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France

Locks of Languedoc

The Locks of the Canal-du-Midi

sunny 30 °C

As we steam serenely along the Canal-du-Midi aboard Carmen we are greeted by a chorus of birdsong, and we watch ducklings scampering under their mother’s wings, while curious fish leap into the air to see what’s disturbing their watery world. This must surely qualify as one of the world’s most tranquil places…
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However, the canal is home to several fleets of rental boats and many of the amateur skippers are more accustomed to tearing around the M25 in a Jag, or barreling down an autobahn in an Audi, than driving a boat. These speed merchants are so determined to get their money’s worth that they squeeze a fortnight into a week and all they hear is the roar of their own engine and all they see is a green blur. The only thing that puts a brake on these maritime mavericks are locks like these…
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As the canal winds its way across Languedoc it gradually climbs a range of hills in a series of locks; each one a minefield for an unschooled skipper and crew. The entrances are narrow, the lock keepers are impatient, and the waters churn as the gates open and close. Here is David at the wheel of Carmen as she enters a lock….
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Jim hangs onto Carmen’s ropes to stop her from crashing into the gates …
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…then a wall of water cascades towards him, while Sheila takes a breather before cycling ahead to catch the ropes at the next lock. It’s great fun, though serious work – but, as Captain David says, “Someone has to do it.”

The gracefully curved locks, built in the late 1600s by Louis XIV’s stonemasons, are surrounded by pretty gardens maintained by the lockkeepers.
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We have had many culinary delights on our trip, including Toulouse sausages, Collioure anchovies and Mediterranean sardines. And, in the town of Bram, we ate Gallette – giant round biscuits that purportedly represent the shields the locals used as weapons to fight off the Roman invasion.
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Today’s lunch, taken in the wheelhouse between locks, was bouillabaisse with homemade bread, several Pyrenean cheeses and tapenades of olives and aubergines…
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And tonight, in Castelnaudary, we will eat the famous Cassoulet.

Posted by Hawkson 10:38 Archived in France Comments (1)

Life is just a Bowl of Cherries

sunny 30 °C

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The vines of Languedoc-Roussillon may sag under the weight of grapes in the fall, but at this time of the year it’s the cherries that take the cake. And here is the most traditional of French cherry cakes.
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This cake is called Clafoutis and Jim made it as dessert for a dinner that began with a Salade Caprese, (using marinated cherry tomatoes and mozzarella) followed by a local Languedocien rabbit dish called, Lapin au soupiquet; rabbit cooked in a pot au feu with thyme and garlic and garnished with a pate made from the rabbit’s liver. Round courgettes stuffed with mushrooms topped it off and here’s the result …
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As we meander gently along the canal in Carmen we are constantly reminded of the beauty and bountifulness of this land. Ancient planes, oaks, cherries, and trees of all kind, line the banks like a guard of honour, their giant green parasols shading us from the hot Mediterranean sun. Beyond the trees, vistas of verdant landscape roll across the hillsides to the distant Pyrenean mountains. Vineyards and fields bursting with all manner of crops blanket the countryside and are punctuated occasionally by quaint villages of traditional stone houses clustered around a medieval church.
Here is the laverie, (a communal wash-house), in the canal-side village of Villesequelande….
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Most French towns still maintain spring fed laveries as historical artifacts, (although we have seen them used), but this one is unusual because the women laundered their finery directly in the canal.

The ever changing panorama of the canal make us constantly dash for the camera. Here are a couple of views…
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While the views are stunning, the scents and sounds of this beautiful land give it life. How we wish we could bring you the songs of the nightingales and skylarks and the swish of the water as we cruise along. And if only you could smell the scent of these roses…
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Posted by Hawkson 01:24 Archived in France Comments (4)

Dining Afloat

semi-overcast 24 °C

Jim started his working career as a chef aboard a cruise liner so it’s no surprise that he has taken over the galley aboard Carmen and is working a little culinary magic for the delectation of the captain and crew.
Last night’s dinner began with a salad of local greens tossed in balsamic vinaigrette, loaded with herbes de Provence, and topped with Pyrenean goat cheese and avocado.
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For the main course we had saumon aux amandes, (sautéed salmon fillets with almond slices tossed in nut-brown butter), together with a macedoine of fresh vegetables and Jim’s special hollandaise sauce.

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And for dessert – la piece de resistance – this tarte aux fruits frais…

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For this evening, we have perhaps the quintessential Mediterranean food – fresh sardines.

