Sunday, November 28, 2010

Six Monks, One Lighthouse, No Crackers

And so it came to pass, in the turning of the seasons, that the pre-Christmas celebrations would start. To wit, Robin Hicks, he of What's On Where Hérault, arranged the seventh annual Cassan Cracker Fair, where English-speakers and their French friends would gather for two days of a Christmas fair, where handcrafters would sell the kind of goods which inevitably show up when one is moving and provoke questions like "Where on earth did this come from?" and answers like "Oh, don't you remember Emily? She went back to England after Richard died, poor dear, but she lived just down the road when we first got here. She gave us that for Christmas one year. Heaven knows what she was thinking."

I was there because I'd been invited to a press lunch by the Béziers/Cap d'Agde Airport, and because Peter of The Languedoc Page was also going and agreed to pick me up in his car at a frigid 10am at the Odysseum. Oh, and "there" was the Château-Abbaye de Cassan, which is pretty much all there is to Cassan, which lies between Roujan and Gabian, if you have a map. More on it in a minute.

Cassan lies not far from Pézénas, one of the chief British colonies in Languedoc, a village where Molière used to hang out, but which was pretty much deserted by its young folks a couple of decades ago, when a smart real-estate agent there who spoke good English started selling properties to Brits in search of a second home or a retirement property. Pézénas has a connection with England going back to one Clive of India, who apparently spent time there in the 18th Century and introduced a nasty little pastry the town still sells, which seems to be ground lamb in a sweet crust. He didn't retire there, though; he mostly lived in England, where he smoked plenty of opium, and stabbed himself to death with his pen-knife, which must have hurt.

At any rate, a lot of the British people I've met around here have an interestingly bifurcated mindset, loving their new home unashamedly while pining away for a few things the French don't have, like Marmite, PG Tips tea, and the whole rigamarole of Christmas in England. (I have to agree: after 15 Christmases in Germany, the French really don't seem to do it up like the Americans, Brits, and Germans do). Thus the Cracker Fair. Now, for my American friends, I have to explain Christmas crackers, which are not a baked good, but, rather, a firecracker of modest payload. Very modest: it's shaped sort of like a Tootsie-Roll, but with tabs at either end which, when pulled, set off a bang. Then you strip the paper off and see what's inside the paper tube. There's a fortune, a silly trick you have to perform, and a gift of some sort. (The one time I did it, I got a rubber duck key ring, but depending on what you pay for the crackers, the gifts can be way more extravagant -- or way less).

But there's a big problem getting Christmas crackers to France. They are, after all, explosives. You can't take them on a plane. They have to be brought in a car, which raises the price considerably, and this has given rise to a class of entrepreneurs who smuggle them in and sell them to the nostalgic Brits. So on a very cold but sunny Saturday, people come to this event, drink mulled wine, hear recorded carols, and buy stuff.

Except this year, there were a few problems. First, the first word in the event's title: Christmas. As in tree. There wasn't one. Now, like I said, it was amazingly cold at 11, when we got there. We'd seen dustings of snow on the further-off peaks of the Cévennes, and Peter said Pic St. Loup had a bit on its top. Robin's tree supplier had called him earlier in the day and announced that there was no way he was driving down with the tree from Olargues (a bit to the east, mostly on highways) because he'd either never make it down or never make it back up. Given the way the weather turned out, warming up a bit in the afternoon as the sun made itself known, this and my recent experience with the plumber led me to conclude that the guy hadn't cut the tree at all.

Then there were the crackers. Last year, a bookshop had ordered them, and so had a couple of other stands at the fair. There were way too many, and everyone wound up taking a lot back with them. So they solved this this year by not buying any. Any of them. So there were no crackers. If there hadn't been so many vendors that the place was jammed, Robin probably would have been miserable.

Eventually, I drifted into the place, and walked around. It's been under renovation since 2002, and so little of it has been finished that you have to reflect what awful shape it was in when the current owners bought it. I wandered in and out of rooms (the old kitchen, which bore a sign informing us that "The food served in the Dining Room was cooked in the Kitchen," hosted an artisinal chocolate maker whose pots gave off a heavenly odor), and finally hit the old chapel.

The other end is even more spectacular, although I aimed the camera away from the tack:

Most of the adornment in the place is long gone, although I did find this fragment:

This got me wondering about just what this place was. A sign at the entrance says that it was founded by Charlemagne in 800 AD, but nothing I saw was that old. After lunch, I wandered around some. The façade was obviously 18th Century:


I wandered into the vineyard (the place is also a winery), to take a picture.

We'd seen this odd structure coming in, and wondered what it was: it made no sense from any sort of defensive angle. But while I was shooting the picture, I noticed a sign behind me and over a couple of rows. It turned out to be part of the guided tour the place offers during the season, and informed me that this tower was a 19th Century addition which was built over a spring. Kind of a pretentious spring house, but whatever. Of more interest was the square tower, which was on a round base from the 11th Century, to which a later finish had been added.

But the most fascinating structure was the one which unlocked the whole story of the place and itself was something I'd never before encountered:

It was a lighthouse.

