Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Monday, September 18, 2017

AUBERGE DE MADALE, COLOMBIERES-SUR-ORB: RESTAURANT REVIEW

Just go there. There's nothing that I can say, nothing that I can show you with pictures, that can sufficiently explain why you should go there. Just go. You will understand.

Oh, there are those who will quibble. This plate had too many flavors. That plate was not properly seasoned. Our server wasn't cheerful. Phooey! If you are looking for something to complain about, you will find something to complain about. If you are that sort of person, then don't go. Stay home. Eat a sandwich in front of the television.

Enough of that.

The driveway leading to the Auberge de Madale is just west of Poujol-sur-Orb off the road to Orlagues. Not well marked. Not well paved. Madale closes after lunch on Sunday and doesn't reopen until lunch on Wednesday. Lunch at noon. Dinner at 20h00. One seating for each meal. Reservations only. (Seriously. RESERVATIONS ONLY.) Cash or check, no plastic. Set menu that changes every two weeks. If you don't like surprises, it's posted on the website. You sit down, you eat what's put in front of you, you drink the house wine, and three hours after you began you are presented with the bill. And the bill is 32 euros per person inclusive of wine and coffee and maybe an aperitif and/or a digestif. Each time, every time. I've heard that special dietary restrictions will be honored. Arrangements must be made beforehand.

If this sounds a bit regimented, I suppose that it is. But it works for us. The food is superb in presentation and execution. Each time. Superb. Every time. The wine is quaffable if not remarkable, from a local vigneron so it doesn't double the cost of the meal as is so often the case. Knowing exactly the number of covers reduces waste to the bare minimum, also contributing to the more than reasonable price. And if you take the time to get to know chef/owner Stephane as he visits your table after your meal, you realize that his formula allows him to play with textures and tastes in a way that's designed both to keep his creative juices flowing and to keep you surprised and amazed. (Raspberries and cherry tomatoes really do complement each other when brought to the mouth together. Who knew?)

There's no sense in discussing in detail each dish that's pictured below. The menu will change by the time that you read this. (In fact, vacation begins 17 September and runs for a month.) Quick notes in the captions will suffice. For more info, visit the website of the Auberge de Madale HERE. For more of my restaurant reviews, you can bring up that page on my blog HERE.

Did I mention? Just go.

Simple, tasty starts. Pickled beet and cured ham. Spread the sun dried tomato puree on the crispy chips standing in that rock.

Did I mention that the raspberries and tomatoes...? And straw mushrooms wrapped in cheese and gaspacho...
You can just see the oyster leaf covering the green curry at the top.
The fishiest fish dish that I have ever eaten. Perfectly cooked cod. The crabs for the sauce died nobly.
The lemon cream was divine. Had you heard of those little hand grenades of citrus called lemon caviar?






Wednesday, September 13, 2017

CROIX DE JUILLET: WALK WITH PICS SEPTEMBER 2017

I walk. I sit in my den for way too many hours doing such things as writing this blog. So I walk. When I'm by myself, I take a simple, 5 kilometer walk around the village. Downhill on the way out. A steep return at the very end.

Friend Roger is a Brit with a holiday house down the hill from us in Quarante. He walks. In England, he organizes walks. Walks to and from favorite pubs. Multi-day walks. He has all the equipment - good shoes, a little backpack gadget with a bladder that holds water (he says) and a hose that snakes over his shoulder for hydration, a little GPS into which he downloads directions for each walk. Roger has become Quarante's official Walk Meister.

The first time that I walked with Roger, my short, relatively flat walks hadn't put me in proper shape. After three or four miles, I began to cramp up. I learned later that there were thoughts of getting the car for me. But I persevered and have since shaped up.

This is our second walk along the trail known as Croix de Juillet - The Cross of July. Pictures follow. Legend has it that the simple cross was erected atop a Roman column as a focal point for 14th Century locals to come to pray for rain during periods of drought. Whatever the truth of it, the walk is quite scenic, 5.4 miles according to Roger's GPS, with changes in elevation of a couple of hundred meters.

Enjoy the pics.

