Thursday, April 19, 2018

CAPESTANG TO QUARANTE ALONG THE BACK ROAD WITH PICS

I call it exercise of opportunity. The weather had turned sunny. I hadn't been out walking as much as I should have been. So when I had to drop off the car at the shop in Capestang in preparation for its CT (or MOT if you are a Brit or State Inspection if you live in an American state that inspects cars), I decided to walk back. We're a friendly group here in Quarante. I had several offers of rides. But the walk is only about 5 miles. (Imagine that. ONLY 5 miles. What has come over me?) So I decided to just do it. Here are a few pics, not at all a comprehensive review, but enough to give you a feel for it.

Came across a few native French but they were at lunch and not into conversation.
Everywhere the vistas open up. I try not to become jaded.
These shells mark the St. Jacques de Compostelle Pilgrimage Trail in our region. Legend states that it's the route that Saint James took to spread the Gospel to Spain and then to return to Jerusalem. There are four main trails. Quarante is on one of the minor trails and the shells mark the route. The blue bar is used to mark any 'official' walking trail as well.
Shetland pony in the distance. Again, lunch time.
You turn around a corner coming out of the woods...
...and come upon a chapel in the process of restoration. A local vintner on his tractor told us that the chapel is half way between the start of the Compostelle and Rome.
Those aren't clouds in the distance. Those are the snow-covered Pyrenees. I NEED a better camera.

That sign has been posted in a field at the entrance to Quarante since we moved here. No Fracking! 

Sunday, April 15, 2018

STRATFORD-UPON-AVON VISIT IN PICS

Regular visitors to this space will remember that Cathey and I recently visited Stratford-upon-Avon to take in a Royal Shakespeare Company production of Twelfth Night. As someone who appreciates language and writes for both a living and for pleasure, that pilgrimage checks off an item on my bucket list. Hardly on a par with climbing Kilimanjaro when all it took to get there were an easyJet flight and short train and car rides. But important to me on a gut level just the same.

Had Shakespeare been an American author and had Stratford been a small town along the Hudson River an hour or two north of New York City, the place would have been transformed into a tourist trap. An avalanche of gaudy advertising and cheap trinkets would have overtaken any bit of remaining history.

Stratford seems to have managed to avoid that trap. To be fair, we arrived in February, not the height of the season. The groups of school children and camera-laden tourists that we encountered
were to be expected although I can imagine the difficulty navigating the sidewalks in July and August. We did sight one brazenly opportunistic little souvenir store and every one of the historically preserved sites like the Shakespeare Birth House had its gift shop at the exit. But on the whole, I felt no more hassled by huckterism in Stratford than in Bath or Winchester or anyplace else that we've visited in England. Yes, Shakespeare's visage does seem to pop up now and again. But on the whole, we found Stratford to be a pleasant little village.

Check out the pics. You'll see previews of a restaurant review or two to come. Enjoy!

Cathey with our friends/guides Jeremy and Claire.
The Avon upon which Stratford is...upon.
Restaurant boats...
Swans upon the Avon that Stratford is upon.
The garden at the Big House that no longer exists. Be careful to whom you sell. Look it up.
Also at the Big House, for some undetermined reason.
The Birth House...
...is for short people.
An actor leads kids in an 'impromptu' play complete with sword fight.
Cheese shop. There was cheese. We didn't have to guess which. They were on display and labeled.
Every tourist town has a Christmas shop.
Dinner here. Review in time.
Garrick Inn
Garrick Inn dinner
Hathaway House. Check your history. How old were William and Anne when they married?
According to our guide, taxes were calculated using the footprint of the house. Thus, second floor overhang.
There it is. Souvenirs.
Specifically for our niece. Magpie.
Our hotel. We stayed in a newer wing. Nice and close to town.
For dressing British fast food. All American. Who knew?
This is February. Imagine July.
I don't remember anything about this except that I liked the way that the construction detail was shown.
Built before Columbus sailed...but after the Vikings...and there were people already there...
The Theater. The reason for the trip.


Thursday, April 12, 2018

LA CANTINE DES HALLES, BEZIERS: RESTAURANT REVIEW

Do you want to know why I enjoy dining in restaurants here in the south of France? It's about places like La Cantine just across the street from Les Halles in Beziers.

Fresh ingredients. Properly prepared. Value.