Aha: it all came clear. Cassan is on the way to Santiago de Compostella, the number one pilgrimage site in medieval Europe. This is why Charlemagne built the place and why, in 1080, the church stuck an Abbot and six monks there: to man a hospital and rest stop for pilgrims. It proved to be a smart move, which is why the place kept expanding. The hospital building included this lighthouse on the top, where a fire burned night and day to signal the pilgrims to the priory, its hospitality and its hospital. The hospital turned out to be important even after the pilgrimages slacked off (although they still continue today: in back of St. Roch church here in Montpellier there's a sign on a door stating that Compostella pilgrims will be accommodated between 4 and 6 pm, and I saw an inn in Narbonne that caters to pilgrims), which explains the size of the place.

These photos show the older, smaller, hospital building and the larger, newer part of the place in context.

The Château-Abbaye was deconsecrated during the Revolution, and passed through a bunch of owners, but was mostly ruins until recently. It was a nice day out, and it even stayed somewhat warm until the sun went down. Thanks to all who helped get me there, and if you still need Christmas crackers, there will likely be some for sale at Le Bookshop here in Montpellier, as well as possibly at the English Corner Shop, which, I add as a public service, is seriously overstocked on mincemeat for your Christmas pies.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Further Lemonade: Bowled and Jointers

Man, getting a plumber here isn't easy. First, there was the landlord's plumber, who lied about having come here. Then I was given the number and e-mail of an English-speaking plumber Chuck and Judi down at the Corner Shop knew. No word from him, but he eventually told them he didn't think he could fix my problem and anyway, he had too much work. Finally, a friend gave me the number of her guy, who she said was fast and honest. Forty-five minutes before he was due to show up, he left a message on my phone saying he hadn't realized my place was in the pedestrianized zone and he couldn't get his truck in. So I did what any sensible person would do: I went to get my hair cut. The woman who did the job lives near me -- I occasionally see her walking to work in the morning -- and said she had a plumber who only did the pedestrianized zone and gets around on a motor-scooter. It being Friday, I knew calling him today (he only takes reservations in the morning) would be useless, but I've got the number. And now my landlord says his plumber is coming...sometime. 

So yesterday I took the advice of a friend and started clearing out the kitchen mess by doing the dishes in the bathtub. I'll tackle a second load in a few minutes after I write this, and I have to say, it's got me a bit worried about sanitation (although I did clean the bathtub thoroughly before I washed last night's load), but I simply cannot afford to eat out every night.

Still, there were two more nights out, so, as long as I'd spent the money, I should report to you folks, especially since I discovered a place that flipped me out.

The first night, I went to an old favorite down in Gourmet Gulch, a place where I've gone enough times that the folks there know me, le Chat Perché. Actually, I've been there enough that I was able to notice something: the menu hasn't changed since, oh, maybe a year ago. This is odd. One of the great things about this place was always their ongoing creativity, mixing Moroccan and Italian influences in with the French dishes. But, unlike during a lot of the most recent visits, my taste buds were working, so at least I got to see what I'd been missing. The brick au thon was a fine starter, brick being a deep-fried North African pastry made out of an extremely thin piece of dough folded into a square. The tuna and potato filling was unctuous, but the brick could have come out of the pan a few seconds earlier, I thought. The main dish was chicken breast with a Conté cheese sauce, devoid of the Moroccan thing, but, as usual, accompanied by little shaped vegetable sides: a ball of minty mashed potatoes, a cone of sautéed eggplant with raisins, and a little flan of...broccoli? I don't know; it was green, at any rate, nicely browned on the top. This was washed down with a new house wine, a Pic-St.-Loup I neglected to write down, but whatever it is, it's the one that's not the Puech Grand Dévot, their other house wine. There's another thing that hasn't changed, either: their house wines are fantastic, and their wine list is, well, close to one I'd choose myself, from what I've gathered from my forays there in the past. The roof garden was, of course, closed (it's pretty close to freezing here these days, with the wind), which meant that the crowd had to stuff itself into the cozy downstairs. Don't get me wrong: I still love this place. I just wish they'd either vary the menu from time to time or start experimenting with daily specials. Go if you're in town, and tell 'em I sent you.

