Sunday, August 02, 2009
Our Heart's Home
If I were to describe this year's French adventure to you, I would probably say that it felt like something out of a dream- an idyllic dream filled with sumptuous plates of carefully prepared regional cuisine, painterly landscapes consisting of charming vineyards and rolling hillsides- and lovely people, lots of lovely people.
Perhaps I should start off by mentioning that during our previous vacations, we had always opted to rent an authentic French house. We were especially keen on this because it gave us the feeling that we really were living in France. Last year for example, we rented a house with a lovely garden filled with all sorts of fruits and vegetables and the year before, we even had the two horses of the house as pets.
That all changed when we happened to wander into a small vacation park in the Ardeche last year, a day before we were set to come back home. I didn't really think it was my thing, but Hans mentioned that something like this might be ideal for Kirstie. She would probably get a chance to meet lots of other children and that in turn might give us a more relaxed vacation. In other words, we didn't have to be her sole source of entertainment during the entire trip. I agreed and went in search of a place that would suit all of us. It had to have a pool and some sort of playground and it definitely had to be within close proximity to the vineyards!
I came across Le Cabri, a family owned vacation park just outside the city of Duras. It fulfilled all of our requirements (it even had a restaurant serving local cuisine!) so I went ahead and booked us a Grand Chalet for two weeks. We were certainly in for a treat!
After a tiresome two- day journey, we arrived at Le Cabri and were cordially greeted by the English owner, Peter. He showed us to our chalet and immediately made us feel right at home. Kirstie was especially happy when he mentioned that he had two boys for her to play with. That evening at the restaurant we had a chance to meet his lovely wife, Eileen and the next day Kirstie met Tom and Louie. I was already quite pleased with this year's choice- and that was even before I had the chance to try the marvelous confit de canard served at the restaurant!
Our days were spent making day trips to local towns and villages, wandering through typical French markets, having lunch at lovely restaurants and driving through the panoramic landscape filled with vineyards, fields of golden wheatfields and long stretches of bright yellow sunflowers as far as the eye could see. More than once I turned to Hans and told him I had the feeling we were driving right through a Van Gogh painting- it was absolutely breathtaking! In the evenings we would sit at Le Cabri's sunny terrace to enjoy the late evening sunshine and round off our day with a lovely meal and a good bottle of some of the local wines. Kirstie had a blast showing off her swimming skills at the pool, playing petanque and mini-golf with all the lovely children and even fishing with Tom, Louie and their grandfather! She also met a friendly little Dutch fellow named Kas. One time he even invited her to dinner!
It would take me forever to give you a full account of everything we did, ate and drank, so here are a few highlights of yet another wonderful French vacation.
Day trips to lovely places such as:
-Marmande, home to some of the most delicious tomatoes. We noticed quite some Spanish influence in this town. Especially in the people and the style of the houses.
-Monségur, one of the many bastide towns in the area. It has an impressive iron- covered market dating back to the late 19th century. I purchased a gorgeous wine decanter in a cozy and very French antique shop in this town!
-Monflanquin, marvelously preserved arcades, panoramic views and typically narrow streets made this one of our favorite towns to visit.
-Cahors, medieval city surrounded by water and home to some of my favorite vineyards. We had a sumptuous meal at restaurant Le Palais which is situated smack in the middle of one of the busiest streets, Boulevard Leon Gambetta. Hans' meal was oeufs mayonnaise followed by a perfectly grilled entrecôte and finished off with a very chocolatey chocolate mousse. I had the Menu Découverte which started off with a plate of twelve plump little escargots bathed in plenty of butter, parsley and garlic. Then came a tender magret de canard with pepper sauce and after that the dessert which was grilled pineapple and raspberry sorbet presented with a luscious swirl of crème anglaise. Of course, we washed this down with an intense, almost black glass of Cahors. We left happy, with full stomachs and four bottles of wine richer.
-Saint-Émilion , the place I couldn't miss- not only because of its impressive ruins or amazing Romanesque churches, but because of the wine! I think I had mentioned that I would probably cry of happiness as we approached the vineyards of this medieval wine producing town- and I did! What a pleasure it was to drive from château to château and get out of the car to actually feel the grapes and be able to take it all in! Once in the centre ville, we wandered through the steep, cobblestone streets, stopping along the way to taste some wine or marvel at the tourists who obviously came here for the very same reason we did! The afternoon ended with lunch at the panoramic terrace of Bistrot Le Clocher. Hans and I both opted for the trio de cote d' agneau and a glass of their best grand cru. And of course, three bottles were taken home as souvenirs! Before heading back to the car, we popped into the famous Ferlion Macarons Blanchez Bakery where we purchased Saint-Émilion 's other gastronomic specialty- macarons! Now don't get confused, these are not the macarons you have in mind, but rather flatter, paler cookies baked directly onto a piece of paper. These chewy, almondy treats were the sweet ending to our most anticipated wine trip!
-Soumensac, where we enjoyed a very memorable lunch consisting of barbecued meats and regional foods. We ate with the locals on a hillside covered with picnic tables, many beautifully dressed with bright tablecloths. The whole atmosphere made it feel as though I was actually inside Renoir's “The Luncheon of the Boating Party”. It was surreal!