Just. That. Simple.

Inviting exterior? Not really. Even with a slate out front with the menu of the day, on the brisk April day that we visited we weren't certain that La Canine was open for business.

Well-appointed interior? With paper place mats and napkins, with standard bistro tables and chairs, with plates that aren't square or triangular, and with a couple of local amateur oil paintings on the walls, La Cantine doesn't spend time and money on ambience.

Comprehensive menu? Nope. Two choices for starters and two choices for mains on the slate. And an a la carte menu sufficiently brief to appear printed fully, complete with desserts, in large type on those paper place mats with room to spare.

Why would anyone want to eat there? Fresh ingredients. Properly prepared. Value. That's why.

Our choices for a start were salade cœurs de canard or salade saumon fumé avec crevettes. I'm certain that I would have enjoyed the former but I'm a sucker for smoked salmon. Cathey joined me. The serving was properly sized, enough to soothe mid-day hunger but not enough to interfere with the main. Plenty of bits of smoked salmon, a few sweet and tasty little shrimp, sliced onion, tiny halved cherry tomatoes, crisp lettuce, a simple vinaigrette, and a wedge of lemon for those who desired it. Nice. And the crusty, cereally bread chunks that our host cut off a fresh loaf sopped up the vinaigrette perfectly. I chose côte de veau avec crème de cèpes for my main. The veal was a good sized chop cooked hot and fast as it should be cooked and covered with a lightly spiced cream sauce with plenty of shrooms. Plenty of frites, too. Cathey's lotte en bourride was as fresh as fish must be, covered with pasta, carrots and celery, and a simple, barely reduced cream sauce.

With a demi of house rosé and a coffee for me at the finish, the tab came in at just under €40 for a fully satisfying main meal of our day.  (Beware. My bet is that La Cantine doesn't see many Americans and therefore doesn't serve café crème very often. Mine was barely acceptable. Just have the typical French café and be safe.) 

Recommended. You can read more of my food writing and restaurant reviews HERE.




And there's Les Halles across the street. Shop first. Then lunch.



Sunday, April 8, 2018

TWELFTH NIGHT AT STRATFORD-UPON-AVON: IMPRESSIONS

The devil finds work for idle minds. (Idle hands? Maybe, but it wouldn't fit this particular narrative.)

My mind was idling. It idles a good bit these days. (Oh, I can put it in gear when the need arises. But the need doesn't arise as often as it did before I retired.) Anyway, there I was, coasting downhill in neutral, when I had a brilliant idea. Why not go see a Shakespeare play? Here in the south of France we are, after all, only a budget flight and a short train ride away from our friends in Southampton. And their son had demonstrated the value of a proper upbringing by marrying a girl who enjoyed going to Stratford-upon-Avon on occasion to take in Royal Shakespeare Company performances. With an economical travel itinerary available and knowledgeable guides willing and able, nothing was stopping us from making a pilgrimage to one of the cradles of the English language. And while the English language and American English have diverged over time, they were still close enough for jazz. Why hadn't I thought of that before?

Did I mention? Shakespeare?

I am not insensitive to those modern academics who point out that Shakespeare lived in a class-conscious, male-dominated, colonial society that didn't understand such human failings as racism and misogyny the way that we do today. I'm not insensitive, I just don't care. I don't believe that those facts take away from Shakespeare's towering talent and the effect that his writings have had on our language and culture. (And yes, I believe that he wrote the plays. Most of them. I think...) So, after deciding to pass on a season that featured Titus Andronicus, not our idea of a fitting first dose of RSC fare, we made our way to Stratford-upon-Avon in the winter of 2018 and caught a matinee performance of Twelfth Night.

Cathey and I thought that Twelfth Night would be a perfect first take on Shakespeare in Stratford. It's a pleasant piece of fluff that I believe has gained in popularity recently due to its gender bending. I'm not certain that Shakespeare intended same-sex love to be the play's central theme. Certainly, our program makes that case. I lean more toward the idea that Twelfth Night is meant to be a bit of a farce, written as it was among and between such more serious works as Hamlet, Troilus and Cressida, and Othello. But that's one of the joys of interpreting Shakespeare. Who knows? And Shakespeare isn't available for interview.

