Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Chez Poirier - be very hungry

Chez Poirier - ah, an experience. My friend Kathy M. is here from Tucson. Kathy is curious, energetic, incredibly good-hearted, she is bold and she loves food. She once made us a meal entirely based on Tequila - it was so good - we still think about her Tequila enchiladas and the Tequila bread pudding - yum! So, this to say that she is a great person to take to a restaurant where you need an appetite and where embracing new experience is an asset.

Monday morning: Chalais market. Chalais ( is in the Charente (the next door département)  and has a population of less than 2,000, four butchers, a lingerie shop, two grocers, several bar/restaurants, a bookshop/newsstand, five bakers, a large supermarket, DIY store, printer, antiques etc.etc. Market day is Monday, when half the town is closed to traffic, just so that you can buy anything from corsets (not the sexy kind) to foie gras (then you need the corset). We arrived late because we were planning to have lunch out. Chalais is famous for its veal raised outdoors, with the mother cow. Veal here is dark pink and tasty. Calves are never kept in crates. In our village, the small farmers earn their living by raising calves. Chalais also has a huge and rather ugly castle which was bequeathed to the town (a poisoned chalice), a lovely Romanesque church with cloisters and, like many small towns around here, a retirement home with a tremendous view.

The market is very different from that in Ribérac, partly because it takes place in the streets rather than in open spaces. Also it is a much more countrified affair - lots of elderly men wearing tweed caps and speaking patois. And it's in the Charente which is a foreign country. There were snails because the Charente is famous for its snails - I don't eat them myself but they sit stylishly in net bags gleaming in the sun! I met several friends and acquaintances, smelt the rotisserie chicken and we bought greengages for Kathy - the vendor kindly picked out a handful of ripe ones. Kathy has been racking up first tastes: fresh fig, many different phases of duck product, greengage, Roquefort, Pineau, Armagnac, Kir, orange tomatoes warm from the plant, ripe pears off the tree ...

Chez Poirier in Bardenac (population 232) is a traditional restaurant (which means lots of food) and unlike many restaurants around, it is open on Mondays - because of the market. It is often full to bursting, so we got there early. In rural France, working people eat promptly at 12 noon. You sit down and don't ask what's for lunch because you're going to get what's for lunch. And if you're lucky the waitress will tease you - I am very, very lucky. We sat in the warm on the terrace so that we could watch dogs sniffing one another and see who came in and out. Kathy M. took the photos because I still don't have a discreet camera with which to take photos of food and I am a bit reluctant to do it, so I forget. Rules for eating  at Chez Poirier - taste everything and pace yourself.

First Course: soup - carrot & potato with vermicelli and maybe some tomato. Kathy was so excited she forgot to take a picture

Second Course: roasted beetroot salad with couscous salad - looked gorgeous and tasted amazingly good. The beetroot had some raw onion in it and the couscous a light cider vinegar based dressing - so simple, so very moreish. We had to beg the nice lady to come and take it away.

 Third Course:  charcuterie. Andouille (intestines & tripe made into sausage) - I didn't even bother with this because I know I don't like it but KM ate it like a good sport, also the mortadella-like salami with olives - pallid and revolting and in any case I knew that the star of the show was the terrine. A home made pork terrine - so delicious it was difficult to stop eating it. Topped with ham and lovely yellow fat. The small pats of butter are there to eat with the nasty pale stuff, because one is allowed to have butter with certain kinds of charcuterie. The rules are abstruse.      

Fourth course: the nice lady came up and asked in a  whisper if we liked roast lamb. With lots of garlic. Oh yes. Perfectly cooked - and so much of it. We did not eat it all but we tried. With the lamb came beans. Fresh white beans - it's the season. Maman and the Blacksmith bought 20 kgs of beans in two large sacks - I had to load them into the car. These beans were cooked with savory, we think, and a little tomato and some carrot, possibly a little ham - so tasty and we ate relatively so few of them. But we wanted more, however...

