Apr 17

Spring in Paris, the Markets Lead the Way…

White asparagus arrive in the market in early Spring. Spring has arrived in Paris and with it the celebration of the spring vegetables and fruit that define the season far more reliably than the weather.

While the sky might still change from beautiful, crisp and clear in the morning to offering a drizzle in the afternoon, the sight of plump, wildly red strawberries, bright green beans, massive white asparagus, and the uniquely textured morel mushrooms, are more dependable signifiers of the change of seasons.

When walking the streets of Paris we see the new season produce brings a smile to the faces of locals and gasps of awe from foreigners. The locals start rehearsing spring recipes in their heads while purchasing the newly-arrived goodies, while the tourists wonder whether that asparagus will wilt on the flight home.

We have the best of both worlds – being able to try the produce in the restaurants (look for ones that feature seasonal produce on their daily menus) as well as being able to take some ‘home’ to our holiday rental and enjoy it how we like to cook it.

In Spring in Paris, the markets lead the way when it comes to eating, perhaps more so than in any other season. In the restaurants so far, we’ve had divine, earthy morels in a decadent mushroom velouté and a vibrant pea soup so fresh and green it was like a vitamin injection.

But probably the best example of the use of seasonal produce was the white asparagus we had served simply with a fine hollandaise sauce. Now that’s letting the ingredients speak for themselves!

The end of the season here spells the end of heavier winter dishes such as bœuf Bourguignon as well as the end of the best of the oysters – at least until later this year.

Now everyone is looking forward to spring and then summer, drinks at outdoor cafés and bars, and strolls through the parks safe in the knowledge that when the spring fruit and vegetables arrive, spring is coming – even if the weather is putting up a struggle to let go of winter!

White asparagus with a simple hollandaise sauce.

Apr 16

Our Home Away From Home in Paris

The charismatic location of our latest home away from home in Montmartre-Pigalle, in Paris’ 18th arrondissement, is a captivating area that, with its population of artists, bohemians and budget tourists, little old ladies and ladies of the night, simultaneously manages to be cool and vulgar, charming and seedy. It fascinates and seduces, as much as it delights and dismays, in the same way as Soho does in London or Potts Point-Kings Cross in Sydney – and that’s exactly what makes it such a fascinating place to stay.

On the lower slopes that creep up the hillside from boulevards de Clichy and de Rochechouart are buzzy bars, nightspots, and vintage furniture and bric-a-brac shops, while the tiny parallel doglegged streets of Rue des Abbesses, Rue des Toire Frères and Rue d’Orsel are lined with bistros, bakeries, and boutiques. Higher still, on the top of the hill is the stupendous cathedral of Sacre Coeur, and the crowded tourist-heavy lanes centred on and around Rue Rustique, while on the slopes on the other side of the hill are lovely tree-lined streets of elegant old apartment buildings in an everyday neighbourhood that see few tourists.

Our home for two weeks is smack bang in the centre of the action on the lower slopes, on vibrant Rue des Abbesses. On the top floor of a sixth floor building, with a courtyard at its centre, we have Rear Window-like views of the other apartments and grey rooftops, and from the toilette we can just see the tops of the spires of Sacre Coeur.

A light-filled one-bedroom apartment, with a compact kitchen-cum-living-dining room, a decent-sized bedroom, a bathroom much too big for the size of the apartment (someone once loved a long soak!), and a separate toilette, our quarters are petite without being cramped, and far more spacious in size than a Paris hotel room of the same price.

Our little Montmartre pad may not be as chic as the sumptuous Paris Apartments that feature in the glossy book of the same name that sits on the shelves among a library that includes everything from the French New Wave and Paris Architecture to Toulouse-Lautrec and Picasso’s Paris, but it has an eclectic charm and an anything-goes style that is très Parisian.

Beside the books are bowls, vases and carvings from Africa and Asia, there are a few Morroccan lanterns, a blue-and-white Chinese bowl, and on the walls throughout the apartment hang alluring paintings, prints and black and white photos of Paris. There’s an excellent French-themed DVD collection, featuring fabulous Parisian-set films from Godard’s Breathless to Truffaut’s The Last Metro, and a CD selection ranging from Josephine Baker to French Chanson.

