The weather is getting better and better (and hotter), it’s breakfast on Wednesday and we are all still talking about the previous nights amazing dinner and the theatre involved in its delivery.
We have some trips today, a respite from frantic mise en place and intense cooking, spending 3 hours a session ( 2 a day) on your feet in the kitchen has had its impact, all our ankles are swollen with what is probably water retention!!The story goes that a Monk called Dom Pérignon was visiting the area around Limoux in the Languedoc and stumbled across fellow monks that in 1531, had discovered a method to make sparkling ‘wine’, the Monks were based at the abbey in Saint-Hilaire, he pinched the idea and ‘Champagne’ was born!
Dom Pérignon (1638–1715) was a monk and cellar master at the Benedictine abbey in Hautvillers and obviously very good at marketing, the rest is history!We were going to visit a small local family producer in Limoux that makes the two varieties of wine, Crémant and Blanquette. The tour was ‘interesting’, they had invested in some high-tech visual presentations that seemed to miss something, in fact quite a lot but it was still fun nonetheless.
At the end was the tasting session and we got to try a variety of their produce which is extremely good, and excellent value for money at 10€ to 15€ a bottle. They have a website and can ship to England, the quality was very very good and it was difficult to distinguish between what we were drinking and the more expensive Champagne which is often overpriced and way too acidic.
All-aboard, back into the mini-bus and we were off to the village of Saint Frichoux.Behind the simple (but very thick) walls of La Belle Minervoise built in 1895 hides a stunning Chambres d’Hôtes, or French Bed and Breakfast owned by the lovely Jean-Claude and Sophie who are also professional Patissier’s and Chocolatiers, the reason for our visit to the tiny hamlet of Saint Frichoux, very close to the Canal Du Midi and not far from Carcassonne.I recently learnt how to temper Chocolate the modern way using ‘MyCryo Cocoa Butter Powder‘ with Mark Tilling, the Great British Bake Off Crème de la Crème winner in 2016 which was a real honour but this was equally a humbling experience.
Jean-Claude has been following the manual method of tempering for many years and met his life long partner Sophie who is a Pâtissier, got married and subsequently jointly owned and ran an establishment just outside Paris, before moving South for a less hectic lifestyle.
They welcomed us with open arms and we were treated to a masterclass (with hands-on), to the art of manual chocolate tempering over a slab of marble. It takes time and patience heating the Chocolate, reducing the temperature on the slab until you can see Crystals form on the surface etc…. it took time but audience participation added to the experience.Once the process has been completed which took quite a while as, despite the thick walls the room was still too warm, you can use the Chocolate to fill moulds and Jean-Claude started with small simple shapes.After dipping some Marzipan to make some traditional treats we were shown how to deal with moulds, which is not as easy as you might think. Done properly you will end up with a glossy sheen and no ‘bloom’, or white markings which is the Cocoa Butter that has not been tempered properly.
We had great fun with Jean-Claude and Sophie they were very hospitable and if you check out their B&B on Tripadvisor you will see nothing but positive comments. It was unfortunately time to move on so we all clambered into the mini-bus again and headed to the small village of Lastours which is about 7.5 miles away from Carcassonne, our gastronomic destination for the evening being ‘Le Puits du Trésor‘, which means The Well of Treasures.
We made a short detour on the way, only 5 minutes and hidden behind a small touring park you can see the famous ruins of the Châteaux de Lastours, 4 structures that formed a defensive bastion for hundreds of years. I plan to go back to this part of France to learn more about the Cathars and visit some of the historical sites which I find absolutely fascinating. As we headed down a steep windy road (there are quite a few of those around here!), we turned a sharp corner and before us was a significant building, an ex textile factory nestling against the backdrop of the Montagne Noire, the ‘Black Mountain’ with the River Orbiel running alongside.Jean-Marc Boyer achieved his Michelin Star in 2007 after years of training in some of the best 2* and 3* restaurants in France, and has continued to receive the accolade on an annual basis to this day, as well as the restaurant he also runs a Bistro, ‘Auberge du Diable au Thym’ at the opposite end of the building which offers lunchtime light eating at very reasonable prices.
Jean-Marc was a very good tutor when he spent two days with us, had a lovely manner, lots of patience (believe me, he needed it with us lot!), and a really great sense of humour which kept us on our toes. His approach is market fresh produce, simple ingredients cooked and prepared to perfection.
The restaurant menu is VERY dependent on what produce is available, mood of the Chef, and weather, so you don’t know what you are going to eat until you sit down and the plate is placed before you, exciting stuff!The Hors d’oeuvre arrived to whet our appetites and tickle the taste buds, some beautiful Salmon with a macerated Strawberry ‘sauce’ with Basil Chiffonade, it was very tasty indeed and set the scene for the dishes ahead.The starter was simply delicious, perfectly prepared and beautifully presented. VERY fresh Asparagus, served in a lovely light, crispy Puff Pastry case (Jean-Marc does not buy Pastry, it was home-made and FULL of buttery richness), the sauce was Mustard and Citrus, Lemon in the Sauce but with some strategically placed Orange confit tricked the palate, damn it was really so good. SIMPLE done Brilliantly!The mains arrived next, Stone Bass, a very meaty fish found swimming around wrecks, a bit like a Grouper, which was served with an ‘assiette’ or selection of Vegetables that had been supplied market fresh that morning. Again simple but well cooked food, accompanied by a very complex but tasty sauce, another winning dish. Freshly made Bread helped mop up any leftover sauce, it would be rude not too!Finally dessert, and there were two of them. Firstly, an imaginative crispy pastry base, with a Strawberry Soufflé filling, never had this before and it was very good indeed, offset by a home-made caramel Ice-cream. A lightly macerated Strawberry ‘Stew’ with more home made ice-cream finished the meal off, a very satisfying finish to a really good day.C’est Tout, that’s it. Another adventure over, more foodie friends made. Vasily, the Russian from Switzerland who was a Cheese addict and made us all laugh in so many ways, Paul and Sue from the U.S., our political commentators ably joined by Marc, the ex Chef, Journalist and Travel Writer. And the adorable Ali and Sue, keen foodies who had met on a previous cooking vacation, kept in touch and carried on the tradition.
Massive thanks must go to Moira and her able team of helpers, and the star Chefs, Robert and Jean-Marc, who’s attention, patience and teaching helped us all achieve new culinary levels.
………………………Until Next Time………………L8ers………………………..
(P.S. I Paid full price for this vacation and have not been bribed or coerced in any way! The French House Party is named Top Retreat in the National Geographic book by American travel writer Pam Grout: “The 100 Best Worldwide Vacations to Enrich Your Life”.