Doing the daily shop, French-style.
These aubergines are shinier than a militia man’s boots.
The lobster tank was looking a bit empty. I suspect there’d been a rush on lobster for cooling summer seafood platters.
This little piggy went to market, to hang out next to his brothers who are now a pair of delicious dried sausages. Oink oink.
Black-legged chickens with their heads ON, but running about no more.
Counting the chèvres…
Believe it or not, these rolls are called ‘hams’ of duck breast, and are stuffed with foie gras.
A trio of tapenades and other wicked treats to nibble with one’s apéro.
Legs of ham. With hoof or without?
Mimolette cheese (in case you were wondering). ‘Extra old’ says the label. You bet.
Extra old or prehistoric?
And to finish: Charentais melons in the Charente-Maritime.
World over, there are many versions of the Salade Niçoise and much debate over what constitutes the correct serving of this classic dish. Purists insist that no cooked component should be added, apart from the tuna itself, and even then the tuna is either optional or tinned (not in MY kitchen). As you can see from the title of this post, I am not a purist. Here’s my version, with an Oriental twist:
N.B. Ingredients are given per person.
Use any sort of salad leaves (Delia apparently likes rocket, I like spinach, but any sort of mixed leaf will also do. Avoid iceberg – it’s too bland and a bit seventies for my version) – enough to amply cover a dinner plate.
Haricots verts/ green beans - cooked on a rolling boil for just 5 minutes so they retain their crunch and are still bright green. Dunk them in a bowl of cold water to keep their colour bright, then pop them in the oven with a couple of nobs of butter, a shake of salt and pepper and a sprinkling of parmesan cheese. Leave 10 minutes on 150C or until the butter and cheese have melted. Then cool and add the beans to the salad leaves.
1 boiled egg, just warm and halved or quartered. Don’t add hot eggs to the plate as they will wilt the leaves.
A small handful of cherry tomatoes – either whole or halved, toss over the salad.
2-3 salad onions, chopped and dropped liberally across the salad.
Once all the salad ingredients are on the plate, start with the tuna. It needs watching so as not to overcook and become dry.
1 tuna steak, marinated in teriyaki sauce. Cook just a few minutes on each side, so that the centre of the steak is still pink. Sprinkle with sesame seeds and place on top of the salad. Pour any remaining teriyaki sauce over the top as this will provide an automatic dressing.
Some argue that a proper Niçoise salad should have either tuna or anchovies but not both. I’m easy on this score. The only thing I would suggest is that if you decide to add anchovies, make it the fresh, marinated anchovies as these are less salty than the preserved kind and bring a truly zesty tang to the salad.
So, as you can see, this is far from a traditional Niçoise. I blame my Pacific-rim upbringing and a love of teriyaki sauce.
Monsieur and I recently found ourselves in the searing hot Vendée region of France. On arrival it was forty degrees in the shade and the land was baking. The beach beckoned, so off we set for the coast for a swim. As it was still holiday season, we knew it would be busy, but the scene that greeted us at Les Sables d’Olonne reminded me of a real-life Ken Done painting; there was barely a square of sand free upon which to park our bottoms.
Even from a distance, the beach could be seen to crawl with hot, pink, sweaty bodies.
A short walk away was the lively little port, filled with fishing boats and gin palaces, afternoon excursion boats heading out to sea, yachts and hungry folk scratching their heads as they tried to decide which of the myriad eateries should get their business.
Here’s a romantic little boat we spied setting off for an evening sail:
Across the harbour, it would seem that the Entente Cordiale is alive and well at this frozen storage facility for the maritime co-op:
Back on our side of the water a local waits patiently for his dinner to take the bait:
Les Sables is really quite a pretty town, with an armour-clad winged victory atop its war memorial, looking suitably businesslike, yet stylish.
In spite of the armadillo-style fleece, I’m pretty sure it’s supposed to be a sheep that this wolf is ogling. Dinner time?
It was for us, and now we were the ones scratching our heads as we trotted back and forth along the port-side promenade, trying to decide where to eat.
In summary: Les Sables d’Olonne is a lovely little seaside town, but don’t go there on a hot, sunny weekend, unless sardining yourself on the sand is your idea of fun. The water isn’t particularly clear, either (read into that what you will). Food-wise, you’ll be spoilt for choice, especially on the port-side, but be warned: you’ll need to be patient to find a good deal in high season – walk around and look at ALL the menus before making your choice. If you go on a weekday, however, the fish market by the port sells all sorts of seafood, sauces and even wine, all of which would make a great addition to any picnic, and at reasonable prices.
