Thursday, December 31, 2009

The winecellar, part of the bare necessities?


When we bought this house, the possibility to install a wine cellar was part of the basic requirements for my husband. He knew that in the basement there was a little niche below ground level, perfect for storing wine. Under ground level means that the air keeps a natural temperature of 13-15 degrees C, perfect for wine. Wine bottles in private wine cellar

Many Frenchmen dream of building up their own stock of fine wine. The idea is to buy the most expensive wine you can afford, store it for ten years or more, and then enjoy drinking a wine you would never ever had had the money to drink otherwise!

It was easier to control my husband's winebuying before the internet existed. At that time, many of the finest bottles were bought at the castle during visits. Or at least somewhere close. Now, one click on sites like Chateauonline or Vinatis and you have 12 bottles coming home to you, nicely wrapped for safe transport....what wine lover can resist to that and a good price?

The photo shows part of the wine cellar in our basement...

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Raspberry clafoutis

Raining outside, children still on Christmas break... sounds like the perfect time to make a cake. And it better be a simple recipe, so they can participate. I made a raspberry clafoutis with frozen raspberries. We even find some fresh ones at a hefty price in wintertime, but honestly, the frozen ones work perfectly.
raspberry clafoutis

Clafoutis is usually done with cherries and a batter, a mix between pancake batter and custard. Real easy too, breaking the eggs is the hardest part....

Ingredients
500 g cherries, less for raspberries. I take as many as needed to cover the bottom of the oven pan.
80 g flour
125 g sugar
3 eggs
25 cl liquid cream
butter and a pinch of flour for the pan
a pinch salt

Put oven on 180 degrees C. Butter the pan and add a pinch of flour so the cake won`t stick to it. Mix flour, sugar and salt. Add the eggs and mix. Add the cream and mix. Put the cherries or the raspberries in the pan. Cover with the batter and put in the oven for 35 minutes. Wait a little bit before serving.... if you can!



If you make them with cherries, the original recipe says it should be with the pits - they add flavor and the cake looks prettier without the red color spreading too much - like it did with my raspberries! You can replace the cream with milk, no worries. Add icing sugar on top after taking it out from the oven to make pretty. I`ve seen other recipes with some vanilla sugar added.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Olentzero, a different Santa Claus

Olentzero basque Santa ClausOlentzero basque Santa ClausWho says Santa Claus has to have red clothes and a big white beard?
Maybe it is a bit late to write about Olentzero, the basque Santa Claus, but it is such a nice tradition, I'll do it anyway. Olentzero comes from the basque village Bidassoa. He is a coalminer. Right before Christmas, he comes down from the mountain to distribute firewood to poor people, to not have anybody freezing during the Christmas celebration.

Today he still comes, riding on a pottok, a small mountain poney, with candy and gifts for the children. From being a local tradition, it now concerns the whole Pays Basque. Children come by groups, singing and asking for money, with Olentzero as a doll on a chair.

There are of course many variations on the story, one for each village...

The first picture shows what he looked like in a shop window in Hondarribia, on the Spanish side of Pays Basque. The second picture comes from Wikipedia.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Landes, absolutely faboulous beaches

Atlantic beach front in LandesI live here, so maybe I am not the most objective person to be found. But, still, the beaches here are incredible. They equal the best northeast Brazilian beaches.

I remember my first time to the beach here. I had already seen part of the Atlantic coast, but further north and further south.  So I was expecting nice beaches. What I got was a most singular experience, something that still knocks me down when I go there - and I go there pretty often.

Beach in Mimizan in LandesThe beaches in Landes stretch without interruption for 100 km. Access to the beaches are almost always limited to a single road that leads through a vast pine forest. When you park the car, the sea is still hidden behind the dunes. And when you step over those dunes, it all hits you. The blue sky, the blue sea and the endless beach. The wind and the roaring of the waves crashing against the sand. You feel very little. And very happy. I believe the sea talks to all of us, a reminder of that first time floating in the water. I also believe that being able to see far away to a shimmering horizon is very peaceful. It puts things in perspective. I always feel good after a day on the beach.
Picture from the beach in Mimizan.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Special French Chestnut Rabbit Stew

My French husband is a great chef. He never follows any recipes, he just invents as he goes. So I don`t have a very precise idea of how he did this rabbit... by my, was it good! Our guests were in awe. He said he had fried the rabbit legs a bit to give them some color with some onion and garlic, then hop, everything in the pan and let it boil for a good while. Everything being red wine, readymade boiled chestnuts, carrots, mushrooms, laurel and thyme. The sweetness of the chestnuts were great with the rabbit.... I am used to his cooking skills, but this was something extra. That`s why I want to share it with you!Rabbit stew with chestnuts

On the side you see big mushroom hats that he filled with some olive oil, white wine, bacon and goat cheese. Five minutes in the oven. Very good indeed!