The the day the plumber had called and told me he wasn't coming was when I made my last night out, so I was determined to spend as little as possible. To this end, I chose a very odd place I've been watching for a couple of years. The rue J.-J. Rousseau is kind of a very upmarket Gourmet Gulch, with at least two restaurants with €35+ prix-fixe menus, a couple of other restaurants, a bakery that looks like it has time-travelled from 1952, what appears to be a very fine hotel, Le Guilhem, now a part of the Best Western chain (which is very prestigious in Europe), and, down at the end, a kinda dumpy looking place that looks like an antique store. That was my goal: the prices were very low, and it was just funky enough that it might be good. Well, I was wrong on both counts, but it was my crowning experience of this whole every-night-out adventure. I walked in, and the front room, jammed with mismatched tables, with antiques and particularly antique advertising plaques, everywhere. A smell of garlic hit my nose and I rejoiced inwardly; garlic's certainly used in the local cuisine, but for some reason you don't often smell it when you walk into a restaurant. A tall, middle-aged fellow erupted through a door and welcomed me, gesturing towards the back room. His voice sounded like he'd been hollering all day, and now it was more like a foghorn. He seemed nervous and fidgety and sat me down at a table for two which was notable because it had an implement on it that must have a name, but which I'd never seen outside of an antique store. Both settings had one, each different. Mine was a metal pheasant, its elongated, thin body flat at the top, used as a place for the knife to rest. (Anybody know what these are called?) There was a teapot on the table, too, for some reason, but it could have been worse: one of the other tables in the room had a huge Remington-esque sculpture of a bull on it which must have weighed a hundred pounds. This room, too, was chockablock with stuff including piles of baskets, a stack of what looked like old coffee mugs, each printed with a logo that said Viande, and more enamel ad plaques. Before the foghorn could wait on me, though, he went to the cash desk/bar in one corner, picked up a bottle with some odd-looking wine-like liquid in it, shook it hard, and poured a thimbleful into what looked like a doll's wine glass, which he then sniffed, smiled widely, and swept out into the front room with it between his fingers. Finally, he came back and started explaining the menu to me. I admit, I was puzzled. It had categories, each with a price. But each category was prepared differently each night or so, so he had to explain what the salade paysanne du jour and the toast du jour were, how the marinated fish were done today and, finally, the "sauced dish," as the menu had it. It didn't take me long: there was a terrine that was made with -- could he have said crème de cacao? -- and the "sauced dish" was wild boar in a sauce made with blueberry liqueur? Okay, this I had to see. He went into the kitchen where another guy was working the stove and asked if there was enough boar left for me, to which the other guy said of course there was, he always made enough. So the order was placed, a quarter-liter of a fine VDP merlot was set on a rough ceramic plate I hadn't noticed on my table (I tell you, it was crowded in there), and I sat there listening to what I could make out of the repartee between the cook and the host, who, it quickly became obvious, were a couple of long standing.

At one point, three young men who knew the place well came in, and during the course of their listening to the spiel and asking questions, one of them said "that sounds good," and the host ran into the kitchen and hauled out the cook, who had a huge pot of something in his hands. He raised the cover, the guy inhaled, and then said, "You're a genius!" The cook replied "I'm no genius: I just cook the stuff. He dreams it up!" and went back into the kitchen. Meanwhile, my terrine had appeared, and I reflected on the gradations between meatloaf and terrine. This was a bit looser than terrines usually are, so closer to meatloaf, but wow, that strange dark note in the taste, somewhere around the nutmeg and green peppercorn...yup, that must be the crème de cacao. The accompanying bread was almost certainly from the nearby Fournil St.-Anne, whose baker, as I've noted here before, won second prize in the all-France baking contest a few years ago, thereby making him, that year, the second-best baker in France. Naturally, it's very good. More theater ensused as I was eating, and after I'd demolished the terrine, the plate was swept away and in a few minutes replaced with the best plate I've eaten in this city. There was a formidable quantity of chunks of wild boar sitting in a thick, wine-colored sauce. The sauce was tangy, fruity, and seemed to change with every mouthful. The boar was falling apart, yet pink in the middle. Accompanying this was some yellow stuff which tasted wonderful...but what was it? I finally figured it out: puréed pumpkin, into which a good deal of garlic-infused, high-quality olive oil had been stirred. By my way of thinking, this should have clashed with the stew, but somehow it didn't, perhaps because of the pumpkin's sweetness. A great big salad was also perched on the plate, winter greens, very light dressing. The whole thing was scary good. Scary because the thought occurred to me: in all the theater, I hadn't heard a price. Wild boar's not cheap. I only have so much money in my pocket and I hadn't wanted to spend it all. I had also just had one of the best meals of my life. What now? Well, I lived nearby, and I'm sure I could come by with whatever was lacking the next day. I called for the bill. €37.50. A lot. The boar was €24.50 all by itself. So the place really is cheap, or can be, but you have to pay attention. It was a fitting finale for two weeks of mostly eating out, and I'd found not only a good restaurant, but an entertaining one. By the time I paid, the cook had gone home. The host asked if I wanted an after-dinner drink, suggesting something I didn't catch, absinthe, or blueberry liqueur. The absinthe, too, was in an unmarked bottle, and could have been home-made, but I realized that the tiny glass of wine-like stuff I'd seen earlier must have been the blueberry liqueur with which the boar sauce had been made, so there was no question. It was dark, complex, and not at all too sweet.

So my curiosity had been well satisfied. I'm now very happy that the apartment next door that I'd looked at a couple of weeks ago had been too expensive, because if I had this place as a neighbor, I'd be getting takeout and going even broker than I was now. But I'll be back for some cheaper fare as soon as I can afford it: those marinated rougets looked good...

And the mystery of the place continues: I had a card which had come with the bill and stuffed it in my pocket. It bears the motto "Plein la lampe et les mirettes" on it, which doesn't make a lot of sense to me. The dictionary was no help, and Google Translate told me it was "bowled and jointers," which also makes no sense. Anyway, they do lunch, and here's what the place looks like in the daylight:

As you can just barely make out there above the door, it's called La Grange. 

Le Chat Perché, 10 rue Collège Duvergier, 34000 Montpellier. Open daily 8pm-midnight, last orders 11:30pm. Phone: 04 67 60 88 59. 

La Grange, 30 rue J.J. Rousseau, 34000 Montpellier. Open Mon.-Fri. 11am-3pm, 7pm-8:30pm, later if you resserve. Phone: 04 67 54 68 80. 

