Sunday, October 28, 2012

Talk about Food

Food is an important part of the travel experience wherever you go.  You mostly want good, inexpensive, available food.  In this part of France food is much, much more than that.  Three course lunches are in the12-14 € range.  Dinners can be 20-35€ for 3-5 courses.

There are several foods that define themselves as being specific to this region (Midi-Pyrenees).  Of course, there's the Cahors wine (dark, full-bodied), but there is also duck, foie gras, walnuts, cabécou cheese, saffron, tourtiere and truffles. There are other specialty foods, such as figs and melons, but they are available in many places.

Saffron (spice) - extremely labour intensive to harvest, everything is done by hand; the flowers are just being picked now; made from part of the crocus flower which blooms in the fall; the farmer we talked to and his wife do all the work and make saffron products such as chutneys and honeys; we purchased 0.1 g for 3.50€ (which translates to 1 kg for 35 000€). Too bad we missed the saffron festival last weekend in Cajarc.

Walnuts - we saw a lot of them just beginning to ripen when we came, the husks were starting to open.  Still not sure how they harvest them but I think they just pick them up off the ground.  Some had even fallen by where we park the car.  We bought one of the small sacks at the nut festival - 2 kg for 7€.

Foie Gras - duck liver paté - creamy, buttery, tasty but ethically difficult to swallow.  Ross has had it a few times at restaurants but it's extremely expensive.

Duck - boy do they love their cooked duck around here!  It's on every menu and we've had it a few times; not my favourite but it's okay; not unlike the dark meat of turkey. I'm not sure if duck is specific to this region or all of France but it sure is popular. I guess they have to do something with the ducks after they remove that liver.

Cabécou Cheese - soft, young, fairly mild, goat cheese; they come as little round pieces; very often served as a course between the main and dessert or just served for dessert; one little round piece is about €0.70.  I've also seen little round white chocolate cabécou - a tourist item!

Tourtiere - these are not the Quebec meat pies you might be familiar with but are apple tarts made with phyllo pastry brushed with sugar and cinnamon;  there are many of them for sale in the market and l'homme that we bought ours from informed us they were made by 'ma mere'. Very tasty.

Truffles (the mushroom not the chocolate) - we'll be gone by the time truffles begin appearing in December so we haven't seen any or tried any.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Rocamadour et Lacave

Even after visiting several of these 'entire villages/fortresses' built on a cliff it's still pretty impressive when you drive around the corner to this view.  Garry and Alanna arrived Friday and yesterday we headed about 1.5 hours north of here to Rocamadour.

This castle/church from the 13C became an important pilgrimage site with pilgrims climbing the steps on their knees with chains around their arms and necks.  By the time we had climbed to the top we felt a bit like that ourselves, even with the elevator ride part way!

Lucky Alanna found some shops that were open.  Actually it was quite a touristy place but because of the time of year there weren't that many people around.

13C grafitti?

The view from the top of course was spectacular and since we've had a couple of days of intense winds and some rain the appearance of the sun was very welcoming.  Turned out to be a be quite a warm day  - 24 degrees or so.

Our next stop was a cave just a few kilometers down the narrow, windy, picturesque road where we saw this round, rock house which I thought was called a shepherd's cave and I made Ross stop in the middle of the road while I took the picture.

The caves we went to were Les Grottoes de Lacave, which is the town where they are located. There were some amazing structures but what made them spectacular were the underground lakes. The almost perfect reflections created an optical illusion that the caves were very deep but in reality the water was only a few centimeters deep.  The bottom half of this photo is the reflection.
Unfortunately the guide didn't speak much English so we relied on one of the other tourists who translated quite a bit for us.  We topped the day off with a wonderful 5 course meal (although Garry only had 3) at the restaurant at Les Arques that I had read about.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Various Pictures

Bordeaux is renowned for wine of course, but it is a very beautiful city with many old buildings.  It also has quite an open area by the river, which seems quite unusual for most European cities.  

We stayed at a chateau and Francois, our host, found us a winery tour that was available that morning - many are too busy with the harvest right now to have tours. The grapes were still being crushed and pressed and the winemaker was busy doing a lot of testing (and tasting).

