see the ramparts. Some people take the hike down the hill to the river.

We go to the same restaurant that we visited with the Donovans except it is MUCH more peaceful since the dogs are with Marie. It is really windy so we ask for an inside table. Our server REALLY annoys me because she says she does not speak English. But I’m speaking French!! I think she got nervous when she heard us speaking English. Oh well! She somehow understands our orders which are pretty much the same as what we ordered with the Donovans–how can you miss with duck confit?? But the side dishes were MUCH better than before.

28 April — Servian

I have only had supermarket dog food available. I’m concerned there is very little nutrition in that food. Lucien is hungry all the time. Catherine says she orders good food from a great website–very reliable and free delivery. I am really cautious about the dog food I feed the dogs since dogs have been poisoned by food made in China. I see the website has food made in the USA. So I order it! I order $100 worth of food and treats. I track the shipment and the day it is to arrive, I alert Marie. But there is no delivery. The delivery Internet site says a delivery was attempted but there is no such address. I ask Catherine to call the delivery people but she is in the UK and the phone number is not accessible from the UK. Marie arrives a couple of days later. I tell her about the problem and SHE IS ON IT! The number that you can call charges your call by the minute–can you imagine that???? But Marie gives those people hell and they deliver that package the next day. What a gal!

The Grunows (BooHoo) leave today. We wish them a Bon Voyage and hope their last day in Barcelona is perfect.

Nancy and Mark Bailey arrive today. I’ve known Nancy from high school in Ft. Worth, Texas. We met up surprisingly in Orange County probably 30 years ago. That’s hard to believe! They are driving from Carcassonne, maybe an hour drive from here.

It’s Mark’s birthday so we prepare a special dinner. We prepare “Mule Drivers Rabbit” for Mark’s 61st birthday. We find a silly birthday “prop” that is a plastic “champagne” bottle that emits streamers when you twist it! It is a great birthday evening.

27 April – Sunday Lunch

It is Sunday in France. That means that we MUST have a great Sunday meal especially with friends. We all are interested in a seafood meal. Linda, Ron and I head off to nearby sea-side Valras to find a seafood purveyor recommended by the owners of the house, Barba (I went to their Bezier location for our dinner when the Grunows arrived).

Along the way we find a HUGE supermarket that is open on Sunday–a unique thing. We stop there for other provisions that we need and we are amazed at all it offers. On to Valras! As we see that we are getting closer to the coast and we are at the edge of what looks like a permanent market, I pull over and park. We are close to the market and, now we see, close to a car park. Maybe I should have parked in the car park… Maybe I’ve parked in an “interdite” zone (forbidden)… Oh well, what will be will be…

We do not see any signs to stop us so after we park we head off to the market. The alley is lined with all sorts of shops: food and otherwise. We find one larger “shop” that has several seafood vendors and other food vendors. (There are the weirdest “squidly” things I’ve ever seen!) We continue on toward the ocean to find Barba. We find ourselves at the water’s edge but so far no Barba. We head back the way we came and I ask a shop-owner where I can find Barba. He tells us down the street on the left. He indicates some measure of length and I ask him if it’s straight ahead on this street. He says “Oui” and I believe him and I believe what I’ve said and what I’ve heard. So on we go! It is a bit of a ways down the road but we find it!! We buy fresh anchovies, skate (a sea ray fish) and squid. On our way back to the car we stop by the larger shop we found earlier and buy fantastic HUGE but succulent asparagus to grill later. The lady gives us parsley and an apricot for free; they talk to us as if they enjoy talking to English speaking people. I know it’s an oxymoron to say “huge asparagus” and “delicious” but it’s true here in France!

What follows can best be described as the “Big Chill” of France. (I hope you all have seen and enjoyed that film.) The six of us take MANY hours to cook and enjoy the foods we have purchased and prepared. After each course we pause, enjoy our wine and watch the next course prepared. The experience of this Sunday lunch takes many hours and it is an experience we will not forget.

The first course is prepared by Howard and is fresh anchovies. You think you know anchovies? You do not! Fresh anchovies are a delight and we are so happy to have found and prepared them.

