Monday, 6 July 2009

FRANCE 09 PART 4


The Pomerol Gite and Thezac Sunflowers







Royan beach (above) and Meschers Sunset (opposite Talmont)



Beach at St Georges



Ferry leaves Royan for Pnte du Grave







SATURDAY JUNE 27 09
Three parts to this day, starting with trip to beach at St Georges for a swim in the sea, a walk and a rest on the beach.
Part two was back at the gite. Lunch consisted of a salad and a beer; that was followed by a dip in the pool and a spell to read and relax.
Five in the afternoon, we hit the road to Royan and walked across the main sea front to take a look at a couple of smaller beaches on the western side. Then back to the town for a light meal in Chez Meme, one of a string of sea front eateries. A couple of pizzas (9+9.5), 50cl of wine (5.50), two desserts (5.50 & 6.50) filled the belly. Service was excellent and friendly and the food wasn’t bad either! Sun still belting down strongly as we reach the gite at close to 9.00pm.




SIZZLE SUNDAY 28 JUNE 09
Hot today, somewhere in the high 30s here (later, we get confirmation that it reached over 40). First call is to the market at Saintes. Buy mussels for lunch and also fresh cod for dinner.
After lunch head to nearby Pisany for a Brocante Fair. It is the 25th such event but the stalls, though many, are small and the quality poor and we leave after half hour or so. We had come across one of these in this area a few years back and really enjoyed it. But there was to be no repeat this time.
Heat (40 degrees plus) is getting to us and, aside from a couple of dips in the pool and the odd short spell in the sun , we spend much of the second part of the afternoon in the cool of the gite.
Read quite a bit today of The Client by John Grisham, a thriller. It is not too bad, much better than the two thrillers I read earlier on this trip: The Blue Zone (by Andrew Gross ) and the dire Final Detail (by Harlan Coben).
Looking forward now to the cod with tomatoes and also to the Confederations Cup final from South Africa between Brazil and the USA. - Both turned out to be very enjoyable!!

SIZZLE MONDAY 29 JUNE 09
Another easy day in the hot sun. After breakfast headed off to St Georges for a spell on the beach. Bought a few bits in the town and back to the gite for lunch. Later checked the sales in Saintes but the big department store had no air-con. Headed outside for an ice cream and later a drink at a bar before driving back to base and a read and a dip or two in the pool.

TUESDAY 30 JUNE 09
The heat wave continues: more beach and pool, generally taking it easy, though made final trip to local vineyard to stock up. Sunflowers are now blooming.


Surprised to find La Foret closed on this Tuesday evening; headed down to Talmont to La Promontoire but that too was closed. Lesson: check before you go, as many restaurants close for both Monday and Tuesday, others for just one of those days.
La Kaz, another establishment in Talmont, was open; we got a table there and soon the place was packed, putting pressure on the two serving, though our flamboyant fellow didn’t show it. They did their best but service was slow. Nothing great on the menu here so settled for a lovely pizza (11.50). Also enjoyed my dessert of Poire belle Helene and the wine which cost €5 for a 50cl carafe.
People were expecting a thunderstorm and there was a little nervousness when one or two of the sheltering sunshades began to rattle in the wind. But nothing, only a few heavy drops, followed and there was a beautiful sunset on sea and cornfields as we drove inland to the gite.

WEDNESDAY 01 JULY 09
Change of month but no change in the weather, temperatures still in the high 30s, pool temperature at 28 in morning. Mainly the same course of action: read, pool, beach, pool. Tough going.
Still enough action to work up an appetite and the best place to satisfy that in these parts is La Foret. Have myself a Pineau Rose aperitif while studying the huge menu. We settle for the Medallions de Merlu (hake), cooked in a court bouillon, and served with various vegetables, including tomatoes, the plate further enhanced with four or five split (large) prawns. This dish cost €24.00 and was worth every penny.
Desserts were described on the bill as Tarte Au Citron and Tiramisu but, believe me, were much more than that. Both were gorgeous though I think the Advisor’s Tarte was the better choice. Finished off with an espresso (1.80, much cheaper than the 3.50 Jacques outrageously charge).
A good end to a good day.