Yesterday we drove east of here for the first time.  In places the Lot river is lined on both sides by huge limestone cliffs, often with tunnels.
Of course the French (and whoever else occupied this place) found it necessary to build their castles, fortresses, churches, villages on the highest spots. This is a lovely little village called St-Cirq Lapopie and we climbed to the top to get a good view (although this photo is from below).  

They even decided to build some castles right INTO the cliffs.  If you click on the photo and look close to the centre you'll see the remains of Chateau du Diable (also known as Chateau du Anglais).  We couldn't see it driving through the town, then we crossed the little bridge and looked back.  We read about a few legends associated with the castle.
Driving home we wound our way up to a spectacular viewpoint not far from Prayssac.  Vineyards for the most part but a few other products grown here.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Market Day in Prayssac

As well as the difference in the products there are other differences between Market Day in St. Andrews (see post from August) and Market Day in France.  The biggest difference is perhaps in the way it's viewed by the people who live here.  Market Day here is really a way of life, all year round - my French teacher informed me that she never buys her vegetables at the store, only the market.  People wait for market day to buy their produce, cheese, meats, fruits, eggs etc. rather than going to the local supermarket. People will go to the market in the town down the road if they need to.  Everyone seems to know when each of the markets are. At Mike's market (similar to Vernon) there were predominantly crafts and prepared food with a few farmers' stalls thrown in.  Here it's mostly vegetables, meats, fish, cheeses, NO crafts.  Also surprisingly, few bread stalls (maybe 1).  Perhaps that has to do with the fact that there are 3 or 4 boulangeries/patisseries in town where you can buy baguettes, pain du chocolat, etc. Oh, and flowers.
Not sure what type they are but very pretty!
We were quite surprised by the number of meat and seafood vendors.  Rabbit is a common meat, but looking at the skinned, whole rabbits was a bit unsettling.  Once purchased, the butcher cuts off the head and chops the rest into pieces.
Another item I haven't seen at often markets in Canada is mushrooms - many shapes and sizes and obviously fresh.  This particular vendor uses an old style scale to measure this large one - I think the sign said cepes (porcini I think).
And of course LOTS of garlic and peppers:
And who wouldn't want to buy huge slabs of nougat?
Market day will definitely be part of our weekly routine here in Prayssac.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Grottes de Cougnac

On Cathy's suggestion (the owner of the house we are renting) we meandered our way past the small town of Gourdon (about 30 km from Prayssac) to visit the caves.  The mist of this morning gradually morphed into a bit of a downpour but by the time we reached Cazals for lunch it was sunny and warm.  Our 4 course meal (soup, salad, plat du jour, dessert or fromage) included a carafe of red wine for 12 euros.  We thought it was a pretty good bargain, even if we didn't know what the main course was when we ordered it.  It turned out to be roast lamb and was quite tasty.

Along the way we also stopped at Les Arques which is a small town made famous by the book I recently read called "From Here You Can't See Paris" and at first glance the town appeared completely deserted. We parked the car and got out to walk around a bit although there really wasn't much to see.  I had read about the famous sculpture Zadkine who lived here and the restaurant described in the book.  All we could see were some closed up old buildings.  Shortly, Ross was approached by a man (the only person we saw in the whole village) who directed us to the museum where Zadkine's art is on display.  Most of the sculptures were bronze but he did some in wood as well.  The ones in the forefront of this photo are from single trees.  He was very influenced by the cubist style (think Picasso). We eventually found the restaurant - fermé mercredi and jeudi unfortunately.

We managed to get to the caves in time to join a tour just starting.  Although caves aren't my favourite place to spend time I was absolutely amazed by this one.  It includes some of the oldest prehistoric paintings dating from 25000 to 14000 years ago.  But even more impressive was the display of stalactites and stalagmites. The entire ceiling and much of the floor was covered with thousands, if not more.  We weren't allowed to take photos in the first cave where the paintings were and below is actually a photo I took of a postcard but it gives you an idea of the extent of them.

In the second, much smaller cave, we could take photos and this shows the formations where the stalactites and stalagmites join to form columns.  In some places the formations were up to a foot or more in diameter. The ones in this photo were about 4-5 feet high but very narrow.

