Pleasure is a word that comes easy when talking about Sarlat. The beauty of the landscape, the abundance of castles, the wings of a history full of bravery and shining knights. And the food. Always the food.
Photo: C. Sotomayor
Before going on this long weekend trip I had gotten advice from my neighbour, I had studied guide books and done research on internet. My predominant feeling the night before leaving was anguish. Too little time, too many things to do and see! How will I choose?
I admit at once, the recipe I use was created by Michel Guérard, a famous French chef that is responsible for a three star restaurant not too far from where I live. What I love about this recipe, a part from ending up with divine asparagus, is its startling simplicity.
Maybe you know that Landes, where I live, is the kingdom of Asparagus? Last week the Asparagus harvest started here! Finally! One month late, because since winter had been colder than usual, the soil took longer to reach the necessary temperature. Yesterday I went to get my first shot of fresh asparagus - I say shot because it is very easy to become dependent on the fresh ones - here in Castets at the Copa, cooperative. You buy they in boxes of five kilos! Yeah, it is a lot, but they can be stored for up to three days and also frozen (peeled). In my box you only see the tops, but you can also buy the whole long ones.
Enough of Bordeaux for a while! But I am making an exception to tell you about this article written by an American lady married to a Frenchman. More and more people are discovering the new Bordeaux... more lively, more outgoing, more fun than ever before.
There is nothing more difficult than trying to speak slang in a foreign language. Even in my own language I am too old to follow the trends, in French, I don't even try! Even today, after twelve years married to a Frenchman, I avoid slang. Among friends I might use some words that are declared 'familier', which means familiar in the sense informal. Like bagnole instead of voiture for car, bouffer instead of manger for to eat. But this is not slang.
Courant d`Huchet is an outflow from the Léon Lake all the way out to the Atlantic Ocean at Moliets. It is classified as a protected area and only licensed 'Bâteliers' have the right to bring boats with tourist on excursions. Many have talked to me about this place, telling me how fantastic it is, a tropical and very different nature, magical environment... but I must admit I remained pretty sceptical about the whole thing. I thought it was more for retired people with a botanical special interest.
Last year I tried the short version, two hours, and I am totally conquered!
Peaceful and entrancing are the words that best describe what it was like. Next time I will try the longer version of four hours, which will take me all the way out to the ocean. The old French president Mitterrand used to come here many times. Apparently he never uttered a word, he just sat silent and admired the nature, thinking.
Bordeaux was the most important harbour in France during the 17th century and using the Garonne River for transport was an important factor in making Bordeaux wines known world wide. Since then the activity of the harbour has declined a lot and the dry docks north of the centre had become a wild and partly abandoned area, with empty hangars and other storage buildings.
But now the docks are getting a new life as the hot spot for the festive part of the young Bordeaux people! Here you find some the hottest bars and dance places in town. Or at least that is what I had been told. So I suggested to our friends that we go there on a Saturday evening in May 2009.
We took the tramway to the last stop - bassins à flots - and got off. This is what we saw.
My friends and my husband looked very sceptically at me. Are you sure we aren't lost? Is this the hot party area you were talking about? I confirmed, but of course I was starting to wonder myself....
We visited the Domaine d'Esperance on a bleak and grey winter day. The photos are not doing justice to this place, full of charm and beauty, set on a high with a view over the vineyards around. Here they make armagnac and wine, both with several medals. The proprietor, Duchess Claire de Montesquiou, was not there for our visit. One of her family ancestors was the wife of d"Artagnan, the famous young man in Dumas book ‘The three musketeers’.
It was her experienced oenologue Sylvie who showed us the propriety, explained how they work and let us taste some Floc de Gascogne and an armagnac from 1941... Awesome!
View of the Moulleau beach in Arcachon. Further away the Pyla sand dune. Photo Wikipedia
My first visit to Arcachon was to see my friend Nathalie, who has a summer house there. She showed us around, the Winter City area with the crazy architect houses, the shopping street in the centre, the marina, the old fishermen area and the main pedestrian street longing the beach. I fell in love instantly.