Fifth course: green salad. In the Charente, salad is typically served wilted, i.e. dressed well ahead of serving, with a neutral oil such as sunflower and a white wine vinegar, so that it cooks slightly in the dressing. Then when it comes to table the cook slices a shallot into the salad bowl and mixes that in too.The result is fresh and delightful and you don't taste raw shallot all afternoon, which is surprising. We thought there was way too much salad in the bowl and we were wrong because the tradition in the Charente is to eat your salad with the...

Sixth course: cheese. In the Charente they care about cheese, unlike in the Dordogne. Milk production was something they came to after the dreaded Phylloxera decimated the vines of the Cognac region. The butter from the Charente is a protected trademark and it is very good. So there were many cheeses on offer - some industrial and some local. Amongst the good ones: a good Roquefort (all Roqueforts are not equal), a hard goat's cheese, a soft-rind goat's cheese, brie, local soft goat and a divine Brillat Savarin, so creamy and perfect with the salad that I had thirds and I was not alone, which is why there was almost not enough salad.

At this point there were still a couple of slices of bread left but we petitioned for the cheese to be removed forthwith and Kathy said it was probably the best restaurant meal she had ever had at that point. The lady said as there wasn't far to go now, there was a good chance it would turn out alright. I was frankly pessimistic that the dessert would live up to the rest but...

Seventh course: I was wrong!! I am not a huge fan of desserts but this Tiramisu was exceptional. A chocolate génoise (that's posh for sponge cake), a coffee cream that oozed caffeine and a top layer of cream beaten with egg whites, light and airy and hardly sweet at all. Kathy had to sit on her hands to stop herself snagging further portions as they wafted by the table. I left her some of my cream though. Then I had a coffee which is often disappointing and it was, except that it got Kathy excited again because it is served thus:

All this, my friends, and a bottle of wine, for 12.50 Euros on an ordinary sunny Monday lunchtime in rural France. We were full and we had left food on our plates. It is even better on Sunday lunchtime...

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Travel thoughts

Travel thoughts: random thoughts for travellers - not much about food - but travelling well is a major pre-occupation of mine at present - any additions or suggestions are welcome! 

For the frequent traveller


Microsoft Arc mouse – excellent wireless mouse - good ergonomic curve for those with small to medium hands; has a tiny USB transceiver so can be used on any computer that you have to hand. To turn it off, you just fold it – comes in its own black pouch! It does come in all sorts of lovely colours but the local supermarket only had it in black – has reduced the right arm and wrist strain considerably. Excellent design, not too expensive and better than the small, conventional portable mouse.

Speaker – X-mini – a friend was given this for Christmas by her nephew and after hearing the quality, I bought my own in luscious red – a pop-up mini-speaker which can be used on its own or in relay for stereo or more! Charges from the USB port. Also with natty black pouch.

Seat-back organizer:
The jury is still out on this one – KK is testing it: seems like a good idea. A light-weight bag with many compartments which opens out and fits over the tray table, so that you have everything to hand on the back of your plane seat – headphones, iPod, magazine, book, water bottle, eye shade etc. etc. I know of 2 versions, the one I bought for KK, developed by Zen Class travel  and the other by Magellan’s Magellan’s also has other cool and covetable articles for encumbering yourself with on an aeroplane!


OK – it’s not great. Here are a few ways to improve your time there:

Hotel Ibis @ Terminal 3. Stay here before your transatlantic flight. Rooms don’t cost a fortune – from €50-120 depending on the season. Access is directly from the shuttle train. Perfectly decent, very clean, nicely re-designed rooms, small – this is France after all, but with comforters and large screen TVs.

Pâtisserie Paul (see More on Paul below) – has several kiosk locations throughout the airport. Paul delivers good breads, excellent sandwiches and pastries and good coffee from their stylishly distinctive black carts. They have tables at which you can stand but no seating. Very comforting on arrival and departure, and a good venue for breakfast before getting in the check-in line. The café at the SNCF train station also has pretty decent sandwiches and salads and you can sit down here for as long as you like. You can actually buy a salad here at 8am. Odd but worth knowing sometimes. Their ham sandwiches are OK if Paul has none.