Second course is fresh squid with pestoSquid 1 served with pasta. The Franks prepare this incredible dish! Frankly (no pun intended) I would have never expected this dish to “work.” I think I am secretly a squid avoider but, oh la la, it was great!

Third course is skate in brown butter. Howard and I prepared this. We find skate, a very mild fish, frequently in France.

The Grunows grill incredible asparagus!! Dinner 1And, of course, we have great bread (it’s France, after all).

For dessert I make a bread pudding with the huge amount of old, dried bread we have. It was pretty good…

Our meal is enhanced by rose sparkling wine and a rose wine from Chateau Valmy, a vineyard near Collioure.

26 April – Wine and Food

What a beautiful day! The six of us are going to Domaine Paul Mas, the winery with good wines and a great restaurant. We find Matilde in the wine shop and have a nice time tasting wines.

Before we buy our wine picks, we go to the restaurant for a great lunch. The restaurant is lovely. We are seated below an incredible chandelier. We start with their sparkling rosé from Domaine Martinolles “Prima Perla.” It is perfect.

Our first courses are tuna served Tataki style (pan-seared) rolled in chopped herbs, with spaghetti of turnip and yuzu (a citrus fruit) foam; foie gras cooked two ways: lightly cooked and seared, spiced mango chutney & toasted brioche; scallops served carpaccio style with creamed peas and Iberico ham wrapped bread sticks (grissinis); and a salad of seasonal vegetables and flowers from the local market garden, Japanese seasoning, Tannes olive oil and balsamic vinegar. The main courses we enjoy are tender ribeye steak Paul Mas steakwith a red wine reduction and fricassee of wild mushrooms; lamb served pink with a reduction sauce, Tarbais beans and Saikoro (daikon radish, garlic and ponzu sauce, a citrus based vinegar sauce); and sea bass roasted en papillote (looks more like a roasting bag than the usual parchment paper), Asian spiced sauce, yuzu and wakame (seaweed) risotto served al dente. For dessert we had crisp tropical fruit timbale, white chocolate and coconut milk soup, Tonka bean foam (a bean that delivers complex vanilla, coconut, sour cherry, clove and liquorice flavors; banned in the US because of potential carcinogenic properties if used in excess); mango roasted with vanilla, sea-salted shortbread biscuit, banana and coconut milkshake; lemon meringuePaul Mas dessert tart inspired by the Key Lime Pie; and homemade ice cream and sorbet: Vanilla, chocolate (a favorite of the group), coffee, pistachio (a favorite of the group), pineapple, mango, passion fruit, coconut, lemon.

We enjoy a Domaine Martinolles merlot with lunch.

Wow! We had a fantastic lunch. After a few purchases of wine we head back home.

25 April — Montpellier

Bart and Nancy are scheduled to arrive at the Montpellier train station at about 5:30pm. Before we pick them up, we and the Grunows will do a bit of sight-seeing in Montpellier. Even though it’s raining we say we’re not made of sugar and take off for the old cité, an incredibly beautiful ancient town.

We have been to Montpellier MANY times and each time we encounter driving and parking problems. The train station is a particular problem–we always find an obstacle to actually arriving at the station. This time is no different! But, as we take the turn that we know is not correct, we find that there is a new parking area just below the area we would like to explore. The bottom level has many parking spaces (as shown by the electronic board) so we head for the basement. We arrive unfortunately sans (without) composure; I have a slight nervous breakdown as we’re spiraling down to the depths of the parking structure as Howard is fooling around with the GPS and it vocalizes at full volume. But that is quickly forgotten by Howard and me (but maybe not by the Grunows).

We have arrived at the perfect place for sight-seeing but maybe not for train arrival but we do not fret about that. The weather is rather drizzly and cold but after a quick coffee we take off to find a place for lunch. Surprisingly the cité is very crowded.Montpellier 1 We eventually find our way back to Place Comedie, the main focal point of the 18th century cité, which surrounds the Fountain of Three Graces. We have a lunch of gizzard and smoked duck breast salad for Howard and paninis for the rest of us.

