Sunday, March 30, 2014

A mon 'pellier: Premier printemps

A mon 'pellier: Premier printemps: Les hirondelles ne sont pas encore revenues à ma connaissance - du moins pas au nord de la ville, peut-être au sud? J'en doute. Les f...

Sunday, September 26, 2010

sète again

I always forget what a good day out that Sète is. Last time there I discovered three new places Les demoiselles du puiy, bar de la placette and Pasta Politie. The first and last in this list are restaurants on either side of the main canal. Bar de la placette is more difficult to find as it is on a more obscure street, Rue des 3 jours.

Demoiselles du puiy is a seafood restaurant decorated in nets and you are served by old sea salt types. Pasta Politie follows in the Itallianite Sètoise tradition so you can expect to see plenty of filling Sète classics like the macaronade which is a pasta dish containing suasage and veal.
Don't forget when in Sète to pick up some tielle (tomatoe squid pie) and zizettes (pointy finger like biscuits). A good place to pick up the tielle is Cianni which has two locations, one towards the market and the other facing the canal. I suggest having many drinks in different parts of the town to drink the ambiance. For a small city Sète is composed of many little neighbourhoods with charm.

In the upper town on the hill I recomend Le Social which is a jouster's bar. "La joute" or jousting from boats on the canal is one of the old sporting traditions of the Bassin de Thau area and Sète is its unofficial capital. La point court is a neighbourhood built around old factories and wharehouses at the edge of the city and it merrits a visit. Le Social can be found in the upper town. Most restaurants are along the main canal. There are also a number of worth while local bars and cafés on the canal stretch. The main comercial street leads partway up the hill and culminates in a square known for its squid statue and just above that is a lovely little park. Nearby is a market which is known as one of the best in France for fresh seafood. The market is a lively place on Saturday morning. If you are arriving by train you will go through a stretch with some interesting cafés and bars with large windows. There is one on either side of the théatre that are perfect for having a mid afternoon muscat or pastis while the large windows afford a view of the old men playing petanque on the opposite side of the street.

If you are a lover of brightly coloured robust artwork you will be in for a treat in Sète because, apart from the portraits of the town's patron George Brassens (mentioned in the "day trips" section of this blog), mad loud paintings and sculptures are the most common visible expressions of art. Many feature the local passion for jousting or oversized women with small heads. The majority of the population seem to be hearty workers but if you stay long enough you will notice there is an intense concentration of artists.

One final tip for Sète. If you are going by car expect slow traffic and difficulty parking. The cars along the canal are the fly in ointment, making what might otherwise be an ideal place into an overly noisy and precarious place to get around at times.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Des Frites Bordel

Les Estivals

It’s that time of year again. Every Friday evening in July and August there is a large outdoor wine festival in Montpellier's city centre. The principal is that you pay for a festival glass with three tickets which are each valid for a wine tasting at any one of the vintner's stands. Now there are also a lot of food stands which accept a certain number of tickets for their wares. In theory you take your little glass to the three vintner stands of your choice, tell them which one of their wines you would like to sample, swish your glass around and talk genteelly about varietals with a local wine grower. The reality now is that it has become a victim of its own success. Expect to wait in long lines and battle for the attention of somebody to half fill your glass. Still, there is a good general ambiance and it can be a good budget night out and if you are determined enough it should give you the opportunity to taste a number of different regional wines. Usually there are about 20 different domaines represented.