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Lemon, Lemonade

Every day for the past eleven days, I've awoken to see this in progress, and have contributed as little as I could to it. But it remained. And, bit by bit, grew.

There's even more than this, spread over most of the kitchen. It got there because the sink drain got clogged, I would plunge the water out of the drain, the floor would flood, I'd mop it up, and finally I borrowed a plumber's snake a week ago Saturday, got as far as disconnecting the drain right under the sink, figured out I didn't know how to use the snake, put the drain back together -- only it wasn't. I have no idea what's wrong, but I do know that the landlord said he'd send his plumber on Thursday of last week early in the morning. I got up after a rough night of going to Le Jam to see the Carolina Chocolate Drops, since the tramway construction has made it almost impossible to walk to the club (and the map on their website is, um, more impressionistic than utilitarian), and I wound up after the show sliding down a mudbank to get back to the tram, thereby frightening the hell out of two young women who obviously have seen too many movies featuring people named Jason. Anyway, I messed up a clean pair of jeans and my right kneecap in the process, which was almost ameliorated by the CCDs' excellent performance

I didn't eat dinner that night because there weren't even any trustworthy kebab stands open by the time I got back, but I'd been coping, as noted in my last post, by eating out. When the plumber didn't come on Thursday, I got mad. The landlord told me he'd been there, and I hadn't, which was at least one lie, but he then signed off on his duty. Fortunately, a friend contacted me with the name and number of her plumber, I gamely screwed up the courage to call him (I'm no good at all in foreign languages on the phone, but this guy was very patient), and he's due in about 90 minutes.

But, although I really can't afford it, I've been eating out, so I thought, hey, a chance to re-visit some old favorites and maybe make a new one.

First stop, unsurprisingly, was Thym & Romarin, from my previous post, on Friday night. They'd had an amazing-looking pork loin with a mushroom cream sauce going, and I was going to get some. Except I wasn't: "Sorry, no more tonight," the waiter said. Dang. Instead I started with a roast Camembert with a small salad, which was okay, and then had seiches, a local cuttlefish which was said to be served with pistou, which is like pesto, only without nuts and cheese. Now, granted, my nose was only half-cooperating this night, but I sure didn't see any pistou in the vicinity. The rice was just plain rice. And the seiches weren't cooked all that well: parts were hard. I suspect this was an off night (and I know, dammit, that basil's not in season: what was I thinking?), but I still won't recommend the utterly atmosphere-less downstairs room, which wasn't helped by a sound-system playing salsa a bit too loud. I still like this place, make no mistake, but I'll be more careful what I order next time and sit upstairs.

Saturday, I took a chance, and went back to Gourmet Gulch, my name for a square properly known as Place de la Chapelle Neuve, which has four or five restaurants (maybe more, depending on what time of day you go) surrounding it, a lovely place on a hot evening. Which Saturday wasn't. Still, I'd had an amazing meal here last summer at a place with the uninspiring name Bistro Gourmand and wondered how they'd do in chilly weather. Not so well, at least from a business standpoint: maybe I was there too early, but the place wasn't exactly jammed, and it was Saturday night. Still, the food looked good and, well, how can you go wrong ordering a starter of lentil soup with little "meatballs" of foie gras in it? I followed that up with a parmentier de canard, which is sort of a pie of rich, super-tasty duck with "frosting" of mashed potatoes, sprinkled with breadcrumbs and browned. Mistake: I ordered a cheese plate for dessert, I was having so much fun. Not only did they not include this in the menu price (okay, I should have said something), but it was served too cold, and there was much too much -- but it was good. Wine was a generic grès de Montpellier out of a box, big, plummy, richly satisfying, that went with everything. Phenomenal!

The seiches were on my mind on Sunday. The first place I'd ever had them, Le Bistrot d'Alco, was still the best I've discovered -- and one of the cheapest good restaurants in town. The question was if it'd be open on Sunday. It was. Since it wasn't as expensive as the previous night's place, I splurged and ordered a starter of mousse of fois gras, a few tablespoons of which came with four thin, somewhat dry, slices of pain d'épices, often erroneously translated as gingerbread, but really a kind of soda bread with spices like mace, ginger, and I think cinnamon. I'd always wondered about pairing foie gras with sweet stuff, and I'm not sure I understand it, but this worked quite nicely. Afterwards, I passed on the seiches, which they make with persillade, parsley and garlic finely minced together and tossed into olive oil, and just had a steak, which was okay, in a sauce I didn't quite get, served with a baked potato and some green beans tossed with olive oil and garlic. Had the wine of the month, which they serve by opening a bottle and then estimating how much you'd drunk. They estimated less than I thought, but it was a lovely Faugères, more peppery than the fruitier wines I'd been drinking, and, as their specials always are, a bargain.

Monday, though, was a real problem, especially when I seriously considered the damage I'd already done to my bank account, which was considerable. (Of course, I'm not even thinking of paying my rent until my plumbing works again, but I've still got to have enough left over for that). Okay, Monday would be pizza. There's a joint called Valentino's, down on the rue des Balances, that I really like, and they do a grilled eggplant and sundried tomato pizza that was going to be dinner last night. Well, it would have been if Valentino's had been open, anyway: lots of places close on Mondays. The fallback was the famous Pizza Ste. Anne, which occupies most of the short rue Ste. Anne, and that's where I went. An undistinguished "green salad" (lettuce, thin rings of red onion, thin half-slices of tomato, olive oil, and a lemon to squeeze onto it, but at least it was a salad: these other restaurants aren't big on vegetables) was followed by my usual, a Pizza Atomica, made with mushrooms and Spanish chorizo sausage, not as atomica as you might think, but proably plenty challenging for your average French person.