We split up to explore the cité and agree to meet just before the train arrives. It’s a fairly quick walk to the train station and after a bit of back-and-forth discussion and a language-challenged discussion with a train employee we realize that the train from Paris will be 90 minutes late. We decide to take the Grunows back home to relieve Marie and start dinner. Later we discover what a great decision we made!

The round trip is much longer than we expect and the Franks wait close to 45 minutes for us to arrive. (We are in connection by phone so they know we are on the way.) Again the Montpellier train station confounds us so we park in the same lot we parked in earlier in the day. We find our friends–hurray! But we do have a bit of a walk to the car park.

When we arrive at home the Grunows have gone way above and beyond the call of duty! We are greeted with sparkling rosé wine and munchies. They have put together an incredible meal of sa usage; potatoes; huge, delicious grilled asparagus and maybe more than I can remember. The important remembrance is that we arrive to a warm welcome with great food and wine and warm friendship.

After a night of great conviviality we go to bed about midnight dreaming of the days to come.

24 April Collioure

It’s market day in Servian. Linda, Ron and I walk to town in the search of goodies. We first stop is at the bakery for bread. The owner’s wife is on duty; I’ve never met her. The baker says that his wife speaks English but we find out she speaks many languages! She tells me my French is good–hurray! She says that French people only want to speak French when they are traveling out of the country. I say that Americans only want to speak English wherever they go. She jokes that I’ve contradicted myself because I am speaking French. HA! I like this lady.

Bart and Nancy Frank arrive tomorrow. Bart and I worked together at UC Irvine when I was a research technician in a “different life.” They moved to Oklahoma many years ago and we were lucky that they looked us up a few years back when they were in town and we have stayed in touch ever since. Howard requested sausages to cook for the Frank’s first night’s dinner tomorrow. We find merguez sausage, a spicy, North African sausage, plus a mild sausage. I tell the man it’s for 6 people. He asks “how big are those people?” I indicate “like us.” We get a hell of a lot of sausage!

Maria arrives early and we are off to Collioure! We never tire of sharing our favorite French village with our friends. And they never fail to love it as much as we do. Our usual walk into town takes us on the lower portion of the ravine walk we took every day when we were in Collioure so many years ago. (We were lucky to have traveled there several years in a row for a month each time.) We point out Leo’s and Lucien’s footprints that are immortalized in the wet cement we traveled over. Then we meander through the alleyways lined with the colorful fisherman’s cottages–Collioure alley 13 story narrow buildings that are such an iconic symbol of Collioure. Then with flare we walk our friends to the harbor beach bookended by the picturesque church and the ancient chateau. At that point we find a harbor-side table and order Sangria.

Today is incredibly windy; there are ALWAYS strong winds in France! At one point the wind picks up a huge umbrella and smashes it onto a dining table breaking the glass and hopefully NOT injuring the patrons.

We decide to have lunch at this harbor side restaurant that we’re at so we move from the cafe into the restaurant. We are happily not on the exterior terrace; we are just inside the terrace away from the wind but still with a lovely view of the harbor and all that walk along the promenade.

We have the menu of the day. We start with a mixed seafood plate (oysters, shrimp, and sea snails). Our main course is scallops and monk fish. For dessert, Howard is happy to have his first Colonel (his favorite dessert in southern France, citrus sorbet in vodka).

We continue our exploration of Collioure, walking around the church and then taking a promenade around the chateau edging the harbor. We reminisce that Leo, one cold night, was hit by a rogue wave on this path on our way to dinner. I bundled him up in my coat and he spent dinner wrapped in warmth on the floor next to us.

We all are all interested in knives so we visit the shop Treillaud Gilles. The sales lady is very nice and helpful. They have an amazing selection of knives including knives from Laguiole, France; nice, handmadePallares Pallares Solsana kitchen knives from Catalonia (southeastern France and northeastern Spain); and one-of-kind knives including a knife that is fascinatingly beautiful until we find out it’s the knife to kill the bull in the bullfighting ring. Howard buys a Laguiole Forge pocket knife with a camel’s bone handle. We have traveled to the Laguiole Forge manufacturing plant to buy these incredible knives. This is probably Howard’s 6th or 7th Laguiole pocket knife plus we have a set of steak knives. A gentleman cannot have too many pocketknives, says Howard. We also buy a Pallares Solsana paring knife and Ron buys a Laguiole Forge knife. We all leave happy.

