Surviving and thriving , three months on.


As the mad summer season fades and we have time to catch our breath, I am happy to post that Le restaurant de Montcléra has not only survived its first three months of opening, but is thriving, winning its own loyal clientele, and looking forward to a winter season of delicious lunches and sociable theme nights…

We survived a fully booked staff training dinner, when the worst seen tempest in several summers hit the terrace just as we were trying to seat 60 people at the same time – lessons learnt, but at least they didn’t see the storm that arrived actually in the kitchen (through the lights!) the day before during prep…

We survived our gendarme visit with all contracts and verifications in place (despite the many last minute arguments with different bodies who could not agree with each other) – I wanted a photo taken with the smart gendarme in his powder blue matching flak-jacket and shirt, and range of weaponry, but didn’t dare ask!

We survived a suspected heart attack in the middle of a busy Saturday night service, complete with flashing lights everywhere and a table full of Pompiers coming to the rescue (thank goodness!)

The next Saturday we survived doing a Spit roast for a wedding in 40plus° heat

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and the one after that we had champagne bottles exploding in the cellar (probably because of the same heat.)

We have learnt to speak kindly to a temperamental new Italian oven that was once burning all crostinis and pavlovas  – now producing food looking fabulous

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We managed to feed 93 extra people at the last minute for a menu for the music festival at the chateau – plus another unexpected 40 turning up in the restaurant itself (note to self, ask to be in complete charge of the food for the festival next year!)

And along the way we have established fabulous suppliers, have enjoyed using as much clean and crisp organic produce as possible 005(thank you Les jardins de la mouline and Ferme de Lalgas) and are improving our dishes every day to provide fresh and simple menus . We have explained what  pies are to locals on the weekend we sold 200 of them, and have them enjoying fish and chips on Friday lunchtimes. Relaxed folk are appreciating coffee and cake (with wifi!) in the mornings, and everyone agrees the puddings are the best part of the menu!

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Albeit my favourite things are the edible flowers grown for me by my neighbour 010 031

and the cheerful greeting you will always get when  you arrive at our door…

So, three months on, we are now looking forward to being open at lunchtimes, taking bookings for evenings only, doing the occasional Sunday lunch and promoting our first wine tasting dinner (Sat 10th October, details to follow) oh, and having time to finish the website so you can look up our information anytime, promise!

Downs and Ups

Here are two boring facts that I have recently learned; Ones doors must swing open towards the outside if one is to have more than 50 people dining inside a building of my size, (a little problematic if the original doors can’t be changed because the historic monuments people don’t want them altered), and from July this year restaurants are not allowed to have signs displayed at the side of the road. Unless you already have one up of course. But we are not allowed to put one up because… from July this year restaurants are not allowed to have signs displayed at the side of the road…
But, I have also learned this week, that one of the best experiences of setting up a restaurant in rural France is meeting local suppliers. From vegetables and chickens, to pigs and goats cheeses (and don’t forget the wines) the joy is eventually finding them down hidden valleys, on ancient farms where generations old and new are continuing to provide high quality produce – and they are passionate about their products too. (Thank you to the friends who have taken the time out to introduce me). I spent a morning talking to the cleanest happiest calmest goats I have ever seen, and was today with my neighbour, who has kindly planted edible flowers, and herbs for me in his garden. Provenance, yes! Just down the road.

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Autumn Gourmand

We have been watching Geese fly south, and displays of yellow trees suddenly disappear in a high wind. The school ‘run’ with the youngest, which is a pleasant walk down our lane, now incorporates picking up twigs for kindling for the stoves.
Sometimes, we meet one of our neighbours on his morning walk. He was born in the house he lives in and went to the same school 60 years ago. His brother built a house next door to his. These two are the last still here of a hamlet that was once made up of several small holdings, all with orchards, gardens, vines and animals. The well for the hamlet was (and still is) on our property, the bread oven on the back of the brothers’ old farm house. There are unused wine chai’s (storage buildings), abandoned orchards, dying walnut groves, and bat filled barns with tiny houses at one end dotted round. Some of the old trees provide us with fruit and the pleasure of picking it throughout the seasons.