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We would like to say that we are going to cut down on our eating – but why lie. We are surrounded by markets and stores selling the most wonderful foods. So we will do what everyone else does on a cruise… and hang the consequences.
And now a little bit of local colour for non-foodies.
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Carcassonne castle is a magnificent sight as it towers over the new city, (“New” being a purely relative term – it was built in the 14th century). The castle itself was originally Roman and was gradually added to until the mid 13th century. Its massive walls encompass an entire city, with houses, shops, hotels and even a cathedral, and had a population of many thousand in medieval times.
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Today the city within the walls is a tourist mecca catering to visitors of all types. There are plenty of sandwicheries offering lunch for a few dollars, but at the other end is La Barbicane where set dinners run up to $200 a head. Here’s the cheapie menu – about $100.
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Bon appetite!

Posted by Hawkson 04:52 Archived in France Comments (2)

Stepping Back in Carcassone

semi-overcast 25 °C

We’ve left the glitz of Cannes and the razzmatazz of the Cotes d’Azure and stepped back in time to the city of Carcassonne in the foothills of the Pyrenees. Carcassonne is an ancient gem of a city with a maze of pedestrian friendly streets and squares overlooked by a magnificent medieval castle, But, for us, the real attraction is the Canal-du-midi – a narrow ribbon of 17th century waterway that meanders through the city and links the Atlantic to the Mediterranean.
We are guests, (a.k.a. midshipmen and galley slaves), aboard the good ship Carmen; a luxuriously outfitted twenty-five metre Dutch barge belonging to our friend, David.
Here she is …

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Before we left the Cotes d’Azure, Jim had the opportunity to do something that he hasn’t done for decades – he got to make a birthday cake for his little boy; his son Ian, who is no longer little nor a boy. Ian is captain of an opulent yacht based in Cannes and Jim went aboard to create a cake that would epitomize the 1980s, (as requested by Ian).
Here’s Jim slaving over a hot stove in the galley…

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And here’s the piece de resistance… a Rubik’s cube…

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Now, back to Carcassonne and the region of Languedoc-Roussillon. This is the most southerly part of France so the markets and shops are already filled with the bounty of this year’s harvest. The cherries and strawberries are absolutely delicious, but all the produce here is grown for its flavor. Here is today’s haul from the market…

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What will Jim make of all this fresh food? Stay tuned……..

PS Blog followers may be interested to read our Travellerspoint interview. You can check it out at:
http://blog.travellerspoint.com/250/

Posted by Hawkson 05:27 Archived in France Comments (5)

Une Amuse Bouche

A little something to whet your appetite

sunny 26 °C

We are now on the Cotes d’Azure in Provence, looking out over the bay of Cannes. The sun shines from dawn to dusk, the sea and sky meld seamlessly into a wide blue horizon, and the golden sand beaches are already packed with sun-starved northerners getting an early jump on summer. Although we love the sun and sea we are really here for family, friends and for the food, and for the next few weeks as we travel around Provence and meander along the canal-du-midi in Languedoc-Roussillon we will bring you a culinary tour of southern France.
We will start here, in the Marche Provencal, in Antibes near Nice.

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We’ve previously drooled over the French markets in our blogs, but we can never get enough of them. The variety of produce on offer is astounding. Imagine having seventeen varieties of potatoes to choose from….

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…or fourteen different types of salad greens
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Or eleven kinds of tomatoes; or hundreds of cheeses; or dozens of sausages. The list is almost endless and we wander around mesmerized by the quantity and quality of local foodstuffs on offer.

The markets close around midday, just in time for lunch. And on the Mediterranean coast the finest, and most popular, lunch is the simple moules frites, (mussels and chips). We met our friends, Colin and Jane, in Antibes’ historic market square and, for the price of a Canadian soup and sandwich, we each had a steaming heap of moules marinieres and a pile of crisp French fries.

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But not everything here is inexpensive. We went to Monaco on Tuesday and checked out the lunch menu in the Café de Paris overlooking the Casino in Monte Carlo – Don’t ask!

Dinner is the highlight of every Frenchman’s day and although we’ve had some major disappointments in recent years, we’ve been treated to some excellent meals this time. Here’s Sunday’s menu…

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And included in the price was a delicious amuse bouche of chestnut soup, together with homemade tapenade and delicate slices of Melba toast. Here is the main course of courgette flowers stuffed with cod…

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The four course meal was topped off with fresh local strawberries and fromage frais – absolutely delicious – and just twenty five dollars including tax. A note to the British Columbian government which has just hiked taxes – the French government has dropped the tax on eating out in order to assist the ailing restaurant trade during the recession!

Posted by Hawkson 01:02 Archived in France Comments (3)

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