**Health Warning: some parts of this post are love-struck and sentimental. Should you still decide to continue reading this, please ensure that your anti-nausea medication is to hand.
Have you heard of the Love Locks trend in Europe? It’s when you place a padlock on a bridge in the hope that your love will burn forever. Here’s what they look like on the Pont des Arts in Paris:
Most of the locks have names on them. I wonder who all these people are and where they live.
Please don’t shoot me for saying this, but I also wonder how many of these couples have now broken up and purchased new locks for new loves. I’d also like to know what happens to the keys. Do people throw them into the Seine? Or keep one each to wear close to their hearts? Or hide them in a keepsake box? Curiouser and curiouser! says Epic.
I’m tempted to take a lock with us on our next visit to Paris, although on telling Monsieur of my sentimental plan he rolled his eyes and told me that I’m hopelessly corny. Then, whilst pondering our marriage of romantic opposites I was almost run over by a Segway tour. I think Segways are pretty cool, but when you see twenty Segway riders in an orderly row, all wearing safety helmets and staring straight ahead, there’s something quite unnerving about it, like stepping into the parallel universe of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century with the Louvre in the background. Wrong. Really, quite wrong. Before returning to romantic daydreams I make the resolution never to take a Segway tour in Paris. Besides, a bit of exercise never did anyone any harm, and walkers don’t tend to mow you down on a FOOTpath, interrupting the softest of thoughts.
Now that I’m an old, married woman, this is my idea of Serious Eye Candy:
A windowful of beautiful handbags that had me drooling on a recent visit to Paris. If I had a spare €3,000.00 I’d buy six. Oui, I have impeccable taste. They retail at €500 – €600 a piece. Alas, I have Champagne taste and Cava pockets.
Join me in dribbling over French leather goods here: Just Campagne.
Last April, Monsieur and I visited Rome and were completely robbed at one establishment where the €20.00 menu served the sort of lifeless food that I wouldn’t give to my dead grandmother. A man, claiming to be a patron of the restaurant, then started harassing me online, stating that I was mistaken about said establishment and should retract the review. I ignored him. Later, the same man, now purporting to be the restaurant owner, threatened me with legal action if I didn’t remove the blog post concerned. He kindly pointed out that I shouldn’t expect much for €20.00 a head (without drinks) anywhere in Europe. I beg to differ.
Living in London means that I’m well-accustomed to the price of everything, especially as my salary has been frozen for what seems like forever, whilst prices in England’s capital continue to rise. Anyone who knows me knows that I was born with The Thrifty Gene, meaning that I seek out a bargain wherever I can and that approach to life extends to food and all manner of things culinary.
Certainly, for birthdays and anniversaries and holidays and the like Monsieur and I like to spend a bit more than usual. However, we also watch both sides of every coin, as a rule, allowing us to afford those treats; the fact that they don’t fall on every single day of the calendar year means that we only appreciate them more. The rest of the time, we remain careful about how much we spend and where, and most of the time we have great success at getting the most out of a €20.00 per head meal. Brunching last summer in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, we did incredibly well out of an €18.00 set menu, which then set us up for the entire day. Bargain. Check out what was included:
- 1 hot drink – either tea or coffee or hot chocolate
- 1 fresh fruit juice – orange or grapefruit
- Fresh pastries – a selection
- Bread, butter and jams
- Pancakes with maple syrup
- Muesli, fromage blanc and fruit
So far, so good, right? Right.
But wait, Mesdames et Messieurs, there’s more.
Then you could order an egg – either boiled, fried, fried with bac0n, scrambled or scrambled with bacon.
And we’re not finished yet. Lastly, you could add your choice from the ‘French Touch’ menu, listing items that would cost you €6 to €8.00 if you ordered à la carte. Here’s the selection:
Plate of cooked meats OR foie gras terrine OR beef carpaccio OR chipolatas and what they call ‘sits frizzles’ (whatever that is) OR tart of the day OR plate of cheese OR smoked salmon.
