This is a post specifically for a couple of wanderlusting pals who are about to set off to France for a deserved break. On their itinerary is Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, capital of the marshy region called the Camargue.
Driving south on the D570 from Arles, the land is flat and green. As hotels begin to punctuate the roadside, so do the horses for which this area is known, white or pale grey with wild manes. They’re not necessarily visible in the fields about, but will definitely be there at one of the many riding schools, tethered and saddled and ready to carry the next group of tourists who fancy a spot of equestrianism.
We’ve visited the Camargue twice now. On our first visit, the Mas where we stayed was run by a family of Camargue horse breeders, who arranged for us to go on an authentic trek in a properly rural area by the Little Rhône. We had to venture with our guide into some quite desolate marshland, locate and catch our horses and tack them up ourselves. I preferred this by far to the alternative of taking a tired, over-ridden horse from one of the roadside ‘schools’. We fed foals and watched birdlife from our saddles, waved at real cowboys acquainted with our guide and trotted along the river as pleasure boats cruised past at their leisure. I can recommend asking around for one of these treks if horses are your thing. Avoid the tourist trap tours. You’ll be able to spot them a mile off because they’re so obvious and the horses look bored and sleepy.
Along this main route into Saintes-Maries are a couple of really good places to eat, in hotels called Mas, after the word for farmhouse or ranch. Some Mas have converted their main house and stables or out-buildings into hotel rooms. The one we stayed in, the Mas de Calabrun, is reached via the D85A, a country road peeling off to the left of the D570, roughly halfway down to Saintes-Maries. It’s quiet, but for the horses braying in a field out the back, and the vege patch is something to be admired. You don’t have to stay here to enjoy their set menu dinners (roughly €30.00 for three courses, excluding drinks), but make sure to book as seating is limited and the food is a subject of local conversation. Using Camarguais ingredients and produce from that vegetable garden I mentioned earlier, their chef de cuisine creates a culinary tribute to the region. Bull meat, or taureau, is a staple around here, so expect to see it on most menus, including at the Mas de Calabrun. However, if you have an overload of bull meat, which is possible in these carnivorous parts, or if you simply don’t like it, ask for an alternative at the time of booking. Most restaurants will arrange this without too much fuss.
Another good restaurant set in a hotel on the D570 is the Auberge Cavaliere du Pont des Bannes. Surrounded by ponds, horses and little white cabins, it’s a pretty place to dine, but the prices are pretty steep. If you feel like splurging in style, this is a solid option. You may have to pay for it, but the food is excellent.
Wherever you dine, especially if it’s on a terrace or in the proximity of horses, be sure to wear insect repellent and preferably long trousers. Mosquitoes abound in the Camargue. If you’re unlucky and get bitten, remember that toothpaste is an unusual but effective salve; Eight Hour Cream also works well until you can find a pharmacy for bite cream.
In Saintes-Maries proper, at first glance it’s a regular, French seaside resort, with the requisite shops flaunting multi-coloured inflatable toys and beach towels. There’s a bull arena for anyone curious about watching bulls run and perform (bull-fighting tends to be non-bloody here, but I’d advise double-checking) and an ample beach for sun-worshippers, of whom there are plenty in holiday season. Do note that if you go to the beach the public loos (on my last visit, at least) are absolutely filthy. Be prepared and take a pack of tissues. You’ll probably want your Euro back (they’re those paid conveniences with the automatic doors). I found it was a better bet to run up to one of the beachfront bars for a quick drink and subsequent relief. At least their facilities showed signs of having been cleaned in recent days.
Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer is named for three saints named Mary (Mary Magdalene, Mary Salome and Mary Jacobe) who, as legend has it, crossed the Med from Alexandria to France following the crucifixion of Christ, landing at this point in the Camargue. Some say that a servant, Sara, accompanied them. A dark-skinned woman, she is the subject of an annual religious festival, to which gypsies or Roma flock in huge numbers. In the centre of town is a large church, the crypt of which contains a statue of Sara. Gypsies are drawn to her and congregate around the church, trying to sell little flowers and the like to tourists. They can be quite persistent. If they annoy you, say nothing and move on, eyes forward. Eventually they’ll give up and move onto softer prey.
There’s a main pedestrianised drag , the rue Victor Hugo, running up from the beachfront to the church square. Here you’ll find lots of takeaway food options: baguettes and local fare, lots and lots of ice cream. Apart from the ice cream, which is hard to get wrong, this isn’t the place for inspiring food. Try the little streets to the side, where you’ll find restaurants serving taureau (naturellement!) and planchas, or hot platters of food that’s fun to share. Avoid the paella, go for the fish. It’s always fresh in these parts and tends to be a reliable option. For something a bit different there’s a little Breton crêperie called Chez Fanneù tucked away behind the church. The savoury crêpes are proper buckwheat, or sarrasin galette variety, made hot to order and folded square. You can also get proper Breton cider here: a good, inexpensive option when refuelling is required.