Pyla, 114 meters high sandmountain

Pyla sand mountain

Pyla is the most visited place in Gironde with about one million visitors every year. Once you get there, on top of the 114 meters high dune, you understand why. The Arcachon basin is laid out below you in all its splendor. A truly magical place. And great fun with all this sand for both kids and adults!
The easiest access is through a stairway, but you can of course climb the sand mountain any way you please. We have been there with a three year old and with elderly people. Everybody can do it, if you take it easy.
To get there, look for Pyla-sur-Mer and signs for Dune de Pyla. If you want to try a different access, turn at the sign 'parapentes' when you follow the D112 road to Biscarrosse after the campings. It will give you a different perspective. Or you can try via La Corniche, at the south exit from the city Pyla. Signs start from boulevard de l'Océan. A nice view too, with access to the beach down below through some stairs.

stairs at Pyla sand mountain

This picture shows how high up you get - see how small the trees look!

forest below Pyla sand mountain











Tourist office Pyla information page

Friday, December 25, 2009

Bordeaux, the great transformation

When I first came to Bordeaux as a student in the beginning of the nineties, my first impressions were mixed. Beautiful architecture, but the buildings looked grey, there was a grey feeling over the city. But now the great transformation has revealed a completely different city. The duck, that was never that ugly, has transformed into a beautiful swan, revealing the full beauty of its culture and history. The front of the buildings have been renovated, a modern tramway installed and the area next to the river has completely changed, all thanks to a mayor determined to make Bordeaux a top tourist destination. fountain statue trois graces in Bordeaux

In June 2007 most of the city of Bordeaux was marked as a world cultural heritage area by UNESCO. It is the first time such a wast urban area got that distinction.

Thank the mayor Alain Juppé for the transformation. He pushed all the big changes. One of his first measures was to introduce a modern tramway in the centre of the city. The traditional French did not approve at first. And then the road works closed parts of the centre, creating huge traffic jams, increasing the public outcry. But now you can ask almost any inhabitant in Bordeaux - nobody can imagine the city without the sleek modern tramway, facilitating transport for both inhabitants and tourists. The theater in Bordeaux

Next step was to renovate the exteriors. Many of the most beautiful buildings are made with pierre de Gironde, a beautiful lightly yellow stone. Unfortunately, this stone is very sensitive to attacks of a mushroom that darkens the surface very quickly. The greyish, dark exteriors looked worn out and abandoned. But after the cleaning, what a difference! Now you clearly see all the beautiful details.

Shore of river Garonne in Bordeaux
But Juppé was not finished yet. He also decided to clean up the dock area along the river, where many deteriated and ugly storage buildings were hiding the view over the river. Some were torn down, others renovated. Now the area contains a beautiful wast pedestrial area. People stroll along the water, enjoy the view and the beautiful buildings. The water mirror in front of Place de la Bourse has became famous as a symbol for the new Bordeaux. 

Bordeaux city silhuette by night
Facts about the area marked by UNESCO as a world cultural heritage: Within this area you find 347 historical buildings and three churches that since before belonged to the cultural heritage as part of the pilgrim road to Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle in Spain. When applying to UNESCO, the city of Bordeaux underlined the harmony in the last 200 years of development of the city. That explains why both buildings from the beginning of the 18th century and a modern shopping center from the early seventies are included.


More information on the UNESCO site
More information on the Bordeaux tourist office site
Grand Theater photo taken by C. Sotomayor.