But please, let me eat at home tonight. I can't afford another restaurant.

Note, however, that this attitude is subject to change with appropriate income. I've still got a half-dozen places I want to try or re-try.

Off to find some dough to pay the plumber!

* * *

Thym & Romarin: see last post. 

Bistro Gourmand7 place de la Chapelle Neuve, 34000 Montpellier, phone 04 67 66 08 09, open daily including Sunday from 10am til midnight.

Bistrot d'Alco, 4, rue Bonnier d'Alco, 34000 Montpellier, phone 04 67 63 12 09, open for lunch Monday-Friday noon-2pm, dinner daily 7:30-10pm. 

Pizza Ste.Anne, 3, rue Ste. Anne, 34000 Montpellier, phone 04 99 63 54 42, open daily noon-2pm, 7:15-11:15 pm, no dinner Monday. 

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Miettes d'Automne

Okay, I'm back. Unless things get screwed up again, that is. I either got turned on or turned myself on yesterday with Orange (it's hard to tell) and, except for a disconnection or two, have been on ever since. So I'll be back more often here, and in fact have a couple of posts backed up, but I also have some work to do, so they'll have to wait a bit.

At any rate, until yesterday, this has been my office:

That chair on the left, partially obscured by a freezer full of various Quorn and Linda McCartney products, clotted cream ice cream, and frozen Yorkshire puddings (among other things), was where I passed the time at the English Corner Shop, which, as I've said, is owned by two Americans, former engineers who got stranded in France when a French version of a tech incubator over in Provence went belly-up. They did some research as to where they could open a version of a store they were already patronizing in Antibes, sensibly chose Montpellier, spent a year battling the bureaucracy, and finally opened at the beginning of October. I showed up to beg bandwidth a couple of weeks later, and was graciously allowed to occupy that chair from 1 til 4 or 5 each day. A couple of days later, Chuck's doctor ordered him into the hospital for a week for some tests, since a blood sample came back with some odd results. Judi asked me if I could hang out and keep an eye on customers, since she didn't like being alone in the shop.

I did, and it was fun. There was quite a parade of characters: regulars who, some of them, came in with clockwork regularity; bemused French people who looked at the stock like it was some sort of ethnological exhibit in a natural history museum -- but usually bought something; British people who'd seen an ad or who'd just been walking by, to whom the sight of jars of Marmite or Bounty bars, or Walker's crisps brought on a nostalgic rush; a South African guy who offered to buy the place; and, memorably, a clutch of teenagers who stood by the drinks cooler, examining the stock, then each selecting a can of root beer, paying, and rushing out the door. "I think they think they just bought beer," Judi said, after a moment's thought. If so, I wished I'd been there when they popped the tab on the top of the can and saw what they'd gotten into.

And besides using the wi-fi, I also met people. This is something I've needed to do for a while, and now I see people I know in the street and nod hello to them. I also know far more than I ever wanted to about British foods and their subtleties, such as they are, and I've come face to face with frightening things like canned macaroni and cheese and a British variation on Mallomars made by Cadbury which have the added touch of a jelly-like filling inside the marshmallow, and may contain not a single natural ingredient. Scary stuff.

Anyway, thanks to the Fowlers, and if you're in town, here's what the place looks like, at the foot of rue Four des Flammes, just past La Tomate, the inexplicably popular restaurant, and across from the Palace Bar, a nice place that does a good lunch at reasonable prices.

I'll be hanging out there more, after I catch up on some of the stuff that's piled up here at home. But I'll leave my computer home.

* * *

Just to the right of that picture is the corner of rue Roucher, which features a number of restaurants. Since the plumbing problem in my kitchen hasn't improved, and, in fact, got worse when I tried to use Chuck's plumber's snake over the weekend without finding instructions before I left the wi-fi on Saturday, I have to eat out until presumably tomorrow, when the landlord's plumber will come to fix that and the toilet, which has been busted since January. (Yes, January. And yes, I told him back then; he did a magnificent job of pretending I hadn't.) I can ill afford this, particularly since the day after my birthday at the beginning of the month I took myself out to dinner at a place I'd been curious about and, as I walked there, had the familiar feeling of my sinus polyps inflating, which meant that by the time I got there, I couldn't smell or taste much. The restaurant also didn't seem so good, although I'll give it another chance some day, simply because the young folks who own it seem very committed. Still, it set me back €40, which was upsetting for a meal I couldn't taste.

But last night, I had to go out, and there was a place on rue Roucher I'd walked past a number of times and was also curious about. It seemed that the fat chef who used to do the lunches at the Vert Anglais, and may have perfected their fantastic hamburger, had opened this place, so I figured it was worth a shot.  Was it ever!

