Sunday, March 01, 2015

One-Hundred Word Challenge - The Stone Settee

Every week in term time, I write reviews for the kids who participate in the 100 Word Challenge. 100WC is a weekly challenge for schoolchildren under 16. I've read some excellent stories as well as many good tries, and a few half-hearted efforts. There have been lots of zombies, dreams, and video-game-inspired action as well as truly original creative gems of writing.

Sometimes, I'm inspired to write something myself. Of course, I can't join in the 100WC, but I do have a blog, so here is my effort for last week's prompt.

Week #23 prompt for 100WC
No one in the park sat on the stone settee with a cat. There was something odd about it. Only the sculptor knew why. His wife had disappeared just before the commissioned settee had been installed in its spot. A curious policeman was told it was solid stonework. It was, almost. She was put on the Missing Person’s list. The wife’s not-so-secret lover never got over her disappearance. The sculptor feigned distress, but went on to marry again, and have the children his first wife never wanted. He got rid of the wife’s mean old cat too. Happy at last...
* * *

We always need new reviewers for the kids, so if you'd like to join in, let me know and I'll pass on your details to the organiser.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Byrrh ou ordinaire*

Have you ever driven along the nationale roads of France profonde and seen faded adverts painted on the sides of buildings? They represent a France seemingly long gone although they date only as far back as the twentieth century, and trace the development of both motor vehicles and the French economy. A part of French patrimony, they are frequently at peril from the destructive improvements of the twenty-first century.

One of the most iconic of French wall-painted adverts is for Byrrh.

Stéphane Schweig
Have you ever tried this aperitif? Do you know that it's still being made? In the same place? In Thuir? We decided to devote Sunday morning to a visit of the Byrrh factory.

It was absolutely fascinating. The tour takes you round the old parts of the factory which are no longer in use, except for some of the large old casks which are rented out by the Tourist Office to companies such as Dubonnet.

The drink was originally created in 1873 by the Violet brothers who took advantage of the growth in wine production to set up shop in Thuir. They were drapers, but developed a tonic that contained quinine and tried to sell it as medicine. The pharmacists of Montpellier took a very dim view of these upstarts trying to get a foothold in their lucrative tonic business, and threatened them with lawsuits galore.

They decided it was a battle they couldn't win, so reduced the amount of quinine in the tonic and made it into an aperitif instead. What marks them out from the competition at the time is the way they developed the business until Byrrh was being sold all over the world. One of the ways they marketed the drink was to hold a competition to paint an advert for Byrrh in 1903. Over nineteen hundred artists took part! There was an exhibition of some of the designs, in that lovely Art Deco style of the time.

One of the entries that didn't win. Love the louche sensuality.
We also saw how avant garde the brothers were regarding their employees. They had women in the workforce, including one in management, and set up a pension scheme, and paid leave.

The almost highlight of the visit was seeing the largest oak cask in the world - 12 metres in diameter, 10 metres high, weighing 17 tonnes, and holding over a million litres. It was designed to better the previous record winner which was a German cask that only held 900K or so litres.

There was even a little railway station for deliveries designed and built by no less than Eiffel himself. I could just imagine the little trains rattling in carrying the precious spices used to give the drink its distinctive flavour (orange peel, cocoa beans, elderflower, coffee beans, camomile, etc.), and out again with cases of the finished product to be sent all over the world.

Unfortunately, the drink fell out of fashion after WWII, and in 1977, the company was bought by Cusenier, and later became part of groupe Pernod-Ricard.

I had never tried it before, but at the end of the visit was a tasting - the highlight - and I got my chance. We tried the original aperitif

as well as the less powerful version (17°)

and the version 'rares assemblages' which was similar to port.
Our favourite was the Grand Quinquina, the original tonic, and very lively it is too, so my DB bought a bottle. I'm hoping that Byrrh will make a come-back, as have done sherry and cider.

Visiting the factory was definitely worth it. The tour was well done, with lively presentations, and an interesting guide; the story was worth telling, and the dégustation a delicious way to end. If you get the chance, do go along and take the tour.