Christmas eating in France

Compared to my home country, where traditional Christmas is all about eating pig, as ham, sausages or meatballs, I found French customs quite different. In a good way! Most families serve oysters, duck liver and champagne. Then they add whatever they fancy the most, often seafood or some expensive cut of meat. The dessert is a nobrainer, always a bûche, a log, which traditionally was a very heavy cake with lots of butter
cream. Today  it can be made with icecream or a light mousse.  veuve clicquot champagne bottle

Our Christmas dinner was pretty typical French I believe. We hade lobster, deer and a bûche. My husband had planned oysters and duck liver too, but I pleaded it would be too much. We also skipped cheese - not a very French behavior - but by then everybody was too stuffed...


deer ribs uncooked

Clara got a pair of rollers among her Christmas gifts. First thing next morning she asked to try them on of course! Her grandfather stayed close to her. The wobbly start soon turned steadier and at the end she went on her own. Now I know how she will spend the next 200 hours outdoors...

girl on rollers

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Lobster and vanilla, a match made in heaven

Say you want to impress somebody. Your boss, your future wife or just some difficult friends. Try this and you will have your will, at least for the rest of that day. The recipe is for lobster, but from trying I know it is at least just as good with fresh scallops. The recipe comes from our friend Sylvie, but I think she stole it from some unknown hero... lobster with vanilla butter sauce

On the photo the sauce is made with raspberry red wine vinegar, so it looks a bit brownish, follow the recipe and it will look prettier!

Ingredients
6 lobsters of about 300 g each
30 cl white wine
10 cl white wine vinegar
200 g butter
2 spoons of vegetal oil
2 cloves of vanilla
2 lime
salt and peppar

Mix white wine and vinegar in a saucepan. Boil until on average heat until only 2 spoons of liquid remain. Put on the side. Flatten the vanilla cloves, slice open and scrape the pulp out with a knife. Put the pulp on a small plate. Cut the butter in small cubes.

Cut the lobsters in two parts  - the long side. Heat the oven to 270 degrees - very hot.  Put the lobsters in some oil in a oven pan, meat side down. Put them in the oven for 5-6 minutes, turn them once. Add salt and peppar. Keep them in the turned off oven while you finish the sauce.

Heat up the 2 spoonfuls of wine and vinegar reduction on low heat. Add, stirring with conviction, the butter. Add salt and peppar, add the vanilla and a last stir.

Serve the lobsters on hot plates, meat side up with some sauce on top. Leave sauce on the side, decorate with lime slices. Enjoy!

Everybody is crazy about rugby

rugby scene aviron bayonnaisLooking at a map of France and the rugby clubs, you see a big concentration of clubs in the southwest corner. For some reason, rugby is the thing to do here! An heritage from our English neighbours on the other side.... Our little village with 2000 inhabitants has a rugby field. Of course. Like all the little villages around. Rugby is by definition a very masculin sport. No protections,  this is a man-to-man, fist-to-fist sport. When nearby village teams meet during a tournamnent, the supporters go wild. And then they just as easily go and have drinks together in what is called la troisième mi-temps, the third part of the game. No hooligans here, but a lot of hearty laughs and tinkering of glasses. A very good symbol for the southwest culture.

rugby mascotte aviron bayonnais
You can go watch a game anyplace really, but the best spot is said to be Bayonne. The basques absolutely love rugby. If their home team Aviron Bayonnais is playing, there will surely be a huge atmosphere during the game. Not to mention if they meet their top rival, the Biarritz team BO. Real supporters buy a subscription for tickets so they are sure to get seats for every game. Subscriptions for the best seats are hard to get to, they are passed on from fathers to their sons... The name of the Bayonne team is a bit weird too, because Aviron means rowing, as in rowing a boat!

Here you can watch a video that shows how enthusiastic the audience is. The funny looking creature on top of a car is a pottok, a kind of mountain horse, and it is also the mascot for the Bayonne team. They sing the team song Aviron Bayonnais..... can you imagine how great it would be to be there?



After a game in Bayonne everybody goes to the team restaurant, Aviron Bayonnais. Food is excellent, but the best part is watching all these tall, muscular men and listening to their strong voices singing basque traditional songs! The team colors are white and blue, good to know if you want to show your support. After dinner many players and supporters go to the bar Le Saloon, where the party goes on for hours.

rugby man posing nude calender
Talking about rugby I have to mention a very popular calender with rugby players. Dieux du Stade, Gods of the Field. It made instant success when it was published in 2001, featuring lightly dressed or even naked rugby players, and has since then become an institution.