Arcachon has, like the villages around the Arcachon Bay, a special light, a closeness to the sea and its movements, its smells. The tide decides a lot for life here, taking the water far out at low tide, setting the boats ready to go at high tide. It also sets the working hours for the fishermen, because they can only take care of the oysters at low tide.
Arcachon is like the capital for the Arcachon Bay. It is a perfect starting point for discovering this unique region, by car, by bike or by boat. It's always lively here all year around. Many people living in Bordeaux have their summer house in this area.
An old storage building that is reused as a museum for contemporary art, that is the CAPC Musée d'Art Contemporain. Incredible place with enormous volumes below old arcades, like a cathedral. It is also, on the top floor, a beautiful restaurant/café Café du Musée with a very charming terrace. We went there for brunch.... if I lived in Bordeaux I would go there every Sunday morning...
The permanent collection of the museum is of a very high quality and for free. There are continuously different temporary expositions. When we were there, one has just ended, so the locals were empty.
This girl lives in the US now, but she was born in the Pays Basque and grew up with her bakery owner parents. She has the most amazing blog, Cannelle et Vanille, with the most amazing photos. Especially desserts and cakes look like they are to die for. Her photos are very poetic, with a special light. To be honest, I must mention that I have never tried any of her recipes, but I can't get enough of her photos and her stories about her Basque family. Maybe I recognise her way of looking back at times, the nostalgia of a place where you grew up. Fresh ingredients, respect for natural flavours and beautiful presentations make her blog utterly attractive to me.
Her photo of a Gâteau Basque. I got a special permission to use it.
After my day with Jean at Ganaderia de Buros I had like a small glowing ball inside that kept radiating warmth and happiness for hours. Strange... I'm not exactly a cowgirl you know, not a go back to nature and eat raw roots person at all... And still, every time I meet people from the Southwest countryside, with occupations that include a lot of fresh air, animals and a hell a lot of work... I feel happy. These people glow of something that has become pretty scarce in the cities: harmony and contentedness. They work a lot, sometimes really a lot, but they don't stress.
My happiness that day had a lot to do with Jean himself. He is the owner of Ganaderia de Buros and a very charismatic person. The nice weather was just the extra bonus!
He told me about the excitement in chasing pigeons with nets, using the techniques of an old, old tradition. He also told me about his wild cows, the cows he breed to participate in course landaise, another old tradition in the region of Landes. Follow me into his world, where pigeon hunting by net is part of everyday life and breeding wild cows a passion.
I had heard about the pigeons and the way to hunt them with nets before, because it is a real old tradition in Landes. The only problem is that as a foreigner AND a woman, I had a pretty scarce chance to ever see one for real, even less to participate in a real hunting situation. Jean let me do both...
How on earth can cow farming be anything exciting, you wonder. But I'm not talking about the idle milk cows now, bred to be calm and obedient. I am talking about the fierce cows of the corrida race that you use in the course landaise competitions. These ones look a bit like our cows, but they have a quite different temper!
Course landaise is a living tradition with roots from the Medieval times. A course landaise display belongs to the permanent elements of any village festival in the region. It is a mixture of sport and show, where a man provocates a cow to attack, only to jump to the side at the very last moment. Or jump over the cow, in one of the predefined jumps. Many cows participate for tens of years and get more dangerous for every year, as they learn about human behaviour.. read more about when I saw a competition of course landaise here.
Clara was lucky enough to start her surfing career last summer with Christophe Reinhardt, a surf legend. He took her on a surf trip on top of his shoulders - pretty impressive, isn't it! He then explained to the children how to use the tandem board with him, an excellent way to right away give them a feeling for what surfing is about. Then they got their own surf boards and started trying to surf on their own. I was in the water with my own problems, but I have been told that Clara surprised everybody by standing up on the board for a really long while...
The French have a serious talent for making cakes, cookies, pastries.... whatever! I have made a short personal selection of my favourite local specialties. Enjoy!