Slightly away from town, along the sea front on the corner of rue Léon Gambetta, is the Brûleur de Loups. This is a pleasant restaurant with a slightly retro feel. A long-established eatery in Saintes-Maries, we enjoyed our evening here, with its slightly nineties-style food and old-fashioned service. It gets solid reviews from the French, some of whom liken dining at Le Brûleur to eating in one’s grandmother’s kitchen. It’s better than that, but then French grannies tend to be a touch more Escoffier than ready-meal, so it’s probably a fair assessment. The restaurant serves good seafood and (wait for it) taureau and benefits from lovely sea views.
Aigues-Mortes, meaning dead algae, is an interesting walled-town a short drive cross-country from Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. Parking outside the medieval walls, with small mountains of blinding-white salt behind, entry to this town is by foot, through one of the ancient gates. It’s pretty, boutique-y and has plenty of interest for French history buffs. The views from the ramparts are worth the climb, but this is not why I mention Aigues-Mortes; I had one of my favourite ever French meals here at a restaurant called Le Minos.
Restaurant Le Minos sits on the main square at the centre of Aigues-Mortes, a busy area in summertime, with myriad eateries skirting the perimeter. A lot of these places have large laminated photos of their offerings – a sure sign of tourist magnets. We looked for somewhere more authentic, gravitating towards Le Minos and succumbing to the charms of its white-haired, smiling proprietor. I started this lunch with carpaccio of swordfish – garnished only with a sprinkling of Camarguais salt and a squeeze of lemon juice, this was cool and slippery in the best possible way after a morning spent on horseback under a searing sun. (Yes, I still stank of horse during lunch. Belated apologies to our neighbours.) Then I moved onto the main course: rouille des poulpes. Oh, my sainted pantalon! The white-haired man was right. ‘If you like octopus, you’ll LOVE this,’ he told me with a wink. I do love octopus, and this was some of the most unexpectedly sublime octopus I’ve ever had the fortune to eat.
Rouille to me until now had meant the spicy red sauce that’s stirred into soupe de poissons in France. Rouille des poulpes is more of a casserole, comprising chunks of tender octopus and dice of pillow-soft potato in a creamy sauce with just a touch of mustard. Several times a week I think back to this meal, no joke. It’s stayed with me and one day I vow to return to Aigues-Mortes just to revisit Le Minos and its marvellous octopus rouille. HIGHLY recommended. Apparently the steack-frites is also good, but hey-ho, it’s not rouille des poulpes. You can get steack-frites almost anywhere.
On leaving the Camargue, it’s tempting to do so with a bagful of local products – the salt, the rice, herbs. Maybe a small horse. With the exception of the latter item, most large UK supermarkets stock Camarguais salt and rice, so you needn’t lose baggage space on these items. And if you’re tempted to buy some colourful espadrilles, check them carefully for Made in China stickers. The cheapest ones are no longer French.
So, mes amis, I wish you a safe and happy journey. Enjoy the sea air which will make you sleep well, and the local produce which will help you to eat well.
The Mas de Calabrun, route D85A, Route de Cacharel, Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, TEL +33 4 90 97 82 21
Auberge Cavalière du Pont des Bannes, Route d’Arles D570, 13460 Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer TEL +33 4 90 97 88 88
Chez Fanneù, 6 Place des Remparts, 13460 Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer TEL +33 4 90 97 87 39
Brûleur de Loups, 9 rue Léon Gambetta, 13460 Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer TEL +33 4 90 97 83 31
Restaurant Le Minos, 7 Place Saint Louis, 30220 Aigues-Mortes TEL +33 4 66 53 83 24
Market day in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer is Monday, with the addition of Fridays during the summer months.
Watch out for cowboys driving bulls from outlying fields to the arena in town. Streets will be closed when this happens. It’s quite a sight – worth asking if this will happen during your visit so you can watch the spectacle.
ANZAC DAY, 25 April annually. A public holiday in New Zealand and Australia. The anniversary of the start of the first campaign of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps in the First World War, at Gallipoli, in the Dardanelles. Massive casualties were sustained.