THURSDAY 2nd JULY 09
The expected thunderstorms hit the area in the early hours of this morning; we weren’t really in the bird’s eye bit but the thunder rumbled on for a while. The morning was cloudy but soon the temperatures rose again and this day followed much the same pattern as recently: beach, stroll, ice cream and back to pool.
Last night in France for this trip so we head off to Le Cottage to support the Irish-French couple that run it. While waiting, we are served with a lovely smoked salmon mousse which goes well with the brown bread. The main course for me is local lamb with seasonal vegetables; done to a T, easy to eat as was the advisor's filet of beef. Dessert was deliceux de fraises, also gorgeous.

FRIDAY 3 JULY 09
ON ROAD & SEA
Close on 600 km to Roscof, so we pump the tyres to support the wine haul and also make a few stops on the motorway. One of the best is Aire de Vendee. I got a triple chicken sandwich here (3 slices of ordinary bread), a bottle of Coca Cola and a dessert yoghurt (with spoon and serviette) for 5.90.
Bits and pieces of fruit, travel sweets, more coke, kept us going. We didn't need much by the time we boarded which was a pity as le Flora was open! But we tried the self service. They had a range of hot dishes for around the 8 euro mark, also loads of salads, desserts, drinks etc.

Two Canneloni, two desserts, plus two small bottles (25 cl) of wine cost €27.65. The food was adequate (nothing special) but overall the value was decent.


But some more wine, mainly from the Languedoc on board. It is a smooth crossing and we arrive back in Cork bang on schedule at 10.30am Saturday.


OUR BASE

In the village of Thezac (Charente, France), the 11th century church towers over the houses and the surrounding cornfields and vineyards and the bells ring out the hour (though not by night). When the house lights go out, it is dark.
Pigeons coo (and coo), birds of prey glide and dive, rabbits run in the garden (until the cat catches one), hares are regularly seen and there are deer in the vicinity.
The friendly and courteous people rise early and work hard in the vineyards, the cornfields, the fields of sun flowers and maize and in their vegetable gardens. The village has no shops but just over 3 kms away in Pisany you’ll find a small supermarket and a baker.
Thezac is in the middle of nowhere but close to many attractive places such as Saintes, Royan, Talmont and Mornac (two of the prettiest villages in France – official), the beaches, and the motorway if you want to go further (Bordeaux, for example).
Ken and Nicky Roberts (kgrob@aol.com) have worked hard to restore the farm buildings of Au Milieu Des Vignes over the last six years or so and the completed project is a credit to them.
Three gites stand together (each with its private terrace c/w with barbecue and sun loungers) and a fine sized swimming poor (a bonus in hot weather) is shared, as is a large garden. The thickness of the walls of the converted barns means that the gites are cool inside, another bonus when temperatures rise.
The gites are marketed as romantic hideaways for couples (no kids, no pets) and that is exactly what they are. When you have enough of the holiday hustle in Royan, enough of the beaches, enough of driving, you can quickly retreat to Thezac, a dip in the pool and let the world go away.

Saturday, 27 June 2009

FRANCE 09 PART 3

La Rochelle Aquarium: Lemon Puffer (top) and Hawaian Double



Evening on St Georges beach, fish for auction at la Cotiniere and Chassiron Lightouse










SUNDAY 21 JUNE 09
Father’s Day began with death on the lawn of the gite as the visiting cat made an early morning kill. A surviving rabbit raced from bush to bush to safety.
Bonne Fete Papa! Decided we’d make this a lazy day. Drove to La Palmyre for the market with a promise (kept) not to buy food. Bought a few odds and ends and one or two presents for the grandchildren.
Spent most of the afternoon reading (in the sun) A Thousand Splendid Suns. It s a good book and if you like it why not try Wasted Vigil. The pool was also visited.
Then came the Clafoutis clanger. At the end of our barbecue, brochettes of beef from the Marche, we went to the fridge for the dessert. Noticed it on Saturday at the traiteur. It was marked Clafoutis, looked like it through the glass and we order two inside, and received it boxed. But at the end of the meal, this Clafoutis was not the regular fruity one. Instead, it was savoury dish with tomatoes studded around . Is there more than one Clafoutis out there?