The walk begins at the wine co-op. Grape growers who don't produce their own wine sell to the co-op where vinification takes place. There's storage for many hundreds of thousands of liters of wine. In fact, if you have bought generic Bordeaux table wine, odds are that you've tasted the wine of the Languedoc mixed in. It's shipped to Bordeaux in tanker trucks.
With the co-op behind us, we head down a newly graded and stoned path leading out of town.
Up the first hill trailing Roger, Bill, and Evelyn. Note the changing skies.
The harvest has begun but we found many hectares that hadn't been touched. An early frost and a dry summer have made for a yield 20% below normal with small grapes. Some say that leads to concentrated flavor and a good vintage. Can't say. The science goes back 2,000 years and I haven't studied it.
A New Jersey boy like me knows that where there are fields in rocky soil, there are stone walls.
Some stone walls are not maintained as well as others.
Looking back at Quarante. And yes, our house is readily spied. Note the smoke.
Bad fire in Lezignan, a town about 20 kilometers away.
The Cross of July. Unfortunately, untrimmed trees have grown up to block the once panoramic view.
But there are places at the top where the vistas open up.
Walls and vines all along the way. Note that the walk takes us along dirt paths and, occasionally, paved roads.
Folks have to have access to their vines.
One thing that a boy from the Northeast US might miss is the changing of color in the autumn.
But grape leaves turn color, too. Different varieties turn different colors. Very satisfying.
Without thick gloves and a sturdy bag, we left collecting prickly pears for another day.
Another cross on the way down. Not certain of the derivation.
Date 1831? Maybe 1837?
Definitely on the downhill now but Quarante still a ways away.
Back to the co-op. Almost home.

Learn more about this walk, map included, HERE. Sorry. In French. They tend to speak French in France. Just sayin'...



Saturday, September 9, 2017

WHAT YOU DON'T KNOW ABOUT HOUSTON

The major disaster that was Hurricane Harvey has catapulted Houston into the forefront of the news of both the US and the world. Of course. If it bleeds. it leads. And right now, Houston is a bloody mess.

Let's begin with what you do know, might know, or should know about Houston.

Houston's 2.3 million souls makes it the fourth most populous city in the US. Houston is named after Sam Houston who, believe it or not, had nothing to do with the Alamo. Houston wasn't there. But because Santana decided to take the Alamo rather than bypass it and go for Sam Houston's throat, Houston was able to backpedal, gather his forces, and eventually win Texas its independence by attacking Santana during his mid-day siesta. That's the short version. It will have to do for now.

Houston is an oil town. Like any other city of its size, there's other stuff going on. But the basic fact is that as the oil business goes, so goes Houston. While that can make for a roller coaster of an economy, it also means that Houston has a surprisingly cosmopolitan feel for those who are open to discovering it. Oil producing and consuming countries from around the world bring their cultures to Houston along with their petrodollars. So even if you're not into authentic Mexican food or Tex/Mex food or great barbecue, all of which abound, Houston can be an enticing city for the worldly foodie. The array of African, Asian, and Mediterranean options is most satisfactory.

All of this should make sense to you. Let's talk about what there is about Houston that doesn't make sense.

Native Americans didn't live in Houston during the summer. They were too smart for that. The abundant Gulf seafood that they depended upon in winter was inappropriate in summer due to both the life cycles of shellfish and to the intense summer heat. Summer also brought severe storms, not only hurricanes, that flooded the land that was mostly flat, clay-based, and swampy. And so, Native Americans left Houston in the summer and camped up to 100 miles inland. Smart.

Northerners generally don't understand just how big Houston is. I'm not talking population now. I'm talking about land area. Check out population and square mileage of Northern cities as compared to Houston:

New York: 8.5 million; 468.5 square miles
Chicago: 2.7 million; 234 square miles
Houston: 2.3 million; 667 square miles 
Philadelphia: 1.5 million; 142.7 square miles

Houston is HUGE. Just about one-quarter of New York City's population and nearly 50% more land area. 50% more population than Philadelphia and more than four times the land area. HUGE. Bigger than its Southern and Southwestern partners like Phoenix and Los Angeles.

HUGE.

And Houston continues to grow, gathering land to it the way that the space under the bed gathers dust bunnies - overnight and without effort. But most importantly, we're not talking about planned growth, orderly growth. Or, heaven forbid, regulated growth. No, Houston's growth model serves as the poster child for how poor urban planning and an antipathy to government regulation can lead to disaster. Many cities, even Texas cities, have a basic understanding of storm water management. You don't build in floodplains. YOU DON'T BUILD IN FLOODPLAINS. Houston builds houses in floodplains, builds businesses in floodplains, paves over floodplains. Storm water goes wherever it pleases, most often on the property of a neighbor. And if it can't get there, it just sticks around. And gets deeper. And deeper.

Let's review, class. Native Americans were too savvy to live in Houston during the summer. Houston's foundation is mostly flat, mostly swamp, that didn't drain well even before the inventions of asphalt and concrete. Houston's planners have chosen to ignore this simple fact in spite of the tendency for summer storms to drop tons of water on the city, paving over square mile upon square mile of ground including flood plains. Storm water has nowhere to go. If it rains. Houston floods. If it rains a lot, lots of flooding. Twelve major flood events in the past three years alone. Harvey is just the most recent and the most devastating.

Now, consider that the streets of Miami are already prone to flooding during exceptionally high tides and that Hurricane Irma is headed directly for that city. Consider that the governor of Florida has demanded that the words 'climate change' be scrubbed from all official documents, never  to be uttered by an employee of that state. Consider that luxury homes continue to be built and rebuilt on the barrier islands of North and South Carolina. And consider that we have folks in the federal government, led by our President, who proposed to cut funding for FEMA this year as a way to pay for a wall on the Mexican border.