Official site Rugby Club Aviron Bayonnais, where you can buy tickets for the games. Or at www.ticketnet.fr or www.francebillet.com . You can buy the calender Dieux du Stade at www.fnac.fr . Restaurant Brasserie Aviron Bayonnais phone 05 59 58 27 27. Open most days except Wednesday evening and Sunday all day. Address 1, rue Harry Owen Roe, Bayonne. Bar Le Saloon phone 05 59 57 75 18, address 2, rue Paul Pras, Bayonne. Open Monday to Saturday 18-03H. Picture Dieux du Stade Wikipedia. Map rugby clubs in France

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Starry view from the Rhune mountain

Rhune mountain in Pyrénées AtlantiquesThe view from the top of the Rhune mountain in the Pyrenees is astounding. So magnificient that the Michelin Guide awarded it with three stars! From the top you see out over the mountains and all the way out to the sea and the endless atlantic beaches. It is a must-do thing if you are in the French Basque country, a tourist trap that is really worth your time and money!

To get there you have several options. The easy way is to take the little train, le petit train, from Ascain. It takes about half an hour to get up to the top, slowly making turn after turn around the mountain, enjoying fantastic views the whole way. My children loved it, looking at all the animals that go munching lush mountain grass all around, sheep, cows, horses... you'll probably spot the small mountain horse pottok, typical for the Pyrenees.
The little tourist train at the Rhune mountain
The other option, that many basque do regularly, is to go hiking up there. It will take you about three hours the short way, and a bit more for the longer, prettier version. It is possible to take the train just to go down, the hardest part on your knees!

When you reach the top, there is a huge viewing platform and a snack restaurant, for sandwiches, coffee and cakes.

Peak summer season, July to August, can get very crowded. Once on a beautiful day in July I came with some visitors around 10 AM. There were cars parked outside the parking lot for about two kilometers alongside the road. Waiting time was estimated to three hours - so we didn't go there. They can add extra trains when there are many people, but maybe not in the middle of peak season on a beautiful day.


Place: Gare du col de Saint Ignace. 10 km from St-Jean-de-Luz. Good signs with Petit train de la Rhune. It takes about 30 minutes to get up to the top at 905 meters above sea level. Adults pay 14 euros, children 4-10 years 8 euros. Trains every half hour summertime, else two times a day. Open during most of the year. Check out their site Petit train de la Rhune. The picture shows pottok, a small mountain poney typical for the Pyrenees. Photo Wikipedia.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Holy Baguette

baguette French breadBread is a serious matter in France. A common subject for discussion is deciding which bakery makes the best baguette. Everybody will have a well defined opinion and set down their arguments without hesitation. When I came here I found this a bit funny. Bread is bred, what is the big deal?

Then I married a Frenchman who is, like all of them, crazy about bread. He will not only go and buy his fresh bread every morning, he will be annoyed when his favourite baker is closed. We live in a village with 2000 inhabitants and there are THREE bakeries to chose from . They take turns to close, so there is always at least one of them open on any day of the week.

Now I realise I am getting a bit French. All bread is not equal. I have my preferences and I might even be willing to make an extra turn to get to my favourite baker...

Still it seems a very simple matter. Any recipe for baguette will contain flour, salt, yeast and water. That`s it. Nothing fancy. But what kind of flour? How do you knead the dough? How long time you leave the pate to rise? All these small details that in the end will give you a great bread or just a good one.... just add some real butter, salted to my preference, and there you are with one of these true luxuries of simple pleasure.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Gourmet lunch at Poustagnacq in Saint-Paul-lès-Dax

table at Poustagnacq restaurant in Saint Paul lès DaxThe Poustagnacq restaurant is a converted mill that serves a fine cuisine with top regional products. It is beautifully seated next to a small lake and the interiors are light up to create a soft atmosphere. We went there to have what they call a Discovery Meny, menu découverte.

amuse bouches at Poustagnacq restaurant in Saint Paul lès Dax
It started with amuse bouches, which means to entertain the mouth literally... just something small to open your appetite... from left tomato and mozzarella sallad, selleri mash with shrimp and little spicy potato salad.
duck liver at Poustagnacq restaurant in Saint Paul lès Dax
Appetizer number one, duck liver with a figue jam, salt and pepper. So simple, so good.

