May’s A Mad Month……...I’m not sure what happened to the tranquillity we’d experienced during April but May was set to become rather more manic, and between boat buddies and on board visitors this month’s headline rings more than a little true. Things did kick off a bit quietish at the start to the month but considering we only travelled a modest 89 kilometres over the month passing through 18 locks and an actual cruising time around 15.5 hrs we sure had a busy time of it. Cramming in several visitors, countless lunches and dinners out including an awesome Michelin starred noshery that nearly required a small mortgage to cover the cost. The Bergy’s were with us early on for a little historic tour of some of the famed Cathar hilltop villages and castles before the more serious business of winery tours, tasting and stocking up so it’s a wonder we made any progress at all.
It’s a Chill Wind……….. Yes I know the old adage begins “It’s an ill wind’’ etc but this introduction to our arrival in Carcassonne seems more appropriate. Talk about frosty receptions…shortly after arriving in Carcassonne the winds picked up hitting 50 kph plus, with evening temperatures dropped to 6C and lower. There’s time for some comfort food at a local noshery with warming bowls of French onion soup followed by a huge platter of rib-sticking cassoulet before Evey buzzed off to Germany for ten days chaperoning elderly rellies around some obscure parts ostensibly tracing family history, or so it was claimed, but it had all the hallmarks of pure junket to me while I lounged around in Carcassonne. Lucky my old mate Arthur Robbins was moored up in town so we could share the beer sampling load and as any bloke knows a problem shared is a problem doubled!
Diet Under Seige ……. All this blather about tucker, nosheries and bistro’s heading my way may seem at first glance an odd place to raise the miserable matter of diets. The truth is however, and not with-standing all the first- class tucker that’s been heading my way, I have in fact been dieting in between, make that fasting in between and for those doubting Jacques out there, with some considerable success as evidenced by a tighter belt sporting several additional holes. These belt tightening measures not only prevent me scaring the locals or should that be scarring the locals, whatever, but also avoid me from becoming uber trendy by having my pants slumped down around my backside while simultaneously advertising my brand of underwear, hopefully a dubious fashion statement with a short lifespan. The 12 kg reduction at the end of my carb’ less, alcohol reduced, hunger strike was a tad tedious but the rewards worth the effort. Predictably however such admirable results were, in the immortal words of Dad’s Army stalwart Private Frazer ‘Doomed’ from the start as the cruising season unfolds, visitors arrive, the beverages flow and the backbone weakens along with the crumbling resolve and willpower evaporates like a cold beer in a thirsty Aussie’s hands.
Mirth & Mayhem………High winds persisted for several days after our arrival and while we had a secure mooring on the quayside its proximity to the Carcassonne locks ensured that we had equal measure of free entertainment watching the motorised fenders aka the hire boats maneuvering in the wind while waiting to go up and the more hazardous activity of racing out to protect one’s own vessel from imminent collision when they spun out of control, something that usually take the self-satisfied smirk off one’s chops pretty quickly. Keeping a near constant vigil is therefore essential. Moored up securely you can get a real sense of how windy conditions are by the number of hire boats that hit you on any given day, we had four hit us in Carcassonne alone on one day. Windy conditions apart, many still fail to recognise that for the most part speed is not your friend on these enclosed waters and speed in high winds just a recipe for frayed tempers, bashed boats and lost security deposits! It also makes leaving your boat for any length of time a risky venture!
Brexit’s Unexpected Joys………It’s a bit of a truism to say that Brexit means many things to many people but regardless of where one sat on this contentious time bomb there’s a steady stream of unexpected and unwanted outcomes, and we hadn’t even left yet! So here’s a little doozey that most of the UK population won’t know or care little about if they did, but if you own a barge and had it insured in the UK you’ll know all about it. The abridged version is that the UK sourced insurance market for foreign owned barges literally dried up overnight with previously loyal customers cast adrift sans a care in the world beyond ‘sorry mate, you’re on your own’. The unabridged version is a little more complicated. The folk totally unaffected by this master stroke of political genius are UK resident citizens with barges registered in the UK. However hapless ex-pats and others who without a UK residence are the unhappy campers that got creamed. For reasons never adequately explained brokers across the nation started advising their insured bunnies that because of Brexit they could no longer continue providing cover. Brilliant! Little further explanation provided and little matter that they’d been happily banking the premiums we’d coughed up for years. Now we’re summarily cast out and in our case with barely 3 weeks’ notice before our current cover expired, thanks guys, that was helpful, no really, ‘any suggestions’ I asked, ‘nope’ they replied helpfully and so abandoned with that the conversation ended. Ultimately it took multiple calls to 14 companies in UK, France, Belgium, Germany, Australia and the Netherlands before being saved by a Dutch broker.
