Monday, June 15, 2009

CHARENTE FRANCE 2009 Part 1











Paradise in Hennessys






Le Flora (6/6/09)
Storm forecasts notwithstanding, the Advisor booked a window table at Le Flora restaurant. That, by the way, is the top restaurant on the Brittany Ferries ship Pont Aven.
The gales never came on the Ringaskiddy – Roscof trip (14 hours) but the promise of a top notch meal was delivered on the high seas.
Starter was Shredded Crab, wrapped in Avocado puree and accompanied by a green bean mix and salad. Terrific!
Main course was pork – Pluma Pata Negra: pork steak, probably underdone by Irish standards but, accompanied by a potato cake (understated description) and a simple crispy lettuce, it was absolutely gorgeous.
Dessert for me was a Crumble Pommes, beautifully done with a few big black berries and a little swallow of fiery Calvados to wash it down. Loved it and also loved the other dessert at our table which was a Soufflé Grand Mariner with a little glass of the famous liquid to accompany it.
By the way, between the mains and desserts, we had the pleasure of picking three cheeses each from the cheese board. Can’t remember them all but the Tombe and the Livarot were the highlights for me.
After the sweets, the coffees were accompanied by a mini Cornetto.
There is a big range of wines available at low to high prices. Felt good so settled for a special offer, a Chateau Haut Surget from the Bordeaux region that cost about 24 euro. No regrets as it was a top notch wine.
Annoyingly, considering that most of the countries are now in the Euro, Brittany Ferries still favour the use of the UK pound on board, though in many cases both currencies are noted.
The total bill for this high quality meal, including a litre bottle of unexciting Vittal water, came to £76.90 or €90.45.

L’ESCAPADE (Royan) 7/6/09
In Royan (or more accurately its joined on neighbour St Georges de Didonne) on Sunday night, we struck it lucky. Many establishments were closed, having done great business earlier for Mother’s Day lunches.
L’Escapade though was open and we were among their first evening customers. Having eaten various bits and pieces on the 600km journey down, we didn’t need a whole pile so when we spied Moules Frites on the menu, we went for it.
We didn’t spot the word gross, the one they really meant. We got at least kilo of mussels each, all in a beautiful cream and onion sauce and a basket full of chips each.
We got stuck in and the shells piled up. Kept going until the very end and then used a spoon to sample further the wonderful cream and onion sauce and, despite the highish €16 tag for a half bottle of Entre Deux Mer Sauvignon blanc, promised to come back soon.

SAINTES Mon 08.06.09
Monday was DIY day. On a grey sometimes wet morning, we drove to Saintes. Ended up in a traiteur in the centre and got some Lapin Chasseur (hunter’s rabbit). Visited a huge Le Clerc’s on the way back to stock up with some basics.
Lunch was tomatoes, tombe and lettuce, with baguettes of course, thrown together quickly by ourselves and soon polished off.
Afternoon was spent at the delightful village of Talmont (sur Gironde). Enough of its famous hollyhocks were in bloom to give a hint of what is to come in the next few weeks in this little village on the north bank of the Gironde estuary.
Back then through the cornfields and vineyards to our little gite in Thezac, in the middle of nowhere but close to everywhere. The tomatoes and lettuce were again employed, this time as a starter, after being embellished with some oils and seasoning. Then out came that bag from the traiteur. A quick run in the microwave and we were ready for business. The rabbit was top class and that included the generous portions of liver that made up the €11.00 package.
Dessert didn’t disappoint. It was a pear and almond tart, bought from the counter in Le Clercs.
The wine, a dry yet fruity local Saugivon blanc, was high class but cost less than €3.00 in Le Clercs.

Not a bad first day!

COGNAC 09/06/09
On the brandy trail today, following the footsteps of Richard Hennessy from Killavullen. First though we needed lunch on arrival in Cognac. Called to a small cafe near the Martell distillery. For €16.00, we got one plate, packed with shredded kebab meat plus chips and salad, one packed with Merguez sausages plus chips and salad, along with 2 waters. Quite a feed.

Then walked down to the banks of the Charente to pick up our reserved tickets for the Hennessey tour. Crossed the river by Hennessy boat to a storage area to begin tour and then back again to the main administration area, all the time accompanied by an English speaking guide.

Finished up in the shop (Boutique) of course for a tasting. The amount of tastes you had depended on how much you paid for your tour. The plebs got just the ordinary Hennessey available in Ireland but we paid €12 instead of €9 and got two tastings, the second a Fine de Cognac. The Fine was really much better and we ended up buying a bottle for about €38.00 – the ordinaire cost €30.00.

Interesting tour, though we felt that the one we made a few years back to Henri Martin was the better of the two. Being a Corkman, I’m letting the side down but at the Martin distillery, you get a tour on a little train and you also see the barrels being made on site.
Back then to the gite in Thezac, called to a local shop for a few bits and pieces (food of course) and went on a longish walk through the fields of vegetables, corn and vines.

Wednesday 10.06.09
Not the best of days weather-wise. Dry and sunny early on but turned really nasty as we headed for Ile d’Oleron. Didn’t get any better when we made the crossing (over France’s longest bridge). Stopped for a few minutes but, when we got out of the car in Chateau D’Oleron to watch the oyster farmers in action, it lashed again. Discretion was the better part of valour we decided and headed back to base.

Dried up for our afternoon visit to Chateau de la Roche Courbon, regarded as the site for the Sleeping Beauty story. The complete visit, which included a guided tour of the chateau, cost €9.00 a head. Very interesting building (with an interesting story). The formal gardens are worth seeing and there are also some varying exhibitions held there. Also, on the grounds, are some prehistoric caves (grottes). The visit takes about three hours.