I have a strong lineage. It isn’t aristocratic or regal, but blue collar and enduring. When the British Empire was at its height, my maternal forebears were shipped off to New Zealand, to populate that far corner of the world and build it from scratch. They blew gorges through hillsides and made roads and fought wars to protect it. There was no free pass once out in the colonies. Wherever they were, they continued to fight, as was then their duty, for the Mother Country, England, then still referred to as ‘Home’. As time passed, the settlers’ families continued to support the Empire, though the younger generations may never have seen England for themselves.
In one branch of my New Zealand family there were five eligible lads at the time of the First World War. They all volunteered. Two had only just made it back from the Boer War. Those two fought again.
Of the five who went to war, only two made it home to New Zealand. One fell at Gallipoli; the others in France. We have the trench diary of one – a young man’s random thoughts as he faced an uncertain future, surrounded by mud and muck and death.
Tragic is a frustratingly small word when describing the loss of youth on the battlefields of the First World War. As one of the survivors said to his mother, my great, great grandmother: ‘Mum, the wrong ones came back.’ He wasn’t referring to good or bad in the trenches; rather the fact that his better brothers had perished whilst the livelier ones, perhaps the ones with a bit more backchat, survived.
To remember our family’s sacrifice and those of other ANZAC families, both then and since, my brother and I went to the ANZAC dawn parade in London this year, held at the Wellington Arch on Hyde Park Corner. 25 April, 2015 marked a hundred years since our ancestors and many other good, young Australian and New Zealand folk (nurses included) began to perish during that particularly barbaric war. They had bayonets to skewer their rivals. Gases were used, to an unfortunately great effect on both sides. As many crossed the battle line in the attempt to gain ground for their side, it was in the knowledge that they probably would not come back. I have no words for such courage. Only one of the three brothers mentioned here was married before he went to war; the others were too young. Not one of the three had children. One of the brothers had wanted to serve God and become a priest. He got to meet his maker much sooner than anticipated, the irony of which escapes no one in our family.
Here are some photos from the dawn service on Anzac Day, 2015:
From top to bottom: The Wellington Arch before dawn; later, as the sun began to rise
No 1. London; Piccadilly was closed to traffic, reminding me of some sort of post-apocalyptic film set
The Australian War Memorial was both sombre and clever. The grey granite wall was covered in place names. The large names are places around the globe where Australians have fought; the small ones in the background are the Australian hometowns of the military personnel.
Wreaths laid at the base of the Australian War Memorial (top) and a figure from the Royal Artillery Monument which had been moved for the day to lie directly before the Wellington Arch.
After the ceremony there was a Maori tribute at the New Zealand War Memorial, but we couldn’t see much, apart from this fetching lad in his grass skirt and feather cloak.
The soldier above was lovely to speak with. He’s been seconded to a UK regiment and was excited to be in the UK. ‘I feel honoured to serve at the ANZAC Day ceremony,’ he told us from beneath his Lemon Squeezer. The Lemon Squeezer is a hat worn by all ranks of the New Zealand Army on formal occasions. It’s been around since 1916.
In the middle photo, representatives of the Australian, English and New Zealand military lower their flags to half-mast in honour of the dead.
Finally, a moment of quiet reflection before the Australian War Memorial.
Back in NZ, the proportion of young men killed in action affected an entire generation. We knew not one, but two sets of sisters who cohabited until their final days, as fiancés and eligible husbands were removed from the population in such a way that marriageable women no longer had a sure chance of finding a match. The male population had been decimated. It took generations to recover, just in time for the Second World War, but that’s another story…
Lamborghini. One distinctive, Italian surname, loaded with imagery of style and speed and fast, rich playboys and girls. When I think Lamborghini I see a sunshine-yellow sports car sweeping up to park outside Monte Carlo’s Hermitage Hotel, the driver dripping in Brioni threads. It’s the sort of car with a dynasty behind it, founded in 1963 by Ferruccio Lamborghini, whose son, Tonino Lamborghini has more recently created a name for himself away from the automotive arena: Tonino has moved into luxury accessories, including hyper-luxe smartphones, humidors, leather goods and (wait for it) VODKA.
And so it was that a few weeks ago I was invited to the Westbury Hotel, here in London, to try the exclusive vodka by Tonino Lamborghini, heir to the automotive dynasty. I say I was invited to the Westbury, as I was expecting a cocktail demo somewhere like the Polo Bar, but quite unexpectedly we ended up underground, at the club for IT people called Number 41.
Apart from our two hosts and an award-winning barman, there were just two of us scribes on the plush red seats at a private table that usually commands quite a sum in whole-bottle orders to reserve. It was mid-week, mid-afternoon and there we were, sipping on cocktails in an empty nightclub, talking about Signor Lamborghini Junior’s foray into distillery. Random, yes, but how fun.