This is not meant to be an in-depth theater review. Although Twelfth Night by the RSC has in the past featured such stage luminaries as Olivier, Vivian Leigh, Judy Dench, Diana Rigg, Stephen Fry, and Ian Holm, our matinee was mostly composed of actors appearing in their RSC debuts. Our young British friends  knew several from UK television, but Cathey and I could conjure up not one familiar face. Not to worry. The performance was thoroughly enjoyable. (I could pick nits. I could say that one or two of the leads seemed overly impressed with the fact they were in the RSC doing Shakespeare and tried too hard to...well...act. But I won't.) The venue is intimate given its cachet. (We could touch the stage from our seats.) The staging made good use of a modern, versatile facility. And thus, to coin a phrase, a good time was had by all.

Obviously, the pictures had to be taken in the dark. The one picture of the stage was taken as we waited for the play to begin. Enjoy.







Thursday, April 5, 2018

HAMPERS FOOD AND WINE COMPANY, WOODSTOCK, OXFORDSHIRE: QUICK TAKE

Not long ago, when not much was happening except a bit of daydreaming in the sun, sort of a typical day here in the south of France for a retiree like me, I realized that we were just a Ryanair flight away from one of the true cradles of the English language, the home of William Shakespeare, Stratford-upon-Avon. We'd visited friends in England more than once. But for some reason, visiting Stratford and taking in a Royal Shakespeare Company performance was an idea that had just never come up. Odd, given our enjoyment of both the written and spoken word, our appreciation of a good yarn. And who spins yarns better than Shakespeare?

I'm working on a series of posts concerning our recent visit and I begin at the end, on our way back from Stratford to the home of our friends in Southampton. We traveled off the motorway and stopped for lunch in the market town of Woodstock, perhaps best known for Blenheim Castle.

Hampers Food and Wine Company well describes where we chose to lunch. It's a cozy, pleasant space on the town's main street. Not only are there fine comestibles to be had seven days a week, but if you choose to picnic instead of eat in, well-stocked gourmet hampers are available with assortments of cheeses, charcuterie, sweets, and beverages. We chose to eat in. Simple lunches. Soup and sandwiches and wine and beer. The soup of the day was cream of broccoli. I had roast beef and horseradish on a baguette although I could have chosen ciabatta (as did some members of the party) or brown baps (whatever they are). A couple of bottles of bitter and a couple of glasses of wine accompanied our meals properly. A sweet for dessert and at a bit over £10 apiece average, it was well-priced for a quality, filling lunch on the road.

Recommended. HERE'S their website.

You can read more of my food writing and restaurant reviews, mostly about France but with the occasional pub thrown in, HERE.





Monday, April 2, 2018

USUAL AND UNUSUAL TERRACE BLOOMS: SPRING 2018

Growing up in the northeastern United States, spring was a time of great anticipation. Winters were long, freezing cold, and the vistas were brown and grey when not snow-covered. We waited for the early signs of spring, the first flowerings - crocus and lilies and daffs and iris. They tend to pop up as soon as they can, sometimes between snowfalls. Spring is short and plants in cold climates learn to take advantage of every opportunity to get on with it.

Here in the south of France, things are a bit different. Winters are chilly and earth tones do invade the fields and vineyards, to be sure, but the cold is relative and the brown winter landscapes are broken up by greenery of all sorts.

For our terrace, winter is a time to protect and defend, to trim and even cover when necessary. And this winter, even covered, a late killing frost wreaked havoc. We lost an annual or two that often survive the mild winters here. One of Cathey's treasured succulents succumbed. Our potted fruit trees and shrubbery show damage. And we've had to perform radical surgery on our bougainvillea.

But in spite of all of that, spring brings blossoms. Some to be expected. Some new to this Jersey boy's experience. Take a look.

There's nothing odd about a budding azalea, except maybe that it was a cheapo bought from Lidl last year and still going strong.

Can you guess what that blossom is from?

Yep. A bay tree in a pot. Full of bay leaves and blooming away.

This pansy lasted  all winter.

The rosemary in the kitchen window felt the freeze and decided that it was time to bloom.

This succulent that we bought in Spain decided that the freeze signaled time to both bloom and bud out.

Serious bloom spikes.

Another window sill succulent doing its thing.

I've posted pics and stories about our region of France, once the Languedoc and now Occitanie, HERE. Enjoy!