But the happiness does not last long because we must head back home. The drive is about 2 hours but well worth it. Linda cannot believe that we are saying her time in Collioure is up. We vow to come back together and rent that lovely condo that we loved so much in earlier years together. On the way out of town we stop at the wine shop and buy a magnum of rose for Sunday and some great champagne.

23 April — Pézanas

In the morning Linda and I walk to both bakeries for croissants and great bread. Our doggies are happy to see Maria and we are happy to leave them behind.

Off we go to Pézenas. We walk the city enjoying the ancient alleys and incredible buildings. We walk to areas we’ve never seen before and take lots of pictures.

La maman des poissons
La maman des poissons

It is a gorgeous day! We have lunch at “Entre Pots,” a wonderful and beautiful restaurant where we went with the Hartleys the last time we were here. We start with an amuse bouche of sardine mouse–excellent on delicious bread. I need to hunt down the server to make sure the mouse does not contain shrimp or crab. We don’t want to wreck our day taking Linda to the emergency room. First course: 1/2 dozen oysters from the Etang de Thau for Howard, Linda and me; smoked salmon with a wonderful small salad of asparagus, very think matchsticks/pieces of zucchini, red beet, cauliflower with a vinaigrette and balsamic reduction for Ron. For the main course Linda and I have tuna on a bed of vegetables similar to the vegetable mélange Ron had for his first course; roast lamb for the guys. For dessert there is lemon sorbet and vanilla ice cream with meringue, whip cream, and strawberries with a little cookie for Howard, Ron and Linda; a hollow ball of dark chocolate (called an Easter egg) filled with whipped cream and kiwi and strawberries for me. We enjoyed a wonderful Sancerre Blanc wine with our lunch. Coffee afterwards. The food was wonderful but I was not happy with the service. We were rushed after our main course and served dessert before we had finished our wine. And then, after we told the server we did not want our coffee until after we finished our wine, he served it anyway.

Linda and I did a little shopping in the unique shops in the village. I buy some cute espadrilles and she buys a lovely scarf.

20 through 22 April — Rainy Servian

Apr 20 (Easter Sunday)

It is rainy as Cat had warned. Howard builds a nice fire and we have a quiet day at home. Howard cooks lamb chops but they really are mutton chops. I am skeptical about mutton but we have a delicious meal.

21 Apr (Easter Monday, a holiday in France)

Easter Monday is a holiday here. That might not sound so weird but consider that Pentecost is also a holiday here as well as Pentecost Monday. The Pentecost Monday holiday has taken us by surprise before! It’s rainy. Howard roasts a chicken and we have a lovely lunch. I do laundry to get ready for the Grunows arrival.

22 Apr

Ron and Linda Grunow arrive today at the Bezier train station. We know the Grunows from a work-related relationship that turned into a friendship. Fortunately we know the Bezier train station.

We want to have seafood for their first meal so I take off for a seafood market in Bezier just before 3pm. I’m glad I arrive just before 3 because that’s the time they open after lunch. I only wait about 15 minutes but it begins raining “comme chats et chiens.” (Like cats and dogs!!!!)

When they open I search for scallops but none are to be found!! The lady wants me to buy an octopus pastry, a local dish. I say “no” but a customer says in English I’m making a mistake because it is so good. But I’m not sure the Grunows would be into octopus. So buy individual portions of salmon quiche. It is a much better choice for dinner since we don’t get home until 7pm. We toast to their arrival with sparkling wine. The quiche is great with a nice salad. The Grunows later tell us they were frustrated to not find great octopus in Barcelona!

