Welcome to my tales of cookery school, food and travel

The first 30+ posts of this blog describe my experiences as I complete a nine month cooking course - the City and Guilds Diploma in Food Preparation and Culinary Art. I did this after I moved out of full time employment and it was purely selfish - I love food, cooking, eating and drinking. Subsequent posts are about, food, travel and adventures.

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Friday, 15 June 2012

The Camargue: black bulls, white horses

At Arles, the  Rhône  forks into two branches and flows into the Mediterranean. The 930 square kilometres sandwiched between the Petit  Rhône  and the Grand Rhône  forms the river delta that is the Camargue. It is very flat marshland yet produces products you may not expect. 

It comes as a surprise to learn rice draws salt from the ground making it available for cereal crops, so there is an annual rotation of rice and cereals.  This makes the Camargue the most northern rice growing area in Europe, a speciality being red rice.  It is a short grain and unmilled, tastes nutty and has a chewy texture.  Just the thing to soak up the rich meaty juices of the most famous Camargue dish, Gardianne de Taureau.  This is the beef stew traditionally eaten by the bullherds, those looking after the black bulls that graze the marshes of the region.  The meat comes from two breeds of bull: the Camargue bull which is related to the Spanish fighting bull, and the ‘brave’ breed.  Their meat gives quite a strong flavour to the local dish.  As an aside, the bullfights in this region are not fights, but games.  The aim of the game is for the razeteurs, or competitors, to remove a red rosette from between the horns of the bull.  Much more danger for the razeteur than the bull.

moules frites
The Camargue is also an excellent centre for coquillage - shellfish. Oysters and mussels are cultivated in the shallow lagoons on the coastal strip. The mussels are nothing like the NZ green lipped of course, but are the small tasty black ones.  The hunter-gatherer is thrilled they are served with frites (chips). Where we stay, in Les Saintes-Maries de la Mer, there are innumerable restaurants serving fish and shellfish: sea bass, tuna, sardines, fish stews, and so on.  (For a complete contrast to the view from our apartment in Cap d'Ail, see the photo at the end of this post).
Purple garlic, 5 Euro for 3  

We are there for market day and I see the largest cloves of garlic.  Mine never grow this big!  I found a wonderful recommendation for eating lots of garlic. A 104 year old from Marseille maintained that it was by eating garlic daily that he kept his “youth” and brilliance. When his 80 year old son died, the father mourned: “ I always told him he wouldn’t live long, poor boy. He ate too little garlic!”

Vin des Sables
Being early summer, it is all new season produce, along with other local products such as lavender, olive oil soaps, Vin des Sables, so called because the vines grow in sand. The "sand" wines we try are thin and insipid, but perhaps that's just the ones we sampled.

Stand by for more little know facts. The other big attraction of the Camargue is pink flamingoes.  I jest not. The river delta (Europe's largest) means there is a huge wetland and a good part of it is an ornithological park.  More info coming...Flamingoes eat mainly plankton; they suck water in through their bills and expel it over fine filters in their mouths straining the plankton. It is plankton that is responsible for the flamingo's pink plumage.  I know! Who'd have guessed?

So an interesting sojourn in a little corner of France about which, prior to our visit, we knew little.  Here's some good travel advice at no charge -  I may not be the first person to say it, but it is true - there are treasures to find on the road less travelled.

The view from our room in Les Saintes-Maries de la Mer
Where are the super-yachts??

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Lifestyles of the rich and famous

We drive over the Maritime Alps from Piedmont to Cap d'Ail, which is in France but rammed up against Monaco.  Well, I drive and Scott chews his fingernails while Bella GPS does her best to keep us all calm.  Actually driving over the Alps is fine.  There are lots of hairpins and switchbacks and one extremely long tunnel at the top, but it's a good road.  The issue is descending into Menton and across Monaco to our marina-side apartment.  It is all tunnels, roundabouts, cliff top narrow roads, or one way systems where everyone else knows where they are going - in their Ferrari, Bentley or Maserati.  I'd hate it if it wasn't all so glam!
Musée Océanographique de Monaco

Steep cliff or flat water

It seems if it isn't water, it's vertical.  As a pedestrian, once you get yourself oriented and organised, there is a wonderful arrangement of escalators and elevators running up and through the rocks, taking you from one street level to the next.  This proves a godsend in the 29 degree heat.  
On the first day we go to the famous Musée Océanographique de Monaco - the museum and  aquarium - which is perched on the side of a cliff.  As we slog our way up a million steps I am surprised, and relieved, to see strategically positioned defibrillators!  I could have used one on the drive in.

Trust me - I'm trained in first aid!
We arrive red faced and gasping at the top of the steps at 11.55am, bang on the stroke of the changing of the guard at the Prince's Palace.  What luck.  However it isn't as impressive as Buckingham Palace, nor does it have the pompoms and Ministry of Funny Walks style of the Greek Parliament - the changing of the guard, not the politicians.   

After a day or so we recover from the trauma induced by our drive into Cap d'Ail and I have forgiven Bella for her sometimes contradictory instructions. She too is confused by the tunnels and roundabouts and one way streets. We pay 19Euro a day to park her in our apartment garage so she has a relaxing holiday while we walk everywhere.  The Grand Prix was 10 days before we arrived, and they are still dismantling the barriers and stands. It takes six weeks to set up and three weeks to break down after the races. I can't imagine how busy it is here then, as the place is crawling with tourists now.  Yes, we go to the Casino and fight our way through the 4 Ferrari, 1 Aston Martin DB9 and 2 Bentleys parked at the front door. We love the glitz of the interior decor, all the while knowing of it were Vegas we'd be scathing!  We fail to spot any high rollers.  I suspect they are protected from hoi polloi and hang out in the private rooms.

Our apartment is literally on the Cap d'Ail marina.  When not impeded by luxury yachts, our view is out to the marina entrance; otherwise it is of and into the aft decks of the super-yachts parked in front of us.  It is very entertaining.  Anyone who yearns for a job as crew on a super-yacht, yearn no more.  All we see is washing down, cleaning and polishing, sanding down to re-varnish, and washing and cleaning some more.
The view from out apartment deck
The boats in the photo are about 45 metres long, and have about 6 to 8 crew.  We get a great insight into the ups and downs of crew life when we catch up with a young friend who is second officer on a mega super-yacht. We are lucky enough to have him show us the boat as there are no guests at the moment.  This baby is 75.5 metres with a crew of 22,  valued at around 150 million Euros. To fill the tank takes 170,000 litres of fuel - and I don't think they use supermarket discount coupons.  The interior is truly sumptuous and it is also the ultimate water-sports boat. The toys, such as the fleet (yes, fleet) of jet skiis and surfboards, windsurfers etc etc takes our breath away.  Sorry, folks, these are for the guests, not the crew, but you too can live the life by chartering this boat for about 770,000 Euro per week - plus the cost of fuel and supplies.  See http://www.yachtanastasia.com/  Oh, and by the way, the owner has just taken possession of a sister yacht, 88 metres. That's what life is like when you are in the Forbes top 100 billionaires.
All yours for less than a couple of hundred million Euro

No food blog this time: too overwhelmed by everything else, and also don't experience anything new or exciting in a cuisine capacity.  We are now in the Camargue at the mouth of the Rhone and there are some interesting new dishes to be sampled.