When do you suppose people in power will begin to take notice of the cost of ignoring proper land use planning and the predictions of climate scientists? Who will pay for their hatred of even the most common sense regulations much less the consequences of ignoring the possibility that the overwhelming consensus of climate scientists might just be correct about the consequences of global warming?

When did we get so stupid?












Monday, September 4, 2017

ENSEMBLE LUNARIS AT CHAPEL SAINT-GERMAIN, CESSERAS: CONCERT REVIEW


Every once in a while, I have the pleasant experience of learning that someone actually reads these musings. I had that pleasure just the other night. A friend had come along to the Chapel Saint-Germain with us to attend the last concert of the season. Ensemble Lunaris had just gifted us with a wonderful evening of early music. As we left, my friend said,"I was reminded that you say that the most beautiful musical instrument is the voice of a woman." 

It is. And it was that evening.

Anaïs Bertrand and Eva Zaïcik are the principle singers. Mélusine de Pas both plays the viole de gambe and joined in song at the beginning and end of the program to create stirring trios. And Myrrha Principiano contributed to each and every number on the clavecin. The ancient chapel seemed to have been configured just for this type of music. Without amplification and with a dais only an inch or two higher than floor level, every note traveled to the audience of 100 cleanly and clearly.

I know. This music is for a particular taste, requires a willing ear. But if this music moves you, the young ladies who have formed the Ensemble Lunaris are just the ticket. And tickets for the concerts at Chapel Saint-Germain are only 13 euros for what amounts to a private concert by artists of impeccable talent such as these. Alas, the season is over. Check in HERE in June next year for the first concert of 2018. And as for Ensemble Lunaris, you'll find a Facebook page that is not particularly up to date HERE.

 

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

A HEALTHCARE STRATEGY FOR THE AGES

Every once in a while, you do something that is so stupid that even your best friends wonder if your head is screwed on straight. And sometimes, rarely but sometimes, things turn out better than you could ever have imagined. You stepped in the poop and only through good luck and the grace of God you came out smelling like strawberries.

Many of us wondered why Obama didn't push for Medicare For All when he had the votes in Congress back in 2009. Single-payer healthcare had been proven throughout the industrialized world to provide better health outcomes, had been proven to be cost-effective - half the cost per capita of the American insurance-based system. How could Obama cede America's first stab at universal healthcare to an industry that had strangled the life out of the American economy for far too long? Insurance exchanges? Subsidies for insurance companies?

Madness.

Crazy.

Crazy like a fox...

If there are not enough votes for Medicare For All, get as many people covered as possible. Cash in as many chips as you can. Even lure in the insurance companies. But get people covered. And guess what. Once people get coverage, they don't want to lose it.

So, for seven years the Republicans screamed REPEAL. More recently, REPEAL AND REPLACE. Now? HOW DO WE FIX THIS THING. And there really is only one way to fix the ACA. The states - those places that the Republicans are fond of calling the labs of democracy - the states that went for expansion of Medicare are leading the way.

MEDICARE FOR ALL

Obama. Smarter than all of us.

Monday, August 28, 2017

MADAMICELLA IN A PYRENEES PRIORY: CONCERT AND VENUE REVIEW



I have been known to say that the most beautiful instrument in the world is a woman's voice. Combine the a capella voices of four women with the acoustics of a 1,000 year-old chapel tucked into a quiet corner of the Pyrenees and the result is magical.

The chapel is the Prieuré Santa Maria del Vilar, an 11th Century priory gone to complete ruin, photographed in 1913 and promptly forgotten again, only to be rediscovered in 1993 and lovingly restored with many original features remaining including the remnants of what must have been truly fantastical frescoes when original. The restorers, primarily an army of volunteers led by a committed local archaeologist, decided that the site was too sacred to turn over to the government. Today, monks of the Romanian Orthodox Church inhabit and care for the site.

The voices that we heard on a recent August evening belonged to Madamicella. Four Corsican women, each with strong voices, held a capacity audience of about 120 or so lucky listeners spellbound from their first notes. The concert, as advertised, combined the sacred with the profane - polyphonic music of the ancient church mixed with uptempo, sometimes playful Corsican melodies. The women clearly enjoyed the music and each other. And they were flat good. The audience demanded two encores.

Both the venue and the music defy simple description. The story of the Priory can be found HERE. Listen to the video above. If you have never been exposed to this kind of music before, give it a chance. For some, it will grab your heart instantly. For more about Madamicella, the best I can do is refer you to the site of the 12th Annual Festival of the Troubadours HERE. Hopefully, it will stay up for awhile. The festival continues through the end of September and is an annual event that gets into full swing every July. Check it out HERE.