A few facts about Tonino Lamborghini vodka for you:
- it has a high-quality base of Eastern European cereals, sourced primarily in the Balkans and Slovakia
- the harvest is subject to rigorous quality control to eliminate impurities
- the distilling process raises the quality of the starch content, creating an extremely clear alcohol
- Franciacorta spring water, known for its low mineral content, is added to lower the alcohol content to the commercial degree of 40% (Franciacorta is in the Italian region of Brescia)
Angular, tall and slightly tapered, I found the Tonino Lamborghini vodka bottle before us to be very masculine in form, almost like a glass representation of a male torso. Add the Raging Bull insignia and it’s hardly a bottle you’d offer your usual dame, but as a gift for a man-about-town it makes perfect sense. Not that many people have this in their liquor cabinet, simply because you won’t find it at just any old offy. Primarily marketed to exclusive nightspots, (the likes of No. 41, Beauchamp Bar, Dstrkt and Funky Buddha in London), there are currently only a couple of places to purchase Tonino Lamborghini as a regular consumer – and they’re online.
Back to the tasting and a shot of the stuff straight-up preceded cocktails. Tonino Lamborghini has a pleasantly full palate for a vodka – but at close to £60.00 a bottle retail, it’d be odd if it didn’t taste superior. What I found special about Tonino Lamborghini was the smooth, crystal finish, as voddy aficionados would call it. It’s utterly refreshing, like letting your mouth take a dip in that pure, Franciacorta spring water after a sweaty hike around Mount Orfano.
One can’t possibly go clubbing in the day-time without a cocktail or two. Cue the resident mixologist, who shook us all up with Tonino-based cocktails.
The Passion Fruit Martini smacked of the Garden of Eden on a Pacific island, a glassful of the tropics, although the overriding taste of fruit made it hard to sense the quality of the product being promoted to us. A Dirty Martini allowed the vodka to take centre-stage. Beneath the spotlight it performed very well, indeed. Yes, it must be said that in spite of its recent appearance on the luxury drinks circuit, Tonino Lamborghini vodka has a self-assuredness to it that belies its youth.
After a couple of martinis and a shot, I now felt quite the Jane Bond, ready to take on the Piccadilly Line in rush hour and any villain it might throw at me. If that’s what clubbing in the daytime does to a girl, then I must try to do it more often.
For further information on Tonino Lamborghini vodka, please contact Jessica or Leah at JPR Media Group:
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‘Twas the night before holiday
and in our mad house
the Crev was a-slumbering,
no sign of our mouse.
The packing was finished,
a taxi arranged,
all was quite organised,
but that would soon change.
The quiet was shattered
by panic above:
‘The Crev’s being sick!’
cried Papa, ‘the poor love.’
So that’s how our Easter break started
this year –
with projectile vomit
glued to our hair.
True enough, that’s exactly how our Easter holiday began: with our toddling daughter being sick through the night. After many pyjama changes, dunks in the bath and emergency loads of washing being done in the wee hours, we managed a few hours sleep. On waking, the Crev was promptly sick, yet again. We cancelled the cab. We spoke with NHS Direct (waste of time). We sat on the phone trying to enquire about cancelling or postponing our flight. After a good twenty minutes we still hadn’t reached a human operator and the Crev seemed to rally, so we gritted our teeth and set off for the airport.
It’s a four-hour flight to Gran Canaria from London. For much of the first two hours, our brave little girl was either sitting with uncharacteristic calm or retching up the few sips of water that she managed from time to time. Eventually, and much to our relief, she slept, taking us to our destination with little trouble. Once there, she seemed fine, interested in her new surroundings, if still a bit too quiet to be true. The following morning, when she started vomiting water again, we took her to an emergency clinic near our hotel in Las Palmas.
This is where the EHIC card gets all my praise. Because we travel so much in Europe, I registered the Crev for her very own EHIC card as soon as she was born. (It’s the card that provides reciprocal state health care for member states of the EU.) At the emergency clinic we were processed quickly and seen within about twenty minutes. Not bad. The doctor did a thorough check, taking at least another twenty minutes – much longer than your usual GP visit in the UK – pronouncing a stomach virus. He prescribed medicine before placing us under hotel arrest for the next six hours. ‘If she still can’t keep anything down after that, take her to the children’s ward at the hospital and we’ll care for her for 24 hours to prevent dehydration.’ Like the embarrassingly emotional mother that I can sometimes be, I cried, but not because the bill was eye-watering; there wasn’t one. The EHIC card covered everything.