MONDAY 22 JUNE 09
Today was a very interesting history stroll though nearby Saintes, beginning in the Roman arena. We paid a few euro extra for the audio guides and it was a brilliant investment. We made full use of them as we strolled though the ancient stadium, once used for the entertainment of the public, bread and circuses: animal chases and gladiator versus gladiator. This arena, one of the oldest, could hold close to 20,000 and the remains plus the audio meant you could easily picture the scene as the crowd gathered and the fighters entered.
It was hot in the amphitheatre but much cooler at the nearby Roman crypt of St Eutrope, part of the church named after this early bishop. After that we walked back to the town and sat at the nearest cafe, Cafe Des Arenes, where we had a three course lunch for the princely sum of €10.50: brochette of beef with salad and frites, dessert and coffee.
We were parked across the road but left the car there and walked down the town, over the river to Arc Germanicus and up the street to Abbaye aux Dames, the abbey of the women. This convent, first consecrated in the 11th century, turned out to be a highlight of our trip, once we found the office which is rather hidden away.
Again, we paid a few euro extra for the audio guides and the rewards were rich as we strolled at our own pace, through the exterior, then through the church, then the medieval gardens and then back to the convent, taking it all it in before climbing up to the belfry from where we enjoyed fantastic views over the town, especially up towards St Eutrope and St Peter’s (the other main church in Saintes).
Well satisfied with our day out, we made the short trip back to the gite for a dip in the pool and a barbecue.

TUESDAY 23 JUNE 09
This was an easy day. Late start, followed by a trip to the nearby vineyard and the sales cabin of Madame Masse to replenish supplies and than a short walk through the countryside adjacent to the gite.
After a quick lunch, headed to Royan and walked along by the main beach, the port and the next (smaller) beach. Then back towards the town centre for a look at the controversial Eglise Notre Dame. Built to resemble the prow of a ship, it looks severe on the outside. The inside looks more like a church but still the severity is maintained in the angular fittings, e.g. the baptismal font and the holy water fonts neat the entrance and in the statues scattered around. It is definitely 20th century in a town that was itself almost totally rebuilt in the 1950s having been destroyed in the later stages of the Second World War.
Many shops are closed as all seem to be preparing for sales tomorrow but we do manage to pick up a few presents before heading home to the pool.
Drive to Pisany, intending to have an evening meal at the local Auberge but find it doesn’t open until 7.30pm. Drive down to Acres then and have a lovely meal there from the €18.00 menu.
Aperitifs, cider and kir, cost a fiver and 50 cls of an impressive Sauvignon Blanc costs €5.00. Starter is a tomato brochette, main is Julienne (a fish similar to hake) served with rice, peppers and pureed pea, all followed by a desert of apple tart. Well worth it and we promise to go back next week.

WEDNESDAY 24 June 09
Summer sales break out in the area today but the highlight for us was a visit to the aquarium in La Rochelle. Open 365 days a year, it costs €13.00 to enter and is well worth it. Parking is fairly freely available close to the centre and we got ours (for free) in the Esplanade du Parcs, having failed to find a Park and Ride on the way in (which we used previously).
The parking was free and a pleasant walk through Place Verdun and then Rue de Palais took us to the port and its towers and it views out over the Atlantic. The Aquarium, well signposted is on the other side of the Vieux Port, a short walk away.
Creatures from all the oceans of the world, from tiny seahorses and colourful coral fish to the big grey sharks, can be seen here. Want to be young again? Pay the €13.00 and wonder. An excellent visit.
Back to the gite but the cupboard was bare so headed out to the generous plates of La Foret. Take this meal for value. A pave de Saumon au four (oven cooked darne of salmon), well garnished, and served with some tagiatelle (15.00), followed by Tarte Normande, apple and rhubarb (5.50), a half bottle of wine (3.00), and a coffee (1/80), total an incredible 25.80. Another worthwhile visit to a restaurant that is very popular with the French –didn’t see any other foreigners there!
THURSDAY 25 June 09
Lazy day. Very warm again. Gathered some food, bought some presents, in the morning, afternoon reading and in and out of the pool, quick trip to beach at St Geogres. Poulet Basque from the traiteur for dinner.

FRIDAY 26 JUNE 03
Weather uncertain as we headed for the island – Ile d’Oleron – this morning. But we need not have worried. As we reached the Viaduc, the sky was clearing. We headed for Le Chateau d’Oleron to watch the oyster farmers at work. Best viewed from the heights of the citadel – there you have a terrific view of the harbour and the estuary and the fleet of flat bottomed boats coming and going to the oyster beds.

Then up the coast to Boyardville and a little lunch – moules a la Italienne + frites, cost nine euro - at a little place near the main parking for the beach called L’ilot. On then to the tip of the island to see and climb the lighthouse, the 150 year old Chassiron.