Baggage check/left luggage – there is now a left luggage place at Terminal Deux (pretentious, moi?) above the railway station and opposite the Sheraton. Leave your stuff there and go and enjoy Paris for the day by train.

The Sheraton – you can go and sit in their lobby which is temperature controlled and quiet, while you wait for your train or aeroplane.

Terminal 1 – the only good thing I know about Terminal Un is La Terrasse de Paris, the cunningly hidden restaurant on the 11th level – take the lift as if you were going up to the business class lounges but turn right. It is open for breakfast and serves lunch food from 11 am – but as I learned in August – it is closed at weekends – aaargh! It’s very light and pleasant, with colourful décor and is entirely restful. It is a proper French restaurant at reasonable prices (for the airport). It really does provide a pleasant experience – not like being in an airport at all! I had a very decent lunch there in February.

Spas – yes! Finally, the business world has heard our pleas!! Be-Relax boutiques (terrible name) Terminal 2E – full range of spa treatments – facials, manicures, pedicures, massages. In the kiosks dotted around Terminal 2 you can also get chair & foot massages.
Also Charlotte airport has the Terminal Getaway Spa ( on the D/E connector and Xpresspa ( has a branch in Philadelphia airport as well as loads of other branches in airports throughout the US. Any others?


Good food encountered in airports:
San Francisco: Chinese food – duck soup and a selection of pot stickers at Fung Lum in Terminal 3. The duck soup was perfect.
Detroit: SoraI think, where you can get an enormous bowl of soba noodle soup, a beer and a pot of green tea – all you need before you fly international.
Charlotte:  breakfast – A Taste of Carolina – a really decent breakfast including pretty good biscuits; beer – the Carolina Beer Co. a bar in the international part of the airport – quick drink before embarking.

Vino Volo  - Seattle, Oakland, Sacramento, San Antonio, Detroit, Washington Dulles, Newark, JFK, Philly and Baltimore. Quote from their website: "Praise the gods, Bacchus specifically: Someone's adding a touch of civility to the increasingly déclassé atmosphere at the nation's airports." Déclassé indeed! Going through Dullest last year I was miserable and this civilised wine bar saved my sanity. Good wine list, generous serving, pleasant music, tapas – not too outrageously expensive – a haven away from the rest of the crud. The one in Philly was not so inviting – more of a kiosk than a wine bar. - also on Facebook (is everyone except my mother on Facebook?) and they have a wine club – except that if you live in South Carolina you can’t have the wine shipped to you. Is there a good reason for this?


Automatic massage chairs – yes, I know they look naff and sweaty but I tried one in Bordeaux before flying to the Caribbean and I have to say that it works – 15 minutes of Shiatsu-style massage followed by eight hours of flying and no back ache. Coincidence? I think not. Price -  €2.00 – I think it’s worth a shot! I’d rather swim in the Caribbean before I get on a plane but that’s not always practical.
Headphones: no ear buds for me. Bose for Target - great quality, great price (bad politics). If you have sensitive ears or hearing, then Bose over- or on-the-ear headphones are fantastic. They reduce fatigue by cutting out sound even if they aren’t noise reducing. I don’t use noise reducing headphones because I can hear the technology and it makes me very cross. With good quality headphones it’s so much more agreeable to listen to music, the film soundtrack or just nothing, in an aeroplane. They make your ears go ‘Aaaaah’ instead of ‘Aaaargh’. Also other people are hugely envious of them – and yes, they are more bulky than ear buds but the pair I have folds up and has its own carrying case in which you can also place tiny MP3 player and etc. 