Back at the hotel we spent a worrying afternoon monitoring liquid intake and counting doses of meds. Fortunately, the Hotel Santa Catalina was one of those historical establishments with big, old-fashioned rooms, so we had plenty of space for our period of incarceration. We parents, having developed quite an appetite through the stress of the morning, salvaged our sanity with ROOM SERVICE.
For a late lunch we splurged on a triple-deck club sandwich each, with fries. Not bad for €9.00 a head. Room service elsewhere can do a lot more damage than that for a simple club. At first glance I thought I’d never finish mine, but I underestimated my hunger. Every last bit disappeared. It was also very, very tasty.
That kept us going until well into the evening, when, after a siesta and more unappetising feeding attempts, subsequent purges and clean-ups we decided to dial for dinner. Wow. What a treat.
Corn-fed Iberian ham,
with Pan tomaca,
a generous Caesar salad for Monsieur, and an excellent mixed salad for me, deconstructed enough so I could mix it myself,
and for The French Carnivore, grilled veal tenderloin.
A half-bottle of decent vino rosado and some water completed our feast. Here’s what our mini-banquet looked like:
Meanwhile, the medication had started to work on our wee one, although it would be a good few days yet before she was back to her normal, active, babbling self. Through the decent hotel room service we were able to not just get nourishment, but do so knowing that we could jump up from the table as many times as were necessary to tend to her. For the record: we were up and down A LOT.
My thanks must go to the Hotel Santa Catalina staff, who, unasked, but noticing that the babe was unwell, fetched camomile tea and honey to soothe the Crev’s aggravated throat, and who were nothing but attentive and kind in helping us to cope with our ailing toddler.
The DFDS Seaways folk have made my week. They’ve nominated me in the Best Food and Travel Blogger category of their awards for the best bloggers of 2014. Woo hoo! The voting page is a work of art, worth visiting for the colourful, wanderlust-inspiring images alone. There I am, in the little green circle above. I’m up against some serious competition and am currently coming last in the votes tally, yet I’m still absolutely chuffed to bits.
When I started this blog in 2008 it was to create a place where I could celebrate the wonders of the world, its people and food. At the time I was newly engaged, yet with quite a lot of stress in other areas of my life. Epicurienne became a tonic for the less enjoyable times, where I could write about all the things I love – mainly food and travel, but also funny experiences and life-changers like getting married, losing my father and becoming a mum.
One of the best things about blogging must be the people I’ve met along the way. Some are fellow bloggers and writers, others work in PR, marketing and social media; I’ve encountered both renowned chefs and humble street hawkers, explored different ways of eating, visited the lesser-known parts of well-known places and found commonality wherever the blog has taken me.
For these reasons, and more, being recognised for doing something I thoroughly enjoy is truly uplifting.
Here’s to you DFDS Seaways! Thank you for the nomination.
If you’d like to check out all the categories and/ or vote, please click here.
Our kitchen calendar is usually filled with scenes of far-off places, inspiring our future travels or triggering memories of those we’ve visited in the past. This year, it’s a bit different. The Happy Egg Co crew kindly sent me a Nice Pecks cockerel calendar, so we have cocks in the kitchen for once.
This is the third in the cockerel calendar series, created (as they say) to offer visual stimuli to their egg-laying girls, who live out their lives without the company of cockerels because the eggs they lay, destined for shop and supermarket shelves all over the country, are unfertilised. The idea is that a bit of eye candy can’t possibly do their chooks any harm and may even stimulate a bit of extra output.
The 2015 calendar is a bit of a hoot, with its theme being touted as the EGG-streme edition. Each of the twelve featured cockerels is pictured practising one egg-streme sport or another. Pictured above we see Mister January, aka Eddie ‘the Rooster’ Edwards, a Light Brahma variety. Being a Kiwi I’m rather fond of Sir Egg-mund Hillary, pictured (natch) atop Everest as the appropriate pin-up for February – the month of New Zealand’s national holiday, Waitangi Day. There’s an Ayam Cemani breed known as David Peck-ham, pictured in his footie boots, and flick through to June to find none other than Sir Bradley Chick-ins proudly perching on the handlebars of a rather slick racing bike.
There’s a lot of humour in this calendar and along with handy egg-based recipes at the bottom of each month it’s already a hit in our household. Quite egg-cellent, to be sure.
If you’re a chicken-lover and would like to see some egg-stremely fine cockerels strutting their stuff on your kitchen wall, visit the Happy Egg Co Facebook page here or tweet the team @thehappyeggco
For further information on the Happy Egg Co, visit their site www.thehappyegg.co.uk