Canelés from Bordeaux Let's start with the famous canelés that you find every where in Bordeaux and around. They are made with pancake batter, but with vanilla and dark rum added... d e l i c i o u s. The mixture is put into small copper molds with a caracteristic wavy shape, and baked at a very high temperature, which makes the surface crispy while the inside is still soft and a bit chewy. The best are said to come from the bakery Baillardran. The French eat them at all times, as dessert, as a snack, for breakfast... A recipe if you want to try on you own!
The canelés exist since the 18th century, but became very popular again the last years. Today you even find them in some bakeries in Paris for example.
During the winification process many wineries use egg whites to clear the wine, which of course means they have many egg yolks left. Incidentally the canelé recipe contains a lot of egg yolks!
Tourtière from Dax: Tourtière is a cake that doesn't look much at a first glance. Pretty flat, made of flaky pastry and decorated with either apple slices or dried plums. Don't pass it without trying! The pastry has been worked in several sessions, folded houndreds of times. But the most important ingredient is the armagnac that is poured on top! Try it lukewarm with a little vanilla icecream. Heaven. I buy mine at La Tourtière in Dax.
And if you want to do like the locals, you cut the cake using scissors instead of a knife!
Gâteau Basque: A classic! The cake pastry contains almonds and the filling is a kind of jam, usually a jam made with black Itxassou cherries or a thick vanilla cream. A recipe.
Gâteau russe in Sainte-Oloron: You only find the real gâteau russe in Sainte-Oloron at the Artigarrede bakery - and their affiliates in Saint-Jean-de-Luz and Pau. The recipe is kept top secret. Many try to copy it, but according to the rumour, no one has succeeded so far. The cake got its name after the Russian tsar that liked it so much it had to be sent by special post to him in Russia... It is made with two featherly light cake parts made with hazelnuts and a butterbased fluffy filling with almonds. A sweet dream, to be taken in small parts.
Macarons from Saint-Jean-de-Luz: Irresistible! Sweet, so you won't eat that many each time, but really the best! They look like cookies, crispy on the outside and soft and a little chewy on the inside with a distinctive taste of almonds. There are many versions all over France, but all are made with almonds, sugar and egg whites. The difference in quality is about the almonds. In Paris you will often see them put together two and two with butter cream or chocolate cream. Here we eat them "nature", with a cup of coffee.
Best place to buy macarons, according to reliable sources, is Macarons Adam. According to the legend, Adam offered his macarons to the king and his future wife Marie-Thérèse in 1660. They loved them and so started a successful history of making macarons.
Isn't it delicious when you get one of those summer days before summer? We took this sudden burst of heat and made a trip to Vieux Boucau! The headline photo of my blog comes from this place...
The Adour river met the sea at Vieux Boucau until it was deviated in 1578 to Bayonne. Today you have an artificial lake between Soustons and Vieux Boucau, with nice restaurants and a walking lane around the lake. A lot of people in summer, but for us, enjoying a sudden burst of summer in the middle of March, it was close to deserted. We had lunch at Le Bistrot and then spent some time on the beach around the lake.
There are many lakes along the Atlantic coast, frustrated rivers that have become lakes. It is a whole subject on its own...
My mum was here to see us and asked me at what time school starts. Nine, I said. And when does it end?she continued. Half past four, I answered. Oh, so late! she exclaimed.
Yep, compared to Sweden, French school children have very long days. The small ones have among the longest school days in Europe. But what I am to do? I live here, so I also live with the school system.
In France the children start voluntary school the year they are three years old. You can start with a half time if you wish, 9-12, but after the first months almost all children do full days until 16.30, Monday to Friday, except Wednesday. Wednesday is a day off, supposed to be dedicated to sports and other extra activities like music. The second year you can't do any half days anymore, but they still have a nap every afternoon. As the third year. Then the serious business starts at 6 years with CP, cours préparatoire, which indicates the start to really learn how to read and write.
Clara is now 8 years old and comes home almost every day with some home work. She writes a beautiful handwriting, with ornaments, like my own mother writes! Her little brother is four and doing his second school year. He was proud to start school last year, walking beside Clara. She had briefed him about everything. The toilets. The lunch room. The recreation area, where a yellow line separates the smallest ones from the bigger ones.
Both of them love school and I have never any trouble taking them to school in the morning. They are happy to go - and for the moment that is all I ask to be happy myself.