Les Estivals started off very quietly. I think I went to the first one a number of years ago when there were just over a hundred people who came out to taste wines in an open air environment along l'esplanade Charles De Gaulle in Montpellier. It has grown such that one must get there very early to find a patch of grass to sit down on. You must get there even earlier to get a seat at one of the long tables. I usually end up on the steps of the Mussée de Fabre art annex. It is a good place to take newcomers to Montpellier and allow them to bask in the good wine and weather of the region.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Reserve Rimbaud

Le Reserve Rimbaud is one of Montpellier's semi-hidden gems. It has gotten some press recently due to its recent acquisition of a Michelin star. A "Michelin star" is a level of recognition of excellence for a restaurant. These stars are doled out very stingily by the expert gastronomic critics of the Michelin guidebook. Three stars is the maximum any restaurant can hope to obtain and currently I think there are only a dozen or so in all of France. The other Restaurants in Montpellier with stars are Jardin des Senses and Maison de Lozere. They are both mentioned in the restaurant section of this blog. The former once had 3 stars but they have been relegated to 2 in recent years. The latter, I think, has one.
Mainly, I say that Reserve Rimbaud is "semi-hidden" because it is not in the city center and it is not as well known to outsiders as Jardin Des Senses and Maison de Lozere. RR is next to a peaceful stretch of the river Lez and the little known parc Rimbaud. The building is a little bit art Deco from the outside and the neighbourhood seems to belong to some other, more Northern, part of France. The effect of this part of town is quite calming. I suspect many old people live in this district. Nothing is more relaxing than the terrace of RR overlooking the Lez in late spring through early fall. The time to go is definitely lunch. That is when they have there most attractive prices. A three course meal is 29 Euros if you get the "formule". There are three choices each of starters, mains and desserts. They have a good selection of wines. I enjoyed Domaine Lavabre, Les Demoiselles, Pic St. Loup with a succulent lamb chop. I recommend this restaurant to anyone for special occasions at lunch on weekdays.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Montpellier markets

Like any French city worth its salt, Montpellier has a variety of markets scattered throughout the municipality.

If you are a visitor to France, a market visit is strongly recommended. I say this because the markets are important to French life on so many levels. It seems indisputable that the culture and history of France and its food/cuisine are inextricably entwined, regardless of whether or not Marie Antoinette really said "Let them eat cake". The map of France is often represented as a food map with little images of comestible specialities for each region. The uninitiated might be forgiven for thinking it necessary to mount an enormous cream filled pastry and then wade through a vast marsh of foie gras to gain sight of the Spanish border... that is if the bottles of muscat and the Catalan cake don't block the view.

With this I would like to present you the markets of Montpellier but first a few words to the wise: Buy that which is in season, check prices and origin indications before purchase, favour regional specialties. Languedoc Roussillon has a bounty of wonderful things to offer so lap up the local specialties and don't go crying if you can't find any Norman crepes.

Marche Des Arceaux:
Open Saturday and Tuesday mornings. Along the picturesque aqueduct that passes over 'Boulevard des Arceaux'
This is probably the most colourful and scenic market in town. It is my favourite. Always animated, frequented by buskers and local characters. This is also known as "Le marché bio" (organic market) in reality only about 1/4 of the stands specialize in organic products. The majority of the stands represent local producers whom at least make an effort to reduce their environmental impact, even if they don't get the official "agriculture bio" label from the French government. Nearby 'Rue Marioge' has a reputable butcher shop and bakery along with some quality ethnic take aways worth checking out.

Halles Castellan:
Rue de la Loge.
Open every day though many stands are closed in the early afternoon in respect of siesta time. Covered markets are called "Halles" in French. This is the most central market in town and generally quite expensive.

Halles Laissac:
Open every morning except Monday. Place Alexandre Laissac. A bit grungy but quite traditional and representative of the "halles" you will find in working class districts all over urban France. It is often better value than the other main markets in the city core.

Marché de Figaroles:
Open every morning. Place Figarole. The cheapest market in town by a country mile. The produce tends to be of provenance unknown or at least not advertised. This market is also known as the "Marché Arab" but this invites confusion with the 'Marché de Mosson' in the North of the city. Another advantage of this market is that it is surrounded by a number of quality budget shops to complete your shopping. There are two fishmongers on one side and numerous Halal butchers on the other with a few small middling bakeries scattered around. Of the two fishmongers one is decidedly down market with a tiny garage like interior and the day's catch chalked up on a blackboard outside. The other is very bright hygienic and professional but locavores beware there are year round salmon from Scotland and Norway and other items that have doubtlessly accumulated their frequent flyer miles.