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But the best remnant of this dying era is our neighbours’ garden. Large, tilled with a hand machine, seasonal. Best of all, full of organic produce sometimes gifted to ourselves. Right now it is pumpkins. Huge, dense, rich tasting (especially when roasted) pumpkins. We love our neighbour.
It doesn’t require any fuss, unless you count making some delicious chicken or vegetable stock – but this time of the year when the wood stove is going, it is easy for me to pop on top a pot of veg scraps, herbs and water in the morning, to simmer away for a few hours.
Don’t worry about precise amounts of ingredients to use – whatever is to your taste!
– Chop a pumpkin up into even size chunks or wedges (sort of the size of a normal wedge of cake!) Leave the skin on, but scrape off the seeds with a spoon. You can save the seeds to roast and eat too, but that’s another recipe…
– In a bowl sprinkle the wedges with salt and drizzle with oil then mix together with your hands. Lay them on a baking tray and roast for about an hour in a medium hot oven.
– When cooled, scrape the flesh off the skins.
– Sweat a little onion and garlic together in a large pan until cooked and then add the pumpkin. Try adding a tiny bit of a flavour you like too – cinnamon, or ginger or chilli for example.
– Add enough stock of your choice to cover-plus-a-bit-more and simmer for just half an hour.
– Blend in the pot with a hand blender and then add some cream at this point, or swirl it about on top once it is in bowls. Garnish with parsley or coriander and some croutons…


Feasts & Fêtes

Toussaint holidays have just finished and the weather was gloriously sunny and blue as it can be in October. Normally, we are up a mountain or at a beach for a bit – our best French holidays are often in the Autumn – but this year we were home enjoying local sunshine.
There is still the odd fête and feast going here. ‘Fête de la châtaigne’ recently down the road, with a lunchtime meal including, yes, chestnuts.
And the last one in my village, ‘Fête de Rencontres d’Antan’ – a celebration of ‘old times’ – where this year they cooked hams over fires, and served them with steaming pots of beans.
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My favourite local feast of the summer is the ‘barbecue géant’. Luckily for us, the field in front of the castle where all the fêtes are held is within ambling distance, so for this one it is just a matter of wandering up the lanes early enough in the late summer evening to nab a table and benches big enough to hold all the friends you have said you would meet. And remembering to pack the wine-bottle opener with the plates and cutlery. Our routine goes something like this: wives purchase meats and salads and drinks and cakes, husbands cook the meats on the row of oil-drum barbecues, and kids run round and play with the local mad inventor’s wooden pop guns and ride-on-mower-cum-train. The tricky bits are rounding up children in the dark and the wine-stagger as you get up to walk home again.
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If you are a fan of French cinema, the nearby film festival is not to be missed at the end of August. It is a feast of French films shown at a purpose-built outdoor cinema complete with talks by the directors and producers, and long afternoon discussions so beloved by the French of all things film. Actually, I kind of liked it better when the films were simply shown in the courtyard of the old school, (before the arena of seats and screen were built); the kids used to curl up in sleeping bags to sleep during the film, after we had listened to premovie bands and eaten dinner in a tent in the nearby field. What hasn’t changed ’tho, is the choice of food and bands still being offered before the main films. And we can often be found during the week-long festival feeding the kids organic quiche while we have paper cups of rosé and listen to the band. Next year we might even stay for a film!
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But the most French vision of the summer is when the committee comes to your house to collect money for the main village fête (a long, drawn-out affair in a hot tent with a serenading brass band – all a bit loud and sweaty). They always give a little gift in exchange and play you a song on the assembled accordions. It is a slightly awkward moment, but with the fête being proof that summer has arrived: the traditions, the sun on our fields, old truck with musicians on the back – these are the best French experiences.
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Feasts in Summer!

Where has the summer gone? Suddenly, it’s time to organise everything for réentrée here in France, the week when the schools begin again, the hot weather finally kicks in, and we can start to have a maybe more normal juggle of family and work, instead of a chaotic mix of kids, work (read ‘weddings’), visitors, work, and all the extra social events that go on here throughout August, and work…
Summer here means fields of sunflowers or freshly bailed hay, visiting castles, swimming in pools, outdoor concerts, village fêtes and night markets. And beaches. And moules frites! Such a French thing, mussels and chips, summer isn’t summer without them. We had mussels on both sides of the coast this year, Mediterranean coast ones while staying with friends on the Spanish Costa Brava, and Atlantic coast ones at Soccoa near St Jean-de-Luz.