Doth Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder.……. a phrase going back and often attributed back in 1602 to a poetical anthology by Francis Davison, but regardless the origin I can find no reference that a man should either a) Starve, b) live by bread alone, or c) eat poorly.
So, fortified with this knowledge and finding myself temporarily abandoned by a wife who’d disappeared to Sausageland with father and several unidentified uncles in tow on some ancestral Jolly and thus with little left to but raid the freezer, and, in so doing I unearthed a most fab piece of lamb leg. I should say at this point that while back in Toulouse Evelyn spent significant time at the local ‘Carmes’ markets sourcing the best producers of everything animal, mineral and vegetable and as she called him…Mr Lamb Man did have the very best lamb around…no if’s buts or maybe’s his lamb is as good as it gets.
Food Glorious Food……I don’t get veganism, sorry, but I don’t, though I have nothing against those that practice it, weird as it is to my dietary preferences, I even have a vegan friend, and, I barely understand vegetarianism, though again I have a friends who are either vegetarian or pescatarian, but truth be told I’m a card carrying unapologetic carnivore, ok so I’ll amend that, I’m an omnivore as evolution dictated and I find few things more utterly delicious than a great piece of steak, a tender leg of lamb, a juicy pork chop, a free range chook, a bbq’d duck or any other poultry for that matter and pretty well everything else in between that moves on any number of legs, fins or feathers.
Little wonder then that the next few kilometers along the watery ditch are heavily focussed on foraging nosheries for scrumptious nosebag at all ends of the pricing spectrum kicking off with some truly mouth- watering cote du boeuf at La Grand Bouffe in Carcassonne with boat and barge buddies and followed very swiftly a few clicks later with yet another bargain bistro lunch at one of our favourite establishments ‘The Moulin de Trebes’ run by a charming couple and set prettily next to the three lock staircase in Trebes.
Dining Diversity, Cheap Eats and Not so Cheap Eats……… Back in my corporate working days we were constantly encouraged to embrace diversity in all its forms regardless of how ludicrous at times it was to implement, looking back however I’m pretty certain such enlightened thinking wasn’t intended to extend to the field of cuisine. In the spirit of that former life the month of May had allowed us to indulge in the extremes, diversity if you will, of the culinary arts.
Waddling back to barges post lunch at the Moulin called for some serious exercise fluffing up the pillows before a nap and moving on for further grazing down the canal. Next stop at one end of the spectrum came following a recommendation from a fellow bargee who’d discovered this hidden gem not far from the canal at a wee place called Puicheric. ‘Chez Modeste’ is a part family run establishment that’s ‘modeste’ only in the price tag, which, at the staggeringly bargain-basement cost of just 15 euros for three courses including a quarter carafe of wine per person is incredible value particularly when the home style cuisine is excellent in both quality and generous in portions to boot. Little wonder that when we rock up on our bikes at 12.30 pm the place is packed to overflowing inside and out. Pretty well all locals seem to sniff out all the good addresses pretty well anywhere you go in rural France.
In stark contrast there’s the visit to 1 star Michelin nosebag in the privately owned village of Assignan, er yes, I did say privately owned village, well hey, what else do uber wealthy Belgians do with a spot of loose cabbage other than snap up an entire village, restore it and install a fab vineyard, and spa hotel, plus three restaurants including the 1 star ‘La Table De Castagio’. Ahead of this indulgence there’s just enough time for a few glasses of fizz as an appropriate way to say au revoir to Anglo-French friends Jane and Antoine who’d joined us from Toulouse for a few days cruising while meeting up again with Aussie boat buddies Leigh & Kristie.