Twenty degrees and sun. Got this sudden urge to go buy some flowers.... what happened to that cool city chick? As we entered the flower place, my son, still at home from school with his pneumonia and antibiotics, said null, c'est null! Null means zero, and in plain language it stands for something that is worthless, bad, boring... But he cheered up when he got to chose the colour of the flowers and the whole thing went pretty smoothly.
When we came home I thoroughly enjoyed myself putting these flowers in place. A broken nail and dirty hands are OK, really. I am even thinking about growing some plants, like carrots and strawberries. For the kids of course. Like a practical demonstration of nature and how it all fits together. Or maybe I am getting older? I remember my dad, in Sweden, buying those tomato seeds and having them grow indoors until they were strong enough to put outside. He spent a lot of time with those tomato plants.... so maybe it is genetic? Maybe I should not fight this urge, but accept it.
A symbol for the Arcachon Bay. Photo from Wikipedia
Sorry to be so uncool, so not blasé at all. Very sorry, but how can you remain cool in front of a magical place like this? And worse, how do you describe it to somebody who has never been there? How do you explain the saltiness of the air, the wind, the sun that reflects in the water, the ever-changing landscape that moves with the tides?
The shacks on stilts - cabanes tchanquées in French - have become a symbol for the Arcachon Bay. They were used as a view point to guard the oyster fields.
The Arcachon Bay is situated along the Atlantic coast, almost at the same height as Bordeaux. It is a big bay where a tongue of land lays as a protective arm around the small entrance. The water in the bay is thus protected and a bit warmer than the sea water, making it a great nursery for baby oysters. Its production covers 70 percent of the European oysters.
Here you can explore the city of Arcachon, all the fishermen villages around the bay, the sand dune Pyla, the amusement parcs for children, the bird protection area in Teich and of course eat all the seafood you want!
Wine, armagnac and some history and culture in the heart of Gascony - can you imagine a better way to spend three days?
I am arranging the most faboulous three-day trip around Armagnac from 9-11 of September 2010. I have spent a ridiculous amount of time putting together the program - imagine all the wine I have tried, all the restaurants - but I am thoroughly satisfied with the result.
A mix where you find a Madiran and Jurançon wine, beautiful castles, tasting of armagnac, course landaise, duck liver and a visit to Pau, the birthplace of both Henri IV and the first Swedish king of the Bernadotte family.
There is only one hitch. It is all in Swedish. Still interested? Check out the full program here - or look at the photos! The trip is organised with the travel agency Svenska Ekoresor - and I do the guiding!
When I have friends and family visiting, Biarritz is a compulsory stop. The pure beauty of the scenery with the Grande Plage, the Big Beach, next to the casino contrasting with the sharp cliffs. The mix of chic old ladies with their little dog meeting young surfer barefoot with his board. The most fashionable place on the French basque coast - and a world known top surf spot. Biarritz is like nothing else!
Since we live close, we usually go there for an icecream and a walk along the coast when the weather is nice. If we stop for lunch we usually go to one of the restaurants on the square next to the Sainte Eugénie church. Or go to the Port des pêcheurs, fishermen's harbour, where you find a couple of cafés and a very nice restaurant for seafood Chez Albert.
Many beautiful buildings
This is a café gourmand. I love it! No thank you, no dessert. I'll just have a café gourmand! Four little mini desserts.... and the coffee of course. This one is from la Cantine d'Eugénie. Three course lunch for 13 euros.
The Sainte-Eugénie square
Here you see the light house from the north with a view over the Golf du phare. The piece of beach you see belongs to Anglet.
Sand and rocks on the Grande Plage
The Casino. Rinse off that salty water and go try your luck!
Port des pêcheurs at night.
South you find Côte des Basques. Always lots of surfers.
I am Swedish and I live in the Southwest of France. I write about food and other pleasures, places I visit and people I meet.
Aquitaine is a special place. Not only because of the local gastronomy or the world-famous wine, but because of its atmosphere... here you enjoy life, with a savoir-vivre that is legendary.
Let me take you there. If not in real life, at least in your dreams.