*the title is a play on words from the advert for butter (as opposed to margarine) "Beurre ou ordinaire":

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Weekends Away: les PBV of the Pyrenées Orientales - Eus

Part One - Castelnou

We left Castelnou to check into our hotel in Thuir, the Hotel Cortie**. We had booked it directly the previous day rather than go through because the owner had a ruse for by-passing the booking sites. He put that check-in was not before 6pm, and check-out at 10am. Finding this very inconvenient, people ring him up to make sure, whereupon he tells them the real times and asks them to book directly thus saving him a booking fee. Clever.

When we arrived, the restaurant was being cleaned, and frankly it didn't smell that good. My DB wanted to leave straight away, but I warned him that we would be unlikely to find anywhere else, it being Valentine's weekend. All the hotels in the region were booked, those that were open.

We asked to see our room, didn't like it (too small and not nicely decorated), so asked to see another which was fine and didn't smell. The hotel is located in the centre of Thuir on a tiny street, so there's no parking but you can park on the main square of the town nearby. It's a bright yellow building with royal blue trim, so difficult to miss, and is a certified 'hotel de charme'. Our charming room was located over the terrace which was fine except that you could hear every word being spoken down there. It must be pretty noisy in the summer with people eating outside until late.
Hotel Cortes bedroom
After a quick snooze, we decided to visit another local PBV - Eus. The Pyrenées Orientales is spoilt for Plus Beaux Villages, and they are handily located in a small area so are easy to visit in a short space of time, if you so wish, or until you get PBV-fatigue.
PBV Eus - probably looks better on a sunny day in Spring
It wasn't as charming as Castelnou, but it was still delightful to walk around. I was surprised to see that the mimosa was out in full bloom to cast a little brightness on a gloomy day.

Mimosa in February
The town is in a classic defensive position and was used to repel the French in the sixteenth century, and the Spanish in the eighteenth. 
Dinky street in Eus with lovely view even on a cloudy day
The old citadelle was replaced with an imposing church dedicated to Saint-Vincent.

Saint-Vincent Church, Eus
The place was as quiet as the grave, only a few other hardy visitors were braving the chilly weather of late afternoon.

One house caught our eye. It was decorated on the outside with bits of pottery embedded into the lime (?) finish. It gave the house a distinct air of measles.
House with measles, Eus
We returned to our hotel and had a rest before dinner. When we turned up to eat in the restaurant every table had a rose in plastic for the lady, and we were told that there was a unique menu for Valentine's day, 35Eur. My DB had not expected there to be no choice, and he was rather put out. There was some grumbling, and muttering, and discussion as to whether we'd be able to get anything more reasonable somewhere else, and, I'm happy to say that eventually we decided to stay.

So we got the kir aperitif, and ordered a bottle of red Château de Castelnou (because they make wine at the castle too). The starter was a carpaccio of scallops and prawns which was delicious. Individually, they didn't taste as good as they did together. There was a real symbiosis between the flavours. I then had a confit de canard, and finished up with a dessert that I can't remember for the moment. The wine was good too. My DB perked up in direct proportion to the emptying of the wine bottle, and we ended up having a very nice Valentine's evening.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Odds and healthy sods

I don't know if it's the weather or advancing age, but my joints have felt recently like they need oiling. I can no longer leap out of a chair and dash to answer the phone, I get up and creak my way over. Bizarre. I'm hoping it's the weather.

Just in case, I went to a herborist last weekend with a recipe for remineralising ye olde bones that I got from a magazine I subscribe to called Plantes & Bien-Etre. If you have joint pain, tiredness, breaking nails, hair loss, these could all be due to a lack of minerals which is due to an excess of acidity in the body rather than poor nutrition. The stresses of modern life block the elimination of acid so a helping hand is needed.

The shop, located in the old part of Montpellier, in a beautiful stone building, was fascinating. There wasn't much room to move about because it was filled with goodies. The walls were lined with jars of herbs of every description. My recipe posed no problem to the experienced herborist. She suggested she make three times the amount which would give me a cure of about one month. The bag cost me about €15 which I thought was very reasonable seeing all the good it was going to do me.