Trust me, Saint-Rémy isn’t cheap but this brunch menu, available at weekends year-round and every day during July and August, provided excellent value. Who says you can’t eat well for €20.00 a head in Europe? Here are some photos of what we had:
Here we have the muesli with fromage blanc, topped with fresh fruit salad, a smart little tray of nutella, maple syrup and a honey (for the pancakes), a delicious mixed-fruit smoothie that magically appeared in addition to our hot drinks and juices, smoked salmon tartare topped with a delicious but superfluous mint chantilly and the classic boiled egg with soldiers.
Spot the difference? On this occasion, Monsieur chose the fried egg with bacon.
There was a generous basket of soft, warm pastries to share, with wonderful bread and breadsticks.
The coffee came in generous boules, the grapefruit juice tasted freshly-squeezed, and in case Nutella, syrup and honey didn’t provide enough choice with which to slather your morning pancakes and tartines, also provided were two jams and a marmalade in a trio of glass verrines.
Besides the excellent food that Monsieur and I had the pleasure to enjoy at le Grain de Sel, the staff were warm, the location central and the presentation of everything showed the seriousness with which food was treated by all who worked here. We returned three mornings in a row and highly recommend it to anyone having the fortune to visit Saint-Rémy-de-Provence.
FYI – I just checked the prices on the Grain de Sel website and they haven’t risen a sou since last July. Bonus! See for yourself here - Le Grain de Sel.
Marseille: an ancient city renowned for many things, among which number its huge commercial port, a small crime problem, the legendary Château d’If and fine bouillabaisse. The city lent its name to the French national anthem, la Marseillaise, pastis was born here and Marcel Pagnol took childhood walks in the lush Parc Borély. I suggest that we add to this hall of fame the Hotel Pullman Marseille Palm Beach, where Monsieur and I splurged for a night of luxury during our South of France ‘vacances’ last year.
Even for we two inveterate travellers, it had been a long day. We’d driven up from the Camargues, lunched at a sleepy Martigues and screeched into the last boat trip of the day around the calanques near the pretty port of Cassis. The driving in the vicinity of such a natural wonder is reputed to be fraught with tempers frayed by battles fought over parking spaces; sadly, we’d found it to be exactly so, yet somehow managed to escape without a single dent in our fender. Leaving the beauty behind as we entered the messy sprawl of the outskirts of Marseille, we were intent on a night of calm and relaxation. Fortunately, once we found the Pullman Hotel, calm and relaxation is exactly what we enjoyed.
I say ‘once we found’ because the Pullman is James Bond-esque in the way that it hides behind a curve in the Corniche, sinking its storeys below the coastal thoroughfare so that it’s barely visible from the road. We, as many others must have done before us, drove straight on past the entrance before recognising our mistake and navigating a U turn – no mean feat in the early evening rush of traffic – to return to our abode for the night.
A porter swiftly separated luggage from vehicle as a valet disappeared with the car down a ramp into what could have been Hades for all we knew – via the entrance to what we deduced must be the subterranean car park - very 007 once again. Inside, a vast lobby was populated by three or four staff and one of those life-size sculptures of a cow wearing far splashier colours than might be expected in your average milking shed. Elsewhere, the furniture was über chic in the fashion of a deconstructed Mondrian (read: hard-cornered squares and rectangles in primary colours) but quite uncomfortable looking – the subliminal message being that this was not a place to get cosy, although the view across the bay was spectacular and it would be quite possible to spend a couple of hours sitting here watching ships and yachts navigating the busy bay.
Fortunately, our room had its own, private view out to sea, and a balcony from which to enjoy it at our leisure. It was a hot evening, hazy and vaguely rose-tinted. We watched stand-up paddlers taking advantage of the calm waters.
Looking to our right the Corniche snaked against the coast, a gigantic propeller blade rising in dark silhouette against the sunset; this was the 1971 oeuvre of Marseille’s sculptor son, César, honouring the repatriation of people from North Africa to France.
To wash off the day’s accumulation of salt and sweat, we took a dip in the Pullman’s pool, which looked like this:
It was big enough to accommodate pre-dinner swimmers of all ages, from pre-schooler to retiree, and the water was just the right type of cool.
Later, as Monsieur and I basked in the last of the day’s sun, we flicked through guides in an attempt to decide how and where to dine. In the end, room service won. We would sup in our bathrobes, with the unsurpassable vista visible from our balcony, gathering strength for the serious task of exploring Marseille the next day.