The chef wasn't in evidence, and the whole team seemed to be one very serious young guy cooking and the other waiting and busing the tables. There was a small upstairs and also, apparently, seating downstairs, but the place is tiny. There's a fridge just inside the door, the kitchen is semi-open (a real rarity around here), and there's room for maybe ten people upstairs where I was. I started with a tartelette du boudin noir, a small crock with some cut-up blood sausage and apples topped with a pastry crust, served with a salad. I'd never tasted boudin noir before, and it's very pleasant, with just a touch of nutmeg setting off the darker flavors, and the apples being, of course, a natural accompaniment. This was served with a small salad with a tasty mustard vinaigrette. There were several main dishes I wanted to try, and I kept telling myself that I've got to stop ordering steaks of various sorts, because it's boring, but the pièce de boeuf here was advertised as served in a port reduction with confit of garlic, and I found that intriguing. The beef itself was pretty good-sized, tender as could be, and the sauce was a perfect complement, as was what the chef did with the garlic: cubed it up and fried it with cubes of potatoes. Wow. There was also a tiny amount of zucchini and red sweet peppers on the side, and I could have done with more of that, but this was a very satisfying meal, and I sopped up all of the sauce with the excellent bread. No dessert, but that's okay, and the pichet wine, a half-liter, was a nice basic Cotes du Languedoc, perhaps even from Palliatrice (I think that's spelled right), the closest winery to downtown here, not noted for masterpieces, but quite drinkable. The bill for all of this was a whopping €23, or just over half what my last restaurant meal cost. I'll definitely be back.

Thym & Romarin, 14, rue Roucher, 34000 Montpellier. Phone 04 99 61 72 29. Open Mon-Sat 7-10pm, Tues-Fri lunch noon-2pm. 

* * * 

Incidentally, a couple of people asked what I did with those turnips from a few weeks back: I looked for recipes and had just about decided to toss them with olive oil and salt when I found a very nice-looking recipe in The Silver Spoon, that wonderful Italian cookbook. It had me saute some onions in olive oil, add equal proportions of turnips and potatoes, pour some vegetable stock over it, and then dust it with some oregano and cook in a 400-degree oven, with some mozzarella over it, for a half-hour. Boy, was that good. In fact, I am now in possession of two more turnips so I can do it again. 

* * * 

So one thing's for certain: winter is coming. I caught the Tomatologist at the market last week with what he said were his last tomatoes until mid-June (actually, it's the Tomatologist's son, but he's as friendly as his dad), but he lied: he was back with more this week. But that's definitely it. There are a lot more roots for sale, dark leaves like chard and spinach, cabbages, odd twisted carrots, some in exotic colors, and winter squashes and pumpkins (in fact, the Silver Spoon also has a recipe for turnips, leeks, and pumpkin which looks good...).

Another reason you can tell what time it is is that Montpellier has balls:

Soon, there will also be a huge synthetic tree at one end of the Comédie, too, as garish as they make 'em. And after that comes the fall wine fair and then the Christmas market on the Esplanade. This year, for the first time, I'll be able to afford a tasting glass and taste the wines on offer, too. And, not for the first time, I'm sure I'll find the goods at the Christmas market to be as tacky as they come.

But that's then and this is now, and I'm glad to be back on line.

Next up: more Year of America in Montpellier.

Saturday, November 13, 2010


Just an interim post to explain why I'm here so infrequently these days. My phone and Internet service was cut off in mid-October, and since this was the umpteenth time this had happened, I phoned Orange's friendly English-language help line to find out why. 

There is, as I've explained before, a situation called dégroupage totale, where your telecom provider separates you from Orange (the former state monopoly known as France Telecom) and takes total responsibility for the line. I would go to Free and navigate their impossible website (designed by chimpanzees), put up with the frequent need to log back on as I chased my tail in circles, and finally hit upon a page where my account was listed as dégroupage total. Why, then, couldn't I get rid of Orange? So this time I posed as a new customer and found a button to push to determine if I were eligible for dégroupage total, since it varies with the part of town you're in. The answer: no. 

So I really did owe Orange all that money all along! Okay, I'd paid Free, so that was working, so all I had to do was get Orange to turn me back on and I'd be back in business. So I called Orange, they turned me back on, but with a different customer number. "Tell Free you have a new number," they said, "and you should be back on."

So I did and Free told me they no longer wanted my business because my customer number had changed, and I was to send back my router box and so on immediately via registered mail. 

After discussions with people who had also been through this, it emerged that the least bad solution was just to shift my business to Orange. I called them back, had a conversation with one of their support team last Friday, and on Tuesday, my "Livebox" appeared. 

Now, all this time I've been online thanks to the good graces of Chuck and Judi down at the English Corner Shop, holding down a table at one end of the store and meeting a bunch of fascinating people, helping Judi understand what their stock is all about (as an American, she has never had any experience with these products, but as someone who's visited England often, I at least know what they are), and telling every sentient being who walks in that I'm looking for an apartment. 

It's not, however, a situation conducive to sustained concentration, such as even a modest post like this requires, let alone some of the work I need to do. So I have to do that offline at home, then pack up my gear and head into the store, which opens at 1pm. 

This should all work itself out by the end of the week, so that I can go into the store because I want to, not because I have to. 