The charmingly-mismatched blue-hued décor includes a Japanese futon in the living room and a white antique writing desk and rattan chair in the bedroom (and more books and guidebooks there too!), where I’ve set up office for the duration of our stay. Terence has taken over the foldout dining table in the living-dining area, which means no dinner parties here I’m afraid, although the compact kitchen didn’t stop him cooking up an aromatic Côte de boeuf and Dauphinoise potatoes (Pierre Gagnaire’s suggestion for The Dish) our second night here!

Terence is enjoying the range of amenities for such a tiny kitchen and although he loathes induction stovetops, he appreciates having a quality oven – something many apartments in Paris don’t have. But while there is a fridge, freezer, and dishwasher – he’d love to see some big white plates and more wine glasses in the cupboards. (Maybe I shouldn’t rule out that dinner party yet?) My only complaint is the lack of elevator – I would have happily paid anyone to lug my bags up here the night we arrived, especially after 13 hours of travelling from Ceret. However, that’s the price we knowingly paid for such a compelling location, and, after all, the more calories we burn, the more we can eat, right?

Apr 15

Ceret’s Scenic Saturday Markets

Ceret’s scenic Saturday markets are one of the highlights of a visit to the village – people come from far and wide to browse them – and as last weekend was the first time the place had really experienced fine spring weather, the whole place was simply buzzing.

We were warned that we would barely be able to get out of the front door of our apartment as the market stretched right along Boulevard Arago (and around the corner along Boulevards la Fayette and Jean Jaures) and indeed it was true.

With stalls set up under the beautiful tall plane trees that shade the street, it must be one of the loveliest settings of any market anywhere in the world – and we’ve seen a lot.

There was plenty of local and French produce on offer, local ladies were filling up their old-fashioned (but increasingly popular) shopping carts with vegetables, cheese and preserved meats, including many items from Catalan, bearing the region’s red and yellow colours and flag. The air was filled with the mouthwatering aromas of chickens being slow roasted in mountain herbs and the heady cheeses of the local producers.

By 11am things were starting to quieten down at the market and everyone in town appeared to be outside on the terrace of one of the bars or cafés, such as Bar El Pablo and Café de France, sipping coffee, downing beers, or imbibing red wine with snacks.

Shops and galleries that had been closed for most of the two weeks we’d been in town were suddenly open! By noon everyone was looking for somewhere to lunch and our picturesque square, Place des Neuf-Jets, not particularly noted for the quality of the cuisine at its restaurants, had people lining up for a table in the sunshine.

Ceret had awoken from its winter slumber…

Apr 14

The Dish: Cassoulet

That’s not from here, we make Catalan sausage! Catalan sausage is better!” exclaimed the butcher in Ceret when Lara asked for saucisse de Toulouse (Toulouse sausage), an ingredient of the cassoulet I was making for this series on The Dish. While the man had been happy to chat to her in broken English and French when she’d asked him a few minutes earlier about his duck confit, he changed his tune when he put two and two together and realised what we were making…

“You’re making this, aren’t you?” he asked, picking up a tin of pre-prepared cassoulet he had on the shelf. “This isn’t from here! It’s foreign. We’re Catalan!” and with this the red-faced butcher returned to the back room where he’d been slicing meat when Lara arrived. He wasn’t going to be selling Lara anything today, not even the innocent and more neutral duck confit.

So why did the notion of Lara making cassoulet send this man running back to his slicer – despite, ironically, him selling it in his own shop? Well, for anyone who sees themselves as Catalan, traditional French dishes such as cassoulet represent far more than just a stew of haricot beans, pork, sausages, and duck confit (just one of the versions of the dish). Cassoulet represents an ongoing form of French cultural oppression. And you thought it was just a casserole?

Castelnaudary, about 180km from Ceret, is the self-proclaimed capital of the dish which is named after the cassole, the earthenware pot it is often cooked in. Some 65km north of Castelnaudary, Toulouse is also a centre for this homely, filling dish. And despite what the butcher says, the dish is popular in southern France. There is a woman who sells it at the market every Saturday in Perpignan and the supermarket shelves would be far emptier in Ceret without the endless variations of cassoulet. Even a restaurant in Ceret specialised in cassoulet, although we never saw anyone eating it there and it had to be ordered in advance – never a good sign!