La Quintessence, Montpellier
The recipe is designed to stimulate the hepatorenal function and remineralise the body.
Mix 15gr of the following:
Nettle leaves
Birch leaves
Chicory roots
Strawberry leaves
Boil a bowl of water with one tablespoon of the mixture. Turn off the heat and cover for ten minutes. Filter and drink one to two bowls per day for six weeks, once or twice a year. Or you can drink it one week per month over several months.

The article in the magazine says that you should act in three ways only one of which is drinking the tisane. The others are removing the sources of acidose: stress, milk products, animal proteins (bugger!) and industrial food (no probs, I don't touch the stuff); and increase vegetal sources of minerals - nuts, leafy veg.

Tonight we're having roast chicken... with some leafy salad.

But, on Friday I made a tasty nearly veggie meal for which I'll share the recipe. I had a potimarron (small pumpkin) so made a stuffed dish:
2 potimarrons (I had one)
30cl crème fraiche
200g lardons
100g chestnuts (from a jar/sous-vide)
Cut the top off the potimarron(s), and empty out the seeds. Pepper the inside. Fry up the lardons. In a bowl, mix together the cream, cooked lardons and chestnuts, and add salt. Cook at 180°C for an hour and a half.
What I did: I used less cream and lardons, added turmeric and garlic to the mix. It was very tasty.

Served with roasted Brussel sprouts and chestnuts in Balsamic vinegar which were delicious:
Some sprouts
Olive oil
Balsamic syrup (boil up cheaper Balsamic vinegar until you get 1 tbs of syrup).
The recipe calls for lardons but I left those out.
Toss the sprouts in the oil and salt & pepper. Roast the sprouts in the same oven until cooked. Add the chestnuts for the last ten minutes or so. Take out of the oven and dribble over the vinegar. Toss. Check the seasoning and serve.

I've also been doing yoga nearly every day during the holidays as my yoga teacher has been absent. Just ten or fifteen minutes, based on exercises she sent so I don't have to start all over again after a two-week break. If I didn't work, I'd do more, especially when I look at this impressive video of a guy who started from a really desperate situation:

Who knows, I may even end up standing on my head again. I haven't done that since I was about eight. Or not.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Weekends Away: les PBV of the Pyrenées Orientales - Castelnou

Last weekend the weather was going to be rubbish all over the country except in the Pyrenées Orientales so guess where we went for our weekend away...

It was still too cold for the motorbike, so we took the car and bombed down the motorway to Perpignan, then left it and took to the back roads in search of a place for lunch. I suggested we find somewhere near Plus Beau Village Castelnou. As it happens, there's the perfect spot for a picnic a couple of miles from the village which gives you a splendid view as you sit on the stone wall munching.
Perfect view from the picnic spot overlooking Castelnou
I had made us a super healthy salad with vinaigrette boosted with turmeric and cayenne, as requested, so together with the view, mind and body were in perfect harmony. :)

We arrived in the village in need of a coffee, and were delighted to find a little honey shop which did coffee just inside the main entrance. There was the most delectable smell of cooking pain d'épice so I bought one on off the shelf and asked the guy to cut off two slices for us to eat straight away. It was the most delicious pain d'épice I've ever tasted. It was difficult resisting the urge to eat the whole lot in one go.

Castelnou, mosaic gallery on the left
The main road up takes you past a mosaic gallery which had some beautiful, original pieces inside. I thought the zig-zag one hanging outside was rather nifty too.

Mosaic from gallery in Castelnou
At the top of the village is a castle which you have to pay to visit. We decided it would be worth a look, and it was. As it was out of season, the restaurant and snack bar were shut, so it was very peaceful. The castle has been restored, including an attempt at recreating a banqueting scene complete with piped music.

Banqueting scene - quite a riot, what?
There were some interesting panels of information on the walls, but on the whole it was not terribly kid-friendly if they're the sort (like mine) who want to have a hands-on experience. Not being kids with an attention span of less than ten seconds, we read the panels that told us about high society in the Middle Ages; food, drink, entertainment, and so on, and what the plebs endured. Elsewhere we read about the history of the castle and the family that owned it.

View of Castelnou roofs from the château
The previous owners of the castle had some right funny names. Just click on this genealogical tree for inspiration for your own family. Thinking I'll suggest Udalgar for the name of my first grandson and see how well it goes down, what do you think? Udder for short?