Marché de la Mosson:
Tramway stops La Mosson or 'Les Halles Paillade'.
On one end you have the covered market which is open every day and at the other you have the massive flee market of Mosson. It is a local bigoted joke that if something is stolen you need to go to Mosson to buy it back. It is true that you can find just about everything at this market and usually it is quite inexpensive. It is at the extreme North end of the town in Montpellier's most notorious 'ban lieu'. It is surrounded by low rent high rise apartment complexes. It is easy to get there with the tram but give yourself sufficient time to get there, look around and get back. It is a good half hour from the city center and it is a very big market on Sunday.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Nicities for newbies

You’re staying in the region for the first time there a few things I might be able to tell you to save you some bother or embarrassment.

La bise: The dread of reserved Anglo Saxons. In l'Herault you kiss women three times on the cheeks when meeting in a social context. Occasionally even men do this sometimes with other men. All this kissing can reach comic proportions in parties with lots of people coming and going all the time.

People always say it: as you come in or go out of a store, to the bus driver as you get on and off the bus, even to rooms full of strangers in waiting areas.

The alternative to wine or chocolate as a house gift when invited “chez les Françaises”. I seldom go this route myself because I am a fan of both wine and chocolate and I know nothing of flowers except that you do not offer the French Chrysanthemums because for some reason this particular plant is reserved exclusively for funerals. In other words, this is not the kind of gift you want to bring to a French friend in the hospital.

Don't put butter on your bread outside of breakfast unless you are eating it with oysters. If you ask for butter to have with your bread before dinner you will recieve it along with all the scorn of the kitchen staff who believe that you are ruining your pallet for the meal.

Public spaces:
It is perfectly okay to hold noisy demonstrations and block the traffic but not to be shirtless in public. Drinking on the street outside of terraces is generally tolerated by the police; (though there are occasional random crack downs and fines) it is however looked down upon by the public.

Look in the other person's eyes when you clink glasses during a toast. Hold the stem of the glass when you drink wine. When you order a wine at a restaurant they will generally get the most senior man at your table to taste it first, this is not to determine if you like the wine or not but whether or not the bottle is corked.

A cheese course is often taken between the dinner and the dessert. In North America I have sometimes had cheese as an appetizer but I have never seen cheese served substantively before a meal in France. In France it is typically considered to be a dish apart and too heavy and complicated for the pallet before the main meal. I don't mean to give the impression that the French are uniformly strict about this but there is an order in which to attack the cheeses. The rule is mildest to strongest. There is also a manner in which to cut the various types of cheese. Roquefort for example should be cut in an angular manner so as to avoid one person having all the blue and another getting only the white. There are even different implements for different types of cheese. I still don't understand all the subtle differences so when in doubt I ask my hosts. Usually they reply with a shrug and say "whatever you like" however I have noticed that they possess 25 different kinds of cheese implements all recently polished and I can't help but wonder if I am not actually deeply wounding them with my arbitrary methods of butchering their lovely cheeses.

Having milk with your coffee in France is like having a parrot on your shoulder. You are seen as something of an eccentric. It is also a flashing neon light telling everybody that you are a foreigner, it's okay, they already know. If you want a normal sized coffee with milk, you order a "grand crème", and for a small you say "noissette".

The bill/L'addition:
You will wait until your old age pension comes in if you are expecting the waiter at a restaurant to bring you the bill, so ask for it when you’re ready to go. You can sit as long as you want at a cafe with a big book and no one will bother you except to ask you for a light (they will say "fire" if they think they can speak English) or a smoke or just some spare change.

That's all I can think of right now, many of things have become automatic to me so I forget to explain things when visitors come here. If anyone can think of anything else please add a comment.