If you’re driving down the Mediterranean coast of France, be sure to make a stop at Leucate to buy big bags of oysters and mussels direct from the farms that line the salt-water lake Étang de Leuacte. (If you are on the A9 motorway, going south from Narbonne towards Spain, take Junction 40, which leads past Leucate on the D627, between the sea and the étang. If you’re coming up the other way, take Junction 41 and follow the signs for Port Leucate on the D83, which leads to the D627.)
Halfway between the village of Leucate and Port Leucate, look for the signs to turn off for the Centre Ostréïcole, and you’ll end up in a car park in front of the row of outlets – some with cafes – where you can sit and watch the flat-bottomed little boats that come in with the haul, and eat the freshest of oysters and mussels. Go for a stroll on the beach before buying at the cheapest prices you will ever find.


On the Atlantic side, we arrived at Chez Margots in Soccoa (see post 23/03/2014) dead on lunchtime on a Friday – perfect timing for a chilled bottle of Jurançon Sec and moules frites all round, sitting outside on the terrace at this time of year, of course.
(The postman strolled in just after us, and sat down for his lunch too).


After an afternoon sleeping off the wine on the beach we headed inland and just over the Spanish border to our favourite little Spanish hostal, at the base of Mount Rhune – ‘La Runa’ in Basque. Here, at Col. Lizuniaga (owned by M. Ascen Irazoki Echegaray – that’s very Basque!) there are four spotless rooms that cost less than €40 a night each. Or, if you’re walking on the Grande Route or Haute Route Pyrenees, which pass directly through this valley, you can camp for free in the field. Despite a vast terrace and big dining rooms inside, only we and one other family of campers ate on Friday night. Plates full of croquettes, fresh squid rings, local ham, Spanish salad tapas, and rotisserie chicken, with fabulous Navarra rosès at amazingly cheap prices, meant we could feast freely.

For breakfast on Saturday, we walked through the kitchen (where the owner was rolling the little potato cakes she was making, and chickens were lined up for basting) and had hot chocolates, cakes, and bread for €2 a head! Then we walked straight out the door to climb Mount Rhune at a reasonably fast pace – a steep ascent of 670 metres – sweating pure rosé all the way; I wouldn’t say that I looked particularly fit and energetic. After crossing the French/Spanish border all the way up by following the stone border markers, we were treated to spectacular views of the coastline stretching north as we crossed the flank to the summit. We watched the trains clank slowly come up from the French side ( they were winched up the last bit, so I was quite glad I walked actually).

I never did get a photo of the all the fresh produce piled up outside the hostal kitchen door. This mountain of food (which had also been there on previous visits) had always puzzled me, because we had mostly dined alone (albeit cheerfully waited on for as long as we liked), so why would they need so much food? As we rounded the last corner of the descent however, through the field back towards the hotel, the reason for all the boxes of veges and the rows chickens being rotisseried in the morning became clear; with a pleasant buzz of chatter and kids running around, there were all the Spanish families out for the weekend, drinking wine and eating until late into the afternoon – we wanted to join in immediately! But we’d had our picnic on the mountain top, and besides (we reminded ourselves), we were about to hit the tapas again that evening. But not before taking a small drive further into Spain to enjoy some very distinctive Spanish Basque villages and some spectacular medieval towers and churches.

It was a perfect 3 day break before needing to get back to parties for work, and of course, more summer parties in the village…