Lords of the manor family tree
 How about Ermessende for a girl? Funny how these names have fallen out of fashion, innit.
Pomegranate tree
Someone near me has a pomegranate tree and gave me some of the fruit. It was unfortunately so sour it was inedible and I threw it out before I got my brain into On mode and worked out whether I could make a syrup, or use it in cakes. I wonder how sweet the pomegranates are here.

This is a gite, owners on the eccentric side from the look of it, probably British

Imposing entrance to Castelnou
I remember coming to Castelnou in about 1990 when I was living in Perpignan with my then boyfriend (future ex-h). We had decided to have lunch at the Michelin starred restaurant with some friends. They were all interns, and it took them so long to extricate themselves from their departments that by the time we got to the restaurant it was too late and they refused to serve us. I was gutted, but have not held a grudge at all, indeed not...

From what I discovered on Trip Advisor, the restaurant D'Ici et d'Ailleurs is no longer what it was 25 years ago (who is?!).

There was an advert outside the walls for a visit of the Byrrh factory in Thuir. As we were staying in Thuir that night, it got us thinking.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Weekends Away: From Rocamadour to Conques

Part one - in Rocamadour.

After stuffing ourselves with as much hotel breakfast as possible from the copious buffet (croissant, boiled egg, toast and delicious homemade jams including 'nèfle' (medlar), yoghurt, kiwi), we left Rocamadour and headed off towards Plus Beau Village Conques via Figeac.

The hotel owner suggested we take a detour to Lacave and see the castle perched above the river Dordogne, so as we weren't in a hurry, we did. It was worth the detour.

Castle at Lacave, Lot
This place was pretty nifty too. Those towers, also seen in Rocamadour, are obviously the thing in the Lot.

Spied along the road
Then we left Lot, crossed the border into Aveyron, and arrived at PBV Conques where we parked the car, and got out to walk in the lovely winter sunshine, my DB's Fitbit pedometer on orders to start counting steps.
Arriving in Conques
As you can see, it was pretty empty. There was only one restaurant open, the same one where we'd had dinner the last time we were here (the Auberge de St Jacques), not that we wanted to eat yet as we were still stuffed from breakfast! I'm not sure there was single shop open.

We fancied this house which was for sale although the pronounced leaning to the right of the top floor is a little worrying. Still, it's been there since the Middle Ages, so it's probably good for a few hundred more years yet... unlike the rubbish most of us live in today!
The top section of this house leans worryingly to the right
 Conque definitely deserves its PBV status.
Pretty houses which overlook the valley
 And you can really appreciate it with no one about!
Photo opportunities at every turn

Not sure why the banisters are on the outside of this house. Any ideas?

This local resident looked happy to have the place to himself
The abbey (11-12th century, on UNESCO and patrimoine lists) was open so we went in and had a look at its magnificent interior, and I even spotted a monk (there are still five) who smiled at me, so I smiled back. Conques is on the pilgrims' Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle route, and one of the duties of the monks is to welcome them at the hostel attached to the abbey. Some of the windows of the abbey were designed by Pierre Soulages. They have shaded white non-parallel horizontal lines. To be honest, I would never have guessed they'd been created by such a famous artist, so I obviously do not have l'oeil artistique! (Soulages is big in Montpellier where there is a room of his work at the Musée Fabre because he lived and worked there for many years.)

After clocking up nearly ten thousand steps, we left Conques and continued on our way, stopping to take a photo of this stunning house.

How gorgeous is this?
 A bit further on we stopped again to take a picture of this funny looking hut. Or is it an old shed where Monsieur retired to read the paper in peace? H'd have to crawl in though; that door is very low. It says 1852 on the lintel, so it's quite recent really.
What on earth is this?
There are faces in the walls amongst the muddy splats. Any ideas as to why? Maybe they are recycled statue faces. Did the owner of this place merely go overboard with decorating or was there a method behind the madness? Could it be a copy of the mother-in-law's face embedded in the mud?