The doorbell rang and our evening meal arrived. Seconds later, Monsieur settled down with comfort food: a burger and plump, golden fries with a verrine of coleslaw in a nod to the possibility of fresh produce, even if it hadn’t been ordered in quantity tonight.
I stuck to lighter fare. The smoked salmon was delicious, served with mini-blinis, a dollop of taramasalata and another of soft, herbed cheese. The salad leaves were unusually unblemished, natural, sans vinaigrette.
Then I allowed myself a small plate of cheese.
A glass of crisp, chilled white wine completed the experience.
And so, when last in Marseille, Monsieur and I unabashedly enjoyed our room service supper in our own time, watching all manner of seafaring vessel criss-crossing the bay as the sun sank in the west. It was the epitome of a holiday dining experience: good, simple food, great view, the privacy of our own room and no glad rags required. Not to mention the double bill of Engrenages (Spiral) on TV. A perfect evening, indeed.
It was nearing the end of our ‘vacances’ in the South of France last summer and we spent our last morning visiting the town famed for brocante: L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue. Walking through the picturesque centre-ville, that day brimming with parading brass bands in competition, their supporters and weekend visitors like ourselves, we’d worked up quite an appetite. Rather than stay in town, which offered a fair number of riverside terrace restaurants with postcard views, Monsieur and I drove back into the surrounding countryside, to visit Restaurant La Villa.
Initially, we thought we might have been lost, because the area in which this restaurant is located is so very residential that garden play-sets are visible from the street. We continued with the directions, until we found a gate and a huge, grassy parking area, more like a massive lawn than a place to leave cars. Beyond the car park was another surprise: a large swimming pool, dangerously inviting on such a blistering day, but had we come to the right place? Was this an eatery or was it someone’s home?
At the swimming pool all became clear; to one side lay bronzed patrons, basking on loungers; to the other were tables in the shade of an awning – there, we would dine. Practically all of the terrace tables were taken. There were more seating areas inside, but no one wants to be overly sheltered on such a halcyon day; the interior was devoid of life. Fortunately, the warm waiter who greeted us only shook his head for the briefest of moments when we admitted we had no reservation. Weekend lunches here in summer are usually fully booked, he explained, yet he found us a table and, unbidden, located a fan to keep us cool.
This dragonfly was mesmerising. She clung to the fan to cool herself before flitting off around the pool, only to return moments later for a refresher.
The menu was far from exhaustive, allowing Monsieur and I to make our choices with some speed. We were ravenous by this stage, in spite of the heat. I decided on the seafood salad, while Monsieur probed our waiter about the cut of pork and which part of the beast it hailed from. Taking Monsieur’s shoulder, the waiter caressed it a little too attentively as he explained exactly which body part Monsieur would be eating. From across the table, my husband flashed me a look of bemusement and I stifled a giggle. Our waiter was absolutely lovely, very gay and, now it appeared, rather tactile when it came to explaining the source of his meats. If only all wait-staff could be like him, we’d be very happy diners indeed!
My seafood salad kept me silent for quite some time. It was much larger than I’d anticipated and consisted of powerfully fresh ingredients which were beautifully presented.
The king prawns were succulent in the extreme, anchovies on a perfectly golden crouton were a contrast to the rest of the salad in both texture and saltiness and the scallops had been seared with skill, retaining a silken consistency which gave them bounce in the mouth. No complaints from me. The dragonfly continued to come and go from the fan. I didn’t blame her; it certainly was hot.
Too hot (in my opinion) for what Monsieur chose to eat: a ‘plume’ of pork, from Mont Ventoux,(a regional mountain of note where the pigs must be happy with their lot, making them taste better) served with aubergines and sautéed potatoes.
Monsieur and I cleared our plates, coughed up the requisite Euros, thanked our charming waiter, left the sun worshippers behind and set off for Avignon and our last night of vacation. We had a wonderful evening planned, replete with ‘last supper’, but for now our appetites were sated and we could travel happy.
**In summary: Restaurant La Villa serves excellent food without pretention or attitude. A wonderfully relaxed setting in which to chill out of a weekend. In case of disappointment, I wouldn’t recommend chancing it like we did; definitely book in advance for weekend brunch in the summer.
Restaurant La Villa,A750 Avenue Jean Monnet, 84800 L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, France