Climbed the 224 steps no bother to enjoy great views, large over the sea in all directions and small to the foot of the building where a very nice garden (a new feature) has been laid out. Great value for just €2.50.
Back down the other side of the island to make a call to La Cotiniere where the fishermen land their catches and where the fish auctions take place. Saw some very big “meagre” delivered to the auction rooms.
Then back to the gite, the pool and the barbecue. It is now gone 8.30pm and the sun is still shining strongly on the back of the gite. C’est la vie!

Sunday, 21 June 2009

FRANCE 09 Part 2
















MONDAY JUNE 15th – AT THE ZOO
Monday was supposed to be a big bad thundery day. There was rain overnight but the morning was fair, cloudy but dry. Went for walk in the nearby fields before lunch and then decided to visit the famous zoo of La Palmyre with its 1600 animals.
They stress the conditions and the care supplied to the animals but one can’t help feeling somewhat sorry for the likes of the giraffes and lions in their miserable enclosures. Still, the zoo stresses its valuable research work and the value of its breeding programmes and, after all, how is Joe Soap and the kids ever going to see such animals at close quarters unless at a zoo.
Entrance fee is €14,00 and turns out to be much better value than the €13.00 you pay to enter Fota though in some cases, particularly with the giraffes, the animals are better off on the Cork island (of which I am a supporter).
Still they have no high platform where you can rub noses with the giraffes, no fascinating show like that of Palmyre’s Californian sea lions and the parakeets. The African gorillas, in a relatively spacious compound, are another highlight as are the polar bears, especially if you catch them swimming underwater.
Loads of monkeys, tamarinds, chimps, also a reptile house and animals (including a bunch of very lively cheetahs) too numerous to mention. We spent about four hours there and would have gone round again but the time was up!
For more info see http://www.zoo-palmyre.fr/
TUESDAY JUNE 16th – GARDENS & BEACH
Temperatures are high again today as I drive for the breakfast croissants. Later head for Royan with double purpose: to see the Jardins du Monde and to restock on basics by calling to Leclerc.
Ten euro is the entrance fee to the gardens and they are just about worth it. If you have kids bring them as there is a large children’s area plus quite a few of the exhibits are also attractive to the young ones.
Highlights are the bonsai pavilion, the orchid and butterfly gardens and the 1800 year old tree that stands in the Tuscan garden.
The food on sale at Leclerc's is amazing. We ended up buying more food such as Stuffed Tomatoes and Moussaka from the Traiteur and a chunk of Tomme cheese but this time of the goat variety. Petrol is also much cheaper at the large supermarkets.
In the afternoon, headed down to Meschers sur Gironde for the Plages des Nonne. Very few on this beautiful beach which had a Mediterranean feel to it with the palms and white cliffs. But it was the good old Atlantic that refreshed us and then we headed back for a late dinner made up largely of purchases at Leclerc's.
WEDNESDAY 17 JUNE 09
Hot again today and sometimes bothered. Drove to our old haunt of La Palmyre and caught the tail-end of the market. Down to the Tourist Office to get some info, including market times, but it was closed for lunch (12.30 to 2.00).
Second objective was to visit and climb the nearby Phare de la Coubre. That too was closed, both for lunch and more importantly repairs.
Mornac, one of the most beautiful villages in France, was next on the agenda. It is quite pretty but most of the artisans’ shops, which apparently keep the village alive, were closed. We enjoyed an ice cream in the shade and walked down to the port. But there was little activity. On a previous visit, kids were diving in to keep cool. No such luck on this occasion so we headed back for a dip in the pool and a check on possible venues for this evening’s dinner. Tough going!
Meursac is a nearby village and the place where La Table is to be found. It is behind the church, close to the community centre (hall, swimming pool, tennis courts).
It is a gem, run by Julie and Julien Massonaud. Service is courteous and with a smile and a little English and the food is top-notch and you can eat indoors or out. After a couple of small free appetisers and a campari (not free), I made a spectacular start with nests (and they looked the real thing) filled with goats cheese and tomato along with a green salad. The advisor had a Mushroom Terrine, with toasted walnut bread, olives and gherkins.
We each had the same main course, Volaille (in rough puff pastry case) with thinly sliced mushrooms in a prawn (yes, believe it or not) sauce. Absolutely gorgeous, the fish and poultry and mushrooms also coming together for a fabulous main dish.
Desserts too were excellent. One was an apple pastry combination served with ice cream while I had the chef’s surprise: chocolate and caramel layers on a biscuit base with a lemon ice cream and a mango coulis. Lovely stuff.
The three course meal came with a price tag of €19.00 a head. The wine, a Bordeaux blanc, cost €18.00 and we finished off with two good coffees at 1.30 each, every bit as good but a lot less expensive than you’d pay in Jacques.