Salivating and Savouring at La Croisade………Foraging for the odd snack in this neck of the woods is rarely a difficult challenge, at least not for those who indulge in a little practical field research first. Before the next culinary diversion we’re back with the Bergy’s in the quaint village of Le Somail, which, with stocks running low can mean only one thing, more wineries, more tastings and more stocking up.
This trip however and for the first time we’re dining inside, it’s still a bit early in the season and a blustery afternoon still has a slight chill in the air. No need to worry the ambience inside is every bit as charming, the service outstanding and as attentive at every turn as always. Working our way through the 5 course menu we’d selected took a good three hours, the perfect recipe for a great long lunch and set up for an equally long afternoon nap followed by coffee and Armagnac.
Pretty Poilhes ………. We’ve always liked the bustling village of Capestang with its old half- built cathedral in the market square and famously quaint stone bridge, the lowest on the Canal du Midi.
Guest Alert – Clausons & Gunns arrive ………Rendezvous with the Clausons and Gunns almost always signals a general departure from any sense of restraint and moderation but additionally much laughter along with all the vino. Our old friend and master seafarer Arthur Robbins is moored in the next village, a modest 10 km round trip bike ride which affords a chance for what will probably be our last lunch together. ‘Au Lavoir’ www.au-lavoir-restaurant-colombiers.com in Colombiers is listed in the 2020 Michelin Guide and a recent find which along with a decent lunch menu gets high praise for an exceptional cheese truck which is waaaay too hard to resist. Choosing a decent selection without appearing a complete glutton is rarely simple though on this occasion I’m assisted by a couple of hairy and hairless bikers whose choices were spot on though their recommendation of the Langres cheese from Burgundy which according to them has the aroma characteristics of a young virgin with poor washing hygiene had me pausing for a moment. Taking the risk proved worthwhile however and it was excellent!
Meanwhile back in Poilhes the big Gunns arrive along with the almost as big Clausons and some lovely local rose wine heralds the entertaining times ahead. Poilhes is a very small village so it’s amazing to discover not one but two good eateries. La Tour Sarrasine www.latoursarrasine.com located a challenging 50 meters from L’Escapade’s mooring makes it the perfect choice for our first dinner out.
The casual reader could be forgiven for thinking this trip is just one long nosh-a-thon and it’s true there is a bit of a theme here but I blame the visitors, anyway there are occasional outings to more cultural venues lie the trip to the nearby Oppidium d’Ensurune. An ancient hill-town and archaeological site dating back to Gallo- Roman, Greek, & Celtic times. The site is believed to have been chosen being close to the Roman road Via Domitia, Montardy lake and fertile lands below. The museum provides insights into the fort and field system while below the Oppidium was the Montary swamp now a series of wedge -shaped fields separated by irrigation ditches. In the 13th century, the swamp was drained; the ditches allowed water to flow to the center of the circular depression, it was then conveyed through underground pipes several kilometres to the south. The drainage is still functional and remains in use to this day.
All this culture makes one hungry and thirsty for things other than knowledge so we continue our journey of discovery to ‘Les Platanes’ back in Poilhes www.lesplatanescuisine.com . It beats me how or why we missed Les Platanes before having been through here plenty of times over the years. This trip gives us the chance to road test it and I have to say it came up perfect on so many levels. Garnering swags of great reviews lunch was both simply excellent and excellently simple with innovative, very un- traditional regional cuisine. Set in a small courtyard under huge shady plane trees Kiwi chef Jane Martin and her husband have created a real gem with its casual ambience and incredible value at 16.50 for two courses and 19.50 for three.
Oils ain’t Oils & Olive oil tasting at Le mas d’Antonin……… Ending the month of May, no cultural excursions in this neck of the woods would be complete without sampling some of the agri-cultural gems and one of our favourite destinations is an olive oil tasting chez Eléna Anton-Marty owner, olive oil and truffle producer at Le mas d’Antonin www.le-mas-d-antonin.com near Argeliers.