4 wheeled suitcases: wonderful - they will revolutionise your travelling - promise, a little heavier but so worth it. The new semi-rigid plastics are light too, so although not as light as the UK made-ripstop-nylon-lightest-case-in-the-known-universe, it’s not bad. I flew to the US with two 4 wheeled cases (one too big I realised too late, only because I pack very densely, as friends will know – I am the queen of packing – amongst other things!), a small wheeled carry-on case (made by Victorinox, the Swiss Army penknife people, it is, as my blacksmith brother says, but not about luggage, the dog’s bollocks) and a shoulder bag. The blacksmith put my cases onto the train which was excessively kind of him, yet at the airport I found it relatively easy to negotiate the journey between station and hotel without using a luggage cart: several level changes, a terminal change by electric shuttle train, 300 yard walk, lift to room and all in reverse the next day. My muscles were not sore because the strain is so much less than from dragging same loads behind one. This was a huge improvement over the previous journey with 2 wheeled luggage. Also, I chose every time to use the lifts instead of trying to use the escalators. Longer but much less hassle and kept me calm. How much is that worth??
Socks – take your own fluffy socks. These will also incite envy in neighbouring passengers.

Absolutely best thing to travel with: a loving companion and failing that – a sandwich made by him – incites dribbling envy in fellow travellers. 

Pâtisserie Paul

More on Paul: yes it’s a franchise. BUT…It’s delightful at St Pancras to be able to order a decent coffee and an almond croissant before getting on the train to Sheffield. It’s delightful in Bordeaux airport, Charles de Gaulle, Orly, Montparnasse station and the Gare du Nord too. It’s not bad being able to pop into a Paul in the centre of Paris when it’s too late for lunch in a restaurant and get a small but perfect lunch in calm, civilised surroundings. I once had a fine lunch at Paul near the Hôtel de Ville which was rösti with smoked salmon, crème fraîche and salad with a glass of white wine. Perfect. Their bread is good and varied. Their take-away coffee is good. Their pastries are delicious. Oh and the ham sandwiches too. The only problem with Paul at the travelling venues, is that there are no ham sandwiches until 10am – I get off the plane from the US between 6.30 and 8.30 and I want my ham sandwich then.  Paul has a lovely website ( with a musical introduction that doesn’t make you want to tear your hair out or rip off your ears. They are on Facebook! They have an email newsletter and they have recipes with lovely photos – at this moment Croustilles au Saumon, Mosaïques de Fougasse, and boiled eggs with soldiers à la provençal – so what makes it provençal I hear you ask? Well, you rub your toasted soldiers with garlic and garnish your opened boiled egg with anchovy paste and shredded basil. Might be good. Also nutritional advice, a fact sheet telling you the truth about what people say about bread – presumably bad things! The only Pauls in the US are in Florida – why? Their closest rival but with no airport presence, is:

Le Pain Quotidien (daily bread): a Belgian chain which I first encountered in New York, having a lovely weekend with a lovely companion, Le Pain Quotidien was our breakfast friend. Pleasant décor with wooden tables and chairs, wooden floors, a large table for meeting people you’ve never seen before. All the furnishings are made from recycled wood. They prefer to use organic produce and stone ground flours; the naturally fermented bread (pain au levain) is kneaded and shaped by hand and it is all delicious – the patisserie is not shabby either. You can also buy the jams they serve for breakfast. The best thing is that you can get breakfast until noon on weekdays and 5pm at weekends. I’ve been to a couple of their places in Paris and they are always good. Founded by Alain Coumont in Brussels in 1990 – there are now 114 restaurants worldwide ( Not bad. The concept is the same everywhere: bakery and communal table, breakfast, brunch and lunch. 
I just love breakfast.

Friday, 17 September 2010

Jet lag food

Here I am, returned to France. This morning I arose late for market, having hit the snooze button twice and then, apparently, thrown the alarm clock on the floor.

Last evening, I ate two slices of delicious pain de campagne with even more delicious beurre des Charentes, locally cured ham and a scrambled egg and drank an enormous mug of Marigold Swiss vegetable bouillon (which is also a brilliant hangover cure - jet lag and hangover are not dissimilar states). Some will recognize Cécile's comfort food which also and of course, includes pasta. When we were young, Maman would make us pasta with butter when we felt unwell or sad. So, this evening I made a lovely pasta dish which has become my late night solo, feeling-tired-and-sorry-for-myself dish. After a long day of local market (so much stimulation), lunch with Maman (Charentais melon, quiche lorraine, salad, Charlotte strawberries - all local, natch!) and more shopping for loo cleaner and such in Leclerc, only comfort food for the jet-lagged would do.