By the way, when you see chevre on a French menu, it invariably means goats cheese not goat meat.
THURSDAY 18 JUNE 09
History is on the menu today, in particular the history of the nearby medieval city of Pons. We were returning there mainly to see the Hospital of the Pilgrims, open from 2.30 on Thursdays.
The pilgrims were (and are – we saw one) those on their way to Santiago de Compostella. Geoffrey, Lords of Pons, ordered its construction and it was built between 1380 and 1385. Alongside is its famous Jardin Medicinal, growing plants (many herbs) which helped treat many of the ill pilgrims.
We had reached the impressive hospital by car but had already walked the walk, starting in the Place de Republique where the castle keep, Le Donjon, stands, serving now as a tourist office and exhibition centre.
With map in hand we followed the walk down the giant staircase, through the Passage sous les murs and other medieval passageways. In the Rue de Robinet, we saw some medieval gabled houses. One had kept a sundial dating from the 13th or 14th century and a couple of feet away sported a 21st century satellite dish!
Back then in the heat to the gite and another turn in the pool before starting up the barbecue again, the morning having started with a long walk to the baker in Pisany for a baguette.

FRIDAY 19 JUNE 09
No history today, though the meal we had at La Foret was historic in its own way, marrying French flair with the Irish love of large portions.
Royan is popular with the Irish, among others, and the Michelin recommended La Foret is not too far out on the east, on the road to Talmont. It is easy to find.
Started, aside from a few small appetisers, with a massive Goats Cheese and Tomato plateful, containing several slices of a tart that had the cheese and tomato, several rings of another cheese at the four corners of the plate, various bits of fruit and crudités and topped with a “sail”, made up of two rashers on two skewers.
The other starter was also huge, a Carpaccio of various fruits: several slices each of melon, grapefruit, watermelon, pineapple, and grapes, along with a plentiful supply of sorbet. The centre point here was a glass of the local Pineau which you couldn’t really free until you ate most of the fruit.
Main course was Bauvette, an excellent beef dish with parsley butter and caramelised onion, served with a few chips. Quite an amount of meat filled the long dish but there was bowl of salad on the side and also more chips. Massive and it went down well.

Then came the cheese course. I forget the first one on offer as we each went for the second which was a white cheese with cream and cognac. Beat that!
Then on to the desserts, all this remember in the €26.00 euro menu. Picked the classic Ile Flottante – melt in the mouth decadence. The other dessert at the table was a Terraro: a sorbet type combination of very fruity boules of frozen fruit (including blackcurrant, strawberry etc) all surrounded by sliced strawberries.
It was an unbelievable meal at quite a busy restaurant and the price of house wine (red, white or rose) was, believe it or not, €6.00 for a 70 cl carafe.
There are a couple of set menus but the a la carte is huge, opens out like a broadsheet. There is no English version so you could struggle to get though it unless you have very good French. But take a chance. It is worth it!
The cooking, the presentation, the service, the location of La Foret and its ambiance is excellent. But be warned about those huge portions!
Earlier in the day we had visited the long and impressive beach at St Georges and also the nearby Parc d’Estuaire where you get some excellent views but little else (though it could be quite an entertaining spot to take the kids).

SATURDAY 20 JUNE 2009
Despite the large meal last night, our Saturday begins with a food raid on Royan. First to the Marche where we pick up some pork pieces and beef brochettes for barbecues, also other necessary veg and greens, plus some prepared Tomato a la Greek for lunch.
Than down to our favourite traiteur in the area, Guy Laurent. Here we bought a prepared meal €7.73 for two and two sets of tartes (Clafoutis and Apple) for €6.30. Then, with two bags full and a loaf under the arm, back to the car and then to the gite.

The Greek style tomato fits the bill for lunch and after that we head to St Georges de Didonne, paddle in the sea, walk along beach and enter the town where we stroll to the centre and the pleasant square, noting the restaurants (the search for food never stops) and so on. Back then to the beach area where we see a bonfire ready for St John’s Night and watch some beach football.
For dinner at the Gite, we have the traiteur’s Turkey in Tomato sauce, having started with some smoked salmon. Dessert is a gorgeous apple tart each from the traiteur and all that, along with the free bottle of Rose from Madame Masse, makes for a cheap but lovely meal.

Monday, 15 June 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.