Meanwhile, there are other crises. Most notably, my kitchen sink no longer drains. It takes about two hours to empty a full sink of water, such as one uses for dishwashing, and I've made use of some noxious chemicals, and then a plunger. This has only resulted in the floor flooding. Thus, two floods a day (wash and rinse), with the rinse taking place in water that's who knows how contaminated with sewage. I say this because the other night, when we had a good, pounding rainstorm, I pulled the plug on the rinse water at 9:30, and there was still a half-sink left when I went to bed at 1am. And boy, you should have seen the floor the next morning.

Thus, I wasn't too upset to bump into my landlord on Wednesday of this week. I told him that I had his rent money, but he still owed me not only the receipts for the back rent I'd paid, but also he had to deal with the plumbing. "I have a plumber," he said, "who I'll call right away. He'll either be at your place around 11 on Friday -- tomorrow is a holiday [it was: Armistice Day, or We Beat Germany Day, depending on your viewpoint] -- or else, since he's going on vacation next week, sometime after a week from Monday." 

Do I even have to tell you he never showed up on Friday? 

I'm not going to spend my life mopping and plunging. I'm going to hire my own plumber and the slumlord (I looked up the French, which is apparently marchand de sommeil, or sleep-merchant, which I love) will pay for it, and that's that. 

And Orange will turn me on by the end of the week or I'll pitch a fit at them. 

After which I'll find a fantastic apartment, move in, and effectively start a new life down here. Or at least that's the current fantasy. I hope it's not too much to ask. Perhaps I should send the Remover of Obstacles another e-mail. 

And now it's off to the store. Which is closed on Sundays and Mondays, unfortunately. Of course, Orange could turn me on on Monday. But do you honestly think they will? 

Monday, November 1, 2010

Where the Glass-Blowers Were

And so it came to pass that, in the middle of escalating tension, Friday, October 29 arrived, and I realized that this was the day that Hérault Tourisme and I had a date. The date involved getting up way early, then offering up a prayer that the trams weren't on strike, then jumping into my clothes, jamming down some breakfast and coffee, and taking the tram out to the Château d'Ô stop, where a young woman from Hérault Tourisme, Sabrina Lucchese, would pick me up and drive me to Claret, a small village in the east of the department, for a day of varied touristic stuff with other English-language journalists and bloggers. It all started like clockwork: my phone buzzed as I stepped off the tram, and it was Sabrina, asking if I were there yet and then saying never mind, she saw me. Her car pulled up in front of the bus stop and we were off. 

Claret is in the area that's now calling itself Grand Pic St. Loup, but it's got nothing to do with the wine claret. That word, pronounced klarrit, is an outdated British word for French red wine, usually from Burgundy, and is descended from a Latin word. Claret, pronounced klah-RAY, is a smallish town in the garrigue, the brushy ecosystem that exists in flat places up high in these parts. There's no claret or anything else winey grown in Claret, but for centuries it was the center of the regional glass industry. The glassmakers are mostly gone by now, but there is the brand new museum, the Halle du Verre, which has just undergone a million-Euro renovation, and we were going to start with a guided tour in French. 

Industries tend to grow up around places where the raw material is plentiful, and I never did catch the explanation of the special sand that made Claret-area glass so special; our guide was very easy to follow even though she spoke too fast for me to take notes. During the years of early glassmaking, a premium was placed on transparency, a transparency that at first could only be attained by using rare and costly rock crystal. The press-kit I got says that "Beginning in 1290, the oak forests on the Causse de l'Orthus attracted glassmakers and their families," so maybe the oaks got used for fuel. (A "causse" is a geological term for a limestone plateau, and if you remember back to posts this summer, the Orthus is the mountain facing Pic St. Loup which I spelled Horthus back then). 

At any rate, the glassmakers were ennobled by the King, and formed a guild of premium glass-makers whose wares were sold all over Europe from the market at Sommières. They were probably un-nobled by the Revolution eventually, but they left behind some nice specimens of their glassblowing art, which are displayed upstairs in the temporary exhibition hall in a show called Le souffle du verrier en Languedoc: Verre d'usage et de prestige sous l'Ancien Régime, or The breath of the glassmaker in Languedoc: Everyday glass and prestige glass in pre-Revolutionary France. It shows an attention to detail that's mirrored in the permanent exhibit downstairs: two of the notable specialties were the porron, a flat-bottomed spherical bottle with a narrowing tube running off the base of its neck, a wine receptacle made for drinking while working, and a topette, a skinny squarish bottle used to hold medicines, produced in the tens of thousands for the medical school down in Montpellier. The show's up until November 14, and, along with some of the other stuff I'll get to in a minute, or which you can discover on one of the tourist maps, it's worth the trip, especially on these crisp fall days. 


Our next stop was the art glassmakers, Bernadette and Gérard Attard. He blows glass, she does spun glass, and they were conveniently located next door to the museum. First he did us a tiny pitcher, followed by a dolphin which, somehow, he managed to drop, with no ill effects. There was a rumor going around that some of our number had been made depressed by the sight of so many empty glasses, so we headed out of town into the garrigue to remedy that. 


The tourist initiative that helped rebuild the Halle du Verre and the ancient Couloubrines glassworks in the nearby village of Ferrières-les-Verreries also helped kit out the Mas de Baumes near that  village, a farmhouse atop a hill in the garrigue which now contains a hotel and restaurant overseen by famous local chef Eric Tapié. Having received many pornographic e-mails from the local Slow Food convivium of lunches he'd created for them, I was anxious to taste his food. 