Can you see the faces in the muddy deposits?
Our stomachs started grumbling around 3pm at Rodez, so we stopped when we saw a boulangerie open and bought a couple of sandwiches. The girl made them on the spot in a very original way. The fillings were all laid out on individual bits of cardboard. She put the filling on a contraption, placed an opened baguette over the top, turned the machine so it went upside down, removed the cardboard, and pressed the other side of the bread down to make the sandwich. I've never seen that before! It ensured that the bread never got soggy by sitting about filled. It tasted okay too.

Once on the autoroute, we made good time, although there was drifting snow being blown onto the road by strong winds, and it didn't look good for drivers coming later. The Plateau de Larzac is definitely a wild and woolly place!

It was quite a trek over to the Lot for the weekend, but it felt like we'd been away for longer, and it recharged our batteries nicely.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Weekends Away: Rocamadour

It's half term for Zone A and the kids have been on holiday for a week already. I am not on holiday, but my DB and I escaped for the weekend and took the car to Rocamadour. It's a bit chilly for motorbike yet, especially crossing the Plateau de Larzac where there was snow everywhere except the main road. It took us a while to find a spot to park to eat our lunch where we could be sure we wouldn't get stuck!

Larzac was looking stunning. The ground was dressed in a snowy white coat, but the bushes and trees were not so the contrast was very dramatic.

We arrived at Rocamadour around 2pm, checked into the hotel we'd reserved on the Hospitalet on the plateau overlooking the village, and had a short snooze. When we were ready to leave, the guy in the hotel gave us a plan of the cité and showed us the standard walk down, round, up to the castle and back to the hotel; a walk of about 90 minutes. Perfect!

Rocamadour is, of course, one of the Plus Beaux Villages de France, and quite justifiably so. It's a cracker, tucked into the cliff with a castle that reaches up up and away.

Leaving l'Hospitalet on our way down to Rocamadour
Entering the crowds-free village
It was wonderful visiting in early February. There was no one. I think we came across a maximum of 20 visitors (so not exactly no one, but these streets are packed in the summer...).

The resident cats were out and about
No one here.
The chapel devoted to rugby, note all the rugby shirts...
Or here.
I paid two euros to bang a drawing pin into an old log
Bugger, which one's mine?
 The pins were part of a donations campaign to help maintain the village.

The tower is for sale. You'd need a hoover on every floor...
 We fancied the tower that was for sale in the valley. You'd have to like stairs, but what an original building!

Looking up to the castle

Looking up at part of the cathedral
 Following the sound of music, we went into the cathedral to see what was going on. There were a hundred or so mostly young people participating in a mass. It was unusual (to me) in that there was a young man confessing to the priest in full view of everyone right at the front. When he'd finished, a young woman took his place and started her confession. It was going to take a while if everyone was to have a go...! I wonder what they were confessing. Naughty thoughts? Bad actions? Taking drugs? Smoking? Playing hooky from school? Beating up a little sibling? Lying to mum...?

A picturesque spot
We climbed up to the top on the zig-zagging path. As you can see, it was very quiet too. At each bend is a shrine that contains an image relating to the Crucifiction.  My DB wanted me to remember what was in each shrine, and said he would test me when we got to the hotel. If I couldn't remember, I'd get no wine! Shocked, I took a lot more interest in what poor old Jesus was up to (falling over, being helped by Simon, etc.). Luckily, my DB can be a bit forgetful and he forgot to test me so I got my wine without having to pass an exam... I didn't remind him, either.

The path up, up, up
The ramparts. Not for the faint-hearted.
The views were dramatic from the top. We paid two euros each to go onto the ramparts which gave us an amazing 360° panorama. I felt a tad queasy up there, I must say.
Looking down and over to l'Hospitalet
We walked back to the hotel, which was also quiet, and rested before dinner down the road at the only restaurant open, le Belevedere, which was packed. Dinner was excellent. We started with a red lentil velouté which was amazing. I emailed the restaurant later to ask for the recipe but they never got back to me, I'm sad to say. I'll have to see if one of the recipes on the internet bears some resemblance to the one we had. The main course was a tasty confit de canard, and I finished up with a delicious walnut cake in custard. The whole was washed down with a hearty red wine from Chateau Eugénie.

It was a lovely day. Rocamadour is fab out of season!