After a week of experimenting, I tried my final version out at a small dinner party we hosted in our holiday rental in Ceret for our new friend Carl from Perpignan and a Toulouse-raised local, Yvan, who told me that there was as many versions of cassoulet as there are villages in the south of France.

After looking at a million recipes I had decided to put into the cassoulet what I thought instinctively was right. Pork belly, pork and garlic saucisses (sausages), and duck confit were the main meat components of the dish. The haricots blancs (white beans, sourced from Castelnaudary) made up the base of the dish, and here there is no cheating with at all. The beans need to be soaked for 24hrs and then cooked to achieve the right level of softness, which I prefer to mean just firm enough to get a little taste of fibre as you bite into the bean, not soft and mushy like some I tried.

I found the sauce quite bland with some cassoulet I tried and one had way too much duck fat. To make a more palatable sauce, I used some tinned tomatoes, certainly not used in all cassoulets, but, look, even making cassoulet in Ceret is contentious! The other controversial issue is whether cassoulet has breadcrumbs baked on top. This is added when the duck pieces are added, near the end of a long cooking process. We didn’t prefer it either way and while the breadcrumbs added texture, it’s already a dish with plenty going on, so add them if you wish.

So, how was my final version received by the Toulouse native? “You’ve made a nice cassoulet with great flavour,” Yvan said, “but there’s not enough sauce for me. We like to soak up the sauce with some toasted bread with garlic and I also like boudin noir in my cassoulet.” Yvan also said that a cassoulet can be cooked for a whole day; way more than my few hours.

Despite these shortcomings, Yvan certainly finished his plate, and the rest of us thought that the dish was heavy enough without the addition of blood sausage. This is definitely a dish made for those with a huge appetite on a cold winter’s night or after a day skiing, hiking or chopping wood!

Below is my final recipe. You must use dried beans soaked for 24hrs and you need to judge the dish at several stages along the way – it’s best to start this dish mid-morning to have it ready that night for dinner…

Cassoulet recipe

Author: Terence Carter
Recipe type: Main

Prep time:  1 hour
Cook time:  4 hours
Total time:  5 hours

Serves: 4

• 300g poitrine salée (pork belly or streaky bacon), cut into bite-sized chunks
• 500g pork and garlic sausages, chopped into bit-sized pieces
• 4 pieces duck confit (some chefs cut this into smaller pieces too)
• 600g dried haricot beans, soaked overnight in plenty of water (they expand like crazy)
• 1 celery stick
• 1 white onion
• 1 large carrot
• 4 garlic cloves
• 1 400gram (14 ounces) tin peeled tomatoes
• 2 tablespoons of duck fat (you may have enough from the duck confit tin or jar)
• 1 bouquet garni
• Salt and pepper to taste
• 1 Dash of white wine
• Chopped parsley to make it look pretty when serving (optional)

1. Drain the beans and place in a large saucepan. Add the bacon/pork belly and plenty of cold water. Heat until boiling and then put it on a slow boil for 30 minutes. Discard the water.

2. Chop the celery, onion and carrot into bite-sized chunks. Remove the skin of the garlic and crush slightly with the heel of a knife. Using a good flame-proof casserole dish, add the duck fat and the vegetables and cook over a low heat until they start to colour. Add the sausages.

3. If you’ve done this right and the sausages are now fragrant, neighbours will probably start knocking on the door inviting themselves over to dinner. Preheat the oven to 120˚C (250˚F).

4. When the sausages are browned, deglaze the dish with a little white wine. Add the tomatoes and the bouquet garni.

5. Add the beans and pork to the vegetables and sausages and add 1 litre (2 pints) of water. Bring to the boil, then turn off the heat. Transfer the cassoulet to the middle shelf of the oven.

6. Cook for 2 hours, checking occasionally to see if it needs more water.

7. You can stop the cooking process here if you’re making this for another night. Some would say this makes it taste even better – some argue that two days is better.

8. If you’re serving the dish the same night, remove the cassoulet from the oven and place on a bench. Check the beans. That means eat some. Are they to your liking in terms of firmness? If they are, then you only need to cook the duck (the next step) for about 30 minutes. If not, when you add the duck, check the beans after an hour. If they’re too soft already, you’re probably using beans from a tin. You cheat, you lose!