1. Glutton.
The nice thing about living in France is that foodie pleasure can be found in many forms.
Take election time. Elections in a small village such as ours consists of being given just one list of the mayor and his team that you are going to vote for. So either you vote for them all and the vote is counted, or you don’t vote at all. Apparently, you can cross someone off the team that you really don’t like, but I’m not sure if that was just advice from a local with a vendetta!
So off we trot with our one piece of paper in its envelope, stand behind the screen and pretend to do something (I was humming your standard strip-tease music, but no-one laughed), before posting it in the box, and a few weeks later it is time for the village celebrations to honour the Mayor and his team, the conseilleurs.
Because this was happening around the same time as la fête de la victoire, the ritual began with a victory day observance. WWII Victory Day is a holiday to celebrate the end of World War II (when Charles de Gaulle announced the end of World War II in France on May 8, 1945.) and thus Frances freedom. They remember those who died during the war. Interestingly, no one died for their country from this village in WWII (so they read out the names of WWI fallen instead) as the actual war for the French was very short before they were occupied. But this is a muddy subject as this doesn’t take into account people sent to work elsewhere in Europe, the resistance, deportation…
Anyway, on to the new Mayor’s speech (except he forgot to put his tri-colour sash on to be all mayor-like) and the serious business of eating and drinking. Here is the Glutton and the pleasure bit. The new conseilleurs had gone all out to welcome the community. A lovely spring evening, lots of fabulous ancient faces from the older residents of the village, and a good sprinkling of young kids running around too. Not only did we have those favourites of mine, crisps and cola (see post 14/04) there were Quich-y bits and pate-on-bread bits and lashings of cheap rosé, of which I drank far too much… so it was very easy and a totally enjoyable evening to boot to be a Glutton.


Don’t tell the French!…

With more contact than usual with UK media over school holidays, I am mindful of the foodie interest in provenance, food miles, and local culinary practice. I came over all smug with this recipe …until I remembered the beans.
What better way to feed a large number of visitors over Easter than to use up the last haunch of venison, still in the freezer, for the main course? Although I knew it was from the woods in the valley directly below us, I wasn’t completely sure of its age, so decided to slow roast to ensure tenderness. (This recipe is adapted from a slow-roast lamb dish I cut out of a long-forgotten-which-one magazine).
Knowing it wasn’t going to be warm-and-sunny salad type of weather, I paired it with a potato dauphinois, with potatoes provided by the neighbour – grown each year in his enormous plot that borders our fields, and then stored in his garage. This recipe is fail-safe and fantastic for large events. (Duphinois recipe taken from a book put together by volunteers of the American Hospital of Paris.)
Lastly, I used lovely big vibrantly green French beans, sautéed in garlic…But they came from the local supermarket. They were there in abundance because, as the blackboard sign clearly stated, they came from Morocco. Miles away. Don’t tell the neighbour, he would not be amused!

Slow-Roasted Haunch of Venison

• Shoulder or leg of venison (that has arrived, in a dripping plastic bag, from the local hunters. Defrost first if you have frozen it.)
• Herbs of your choice (from the garden)
• 2 onions (grown by the neighbour)
• Approx. 300ml (½ pint) red wine (mine was local Cahors AOC)
• Approx. 1 litre (2 pints) chicken stock (mine was fresh from a chicken bought in the village – told you I was feeling smug!)
• 6 garlic cloves (from France)
• A couple of teaspoons of honey (local supplier at the market)
• Approx. 150ml (1/4 pint) balsamic vinegar. (Oops, produced in Italy)

Peel and cut the onions into chunks, and put in a large roasting dish, along with the peeled garlic cloves and herbs. Place the venison on top. Heat the wine and stock together and pour over the venison in the roasting dish. Cover tightly with foil. Cook in the oven at 130°C (250°F) for 4 hours. Uncover, mix balsamic and honey together and baste with this mixture. Cook uncovered for a further hour at 180°C (160°F, 350°F, gas 4). Rest for at least 15 min before serving. Use the onion broth that is left for gravy.

Gratin Dauphinois

• 1kg potatoes (The neighbour grows ‘Spounter’ potatoes because they keep well)
• 3 cups of milk
• 1 cup cream or crème fraiche
• Salt & pepper & a pinch of nutmeg
• 100g butter and 1 garlic glove
Peel and cut potatoes into very thin slices. Heat the milk in a large saucepan without letting it boil over. Add the salt & pepper, nutmeg, cream and potato slices. Bring to a boil again and cook on a low heat for 10 minutes. Don’t let it stick to the bottom of the pan. Prepare a roasting pan or gratin dish; melt the butter and mix it with the crushed or chopped garlic, and wipe this all around the inside of the dish. Pour in the potato mixture and bake in oven at 150°C (300°F) for 2 hours – check to see that it is cooked through and all the liquid has been absorbed.
This can be made beforehand if required, sliced into desired shapes, and reheated in the oven.