Crab filled peppers at Poustagnacq in Saint Paul lès DaxSecond appetizer, small crabfilled peppers, seafood sauce and chipirons with ink sauce.

Pilgrim mussels with risotto at Poustagnacq restaurant in Saint Paul lès Dax
Coquilles Saint Jacques,  cepes and risotto, just divine...

The 'main course' was excellent too, pigeon filet with fried fresh duck liver and carrot mash, but I forgot to take a photo, so you have to just imagine it!

Front of the Poustagnacq restaurant in Saint Paul lès Dax
The restaurant seen from the outside. The terass in front of it has a nice view over the water.

What is Aquitaine?

Aquitaine is a region in the southwest of France. It starts roughly at Bordeaux and goes down to the Spanish border. It contains five `départements': Gironde, les Landes, Pyrénées Atlantiques, Lot-et-Garonne and Dordorgne. As always in France, each part has its own identity.

bordeaux by night

Gironde is mostly known for the great city of Bordeaux and the surrounding vineyards.

atlantic coast of Landes in southwest of France

Les Landes is famous for its 100 km of white sandy beaches, that stretches north into Gironde for another 100 km. The pine trees form Europe's biggest planted forest. 

rhune mountain in Pyrenees Atlantiques in France

Pyrénées Atlantiques is of course known for its mountains, from steep parts to rolling hills. It has also part of the atlantic coast, but a rougher, more cliffy version with small beaches. And a strong basque culture!

Penne d'Agenais in Lot-et-Garonne seen from the basilica

Lot-et-Garonne is the part with the least number of tourists. It is often called the secret garden, because of its agricultural focus. Very charming with many little gems to discover.

The Milandes castle in Dordogne

Dordogne is a fairytale landscape, with 1001 castles and many prehistoric caves to explore. Every stone seems to have a history to tell.

Common to all of them is excellent food, with regional differences. There is also wine to be found everywhere, not only in Bordeaux!

If you use the highway, you can go from north to south in about two hours, so all these different cultures are within a relatively small area. Beaches and mountains, castles and wineyards, what more do you need?

For me, Aquitaine is special also for its festive culture. 331 villages and 331 festivals each year! Some of them are known all over France, like the Bayonne festival, with over a million visitors.

The end of Oysters?

oysters from FranceThe French are big oyster lovers. Especially at the end of the year, when everybody celebrates Christmas and the New Year with a platter of oysters. Half of the total yearly amount - 120 000 tonnes in France -  is consumed at the end of the year!

But now they say that the oyster production will diminish with 50 percent for next year and even 70 percent for 2011. It is the baby oysters that die massively. The scientists talk about virus and bacteria, but nobody really knows if that is the only reason. Warmer water, mild winters, pollution are other possible offenders.

Oysters are classified by size, where size 3 is the most sold. Not too big, not too small. And this year already, there are less of them. The producers usually plan their growth to have a maximum of size 3 for the end of the year, but since so many died, those who survived had too much to eat and grew a lot faster than usual....

We will see what will happen, but I will ask for some extra oysters in the days to come. Next year they might be too expensive... Read more about the oyster crisis in  the French newspaper Le Sudouest. And about some hope, of a virus resistent oyster to come in 2015.

Oyster picture from Wikipedia Commons.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Snow and sun

snow man in the southwest of France
It snowed heavily yesterday, and we are lucky to have cold weather today, so the snow is still here. The children have been out playing and making snow lanterns for tonight. They made the snowman yesterday, coming home from school.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Children even made a snowman

Sorry to talk about the snow again, but we are quite excited about snow here! Not part of our winter day to day at all... we have snow up in the mountains, so we can go skiing about 1-2 hours from here, but snow at home, not really. Today was last day before the Xmas holidays, so we celebrated making a snowman, lighting some candles and having soup and pancakes for dinner. A good start!



Wednesday, December 16, 2009

I love Aquitaine

I am so happy to live here that I want to share... share some of the good food and wine, some special places and some special people. Anything that makes me happy will fit in here. And also parts of my everyday life, the way it looks in a small village in the southwest of France.

I am Swedish but have been married to a Frenchman for over 13 years now, so actually the lines are starting to blur...  not totally Swedish anymore, not totally French yet....
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