-Bordeaux, so much more than wine! This bustling city meant stopping to admire sights such as the Cathédrale Saint-André de Bordeaux or having a glass of red at a lively terrace. Of course we also visited one the city's best bakeries, Pâtisserie Antoine, where we treated ourselves to the most decadent canelés ever! For those of you who haven't heard of them, canelés are small, tender cakes, slightly crispy on the outside and moist on the inside. They are made with a batter similar to the one used for crêpes and are flavored with vanille de Tahiti and rhum vieux.
-Lacanau-Océan, very touristic hotspot with an incredible beach! Couldn't resist stopping for a sweet and sinful Manolito (Bacardi, sparling water, cane sugar, lime, strawberry syrup and ice) and doing some people- watching at one of the many booming bars!
-And last but not least, Duras! This lovely place was just ten minutes away from where we stayed. Especially memorable was celebrating our first 14 juillet with the locals! We spent the evening chatting and sharing drinks with a lovely Englishman (who also happened to be Peter's dad). He told us stories about life in Duras and delighted us with his account of his trip to the US. In the meantime, Kirstie was having fun with Tom and Louie and a few other local children. We really felt at home- and I'm not ashamed to say that I almost had to hold back a few happy tears when I stopped and realized how lucky we were! The evening was ended with an impressive fireworks display at the entrance of Château de Duras. If I can help it, that won't be our last 14 juillet in France! And speaking of Château de Duras, we spent a very educational afternoon there wandering through the château's majestic rooms and even climbing the 'very dangerous' staircase to the tower where we indulged in an amazing view of the Dropt valley! After that we stopped for a dégustation at Maison de Vins de Duras for a little educating of the palate!
-Orléans, the last city we visited. We divided our trip home into two days and that was a wonderful idea! Not only did it make our journey more relaxed, it also gave us an extra day in la douce France! After a walk through the city and a stop at Cathédrale Sainte-Croix, we had dinner at Le Brin de Zinc- our last French indulgence!
-As luck would have it, Aquitaine is a true garden of Eden with an enormous bounty of fruits and vegetables such as Marmande tomatoes, the famous Agen prunes, Charentais melons and Perigord strawberries. It is no wonder that huge orchards line many of the region's roads! Other regional products include Bayonne ham (which we stuffed into almost every baguette), piment d' Espelette, oysters from Arcachon, truffles and all sorts of duck products such as magret, foie gras and confit de canard. And that's before we even get into the drinks department- all the Bordeaux wines, Cahors, Sauternes, Armagnac and Cognac!
Memorable meals included the starter of escargots at Cahors. They were some of the best I've ever had! I can still taste how fleshy and perfectly seasoned they were- not to mention what a joy it was to dip pieces of bread into their garlicky, buttery juices!
I also thoroughly enjoyed my confit de canard at restaurant Le Cabri. The crust was cooked to crispy perfection and the dark, full- flavored meat was tender and absolutely divine. Actually, all of the meals we had at Le Cabri were fabulous- the coquilles St. Jacques served in a delightful cardamom sauce, the bavette with pepper sauce, the pain de poisson (amazing fish terrine- I need the recipe!) served with aioli, the entrecôte with blue cheese sauce, the magret de canard, the Mediterranean gambas and the moules frites- all very tasty! Even the olives provided with our drinks were quite delicious! We truly were lucky because the restaurant was directly across from our chalet- and that meant many sultry summer evenings spent enjoying wonderful food and great wines!
Although not exactly regional, the pizzas served at Restaurant Don Camillo situated at Rue Paul Persil in Duras definitely deserve a mention. Without exaggerating, these were probably the best pizzas I've ever had! The crust was thin and crispy and the toppings were fresh and tasty. I especially enjoyed the pizza fruit de mer- yum! Their crème brûlée was also heavenly- you could actually see the vanilla seeds- a sign of a good crème brûlée as far as I'm concerned!
The meal of lamb at Bistrot Le Clocher at Saint-Émilion was another memorable one. The side of minced vegetable clafouti complemented the perfectly cooked meat beautifully. My only complaint was the tiny portions! But hey, the glass of grand cru made up for the lack of meat!
Although hardly fancy, we loved the chichis (fried dough served piping hot and dipped in sugar) which we ate at the Duras Fete de la Madeleine. We also had (and I'm dead serious here!) the most amazing, freshly- prepared crêpes sucre at a stand at Place du Martroi in Orléans. They were steaming hot and sprinkled with just the right amount of sugar!
Our last unforgettable meal was enjoyed at restaurant Le Brin de Zinc in Orléans. I enjoyed yet another perfect pan of mussels- this time served with crème fraîche, white wine, mushrooms and lardons!
So, that pretty much sums up our two weeks in Aquitaine! I'm sure I forgot to mention about a million little, wonderful things. We seem to live (and eat!) for a whole year in the two weeks when we're in France every summer- and that just goes to show how much we adore our heart's home!
For more photos, click here: J' adore la France!