9. Place the duck confit pieces in the cassoulet dish, making sure to cover the pieces of duck with the bean mixture. This will stop the duck from drying out, confirming people’s suspicions that duck confit is dry – and we don’t want that! Return it to the oven.

10. The duck confit usually take around 15 minutes to reheat when serving it on its own. But we want the flavours of the duck to go through the dish, so leave it in the oven for at least 30 minutes. If you want, add the breadcrumbs now.

11. At this stage check the beans again. If they’re still too firm, may I remind you that I suggested making this at the start of the day. It can take another two hours!

12. At this stage, the other thing to look for is whether the dish is becoming too dry. A perfect cassoulet has slow, thick bubbles at the edge of the dish, indicating the sauce is moist and thick. If it appears dry, add a little water.

13. When the beans are to your liking and you have the slow, thick bubbles at the edge of the dish, it’s ready.

14. Pour yourself a big glass of red. You’ve done well!

15. Serve a piece of duck for each guest and a fair share of all the other goodies. Sprinkle some chopped parsley on top to make it pretty.

If you liked this, see my other posts in this series in which I search for and learn to make quintessential regional dishes, including a chocolate snack with a Michelin-starred chef in Barcelona, Rabo de Toro (oxtail stew) in Jerez, and Lamb Tajine in Morocco. We’ve just arrived in Paris, so suggestions for The Dish I should make here are more than welcome!

Apr 13

Top 10 Languedoc-Roussillon Wines to Try and Buy

Wherever we go on our grand tour we’re focusing on eating, drinking and buying local or regional products as much as possible, and that’s especially the case with wine. Ceret is in the Languedoc-Roussillon region and the wines here are stunning. We’ve also been pleased to see that they can be found in abundance at local wine shops, wine bars, supermarkets, and markets.

As we’re relying on locals for advice this year, we consulted Matthew Stubbs, a Master of Wine, (the highest qualification in the wine industry, and there are only 264 MWs in the world!) who runs the wine school Vinécole, near Limoux. In addition to wine courses, Matthew and his team run wine tastings, bespoke wine events, tours, and other activities, from wine and chocolate tastings to themed ‘South of France’ tastings. You can also arrange tastings in your home, including your holiday rental!

Here are Matthew’s top ten wines from the region that he thinks you should try, and buy, and why:

La Cave de Pomerols, “Beauvignac” AOC Picpoul de Pinet – a crisp, dry, white, like Muscadet on steroids, it’s brilliant with the local Bouzigues oysters.

Laurent Miquel ʻNord Sudʼ Viognier, Vin de Pays dʼOc – a consistent performer every year, it can rival Condrieu at a quarter of the price.

Château Rives-Blanques, Dédicace, AOC Limoux – 100% Chenin Blanc from the Languedoc, it’s ripe, honeyed, and a real challenger to the Loire.

Domaine le Soula Blanc, Vin de Pays des Côtes Catalanes – the Catalan Paradox: how can a wine so clean, racy, delicate and piercing be produced in such a warm area? Answer: Altitude, a blend of five grape varieties, and the wizardry of biodynamic Meister Gérard Gauby.

Domaine Gayda Syrah 2008, Vin de Pays dʼOc – the 2007 won a gold medal at the Syrah du Monde competition, and the 2008 is even better, more Northern Rhone than Languedoc in style, with blackberry and black pepper.

Mas du Soleilla ʻLes Bartellesʼ AOC La Clape – few people had ever heard of La Clape a decade ago, but this Syrah dominated wine located 3 kms from the sea has contributed to the growing reputation of this magnificent appellation.

Clot de lʼOum Saint Bart Vieilles Vignes, AOC Côtes du Roussillon Villages – a blend of Syrah, Grenache and Carignan from 3 different soil types, this wine sums up what this region is all about.

Cave de Roquebrun “Roches Noires” AOC Saint Chinian – a serious wine from one of the best Caves Cooperatives in the region.

La Peira en Damoisela, Coteaux du Languedoc – a most extraordinary wine from a top producer and region, it’s deep, intense and brooding, from the up and coming Terrasses du Larzac.

Domaine Cazes, Ambré 1996 AOC Rivesaltes – like the finest crepe suzette in a glass – impress your Sherry and Madeira loving friends with this ‘alternative’ fortified wine. At 16€ retail, just over a € for every year of age, itʼs hard to find a better value wine anywhere in the wine world.

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