 

19 April — Servian

The street market has flowers today, I assume, because of Easter. I buy beautiful peonies. Peonies always make me think of France. Several years ago when we were in Sancere at language school, we went to the local florist and bought probably 8 stems of huge peonies. Those beautiful flowers probably cost us about $75 because the exchange rate at the time was $1.50:1€. (It’s now about $1.35:1€.) But those flowers lasted well over a week–maybe close to 10 days and they brightened our cute little apartment and made us smile to see them. They were maybe worth 10x what we paid for them.

Cat & Stephen arrive for lunch. They have a new granddaughter! They bring us wonderful goodies: homemade apricot jam and fig chutney; estate grown and fabricated olives from the Hartley estate; and a beautiful framed picture of the dogs taken when we had lunch with them just after we arrived. Stephen fixes our TV so now it works. We ask Cat about the “air-raid” sirens. She suspects it’s an alert for the volunteer fire department. That makes perfect sense. We have light beginnings (olives & pistachios) with Prima Perla Brut Cremant de Limoux (sparkling wine) from Jean-Claude Mas a St. Hilaire. Delicious wine! Then a first course of tomatoes stuffed with bread crumbs, pine nuts, garlic and the chopped flesh from the tomatoes–so delicious and so French. Howard fixes “Mule Drivers Rabbit” from a Spanish cookbook here at the house. It is garlicky and fantastic! He also pan fries potatoes to go with it. Howard is delighted that Stephen asks for seconds.

I try to make a Polenta & orange cake for dessert but what a task! Finding flour, “castor sugar,” baking powder, baking soda and polenta (corn meal) takes 3 trips to the grocery and plenty of questions of Catherine. The same nice lady helps me at the grocery on 2 visits in one day. I need to get the French names for everything. I think I have everything I need until I open the box of what I thought was cornmeal and it is corn starch!! That definitely will not do. So I head back to the store because now I am sure I know where to find the polenta. Fortunately I read the box with the picture that looks just like polenta carefully. I would have purchased potato flakes! I don’t think a Potato and Orange cake would have been very tasty.

So dessert is several kinds of cookies including the pretty “macaroons” that are now becoming popular in the US. Fruit jellies are sandwiched between meringue cookies; they are all different, pretty colors. Trader Joe’s has them in the freezer section.

After our dinner I start to set out the cookies and start the coffee when I suddenly realize I have forgotten the cheese course! I guess I’d better get these French traditions straight. So after the cheese course, we have cookies. And after the cookies (not with the cookies, after the cookies), we have coffee.

Over dinner we discuss a trip to Great Britain that Stephen is planning for his 70th birthday (in three years) which happens to coincide with Howard’s 75th birthday year. Stephen has this travel vision in which he travels around GB to experience and photograph places where he spent time in earlier years. Some places might be past their prime; some places might be surprisingly renewed; some places might be disappointing; some places might be delightful. The trip might take 3 weeks or it might take 3 months. The accommodations might be dreadful or they might be clean and comfortable. The food on the trip will run the gamete. We say we’re in!!!

We talk about our trip to Italy at the end of June. We’d love for the Hartleys to join us. We have rented an 18th century farm house in an olive grove in Tuscany just outside of Lucca. The pictures look great but it’s probably more rustic than it looks. Catherine says we will love Italy! Stephen says if it weren’t for the incredible corruption that is ubiquitous in the country they might live there instead of France. I say that I cannot imagine Italy is “better” than France. Cat says it is so. She says the people are incredibly hospitable; they will love our dogs. Her son and DIL love to travel there because their daughter is more than welcome everywhere. And they say the food is incredible. So now we are getting more excited. They say the drive there especially through the border of France and Italy and through the Alps will be nerve-wracking but we are champs at driving in extreme places (as long as Howard has a good map and not relying on the GPS). So the Hartleys will check their calendar and we hope they are free to help us enjoy Italy.

After the Hartleys left we grab a glass of wine (because we had not has any wine so far today–HA!) and sit on the front terrace. Who should we see waving at us from the street but Marie, the dog sitter! I think we (including, maybe especially, the dogs) have found a new friend in France. She says she can help me improve my French but she wants to meet a California fiancée! HA!