Green beans sautéed in Garlic

Buy French beans that have been locally grown! Trim off the ‘picked’ end – I leave the slightly curly other end intact, although I have been told (locally) that this is not acceptable to the French, they always trim this end off too.
Boil until just tender, about 10 minutes, but regularly check by eating one (finish it, don’t put it back!) until they have the perfect crunch. Drain and soak/ rinse under cold water to stop them cooking. Heat a non-stick pan and sauté them very briefly with a little olive oil and finely chopped garlic to taste.


Neighbour's vast garden Stored Potatoes

DEFINITELY NOT GOURMAND… but the joy of local traditions instead.

It wasn’t that I was excited about a glass of warm cola and a plastic cup of crisps, but I was particularly thirsty after wandering through the village – twice – with a straggly bunch of kids on a sunny Sunday morning in spring.
This is ‘Carnaval’ in France, a tradition of fancy dress, parading through the town, singing and dancing, and the highlight – the burning of the effigy ‘Monseiur Carnaval’. It seems to be a combination of religious revelling before lent, (as in ‘Mardi Gras’, the Tuesday of eating up all the remaining fatty stores of the winter before lent began on Ash Wednesday), feasting pagan celebration of winter,  the coming of spring, the burning away of bad luck…
According to my neighbour who has lived here all his life, they were still celebrating Carnival  in each little village with a ball, dancing feasts (and the effigy burning, of course, although he couldn’t tell me why!) – up until he was a teenager at least. But the organising seems to have been centralised and taken up by the (district) school here for years now.
So, as each of my children discovers the delights of Carnival as they go through primary school, we pitch up in costume of a different theme each year, walk around the town, through the market, and down to the lake where the kids all hold hands and sing and dance around the papier-mâché figure that is merrily burning away. Not a sniff of health and safety regulations in sight. It’s brilliant! Each year I complain about standing around waiting for ages for everyone to arrive and get their act together, so that we can inch our way around the village (thank goodness it is tiny). And each year, it also strikes me how much I enjoy the sheer tradition and the community spirit of it.
Depending on the enthusiasm and contacts of the school staff, sometimes we have musicians; sometimes, like this year, displays of traditional Occitan dancing that has been practised for weeks beforehand. Some years the costumes perfected during art class are amazing (or sometimes, my children absolutely refuse to wear them). And the effigy can vary – I do remember one particularly spectacular ‘Darth Vader’ with a slightly obscene light sabre (the theme that year was space – don’t ask how they got to Darth Vader) .
So, there I was again, standing around waiting to gather up my excited kids, ash fluttering about from the Mr-Carnaval-no-more on the floor, finishing my fizzy-drink feast for another year and appreciating another reason I like being…in France.
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Another excuse for being a glutton in France – the local fêtes and feasts…


The French hunting season is a long one, and for four days a week during the winter we often have the odd hunting hound (or several) who has got separated from the pack and come lolloping through our fields, whilst their ‘battalion’ of hunters crash around in the woods below us. The sound of the hunting horn and the rest of the hounds baying means that they are close on the trail of deer or boar – making the hunters’ hours of standing in groups on the roadside waiting for the prey to be flushed out worthwhile, I guess. Whether one agrees with the French way of hunting or not (a rare sighting of a boar and piglets is a treat, but then, I haven’t had my garden completely trashed by them as I know others have), it is worth going to a local chasse dinner, held at the end of every hunting season, in practically every small village down here in the South West. It is usually in a brightly-lit hall, crammed full of long lines of tables to fit everyone in, and the accordion inevitably pulled out at the end, and some traditional dancing along with it. But it is the (old fashioned?) communal celebration that should be appreciated as well as the food. I didn’t make it to the one in our village last week, but my French friend who did posted this:
“Another fantastic hunter’s dinner in our village hall last night. Soup, salad with lots of gésiers and smoked slices of duck, delicious venison and wild boar civet (cooked in red wine), venison roast, cheese and beautiful local pastis (apple pastry) made by Lulu, the village 80-year-old lady. And of course, plenty of liquid including strong plum alcohol at the end, with the coffee. Wonder why I did not sleep well last night…and am more or less fasting today!”


chasse de Fauroux

chasse de Fauroux