The place turned out to be comfortable, but not ostentatious, and our table had a nice view out into the surrounding hills. 

As soon as everyone got there (we were waiting for Helen Cho, a young woman from Oakland who moved to the area a year ago and writes a food blog called Languedoc Zombies), the show began. We started out with a white, a Sauvignon called Salle de Son from St. Hippolite that was perhaps the best white I've ever had. It was all about minerals and vegetables, dry as the garrigue outside, and married perfectly with the two seared scallops resting beside a smear of squash with a pool of balsamic vinegar in it and a little chutney of finely chopped grapefruit skin. The garnish was parsley, but deep-fried. We were also madly scooping up rosemary-infused olive oil and fleur du sel, both from renowned local producers. 

This done, a red was brought out, a 2008 Bergerie l'Hortus Classique, which was as typical a top-end Pic St. Loup as you could ask for, kind of a Platonic ideal if you were trying to explain it to someone else. Here, my year of not tasting got to me, and I could identify that it was, indeed, a Pic St. Loup from before my taste buds deserted me, but I'll have to get back with you on the details. Or you could try to find one yourself. 

After the starter, I was primed for the duck breast which came next only to be wildly disappointed: mine had cartilage all through it, making it tough to saw with the knife we had, which was not quite a butter knife. A couple of others reported this, too, and my mashed potatoes, which didn't seem to be anything but mashed potatoes, were actually cold. There was a wine reduction scattered here and there, and a nice little relish made from pine nuts, figs and corn on the side, but if I were in the kitchen I would have either not served that particular breast or trimmed it better. 

I don't usually eat dessert, but then I don't usually eat at places like the Mas de Baumes, either, so I dug right into the chestnut tiramisu with champagne, sauced with coffee. There was a fish-shaped golden thing of caramelized sugar reminiscent of glass, and a black thing that looked like a piece of charcoal garnishing the dish which was chocolate, but, I suspect, a kind of cookie made with chestnut flour, since it had a very sandy texture. Really well-put together and balanced, the garnishes speaking to the glassmaking of the region -- and not too sweet, either. 

We were served little pots of vanilla panacotta with a dollop of rosemary honey with our coffee, and that was it. Just enough. 

Given that there are plenty of other places like this in the area, I don't know if I'd go back, although I have no idea how much this menu would have cost. That main course was a major blunder of kitchen craft sandwiched between two sublime moments. The hotel aspect, on the other hand, is very tempting under the right circumstances. Hell, on a good week, I could even afford it.

Our next stop was back in Claret at a distillery, which had some of us going until we saw that it was an oil distillery: juniper wood is heated until it gives off its essential oil as a gas, which then is sent into a cold-water bath and decanted into a vessel where the oil and water separate. I'd never heard of the stuff, but it's used not only in cosmetics, but also as a treatment for psoriasis and as an all-purpose veterinary medicine. It takes them a hundred kilograms of wood to make seven liters of oil, and they make 15 tons of oil a year, which explains all the wood lying around, as well as the very nice smell, which is hardly noticeable, which you can't say about most distilleries. It's also the only juniper distillery, not only in France, but, once the one in Spain closes down at the end of the year, in Europe. 

I'm sure Hérault Tourisme would have been ashamed to lure all these journalists (well, there were eight of us) up into the Pic St. Loup terroir without showing us a winery, so off we went to the nearby village of Vacquieres, where Chateau Lascaux is located. I was really looking forward to a tasting there, because this is a wine with a strong local reputation, but the owner, Jean-Benoît Cavalier, had had his car break down on his way in and was stranded out in the garrigue somewhere. A young woman with the key to the storage tanks, though, took us in to see the sleeping wine in barrels and then the huge 10,000-liter tanks were the new wine was hanging out. We got to taste some of that, but other than alcohol and yeast, the predominant sensations, the mysteries lying underneath were elusive. The rosé seemed like it already had something going on, but the red was just like liquid fire. Nice color, though. 

That was it. I got back in Sabrina's car, we talked about how happy we were that the impending rain had held off, I gazed at the mist surrounding the Pic as it loomed up in the distance, and I had only two wishes: that I could do something like this every week, and that I wasn't going to have to rush to the English Corner Shop (where I've been using their wi-fi for two weeks while waiting to get turned on at home), and write a very aggressive letter to my landlord, telling him what to do with the pieces of paper he'd forced on me the day before and ordered me to sign. It wasn't the way I wanted the day to end, but it's the way it ended. 

In fact, I hope I do get to do stuff like this more often. The whole area is promoting itself aggressively, and seems to accept bloggers as journalists. I've been itching to write more about all of this stuff, and yet without a car, it's hard to do the self-guided thing. The different tourist agencies, however, don't cooperate with each other, which isn't a good thing when it comes to reaching out internationally, especially to Americans, who I'm sure would love to drop some dollars on this whole corner of France, judging from the ones who passed through here this summer. So now I'm on Hérault's mailing list, and maybe Gard, Alpes-Pyrénées and Aude will come along in due time. Lacking a magazine to write about this stuff for (and, of course, having never known a magazine that'd take junket-generated stories), I'll write it down here, along with my own odd peregrinations. Stay tuned.
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