THURSDAY 11.06.09
Warmest day so far. In the morning headed off to our old haunt of the Marche in Royan – I told you this trip was all about food. Stocked up on mussels for lunch, brochettes du beouf for dinner, a buchette of saumon fume as starter plus strawberries and cherries. On the way back, called to baker in Pisany for baguette plus a couple of pastries.
You can’t eat without drinking. First call of the afternoon was to the local vineyard of Masse where we met Madame who was born in the farm where we are staying! She gave us a generous tasting of Pineau, both white and red. We bought some and also some of her lovely whites (columbard) and reds (merlot), each at 2.60 a bottle and, at the end of the friendly transaction – where we managed to have a conversation even though she didn’t use a word of English – she threw in a bottle of rose for free!

Got lost in the vineyards and fields briefly on the way back but the afternoon was still young and we headed down to the historic town of Pons where we enjoyed a walk through the old buildings, now in use as tourist and council offices. Called to the tourist office in the donjon, got some info and maps and promised ourselves and the friendly receptionist that we would be back next week for a more prolonged visit.
Back then to the gite for our barbecue which went on for hours as did the sun which set about 10.00pm. So ended another lovely day in the Charente.

FRIDAY 12 JUNE 09
With the weather settled, headed off for Ile d’Oleron. Drove over the Pont-Viaduc, the longest bridge in France at 3026 metres and up through the island to its furthest point where the Phare de Chassiron stands. This black and white banded 224 step lighthouse gives fabulous views over the sea and the coast but was closed for lunch 12.30 to 2.00pm. We had a walk in the vicinity and, the day being fine and clear, saw all the sights, right up to a sailing ship passing the towers of La Rochelle.

We have weeks to spend here yet so headed down to Boyardville. It has a packed marina and an unpacked 5 mile beach. There were only a few dozen there and most of these were individuals and families picked among the muddy sand for various shell fish, rapidly filling their buckets and baskets.
The view, on a day like today, is absolutely fantastic, almost 360 degrees of blue sky. Then there are the stretches of pine trees onshore and out to sea, again you can see la Rochelle, Ile d’Aix, Ile de Re and, of course, Fort Boyard, a curious stone structure rising off shore, a fort built under Napoleon the 3rd but outdated militarily before its completion in 1859 and now a destination for boat trips.

Headed back then to the gite and the pool for a refreshing dip before settling on the nearby Le Cottage in Les Arces (pronounced to rhyme with a collection of bottoms) for dinner. The restaurant is run by an Irishman Doug and his French wife Axelle. We made the reservation and arrived at seven.

First course was a maigret du canard (smoked) salad for the advisor while I had an asparagus salad (spears, hardboiled egg, little cubes of grapefruit, toasted almonds slivers and leaves). Both were brilliant.

My main was duck with gratin dauphinois, puréed pea and other seasonal vegetables. The adviser had lamb with much the same veg but no gratin. Didn’t think that pureed pea could taste so well but it was gorgeous as were both dishes.

Dessert was also on a very high level. We both went for the oven baked lemon cheesecake, recommended by Axelle who has a terrific command of the English language. The cheesecake, served with a few strawberries, rounded off a fantastic meal.

We took the house wine and that worked out at just €7.00 for a couple of jugs that totalled 70cl. Total cost of the meal, including a cup of coffee, was exactly €63.00. Back then though the back roads, passing the cornfields and vineyards as dusk came down all around.

*By the way, Le Cottage also serves draught Guinness and jus de Guinness is mentioned in some of the dishes.

SATURDAY 13 June 09 THE HOT DAY
This was a hot day from start to 9.00pm finish, temperatures hitting at least 35 degrees.
It wasn’t that hot when I headed the 3.5k to Pisany for a baguette and four croissants (€4.00 the lot). Croissants were gorgeous.
The sun was well up and we decided that this was a day to avoid the crowds at the beaches and to spend it close to the pool. But first, provisions had to be acquired, also a new lens for the camera. Headed to Royan and quickly got the lens at what seemed a good price to replace one that had been broken.
Next up to the Marche for a few bits and pieces, including pork chops for Saturday’s barbecue, and then back down to one of our favourites French traiteurs, Aux Pieds de Cochon (Guy Laurent) facing on to the Place de Gaulle, the big open square just up from Front de Mer. Here we treated ourselves to Fricassee de Poulet, earmarked for Sunday's meal.
We returned then, flying through highways and byways thanks to Susie (our Sat Nav nag). Nice salad for lunch and then a few dips in the pool before the Barbie. Another very enjoyable easy going jour in Charente! Tough going but someone has to do it...

SUNDAY 14 JUN 09
We’re in Saintes for the market, walking up Rue Gambetta with small groups of locals and tourists. And then we’re in the thick of it. Two facing rows of stalls turn into another street and the space is crowded.

Like Royan, this is mainly a food market. We’re already well stocked but pick up a few bits and pieces, like some very tasty Saigon rolls (some with shellfish and veg, others with poultry and veg), some cod (not the salted morue) but the fresh cabillaud and a chunk of Munster cheese, the Munster a valley in Alsace.
We are parked near the Arc Germanicus. Take a few pics there and head back to the gite for luch. Decide to stay away from the crowded beaches and instead opt for a nearby Les Jardins de Collette.
Not a great move. We arrived in St Andre de Leon and found the way well signposted. We do not have to pay the advertised four euro fee and we soon see why: the gardens are in a poor state and have been neglected for quite a while.
But there are some fine plants there and the Atlantic Cactus Garden survives and thrives mainly because it is a commercial outlet for the Domain de Chaillaud. The shop sells a range of local products, mainly cognacs and pineaus. We had a tasting of both pineaus and went off happy with a bottle of blanc for less than nine euro.