And this photo looking straight up at the ceiling.
There are quite a few of these types of caves in this part of France so I might just include more on my agenda.
[According to Wikipedia stalactites grow an average of 0.13 mm/year]

Monday, October 08, 2012


I'm sure we'll be tired of them in a short while but we visited our first chateau today.  This one was built in the 13th century and had several lines of defense.
Chateau Bonaguil

The view from the top

The little village of Puy L'Eveque is just a few minutes away and is positioned beside the river Lot.  It seems to be built up the hill and many buildings are made of the golden coloured limestone which seems to be the predominant building material all over the Lot (the 'province' we're in).

And the grape harvest continues across the road from our house.

Saturday, October 06, 2012

Vendage (or Harvest)

Ross tells me he was woken up this morning by the sound of the grape-harvesting machine.  Since we look out across the valley filled with vineyards, it seems entirely possible.
View from the across the road.

Harvesting this year has just begun, considerably later than most years because apparently it has not been a good year for grapes and the farmers think that if they can leave them a bit longer they might get better.  A cold and wet spring, followed by a hot and dry August didn't do them any good and the wine makers are not anticipating a great vintage.  Most of the wine made here is under the (brand) name "Cahors" which means it is a rich, dark, full-bodied red made mostly of malbec grapes.  We're having to test quite a few!

Most of the grapes will be machine harvested, except perhaps for the older vines, which are 200 or more years old.  They will be hand picked. We're becoming quite accustomed to following the tractors with their wagons full of grapes as they shuttle between the vines and the processing locations along the narrow back roads.

Today we ventured the 20 mins to Cahors and walked across this very medieval looking bridge.  Built in the 14th century to fortify the city, it was apparently very successful.  I can see why!
Pont Valentré

Friday, October 05, 2012

Prayssac Commune

The word commune conjures up images of 70s hippies all happily living together, growing organic vegetables and weaving their own clothes.  I don't know if that's what happens in Prayssac but it's one of more than 36,000 communes in France; we might use the term municipality.  About 2500 people live in this village in the Lot Department, in the Midi-Pyrenees region (different levels of government I suspect).

The cemetery on the way into town, church in background.

The church is the physical, and perhaps the cultural, centre of the commune with its spire sticking up and visible from just about everywhere.  Surrounding the church is a kind of circle road, with all the other roads radiating out from it.

Yesterday we drove into town for a brief look around.  By then it was noon so after a delicious 3 course lunch we began to wander around the town.  It seemed odd that all the stores were closed.  Sure it was Thursday in October and tourist season was winding down but you'd think some would still be open.  After a while we realized that all the stores and businesses close from 1-3 for lunch.  How civilized!

Thursday, October 04, 2012

Bonjour tout le monde

Spending a few days in Paris just isn't enough although we really didn't have much on our agenda except recovering from jet lag which I managed to do by sleeping from 6 pm until 9 the next morning. Even though our hotel was directly outside the large train station Gare de l'Est which was non-stop all hours of the day and night.
We climbed the almost 400 steps (narrow, winding) to the top of the Notre Dame bell tower (think Quasimodo) to enjoy the panoramic view of Paris. The largest bell has a clapper that weighs 500 kg. but it doesn't appear to be used now.
A boat ride on Le Seine (partly to recover from the climb) and then after dinner over to the Eiffel Tower for a brief but spectacular light show.

Only a fraction of what was offered at this little shop.  I had the pain au chocolat (surprise).

Marvelling at the incredible array of bread, baguette, pastries, at every little corner or patisserie - very common to see people just walking down the street munching their fresh bought baguette.

View from Notre Dame to Sacre Coeur.

I couldn't leave without this shot.

So far our attempts at getting our phone working with a French SIM card have been unsuccessful - made tres difficile when you can't speak the language. Oh but I've already hired a teacher and have my first lesson on Monday.
We've arrived at our little village of Prayssac and are still trying to figure out what we're doing here and how to do it!  There was a bit of an issue with the rental car yesterday but we managed to get one.  And of course, no one told Ross that to put it in reverse you had to lift this little thing under the gear shift up while you shifted (okay it's been awhile since we had a standard!) but we got through it and I didn't have to push the car back onto the road from where he'd tried to make a u-turn!
I've always been the type to not be afraid of putting myself in new situations but I may have gone overboard with this trip - everything is a new adventure, a new way of doing things and of course the French have a different word for everything as Steve Martin said. I just hope Ross manages to keep up with me!

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