This dish is inspired by a recipe in Saveur magazine in an edition featuring Roman food - Cacio e Pepe ( We tried this at home and found it to be delicious. Then, we were camping in Cades Cove in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park - so beautiful (can we go back in the fall?) and we had, as usual, brought along all sorts of gourmet treats and the Martini glasses that live in the camping kit (that's KK's kind of camping!). So we were going to eat Trader Joe's Lobster Ravioli and I had just finished my second Martini (Bombay Sapphire in case you want to know), in which we had, unusually for us, put thin slivers of lemon peel. While KK was cooking the black pepper in olive oil, I had a cocktail-induced brainwave and added the gin-macerated lemon peel to the pan, before the ravioli went in. The result was phenomenally delicious!
Cades Cove in Spring - so pretty!

Fresh pasta - cook it in plenty of salted water (Kristian Niemi  [] of Gervais & Vine and Rosso in Columbia, SC says the water should be as salty as the Mediterranean - lovely thought - hopefully not as polluted?!) until well before it is al dente and turn the heat off. During this time, melt a small amount of good butter in a solid, shallow pan and crack a whole lot of black pepper into the butter. Smell that pepper. Let it cook without burning the butter. As soon as you can, add finely pared lemon peel and cook it gently. it doesn't need the gin, but if you happen also to be drinking a Martini, it does no harm at all to the flavour of the finished dish. Then add a ladle of pasta cooking water, turn up the heat, let it reduce, add the pasta and then a handful of finely grated Parmesan cheese. You want enough liquid in the pan to melt the cheese into a sauce which does not clump or stick. No further seasoning is necessary. Heat your bowl with some more pasta water, throw it away (the water, not the bowl) and tip the pasta into the bowl. Warm your hands on the bowl, smell the delicious aromas and eat thankfully. So simple, so good, so restorative. It must be - I'm writing a post! Before I fall asleep on the keyboard - yesterday, I fell asleep in my plate.

Later, I shall have some fresh raspberries with Greek yogurt made with ewe's milk. Mmmmm

Summer on Ribérac market

Today, at the weekly market at Ribérac ( there were still two varieties of local strawberry, raspberries, melons - coming towards the end, pears & apples, fresh figs - all sorts of other fruits from other places too, of course. I also bought: fabulous, long red radishes which I plan to roast (2 inches around and 8 inches long), shallots, beetroot (the Blacksmith tells me he has loads), new potatoes, small onions, a brown oak-leaf lettuce, local green peppers and long, mildly spiced peppers (all from lovely Christelle & her father Freddy), 2 bunches of flowers - dahlias and scarlet zinnias,  two duck carcasses for making stock, pain de campagne, cheese, fresh goat cheese from delightful Magalie (a former journalist turned goat farmer) and her new baby, fresh butter, crème fraîche, and muscat grapes - so full of sweet muskiness. Many things I did not buy but may next week.
Goat's cheese on a trailer 
Two varieties of strawberry - Charlotte which keeps well and Mara des bois derived from wild strawberries
Man & Bread from the Auvergne, wit & free samples

There are rodents under the house but none inside. Spiders everywhere and dead flies. The house is cold and autumn is definitely here. Maman has figs galore, Asian hornets have eaten all my grapes and much of the Blacksmith's apple harvest. I found 5 ripe raspberries on the bushes by the forge. There are many, many tomatoes still to be harvested and bottled - not mine, thank goodness. Today Maman bought 20kgs of shelling beans - again, we still have so many in jars and in the freezer that I don't have to do this but may join in the shelling for the fun and sociability of the thing. It's hazelnut time at the Blacksmith's and he has shelled all of last year's output with a new device adapted by him, and he has even made a litre of his very own cold-pressed hazelnut oil! Many walnuts still remain and this year's crop are ready to drop. Which means - cutting the grass and laying out tarpaulins. But for now I shall go and have a warm bath and hope I feel more normal tomorrow. Bon appétit!